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Updated 2019-07-19 10:23
Police Footage: The Interrogation That Led to Ricky Joyner’s Murder Charge
by Lucas Waldron
The Questionable Conviction, and Re-Conviction, of Ricky Joyner
by Christian Sheckler, South Bend Tribune, and Ken Armstrong, ProPublica When an Amish farmer found the body of Sandra Hernandez in a hayfield in LaGrange County, Indiana, on an early spring day 27 years ago, police already had a suspect in mind.Hernandez was “severely decomposed,” a police lieutenant would say; vegetation had grown along and over the body. Wrapped around her head was a black plastic garbage bag.The body lay a few yards from the boundary with neighboring Elkhart County. The 25-year-old Hernandez was from Elkhart, and she had been reported as missing to local police six weeks earlier.Soon after her disappearance, Elkhart police had zeroed in on Ricky Joyner, 29, who worked with her at a company that built doors.Joyner and Hernandez had gone to dinner together on March 2, the last night she was seen alive. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. The next day, Joyner had scratches on his face and hand that were not there before, some witnesses said. He said the injuries were caused by some doors that fell on him at work. He told police that he dropped Hernandez at her apartment after dinner and a movie, and that he never saw her again. The police believed he was lying. A polygraph indicated he was being deceptive, they said, as did another test in which a detective analyzed his written statements.Joyner also had a criminal record. He was convicted in 1985 of molesting his then-wife’s daughter — an accusation he denied. And in 1991, he was convicted of misdemeanor battery.Once Hernandez’s body was found, police developed what they described as more damning evidence against Joyner.An Indiana State Police crime lab technician compared the trash bag around Hernandez’s head with one found in a search of Joyner’s apartment and concluded the bags had been connected. A prosecutor would later call the garbage-bag evidence “extremely strong, almost to the point of being irrefutable.”A fellow jail inmate soon told police Joyner had made incriminating statements that Hernandez rejected his advances and scratched his face. In the informant’s retelling, Joyner said he “dropped her off in LaGrange.”Juries would convict Joyner twice — once in 1994 and again in 1998, after he won his first appeal. He was sentenced to the maximum 60 years in prison, where he remains.But as strong as the case against Joyner seemed, a closer look by the South Bend Tribune and ProPublica raises questions about the police investigation and the evidence those juries heard.An “Ironclad” AlibiWhen Hernandez went missing in March 1992, Joyner was not the only suspect. Another co-worker, Oral Bowen, also had spent time with her in the days leading up to her disappearance.Bowen, who was married, said he was seeing Hernandez “on the side,” according to a police report, and had spent the night with her two nights before her disappearance. A couple weeks earlier, Hernandez had given him a Valentine’s Day card, in which she wrote that she “wanted him all to herself,” Bowen told a detective. Another employee found the card and passed it around to co-workers.The day Hernandez was reported missing, Bowen got to work late and, instead of punching the time clock, filled in his time card by hand to indicate he’d arrived two hours earlier, according to court records. He would later deny he’d falsified his time card, saying the company owed him for extra hours he’d worked.After Hernandez’s body was found, some evidence seemed consistent with an alternative suspect to Joyner. Sandra Hernandez (South Bend Tribune archives) One young Amish man testified that, days before Hernandez’s body was found across the LaGrange County line, he saw a van pull to the side of the road in the same area. The driver lifted out what appeared to be a large object in a black trash bag and dropped it in the field. The driver was a white man. Joyner is black, and Bowen is white.An expert witness, hired by the defense, examined a hair found on the garbage bag around Hernandez’s head and found it was consistent with a hair sample from Bowen, not Joyner.Still, Elkhart County prosecutors said Bowen had an “ironclad” alibi that proved he had nothing to do with Hernandez’s disappearance. Detectives essentially cleared Bowen and focused exclusively on Joyner.“Oral Bowen couldn’t possibly have done it,” Elkhart County Prosecutor Michael Cosentino argued in court. “The evidence is clear, the police eliminated Oral Bowen as a suspect.”On the night of Hernandez’s disappearance, Bowen was home by 8 p.m., watched “Murphy Brown” with his wife and never left again until morning, and his wife could vouch for him, Cosentino said. But no one else could verify his whereabouts after 8 p.m. The police apparently never searched Bowen’s home and vehicle, as they had Joyner’s, according to Joyner’s lawyer and a detective’s report summarizing all the evidence collected in the case.Bowen did not respond to a letter seeking comment. Attempts to reach him at a working phone number were unsuccessful.At Joyner’s first trial, the prosecution asked Elkhart Circuit Judge Gene Duffin to exclude evidence pointing to Bowen. Duffin agreed, keeping the jury from hearing about Bowen’s affair with Hernandez and questions about his time card, among other evidence.In 1997, the Indiana Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, threw out Joyner’s conviction from this trial, finding Duffin’s ruling “clearly” defied logic.For Duffin, that ruling was part of a string of reversals. In the six preceding years, his decisions had been reversed or vacated at least seven other times by the state’s Supreme Court or its lower appellate court, according to a review of judicial opinions. The bases for those reversals included keeping a jury from hearing about a prosecution witness’s prior crimes involving dishonesty and failing to throw out evidence that had been improperly seized by police.When reached by phone, Duffin, who has not served as a judge full time since 1998, said he did not recall details about many of his rulings in the Joyner case, including why he excluded the evidence pointing to Bowen. He said he had no comment on the previous reversals. Hernandez’s body was found by an Amish farmer in a hayfield on April 15, 1992, in LaGrange County, just across the Elkhart County line. (Joyner case files) Police said they determined Bowen to be truthful after subjecting him to a polygraph and a written test, while Joyner was found to be deceptive.The polygraph has long been controversial because it lacks scientific backing, and studies have shown the exam has a substantial error rate. Courts have disallowed the exam from being used as evidence.In the written test used by Elkhart police, practitioners analyze a person’s words and grammar for signs of deception. In the investigation of Hernandez’s disappearance, Bowen and Joyner each submitted written answers to questions about the case. The detective conducting the exam was Steve Rezutko, an officer who would rack up a long disciplinary history and later lead an investigation resulting in two men’s wrongful convictions. Rezutko found Bowen was truthful, but determined Joyner was deceptive because, for example, he did not use the pronoun “I” when recounting his actions on the last day Hernandez was alive.When asked about the technique later, during a sworn deposition, Rezutko admitted his training was “not great” and he did not understand exactly why Joyner’s grammar meant he was lying.In a 2016 study, scholars from the Netherlands and U.K. found the test is essentially useless in evaluating truthfulness.“How Long I Got to Be Down Here?”Two days after Hernandez was reported missing, Elkhart police detective Steve Ambrose questioned Joyner at the police station, in an interview captured on video. Joyner, in jeans and a Yankees jacket, sat with his back to a wall. Ambrose, in a shirt and tie, his sleeves rolled up, leaned back in his chair.Ambrose had been with the department less than six years. He had been promoted to detective just five weeks earlier, despite an extensive disciplinary record. He had already been reprimanded three times and suspended twice — once for excessive force, the other time for insubordination.The latter suspension stemmed from an internal affairs investigation in which Ambrose was accused of moving a video camera to keep it from recording police officers beating a man under arrest. In a deposition years later, he admitted to pointing the camera away.As he questioned Joyner, Ambrose was a defendant in a civil rights lawsuit accusing Elkhart police of repeatedly beating a black man. A jury would later find Ambrose liable and order him to pay $50,000 in punitive damages. He and other officers involved in the lawsuit appealed and the case was subsequently settled.Ambrose began the interview by reading Joyner the legal rights accorded a suspect being questioned by police: the right to remain silent; the right to stop answering questions at any time; the right to a lawyer.Five minutes into the interview, Ambrose asked if Joyner would have any problem with police looking through his apartment and car. Without a warrant, police would need Joyner to sign a form consenting to the search. (Ambrose called the form a “waiver thing.”)“I’ll talk to my lawyer first, but I don’t think it would be a problem,” Joyner said.“You want to talk to your lawyer first?” Ambrose asked.Joyner nodded: Yes. Over the next half-hour, Joyner made three more statements indicating he wanted to consult a lawyer. But Joyner never got an attorney, and the questioning did not stop. Joyner soon relented and signed the waiver forms.Two evidence technicians went through Joyner’s apartment and car that evening. They collected the contents of Joyner’s garbage can, along with the black plastic bag lining the bin.The garbage bag’s significance did not become clear until after Hernandez’s body was found. The Elkhart evidence technicians suggested comparing the bag found at Joyner’s home to the one found around Hernandez’s head, after seeing an article about such comparisons in an FBI publication.Two FBI agents had written that impurities in plastic or flaws in manufacturing equipment can create blemishes, such as stretch marks or scratches, which carry over from one bag to the next.Indiana State Police lab technician John Vanderkolk was new to garbage-bag comparisons when he began working the Hernandez case. He toured a garbage-bag plant to learn about the manufacturing process before comparing the two bags using a light box and the naked eye, sometimes aided by a magnifying glass.In a report, Vanderkolk concluded the bag from Joyner’s apartment had been “connected to and a part of the bag” from Hernandez’s head.But this evidence, the most critical in the case, almost did not make it to trial.In LaGrange County, where Joyner had first been charged, his attorney believed police had searched his apartment and car without valid consent. That would have meant the evidence was seized illegally and could not be used in court. The lawyer asked a judge to throw out the evidence.At a court hearing in April 1994, as Joyner’s trial neared, Elkhart police revealed for the first time the video of Ambrose questioning Joyner two years earlier. Two officers said Ambrose had given them two tapes just that morning. Ambrose had kept the missing tapes at his desk instead of handing them over as evidence.LaGrange Superior Court Judge George Brown watched the interrogation and, less than a week later, threw out the evidence from the searches, finding Joyner had been denied the right to an attorney before he signed the consent forms.Tim Cain, the prosecutor in LaGrange County who had built his case primarily on the garbage-bag evidence, agreed the searches had been illegal. The day after Brown’s ruling, Cain dropped the murder charge, and Joyner was freed.“The request for an attorney was clear,” Cain told the South Bend Tribune at the time, “it was unequivocal.”In Elkhart, meanwhile, officials defended Ambrose. Ricky Joyner, and his sister, Kim, celebrate after his initial conviction was thrown out on appeal in 1997. (South Bend Tribune archives) “In my opinion, Detective Ambrose did not willfully withhold evidence from anyone whatsoever,” said Cosentino, the Elkhart County prosecutor. Cosentino did not believe the police violated Joyner’s rights. Joyner was not under arrest during the questioning and was free to leave, so he had no right to a lawyer, Elkhart prosecutors argued. Cosentino took the case to an Elkhart County grand jury, which indicted Joyner.Joyner’s lawyer argued the indictment in Elkhart County was improper because prosecutors could not prove Hernandez died there. But the Indiana Supreme Court would later find the fact Joyner and Hernandez were together in Elkhart County, combined with a jailhouse informant’s account of Joyner having taken Hernandez from Elkhart to LaGrange, were sufficient to prove part of the crime happened in Elkhart.When Duffin, the Elkhart circuit judge, reached a decision on the disputed evidence, he could hardly have differed more from the officials in LaGrange County.Whereas Cain saw Joyner’s requests for an attorney as “clear,” Duffin thought the requests were “ambiguous or equivocal at best.” In LaGrange County, the judge said he had “no choice” but to throw out the evidence. But in Elkhart County, Duffin decided the evidence, including the crucial garbage bag, would be fair game.On appeal, after Joyner’s second trial, the state Supreme Court upheld Duffin’s decision, finding that Joyner was not in custody during his questioning, and that police had not persuaded him to sign the search waivers through intimidation or fraud.The Tribune and ProPublica reviewed two and a half hours of Joyner’s videotaped interview from that day. If Joyner was free to leave, he didn’t know that, the video shows. “How long I got to be down here?” Joyner asked one detective, when Ambrose was out of the room. “Until you tell me where she’s at,” the detective said. Four times, Joyner told this detective: “I’m ready to go home.”“Can I go?” Joyner said. “I’m asking you, can I leave?”The detective didn’t tell Joyner yes. Instead, he said, “OK, let me just check one thing out.” He left the room, shutting the door behind him. For the next six minutes, Joyner sat there, alone. He put his face in his palm. He let out a deep sigh. Then the door opened — and in came Ambrose, and the questioning started all over again.Joyner, in a recent interview, said he was “dumbfounded” when Elkhart County prosecutors forged ahead with the same evidence that had been tossed in LaGrange.“If evidence is bad in one place,” he said, “how can you make it good in another?”“A Lot of Unproven Assertions”Two major studies since 2009 — one by the National Academy of Sciences, the other by a council of scientific advisers to President Barack Obama — have raised doubts about much of the forensic evidence presented in American courtrooms.Many claims by witnesses about fingerprints, bullets, bite marks and other types of evidence had little or no scientific backing, one study found. The other report focused on “feature-comparison” disciplines, in which examiners look for similarities between two items. The report warned forensic examiners had often overstated their evidence, going “far beyond” the conclusions that science could support.“Examiners have sometimes testified … that their conclusions are ‘100 percent certain’ or have ‘zero,’ ‘essentially zero,’ or ‘negligible,’ error rate,” the scientific advisers’ 2016 report said, even though “such statements are not scientifically defensible” because all forms of testing involve some errors.Joyner’s trials featured expert witnesses who made such bold claims. Matt Rota, special to ProPublica Kenneth Siegesmund, a biologist who testified on Joyner’s behalf, said there was a “98, 99% probability” that Bowen was the source of a hair found on the garbage bag around Hernandez’s head. Under cross-examination, Siegesmund admitted the textbook he used for his forensics course discouraged statements of probability in hair comparison. (His claims would lead to ridicule from prosecutors, who labeled him “Dr. Quack.”)Yet Vanderkolk, the state police criminalist who testified for the prosecution, was even bolder in his claims about the garbage bags.Vanderkolk testified at the first trial he was “totally convinced” there was “no margin for error” in his comparison of the bags. He said they were “definitely” connected to each other, and he was “positive” about his findings. At the second trial, he said he was “totally convinced” that his methods were “scientifically reliable,” and when asked if he had any doubts whether the bags had been attached, he replied, “none.”Another examiner, from a state crime lab in Wisconsin, reinforced Vanderkolk. The bags looked as if they had been torn from one another, and there were similarities that “continue smoothly across” the bags, the examiner said.“This is unique,” he said of the bags’ similarities at the second trial. “They had to be together at one time.”Joyner’s attorney pointed out that the two bags were an inch different in length. If they had indeed been connected, the manufacturer had a serious problem with quality control, he said. He also argued that one roll of plastic on a production line can be 10 miles long: “Every die line, every cut mark would be the same.”These claims by the prosecution’s expert witnesses defied reality, according to two statisticians who study forensics and reviewed Vanderkolk’s testimony recently.His conclusions were based on the assumption that no pair of plastic garbage bags could share the same characteristics unless they had been physically attached to each other. But it’s impossible to rule out the chance two unrelated bags could share those similarities, said Alicia Carriquiry, a professor at Iowa State University. When Joyner was tried in Elkhart County, state experts testified that two garbage bags lined up so neatly that they must have once been connected. (Joyner case files) Carriquiry said only by examining “thousands and thousands” of bags, including those made on different machines, could anyone begin to determine the probability two bags with similar characteristics came from the same factory, let alone whether they were physically connected.“The fact that two things match in no way means they have the same origin,” she said, adding that Vanderkolk’s testimony was laced with “a lot of unproven assertions.”Vanderkolk, now manager of the Indiana State Police regional lab in Fort Wayne, declined an interview request.The national reports urged the use of research to establish the validity and reliability of forensics. For subjective feature-comparison disciplines, the reports recommended “black box” studies in which a large number of participants examine an array of “known” and “questioned” samples and give their conclusions about matches. Researchers who know the truth about the samples then review the outcome to see if the examiners can consistently reach the same conclusion and to determine an error rate.Hal Stern, a statistics professor at the University of California, Irvine, who has studied forensics, said he knew of no such studies on garbage-bag comparison. In fact, neither he nor Carriquiry had even heard of the discipline until contacted recently by a reporter.Even if validated by research, no forensic test is infallible, Stern said. For example, studies have found that fingerprint comparisons, which have been studied far more extensively than plastic bags, have a false positive rate of at least 1 in 1,000.“From a science standpoint,” he said, “it’s ludicrous to say anything has no error rate.”“Instructed to Get Information”Joyner was one of two black inmates at the LaGrange County Jail after his arrest in July 1993.The other, Daniel Wayne Oliver, also had Elkhart connections. He had been arrested on suspicion of robbery in Elkhart County, where he’d earned money working as an informant for police in drug cases.Prosecutors said Oliver’s work as an informant was why he ended up in LaGrange County that summer. They said he could not be held at the Elkhart County Jail while his robbery charge was pending because he had testified against too many fellow inmates or their friends. Joyner was first tried in Elkhart Circuit Court in 1994. (South Bend Tribune archives) A couple weeks after Oliver was moved to LaGrange County for “safekeeping,” Joyner was arrested and placed in Oliver’s cell. They spent about two months as cellmates. By September, when Oliver was moved back to Elkhart County, he told police he had damning information to share about Joyner.Oliver said Joyner asked his opinion of the evidence against him, including a garbage bag, and said he was angry after Hernandez rejected his advances. In Oliver’s retelling at trial, Joyner never explicitly said he killed Hernandez but talked about disposing of the body. A doctor who performed Hernandez’s autopsy was unable to reach a conclusion about her exact cause of death. A year later, a forensic pathologist reviewed the autopsy report and concluded she died of “homicidal asphyxia.”“He was just riding around trying to decide what to do with the body,” Oliver testified. “So that’s when he told me he took her to LaGrange.”At Joyner’s first trial, Cosentino, the Elkhart County prosecutor, asked Oliver, “Has the state of Indiana given or told you in any manner that you would be compensated in any way for your testimony in this case this morning?”“No,” Oliver said.But Oliver was, in fact, counting on a favor from the prosecutor. He had been sentenced to three years in prison after being convicted of theft. After his sentencing, Oliver had sent Cosentino a letter offering to help convict Joyner. In return, he hoped Cosentino could “work out something for me like to do my sentence at work release.”The offer was not unusual. Informants typically relay damning information about fellow inmates in exchange for lighter sentences or dropped charges. But Oliver’s letter suggested he’d planned the operation with police in Elkhart County. “I was instructed,” he wrote, “to get information from Joyner and that’s what I did very well.” Matt Rota, special to ProPublica Seven weeks after Joyner’s conviction, Oliver appeared in Elkhart Superior Court, asking to be released from prison early. Cosentino represented the state at Oliver’s hearing. It was a rare appearance by the county’s head prosecutor in a court that handled lower-level cases, The Elkhart Truth reported.“State does recommend, your honor, that the defendant be released … as a result of the defendant’s cooperation with the state and testimony which he gave,” Cosentino said. “Certainly we all know the state did not promise him anything at any time in exchange for his testimony.”The judge granted the request and freed Oliver.Oliver is now serving a prison sentence in a 2016 robbery conviction. Reached by mail, he declined to comment for this story.Joyner’s attorney, Tom Leatherman, had tried to challenge Oliver’s credibility. But in court filings, Leatherman said he never saw a copy of Oliver’s letter to Cosentino until November 1997 — after Joyner’s first trial, and two months before his retrial. Joyner said he hopes to become a missionary after being released. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune) To Leatherman, the letter’s appearance, three years after his client was first tried, suggested prosecutors withheld evidence that could have been used to attack Oliver’s testimony. He said the letter itself also showed Joyner’s rights had been violated because the informant was an “agent” of the state while they shared a cell. Leatherman asked Duffin to dismiss the case or bar Oliver from testifying in the retrial.In response, the prosecutors said Oliver took the initiative on his own to talk to Joyner. They also said they made their entire file, including the letter, available to Leatherman before the first trial.The judge denied Leatherman’s motion, and Oliver’s testimony helped convict Joyner a second time.“The Lord Knows”Joyner, incarcerated for more than 20 years, still maintains his innocence. Now at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, he is scheduled to finish his sentence and be released in 2020.He lost his appeal of his second conviction in 2000. The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that Elkhart police had not violated Joyner’s rights. Although Ambrose, the detective, had not specifically advised Joyner he could leave the police station while being questioned, a “reasonable person” in Joyner’s circumstances would have known so, the court said.In 2001, Joyner filed another appeal, known as a petition for post-conviction relief. But the state public defender’s office declined to represent Joyner. He said he gave up on that appeal because Duffin never gave him a hearing.“It was pretty plain to me that Elkhart ain’t gonna do nothing for me,” he said. “So I just figured I’d just do my time and get out.”Leatherman said he had no regrets about his handling of Joyner’s case. He and his team “really worked that case hard,” he said, though the outcome has nagged him for years.“This was a frustrating case,” Leatherman said. “Two trials, and I couldn’t convince a jury there was reasonable doubt.”Joyner was denied a reduced sentence at least twice, most recently by Duffin in 2017.Joyner said he and his sister have exchanged letters with the Innocence Project, based in New York, about possibly looking into his case. But no lawyer ever pursued the matter.It took time for Joyner to let go of some of the most bitter memories from his case. For years, he kept a newspaper clipping about the reduced sentence Oliver got in exchange for his testimony. Joyner, pictured in April 2019 at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, is close to finishing a lengthy sentence. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune) “I like to ponder things, think about why people do the things they do. So I just kept it for awhile,” he said of the clipping. “Then I was like, I don’t need this no more, so I got rid of it.”Now, Joyner said, he is “at peace.” He said he became a Christian while jailed in LaGrange County, after he met some Amish ministers. Through visits and phone calls, he developed a relationship with a woman he met through friends. The two are now engaged. After he completes parole, he and his fiancee want to go to Africa and be missionaries in Uganda and Mozambique.He said he has made the best of being locked up by getting an education. He earned a master’s degree in counseling and is working on a doctorate after entering prison without even a high school diploma. He said his family and fiancee have helped line up a job, car and housing for him after his release.“Out of a bad situation has come a lot of good for me,” he said. “I ain’t got nothing to complain about.”Joyner said the fact he may never be able to prove he’s innocent does not bother him.“The Lord knows,” he said, “and I’m OK with that.” How We Reported This StoryRicky Joyner’s case is the latest in which the South Bend Tribune and ProPublica have identified questionable patterns in law enforcement and the justice system in Elkhart County, where several convictions have been overturned in recent years because of mistakes and misconduct by police and prosecutors alike.To report this story, The Tribune and ProPublica examined thousands of pages of trial transcripts, appellate records, police reports, depositions and news clippings, among other materials. The news organizations reviewed more than four hours of video showing Joyner’s interviews with Elkhart police. The Tribune interviewed Joyner at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.Indiana State Police regional crime lab manager John Vanderkolk and former LaGrange County Prosecutor Tim Cain declined interview requests. So did former Elkhart County Deputy Prosecutor Terry Shewmaker, who helped try the case.Former Elkhart police Detective Steve Ambrose and former LaGrange County Judge George Brown did not respond to interview requests. Bill Endler, another former Elkhart police detective who participated in Joyner’s interrogation, said he did not remember the case and had no comment.Former Elkhart County Prosecutor Michael Cosentino died in 2010. Former Elkhart police Detective Steve Rezutko died in an apparent suicide this year, amid an unrelated wrongful-conviction lawsuit against the city of Elkhart and several police officers.
“How in 2019 Do We Not Have Enough Spanish-Speaking Caseworkers?”
by Logan Jaffe Last month, my colleagues Melissa Sanchez and Duaa Eldeib published an investigation that wove together the stories of three Spanish-speaking families in Illinois to show how the state’s child welfare agency has for decades repeatedly failed to provide services to Latino families in their primary language.Illinois lawmakers are paying attention. This week, we published a follow-up story highlighting some of what they want the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to do in light of the story, as well as the agency’s plans to address the problems. Those plans include trying to hire 100 more bilingual caseworkers and investigators (our reporters note that this is a “would like to” and not a “promise”). Read the update here. Dive Deeper Into Our Reporting Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois reporter every week Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. Here’s what lawmakers are saying:
It’s Illegal for Federal Officials to Campaign at Work. A Trump Official Just Did So.
by Yeganeh Torbati Federal workplaces are supposed to be free of politics, but a Trump administration appointee used a government forum Wednesday to express support for the president’s reelection.At a conference on religious freedom hosted by the State Department, an official told the crowd of several hundred people that “hopefully he will be reelected,” referring to President Donald Trump.It’s illegal for federal employees to engage in political activities while they are on the job.“It’s a violation of the Hatch Act for a federal official, to say in her official capacity, to hope that the president will be reelected,” said Kathleen Clark, an expert on legal ethics at the Washington University in St. Louis.It’s not the first time a Trump administration official has appeared to cross a line. In a harsh report, a government ethics office concluded that White House counselor Kellyanne Conway was a “repeat offender” and recommended she be fired. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. “Ms. Conway’s violations, if left unpunished, would send a message to all federal employees that they need not abide by the Hatch Act’s restrictions,” the ethics office wrote. “Her actions thus erode the principal foundation of our democratic system — the rule of law.”Trump did not punish Conway.The latest questionable comment came from Samah Norquist, a special adviser on religious pluralism in the Middle East at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Norquist is also the wife of conservative tax activist Grover Norquist.In response to ProPublica’s questions, Tom Babington, a USAID spokesman, said in a written statement that agency personnel “immediately alerted” USAID’s chief legal officer about the comment. The legal office sent the issue to USAID’s ethics official for review and action.“The Agency takes the Hatch Act very seriously and requires all employees to receive annual ethics training, which includes training on the Hatch Act,” Babington said. “No final decision has been made regarding a determination of a violation or potential appropriate administrative action.”The political references began when the panel moderator, Norquist, read a written question from an audience member. “What happens to U.S. involvement in Iraq if Trump loses the election?” the query said, sparking awkward laughter.Max Primorac, the USAID special representative for minority assistance programs in Iraq, answered first, noting that Congress had passed in 2018 a bipartisan bill authorizing the State Department to give relief to the victims of Islamic State, particularly religious minorities such as Christians, Yazidis and Shiite Muslims, holding it up as proof that the whole country supports the policy.Primorac then added, “President Trump will win again, but I’m very confident that this is now an American project.”Norquist echoed his remarks about religious minorities in Iraq, calling it “an American issue” rather than a partisan one. Then, she veered into politics. She added, “And we all hope whether it’s Trump, and hopefully he will be reelected, or not, that it continues to be a priority for our government.”Here is the exchange.Norquist and Primorac did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Un agente de la Patrulla Fronteriza revela la realidad de ser guardia de niños migrantes
por Ginger Thompson ProPublica es un medio noticioso basado en Nueva York y dedicado a investigar los abusos de poder. Inscríbase para recibir el boletín de investigaciones principales de ProPublica en su buzón con investigaciones y artículos como este, en cuanto se publiquen.El agente veterano, con trece años en la Patrulla Fronteriza, llevaba casi un mes asignado al centro de detención de esa agencia en McAllen, Texas cuando, a fines de junio, apareció en ese lugar un equipo de abogados y médicos nombrados por un juzgado.Al presenciar la miseria, el hedor de cuerpos sin bañar, y la mala salud y ojos vacíos de los cientos de niños ahí detenidos, los integrantes del equipo parecían haber quedado pasmados, pero, en solo unos momentos, su furia comenzó a correr por todo el edificio como una tormenta. Una de las abogadas salió de la sala de conferencias con el teléfono en la oreja y la voz temblando de urgencia y frustración. “Aquí hay una crisis”, recuerda el agente que la oyó gritar.En ese momento, este mismo padre de un niño de dos años, cayó en la cuenta de que algo en él había cambiado durante sus semanas en el centro de McAllen. “No sé por qué grita”, recuerda haber pensado. “A nadie en el otro extremo de la línea le importa. Si les importara, esto no estaría sucediendo”.El agente también recuerda que sintió pena por la abogada cuando volteó para continuar sus tareas. “Quise decirle que el resto de nosotros nos habíamos dado por vencidos”. Manténte informado/a Suscríbete a nuestra newsletter en español y te avisaremos cada vez que publiquemos una historia en español. Es raro escuchar informes de los agentes de la Patrulla Fronteriza, sobre todo desde que la administración de Trump los colocó al frente del cumplimiento de sus medidas severas de migración. Típicamente, el acceso que tiene el público para con ellos es controlado y coreografiado. Cuando alguien trata de hablarles al no estar en turno, los agentes dicen que ponen en peligro su trabajo si comentan sobre este sin permiso. Por ende, gran parte de la agencia federal del orden público más grande del país (con unos veinte mil agentes que vigilan y controlan las fronteras y los puertos de entrada), sigue envuelta en secreto incluso de la supervisión del Congreso, y eso hace que sea casi imposible lograr que rinda cuentas.Ciertos vistazos perturbadores comenzaron a llenar este vacío hace poco, e incluyen lo publicado recientemente cuando ProPublica obtuvo capturas de pantalla de un grupo secreto en Facebook de agentes actuales y anteriores de la Patrulla Fronteriza, los cuales mostraron que varios de estos, y por lo menos un supervisor, habían publicado comentarios groseros, racistas y misóginos sobre inmigrantes y miembros Demócratas del Congreso. Los comentarios abrieron el cuestionamiento para determinar si las condiciones deplorables en los reclusorios de la frontera se dieron por haber quedado fuera del control de la Agencia de Aduanas y Protección Fronteriza, como lo aseveraba esta, o más bien reflejaban su cultura.Se dieron otros reportajes, como el de CNN, en el cual se indicó que ciertos agentes trataron de humillar a un inmigrante hondureño casi forzándolo a ser fotografiado sujetando un letrero en español que decía: “Me gustan los hombres”. The Intercept publicó aún más comentarios degradantes del grupo secreto de Facebook, e informó que parecía que la Jefa de la Patrulla Fronteriza, Carla Provost, alguna vez fue parte del mismo. Provost no ha comentado al respecto.Pero había matices. Un recuento de la vida en un reclusorio de la Patrulla Fronteriza de las afueras de El Paso, Texas, publicado por The New York Times y The El Paso Times, reveló que dos agentes habían expresado a sus supervisores sus inquietudes acerca de las condiciones en ese lugar.El agente que estuvo en McAllen durante el mes de junio no ve reflejada su realidad en ninguna de esas descripciones. Ese agente, quien tiene treinta y tantos años, es esposo y padre de familia y tuvo experiencia en el servicio militar en el exterior antes de servir en la Patrulla Fronteriza, pidió no ser identificado porque le preocupa que su franqueza le cueste su trabajo y lo coloque a él y a su familia en el centro de un debate público furioso relacionado con las políticas fronterizas de la administración de Trump.Sus comentarios llegan en un momento particularmente tenso, debido a que los políticos de izquierda comparan los reclusorios de la Patrulla Fronteriza con “campos de concentración”, y los altos funcionarios de la administración de Trump, incluido el vicepresidente Mike Pence, descartan las descripciones de estas condiciones inhumanas como algo “no corroborado”.Cuando se le preguntó acerca de los comentarios de Pence, el agente dijo que las descripciones condenatorias de las instalaciones, eran “más fundamentadas que no corroboradas”. Y, aunque no acogió el término de campos de concentración, tampoco quiso debatirlo. Buscó en voz alta una palabra que pudiera ser más precisa. Gulag era demasiado fuerte. Cárcel no se sentía lo suficientemente fuerte.Finalmente, dijo esto: “Es como la tortura en el ejército. Comienza primero con privar del sueño, luego entran los nuevos y, como la privación del sueño ya es normal, entonces aumentan las cosas. Los siguientes continúan subiéndole, y así los que siguen, hasta que tienes una situación de tortura total. Y eso se convierte en la normalidad”. Cuando se refirió nuevamente a las condiciones nefastas en los centros de detención de la Patrulla Fronteriza, agregó: “En algún momento de todo esto, la gente solo comenzó a aceptar que lo que está pasando es normal. Eso incluye a la gente a cargo de resolver los problemas”.Habló detalladamente durante varias entrevistas, aclarando que los puntos de vista y las motivaciones que articulaba eran suyas exclusivamente. Dijo que él no está en Facebook, y mucho menos que fuera miembro de cualquier grupo secreto de la Patrulla Fronteriza en medios sociales. También agregó que no había presenciado conductas indignantes de parte de sus colegas cuando estuvo en McAllen, pero sí dijo que los agentes de planta de ese lugar tenían menos tolerancia, y que los había escuchado sermonear de repente a los inmigrantes jóvenes culpándolos por haber cruzado la frontera ilegalmente, además de negarles sus peticiones de alimentos o agua adicionales, o cuando solicitaron información acerca de cuándo serían puestos en libertad.Mencionó que la mayoría de sus colegas quedan dentro de uno de dos grupos. Tenemos a quienes se rigen por “la ley y el orden”, y ven a los inmigrantes bajo su custodia principalmente como delincuentes. Luego agregó a los que “solo están cansados de todo el caos” de un sistema migratorio descompuesto sin poder percibir un final.“El único fin que yo puedo ver de todo, sería si cambia algo después de las próximas elecciones”, dijo, refiriéndose a lo que podría finalmente acabar con el estancamiento en Washington sobre el tema de cómo reformar el sistema. “Puede ser que este presidente gane otra vez y el Congreso se vea forzado a trabajar con él, o que se elija a un nuevo presidente que haga las cosas de una manera distinta”.Aparte de las entrevistas, el agente compartió una entrada del diario que mantuvo durante su tiempo en McAllen para tratar, tentativamente, de desglosar lo que él describe como la experiencia “más dura” de su carrera; un mes que le reveló una capacidad perturbadora para desapegarse.“Mi experiencia en Texas hizo que me diera cuenta de que amurallé mis emociones para poder hacer mi trabajo sin que me lastimara”, indicó. “Vi a niños llorando porque querían ver a sus padres, y no pude consolarlos porque tenía a otros 500 o 600 niños a quienes tenía que vigilar, y debía asegurarme de que no se metieran en problemas. Lo único que pude hacer fue asegurar que estuvieran bien físicamente. No podía dejarlos ver a sus padres porque eso iba en contra de las reglas.“Quizás no me gustaran las reglas”, añadió. “Podría haber pensado que lo que hacían no era la forma correcta de detener a menores. Pero, ¿qué iba a hacer? ¿Irme? ¿Qué diferencia haría eso en otra vida aparte de la mía?Cuando se le preguntó si sencillamente dejaron de importarle las cosas, señaló: “Exactamente, al grado de que resulta algo peligroso. Pero al llegar a eso, se siente uno mejor”.El agente agregó que parte de esa sensación viene de la experiencia. Él había estado en servicio durante administraciones tanto Republicanas como Demócratas; cada una de ellas con su propia crisis fronteriza y reacciones extremadamente mal vistas. Podría haber otras personas a quienes se les haría difícil percibir su agencia fuera del contexto de sus preferencias políticas, pero él dijo que no había entrado a la Patrulla por ser partidario ávido de un lado u otro. Este agente cuenta con un título universitario en justicia penal, y buscó empleo en una agencia federal del orden público que le proporcionara seguridad económica sin tener que vivir en el extranjero.Incluso ahora, cuando su trabajo se ha convertido en un empleo sobre el que tanto él como su esposa prefieren no comentar en público por sentirse incómodos al respecto, lo que lo mantiene ahí es el sueldo de US$100,000 anuales que incluye tiempo extra y vacaciones pagadas. También cuenta con un seguro médico de primera, el cual cubrió casi todo el costo del nacimiento de su hijo, entre otras cosas. En poco más de diez años, al cumplir 51, quedará calificado para jubilarse con una pensión completa, la cual quizás no sea suficiente para comprar una casa en la playa, comentó, pero sí le dará la libertad de “hacer casi cualquier cosa que quiera, sin tener que preocuparme”.El agente, alto, con buena condición física y cabello rubio cenizo, dijo que piensa en el tiempo que le queda en la Patrulla Fronteriza como si fuera la recta final de un maratón. Hace su trabajo con anteojeras puestas para no ver nada aparte de su familia y la raya de la meta final. “Empecé incluso a ir a seminarios acerca de la jubilación”, agregó. “Lo único que estoy tratando de hacer es aguantar esta próxima década”.Señaló que ese era su pensar cuando llegó a McAllen. Era su primera vez en la frontera desde sus tiempos de novato, ya que durante la mayor parte de su carrera había estado en el este de los Estados Unidos investigando organizaciones contrabandistas, más que interceptando a inmigrantes indocumentados. Sin embargo, cuando grandes cantidades de migrantes centroamericanos comenzaron a llegar al Valle del Río Bravo, se hizo el llamado para que él y cientos de agentes de todo el país se trasladaran a prestar ayuda.En su diario, el agente describe lo que vio cuando llegó al centro de detención de la Patrulla Fronteriza, como una “escena de una película de zombis del apocalipsis”.Agregó que sus colegas se cubrían la cara con máscaras quirúrgicas y usaban guantes de hule porque había “enfermedades y suciedad por todos lados”. También mencionó que las instalaciones “parecían un complejo apartado en el cual el gobierno establecía la última zona de seguridad para aceptar refugiados que escapaban del virus maligno de los zombis”.La escena que impactó más fuertemente al agente, ese primer día, fue la imagen de docenas de niños encerrados en jaulas. Es la misma imagen que se ha difundido este año, quedando plenamente condenada. Los niños parecían de la misma edad de su hijo de dos años, pero ahí terminaban las semejanzas. “Mi niño andaría corriendo y dando vueltas sin parar por todo el edificio”, dijo el agente. “Pero los niños de su misma edad en ese lugar permanecían inmóviles sin jugar ni correr aunque hubieran estado confinados todo el día”. El agente indicó que sospechó que los niños estaban letárgicos porque no les habían dado suficiente de comer. Agregó que se preguntó por qué las cosas estaban así, pero que no buscó respuestas por no esperar encontrarlas. “Decidí no obsesionarme y solo hacer mi trabajo”.Así pasaron varias semanas, viendo las cosas sin mortificarse por ellas. Comentó que su interacción con algunos inmigrantes en particular es borrosa. Recuerda vagamente a una empleada del gobierno que peinaba a una niña pequeña para quitarle los piojos del cabello; o a niños de 7 y 8 años caminando en círculo sin parar y llorando inconsolables porque los habían separado de sus padres; una madre adolescente que había enrollado a su bebé con una sudadera asquerosa que otra detenida le había prestado debido a que a ella la habían obligado a tirar toda la ropa que traía consigo.Solo unos cuantos de esos encuentros se mencionaron en lo que escribió el agente acerca de sus experiencias en McAllen. La mayor parte del diario se lee como crónica de un viaje de trabajo rutinario. Tuvo libre el Día de los Caídos. Compró la despensa y dejó de beber refrescos. Un colega que también se hospedaba en el Residence Inn compartió con él suficientes pases del gimnasio para durarle todo el viaje. Y adelgazó de la cintura, de 33 a 32 pulgadas. Comenzó a escuchar música de nuevo: “Ningún estilo en particular, ni idioma o ritmo. Solo música que expresara pasión”. Probó la meditación.Al agente, la visita que hizo el equipo de abogados al centro de detención a fines de junio pareció sacudirlo. El equipo, dirigido por la Abogada Hope Frye de California, llegó a entrevistar a niños detenidos en McAllen. El agente tenía deberes que lo colocaron lo suficientemente cerca de los visitantes para observar su trabajo.Frye dijo que durante esas visitas era típico que los agentes desaparecieran en el trasfondo, silenciosos e impávidos con sus insignias y uniformes verde opaco. Los agentes no trataban mucho con ella porque tenían instrucciones de no hacerlo. Agregó que todos los años de escuchar a niños inmigrantes que le contaron lo mal que habían sido tratados cuando estuvieron detenidos, habían hecho que se preocupara sobre la calidad humana de los agentes. “A veces los miro y me pregunto ¿qué clase de padre eres cuando todo el día estás lleno de odio y victimando a otras personas?”Pero Frye señaló que eso solo lo piensa sin decirlo en voz alta para poder efectuar su trabajo. Sin embargo, en algún momento en McAllen, sin querer le comentó a un agente acerca de un niño pequeño que había sido separado de su familia. Agregó que el agente soltó abruptamente que él sabía de otra mujer que había sido separada de su familia y que criaba a un niño de dos años sola.Frye, de 68 años, indicó que le preguntó al agente si se refería a su propia familia. La pregunta inició una serie de intercambios que no disminuyó sus sospechas acerca de la Patrulla Fronteriza, comentó Frye, pero que sí alteró un poco la manera en que percibió al agente.“Si lo que pasó fuera una película, saldría la mujer de mayor edad con muchos años de experiencia, con arrugas en los ojos por haber visto a estos pobres niños tanto tiempo, y al lado de un hombre joven, con familia joven, que ve esta pesadilla por primera vez”, cuenta Frye de su encuentro con el agente. “Pensé para mí: ‘Qué triste que este joven, que probablemente quiera ser de servicio a su país, esté aquí atorado haciendo esto’”.Refiriéndose al arrebato inicial del agente, agregó: “Creo que me estaba tratando de decir que él también era un ser humano”.Katherina Hagan, intérprete de español que trabajó con Frye, también interactuó brevemente con el agente; y, aunque él no lo haya dicho en tantas palabras, ella sintió que le estaba costando trabajo conciliar su función en las instalaciones. “Como si se hubiera acostumbrado tanto a ver a los niños enjaulados, que lo había asimilado como normal y necesario”, agregó.Recordó que en algún momento lo vio tratando de encontrar ropa para la bebé envuelta en la sudadera. La niña estaba tan sucia que Frye le frotó manchas negras de suciedad de alrededor del cuello. Sin embargo, en otro instante, el agente regañó a Hagan diciendo que no debía consentir a los niños inmigrantes, advirtiéndole que no permitiera que los “extranjeros” usaran los sanitarios de los funcionarios.“Trato de encontrar las palabras precisas para describir su semblante”, dijo Hagan, graduada de Harvard Divinity School, acerca del agente. “Pude percibir que se sentía avergonzado y, quizás algo expuesto. No sé si tuvo algún tipo de epifanía, pero fue claro que supo que yo lo vi, realmente lo vi, en medio de esta situación tan horrible”.Cuando se le preguntó acerca de estas interacciones, el agente dijo que trataba de comunicarles a las abogadas que los detenidos no eran los únicos que se sentían atrapados. Según el agente, salirse no era opción, por lo menos para su pensar; y, tratar de cambiar las cosas a “nivel macro”, era cosa de locos.“Lo más que sentí que podía hacer era asegurarme de que hubiera suficiente papel de baño. O, si alguien quería más jugo, les daba jugo extra. O, quizás hacer algo para que tuvieran un día mejor. Quizás sonreír y tratarlos con respeto. Era todo el poder que sentí tener para hacer algo”, dijo el agente. “Los que tratan de salvar el mundo, ellos son los que se agotan o los amarran con una correa”.El agente se comparó a sí mismo con el burro cínico de la novela “Rebelión en la granja” de George Orwell, el personaje que sobrevive por no arriesgar el cuello.“Decidí que no me interesa avanzar profesionalmente”, agregó. “Prefiero ser padre de tiempo completo que agente de la Patrulla Fronteriza de tiempo completo”.Pero, ahora que ya está en su casa, siente que la experiencia lo ha seguido de alguna manera.“Voy al parque con mi niño y me digo a mí mismo: ‘¿Por qué no estoy disfrutando esto?’”
The Village Where Every Cop Has Been Convicted of Domestic Violence
by Kyle Hopkins, Anchorage Daily News STEBBINS, Alaska — When Nimeron Mike applied to be a city police officer here last New Year’s Eve, he didn’t really expect to get the job.Mike was a registered sex offender and had served six years behind bars in Alaska jails and prisons. He’d been convicted of assault, domestic violence, vehicle theft, groping a woman, hindering prosecution, reckless driving, drunken driving and choking a woman unconscious in an attempted sexual assault. Among other crimes.“My record, I thought I had no chance of being a cop,” Mike, 43, said on a recent weekday evening, standing at his doorway in this Bering Strait village of 646 people.He was wrong.On the same day Mike filled out the application, the city of Stebbins hired him, handing him a policeman’s cellphone to answer calls for help. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. “Am I a cop now?” he remembers thinking. “It’s like, that easy?”The short answer is yes. With low pay and few people wanting the jobs, it is that easy in some small Alaska communities for a convicted felon, even someone who has admitted to a sex crime or who was recently released from prison, to be hired with public money to work as a city police officer.It’s also a violation of state public safety regulations, yet it happens all the time.In Stebbins alone, all seven of the police officers working as of July 1 have pleaded guilty to domestic violence charges within the past decade. Only one has received formal law enforcement training of any kind.The current police chief pleaded guilty to throwing a teenage relative to the ground and threatening to kill her after drinking homebrew liquor in 2017. (Alcohol is illegal in the village.) He was hired a year later. He declined to answer questions in person and blocked a reporter on Facebook.Two men who until recently were Stebbins police officers pleaded guilty to spitting in the faces of police officers; one was the subject of a 2017 sexual assault restraining order in which a mother said he exposed himself to her 12-year-old daughter. (The officer named in the restraining order said he was busy and hung up the phone when asked about his criminal history; the other officer admitted to the crime.)The seven-man police force has served a combined six years in jails, prisons and halfway houses on dozens of criminal charges. That doesn’t include Mike, who was terminated on March 29, city records show. He says he wasn’t given a reason, but the city administrator said it was because he wasn’t responding to calls and didn’t get along with another officer.ProPublica and the Anchorage Daily News reported in May that one in three Alaska communities has no local cops of any kind. In June, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr declared a “law enforcement emergency” in rural Alaska, announcing $10.5 million in Justice Department spending to support village police. The village of Stebbins, along the Norton Sound coast. (Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News) In the villages where there are cops, a different problem has emerged. A first-of-its-kind investigation by the Daily News and ProPublica has found that at least 14 cities in Alaska have employed police officers whose criminal records should have prevented them from being hired under Department of Public Safety regulations. The news organizations identified more than 34 officers who should have been ineligible for these jobs. In all but three cases, the police hires were never reported by the city governments to the state regulatory board, as required.In eight additional communities, local tribal governments have hired tribal police officers convicted of domestic violence or sex crimes.All 42 of these tribal and city police officers have rap sheets that would prevent them from being hired by the Anchorage Police Department and its urban peers, as Alaska state troopers or even as private security guards most anywhere else in the United States. Many remain on the job today.“It’s outrageous that we have a situation where we have a, such a lack of public safety that communities are resorting to hiring people who have the propensity for violence,” said Melanie Bahnke, a board member for the Alaska Federation of Natives, which represents 191 tribes. “And placing them in a position where they have control over people and possibly could victimize the victims further.”“That’s like a frontier mentality,” said Bahnke, who is also chief executive for Kawerak Inc., a Nome-based tribal consortium that oversees state-paid police in the region.A key part of the problem: There aren’t enough state troopers or other state-funded cops to go around. When it comes to boots-on-the-ground law enforcement, village police officers (VPOs) and tribal police officers (TPOs) working in Alaska villages are at least as common. Yet no one keeps track of who these officers are, where they are working, if they’ve passed a background check or if they’ve received any training.The state agency that regulates Alaska police has suspended efforts to solve this mess. A handmade sign in the Stebbins public safety building, where village police officers, hired by the city, hold inmates and prepare for village patrols. (Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News) Alaska Police Standards Council Director Bob Griffiths said his agency barely has the time to fulfill its regular duties of juggling complaints and appeals involving certified police officers. It doesn’t have enough money to also visit rural Alaska so it can research ways to fix police hiring practices. That effort will come in the fall, at the earliest.Yet the stakes are high. The same Alaska towns that have no police, or criminals working as cops, are in areas with some of the highest rates of domestic violence and sexual assault in the country.When a case relies on an arrest by an untrained cop who has a criminal record, prosecutors sometimes do not want to put that person in front of a jury and instead might drop or reduce felony charges, Griffiths warned. “I could see felony domestic violence assault cases that end up being pleaded down to harassment or coercion.”Nome District Attorney John Earthman agreed that sometimes happens, and that cases involving untrained officers sometimes lack key evidence such as recordings of initial interviews. He said public defenders have raised concerns about some police because they have defended those same officers on recent criminal charges.“I’ve been out here almost 20 years and some of these are realities that you just don’t see in the city,” Earthman said. Still, the hiring of Mike as a village police officer came as a surprise.“If he’s the only one who took a statement from a suspect or a defendant, that may be an issue.”“You Are Absolutely Desperate”The story of how Alaska communities came to quietly hire criminals as police officers, without consequence or oversight, is the story of how cash-poor local governments found themselves without law enforcement and few options.There are several different forms of police in rural Alaska.The best trained and best paid are state troopers. More than 300 work across Alaska, but just one-third are based off the road system.Next is a class of cops unique to Alaska: village public safety officers (VPSOs), who are nearly as well-trained as troopers and are also paid by the state. But the number of VPSOs appears to be at an all-time low, with just 42 officers statewide this year, compared with more than 100 in 2013.On the same day the federal government announced millions in emergency funds for Alaska rural police in June, Gov. Mike Dunleavy revealed he had vetoed millions from the VPSO program, saying the money was for vacant positions.Dunleavy, a Republican, has declared a “war on criminals” and vowed to punish sexual predators. “If you hurt Alaskans, if you molest children, if you assault women, we’re really going to come after you,” Dunleavy said at a July 8 crime bill signing. Village police officers leave on a four-wheeler after giving public safety reports at a City Council meeting in Stebbins on June 27. (Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News) Asked moments later why the Alaska Police Standards Council has suspended efforts to revamp law enforcement hiring regulations, given that men convicted of sex crimes are working as police in some villages, Dunleavy offered no specifics but said he planned to hold meetings over the summer with “stakeholders.”Bahnke, the head of the Nome-based nonprofit that employs VPSOs, said that only five of the 15 communities in her region have VPSOs and called on the state to spend unused salaries on equipment, housing and other amenities that would make it easier to recruit new officers.Alaska Native leaders once sued to force the state to provide armed, trained police in villages, but their lawsuit failed in state court. That leaves VPOs and TPOs to pick up the slack. They tend to be younger, paid less and have less training than traditional police.VPOs, such as those in Stebbins, are mainly expected to enforce city laws such as curfews and misdemeanors. In practice, however, they must sometimes handle life-and-death encounters such as standoffs and suicide threats. TPOs perform a similar role but are employed by federally recognized tribes and are not regulated by the state.Of the emergency village law enforcement funding announced in June by the attorney general, $4.5 million will go to hire tribal officers who will not be required to undergo background checks. The Stebbins public safety building houses the police department and three jail cells. (Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News) But lack of funding for cops isn’t the only problem. Many villages have no housing for police, no secure jail cells or no public safety building. When Barr visited the state in May to see the problem for himself, he called the lack of services one of the most pressing public safety needs in the United States.Our review also found that villages have routinely ignored — or said they were unaware of — laws that require training and bar people with certain criminal records from being hired.Last year, the Daily News reported on isolated cases of people with criminal records working as police in remote Alaska villages. That story focused on a case at the edge of the Arctic Circle, in the tundra village of Selawik, where the city employed an officer who had been convicted of bootlegging and faced a pending charge of giving alcohol to a minor when he sexually assaulted an underage girl. The 16-year-old died the night of the attack, and the city settled a subsequent wrongful death lawsuit for $300,000. (The officer pleaded guilty to rape and furnishing alcohol to a minor in that case but was not charged in her death. He has not responded to numerous interview requests.)What happened in Selawik is far from an isolated example, our comprehensive examination shows. Between January and May, ProPublica and the Daily News identified 50 city and tribal governments that employ officers. Some would not provide names, but of the 159 officers identified, more than 42 have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to assault or another crime, most often domestic violence, that is typically a bar to working in law enforcement. Village Police Officer John Aluska tells children to go home at 12:45 a.m. on June 27. Village police officers mainly enforce city ordinances, such as curfew, and prevent drunken driving. They are also first responders to emergencies and domestic violence calls. (Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News) Leaders in some communities, including Stebbins, say they have little alternative but to hire anyone they can.“It’s easy to look at in that light, ‘How could these people hire criminals to do this job?’” said Jason Wilson, public safety manager for several Southeast Alaska villages.“When you live in a community and you’re desperate, you are absolutely desperate for some law enforcement and to have somebody step up that might have a blemished record, you are willing to say, ‘OK, I think person is still going to do OK for us.’”Asked if the criminal backgrounds of some TPOs and VPOs hamper investigations or undermine prosecutors’ cases, Alaska’s Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price said the local officers are vital to fighting crime in far-flung communities.“Our troopers regularly say that, while tomorrow they might have to arrest a VPO or a TPO, today they are critical,” Price said.“He Was Our Only Applicant”In village after village, troubling examples abound.In Mountain Village, population 864, one recent VPO awaits trial on charges of stealing from a murder scene. Court records show five other recent VPOs in the same Yukon River community are awaiting hearings or have admitted to criminal charges including four counts of disorderly conduct, three counts of assault, two cases of neglect, two cases of drunken driving, two charges of harassment and three cases of domestic violence.Along the Norton Sound coast, the city of Shaktoolik in May hired a VPO who has pleaded guilty to five assault charges within the past 10 years. “He was our only applicant so we had no other choice,” a city employee said.Among those hired as TPOs in the fishing villages of Kasigluk and Tuntutuliak, located among the vast web of river-fed lakes in western Alaska, are registered sex offenders who admitted to abuse of a minor or attempted sexual abuse of a minor. The Kasigluk tribal administrator said he was directed by the tribal council not to talk to a reporter about the issue. In Tuntutuliak, Administrator Deanna White said the village council was willing to hire an offender on a part-time basis because of constant turnover and a lack of applicants in the high-stress job.“Every time we hired, they wouldn’t last,” she said.In the Kuskokwim Bay village of Kwigillingok, a 33-year-old man worked as a tribal police officer while subject to a long-term domestic violence restraining order. He was indicted in February on charges of sexually abusing an 11-year-old and is awaiting trial in a Bethel jail. He has pleaded not guilty.And in the nearby Kuskokwim River village of Napakiak, recent police hires include William Gibson Smith as a TPO. The Yukon River community of Mountain Village. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News) Smith was picked to patrol the village despite a complaint filed two years earlier by a young mother whose 3-year-old daughter told her that her bottom hurt. The girl later confided that Smith had touched her there, according to an application for a sexual assault restraining order filed in Bethel court. Based on a “preponderance of the evidence,” a magistrate ordered that Smith, who was not present at the hearing, stay away from the family. (Such an order is not automatically disqualifying, but the regulations say candidates must be of “good moral character.”)Despite the judge’s orders, a matter of public record and discoverable on a public court database, Smith was hired to perform police work in Napakiak. He had the power to place his neighbors in custody and to hold them against their will if he declared them to be drunk or disorderly. In October, the Alaska State Troopers arrested Smith on charges of having sex with a different underage girl, and he has been in custody since. Today he is awaiting trial in that case and in another, in which he was charged with sexually assaulting a woman in police custody. He has pleaded not guilty in both cases. In Stebbins, Louise Martin said she knows all too well the toll that officers with criminal records can take on a town. She recently filed a restraining order against a current city police officer, accusing the man of threatening her in person and through Facebook messages in which he said he would beat her up. Prior to his hire, the officer had been convicted of domestic violence and bootlegging.“For him to be a cop, he shouldn’t be acting like this, especially if there’s kids + elders around,” Martin wrote in her application for the restraining order. An initial order was granted but a longer-term one was denied because Martin did not participate at a hearing.Martin grew up in Stebbins and isn’t unsympathetic to the needs of the village. “They need a trooper in town.” But she said the city cops “hide behind their badge and harass people and drink on the job.”One of the Worst Jobs in TownStebbins, an Inupiaq and Yup’ik village, survived a generation of monstrous sexual abuse by a Catholic priest and church volunteers. It is plagued by 12% unemployment, and its lone grocery store charges twice as much for food as it costs in Anchorage. As the lack of police data regarding missing and murdered indigenous women raises concerns nationwide, residents of Stebbins and neighboring Saint Michael say the suspicious death of a local woman, 19-year-old Chynelle “Pretty” Lockwood, in 2017 remains unsolved.The city offers no benefits to part-time officers who walk into life-and-death emergencies. They are untrained and unarmed, their only equipment a cellphone and a pair of handcuffs. The police department, like most homes, has no flush toilets or running water. Next to hauling waste, residents say being a cop is one of the worst jobs in town. In 2001, the mayor of Stebbins was shot in the face as part of a robbery scheme involving a 20-year-old man who had been working as a VPO despite jail sentences for assault and animal cruelty.“I was not very fond of that [hire] in the first place,” then-Mayor Robert Ferris told the Daily News at the time, having survived the shooting. But, he reasoned, “In a place like this you take any help you can get.”After serving time in prison for his role in the mayor’s shooting, the former VPO returned to Stebbins and was eventually hired back by the city as a police officer, current city officials said.Little has changed in recent years.“Other people don’t want to apply,” said the current Stebbins city administrator, Joan Nashoanak, when asked why her local government has hired so many VPOs with criminal backgrounds. “They are willing to work.”In Alaska’s largest city, the Anchorage Police Department receives 18 applications for every cop it hires. Each recruit is subject to criminal background checks, drug tests and polygraphs. “It’s incredibly important for our department to uphold those standards because they are key to upholding the public’s trust in law enforcement,” said APD Chief Justin Doll, who serves on the Alaska Police Standards Council board. “If the public looks at a law enforcement officer and sees a lengthy criminal background, it undermines that trust.”Anchorage police pay starts at $33.61 an hour plus benefits, retirement and a union.In Stebbins, Nashoanak said it’s impossible to avoid candidates with a felony or a misdemeanor within the past five years, who should be prohibited from serving as cops by law, because of constant burnout and turnover. Officers are paid $14 an hour.Factor in small-town politics and the pressure to look the other way when an influential person or family gets in trouble, and it’s easy to see why officers are constantly quitting.“It’s a problem, but it’s never really been addressed,” Nashoanak said. “We can’t find anybody else without a criminal background.”A former city administrator, Doreen Tom, says she has complained to the city about the officers’ conduct and rap sheets.“These guys are criminals,” Tom said of the VPOs. “There’s qualifications to be a police. What you can’t be and what you can be. You can’t have a misdmeanor within five years and these policemen, there’s police who were charged with rape. People who were charged with assault.” Substitute Village Police Officer Robert Kirk, left, and Aluska rode a city four-wheeler as they enforced the curfew in Stebbins on June 27. (Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News) One recent Stebbins VPO is 24-year-old Harold Kitsick Jr., who has worked off and on over the past year despite a conviction for spitting in the face of a police officer in nearby Kotlik in 2013. The victim in that case said Kitsick had threatened to kill him, his 6-year-old child and his wife and vowed to burn down his house. The Kotlik officer said that he could smell gasoline around his home and that he waited out the night with a gun handy, afraid for his life.Reached by phone, Kitsick denied that he threatened the police officer but admitted to attacking him. “I assaulted him, I hit him. I spit on him and kicked him. That was it.”The Kotlik VPO quit being a police officer soon after the encounter with Kitsick. He asked not to be identified because his wife still works in the region. He, too, was a VPO with a criminal record, he said. The city of Kotlik recruited him despite an assault charge that should have prevented him from being hired under state law.“There’s really no background checks to it,” he said.Stebbins city records show Kitsick stopped working as a police officer on May 28 after two years on patrol. He sometimes tried looking for different work with better pay and more hours, he said, but jobs are scarce in the village.“Then [the city] asked me to go back. I was, like, ‘Well, might as well,’” said Kitsick, who is currently awaiting trial on two new charges. Troopers accused him of punching a woman in the face and punching fellow Stebbins VPO John Aluska in two separate 2018 incidents. He has pleaded not guilty to both.Aluska, who himself was convicted of domestic violence in 2010 and 2014, said he hasn’t been in trouble in years and is part of a roster of about seven officers who some Stebbins residents said work well together.“The current ones we have are pretty good,” Stebbins health aide Tania Snowball said of the police force. While she spoke, Snowball cleaned a gleaming chum salmon, hauled moments earlier from the Bering Sea. “The ones in the past, they never answered their phones.” Tania Snowball cuts up salmon after a day working as the village health aide. As a first responder who relies on village police officers to handle emergencies, Snowball said she couldn’t do her job without the local village police officers. (Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News) As a health aide, Snowball said she partners with VPOs. If there were no police — or if the city couldn’t hire people with criminal records — Snowball said there would be no one to assist her in emergencies such as suicide attempts or shootings. She would quit the clinic.“You have to have somebody help respond, because most of the people that call are intoxicated. There’s four-wheeler accidents or serious injuries,” she said. “VPOs gotta be available.”“I’m a Pretty Good Cop”A few hours after the health aide finished cutting fish along the foaming shoreline, Aluska began the midnight to 4 a.m. patrol. Rain beaded on his four-wheeler, a Honda shared by the entire police force.Aluska circled the village in a wide loop. There are no stop lights and no paved roads in Stebbins. Most homes rest on stilts; red foxes and berry bushes hide in the knee-high grass. All groceries and vehicles arrive by plane or barge, and trailer-sized shipping containers in primary colors dot the yards. Aluska has lived here all his life.“Go home!” he hollered to a crowd of middle-school-age kids outside the gymnasium. More than 40% of the village population is younger than 19, and parents said it’s hard to keep them indoors this time of year, when the sun dips low and red but never really sets.“Don’t make me tell you again,” Aluska warned. A boy in a hoodie shuffled his feet, walking with exaggerated slowness. Aluska provides a tour of the public safety building. Aluska has a criminal record but said it does not interfere with his police work. (Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News) The Honda engine clicked and popped as he turned off the ignition. The real trouble usually starts later. Everyone knows when the VPOs go off duty.If someone is driving drunk, getting in fights or becomes a danger to themselves, they are held in one of three cells in the city jail. The building used to be a library, but it was converted when someone broke the fuel line at the old jail house, soaking the building in heating oil.Aluska likes the new jailhouse. No one has broken out yet.“In my time it was easier,” Aluska said.The 42-year-old said he got into his share of trouble when he was younger. Making homebrew. Escaping custody. “It’s been years ago now since I last went to jail.”Asked if he had ever been convicted of domestic violence, Aluska said he had, in 1998, but the charge was dropped. State court records show he also pleaded guilty to domestic violence-related assault charges in 2010 and 2014.Aluska doesn’t think his record makes him any less able to keep the village safe. Same for his colleagues.“Not really,” he said. “I get a call and, if you’re drunk and doing bad things, I’ll come get you.” Mayor Morris Nashoanak Sr. leads a Stebbins City Council meeting, where each village police officer presented a monthly report and talked about ways to improve public safety in the village. (Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News) The next afternoon the rain disappeared, replaced by a damp heat that sent kids splashing between gillnets.At city hall, the Stebbins City Council gathered for a monthly meeting. Chairs ringed a cafeteria table beneath property maps of village landmarks: The Old Church. The Elder Center. The New School. Skin drums and a bingo scoreboard (proceeds help pay police salaries) adorned the adjacent community hall.One by one, the police officers gave monthly reports and brainstormed public safety ideas. Officer Delbert Acoman suggested police begin wearing small body cameras purchased from Amazon; the police chief admitted he can’t bring himself to shoot dogs when an animal needs to be put down. One officer who is the subject of a current restraining order wondered about turning a vacant building into a teen center.At 45, Acoman said he’s worked as a Stebbins police officer off and on for two decades. During that time, court records show, he has been convicted of a dozen crimes, including three counts of domestic violence. His last no-contest plea to assault came five years ago and Acoman said he’s turned a corner — trying to provide for his wife and kids. A steady job makes that possible. Acoman headed home as his colleagues prepared for overnight patrols. Middle schoolers chased rebounds on an outdoor basketball court as two young men sat wrenching on a four-wheeler, fanning mosquitoes.At the edge of town lives Nimeron Mike, the registered sex offender. While he was working as a police officer he could never shake the feeling that visiting state troopers might take him away to jail, instead of the people he arrested.Mike said he is ready to go back on patrol any time the city needs him. He figures street smarts must count for something.“I’ve done my time, now all I want to do is work and make money,” he said. “I’m a pretty good cop.”For now, the state of Alaska hasn’t caught up with Mike’s change in job status. The official state sex offender registry database still lists his employer as “City of Stebbins.” Get in Touch Have You Experienced Sexual Violence in Alaska? We’d Like To Hear Your Story. The Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica have teamed up to listen. Do you work with victims, in government or law enforcement? We need to hear from you, too.
Illinois Lawmakers Demand Child Welfare Officials Better Serve Spanish-Speaking Families
by Duaa Eldeib and Melissa Sanchez Illinois lawmakers and advocates are calling on state child welfare officials to better comply with a federal court order to serve Spanish-speaking families, an issue they say has become more critical amid heightened fear among immigrants of interacting with government agencies.The calls come in response to a ProPublica Illinois investigation last month that found that the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has, for decades, repeatedly violated a 1977 federal court order that mandates the agency provide services to Latino families in their primary language.“The details uncovered by these reports are heartbreaking, plain and simple,” U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, said in a statement. “No child should ever be deprived of the opportunity to communicate with their parents as a result of actions by a government agency that claims to be their advocate, and it’s clear that DCFS must do better before even more children who’ve done nothing wrong are harmed.”DCFS acting Director Marc Smith, who was appointed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in April, said the administration has outlined reforms, including hiring more bilingual workers, recruiting additional Spanish-speaking foster families and upgrading technology to better track whether children of Spanish-speaking parents are placed in foster homes where that language is spoken.State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat, cited the ProPublica Illinois story in a letter to Smith this week asking for a clearer picture of the steps the agency is taking to address shortfalls in meeting the consent decree. She said she’s heard from child welfare advocates and others describing how parents are being pressured to waive their rights to have their children placed in Spanish-speaking foster homes and are being told that requesting a Spanish-speaking caseworker could delay reunification with their children.“These are our children,” Feigenholtz said in an interview. “They are not throwaway children.” Dive Deeper Into Our Reporting Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois reporter every week Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. Feigenholtz highlighted the plight of undocumented families. She wrote in her July 15 letter that many are “fearful and reluctant to interact with DCFS as they worry about the possibility of having their citizenship status recognized and flagged for deportation.”The ProPublica Illinois investigation featured the story of Jorge Matias, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant father whose primary language is Spanish. DCFS placed his children in a foster home where only Slovak was spoken. The children, whose mother struggles with a heroin addiction, were taken into custody after they were born with drugs in their system.For years, the brother and sister grew up speaking Slovak and were unable to communicate with their father, who was deported last fall but is fighting for custody.The DCFS inspector general later found a pattern of discrimination against Matias, saying he was effectively coerced into waiving his rights. The federal consent decree, called Burgos for the family involved in the original lawsuit, requires the state to place children of Spanish-speaking families in foster homes where that language is spoken and to provide caseworkers and other services in Spanish to those families.ProPublica Illinois found that there have been some 300 possible Burgos violations since 2005, though that number is almost certainly an undercount given DCFS’ repeated failures over four decades to properly document families’ race, ethnicity and language preference. Matias’ 5-year-old son, for example, is labeled in the DCFS case file as white, non-Hispanic and English speaking. The agency’s records on whether caseworkers speak Spanish also are flawed.The misclassification of families and caseworkers makes it nearly impossible for DCFS to systematically determine compliance with the consent decree, ProPublica Illinois’ reporting showed.DCFS stopped using waivers that allowed parents to sign away their Burgos rights following federal court action in the early 1990s. But ProPublica Illinois found that the agency’s language determination forms remain problematic. Today, some parents whose primary language is Spanish effectively waive their rights through the form, as did Matias. Smith said he is working to make sure that caseworkers are properly trained on the purpose of the form, but he would not say if the agency is planning to do away with it or implement additional protocols to prevent misuse. Charles Golbert, Cook County public guardian, said DCFS too often treats Burgos like a checklist without embracing the spirit of the consent decree. The problems, he said, appear to be worse in the suburbs and areas where there are fewer Spanish-speaking foster homes, service providers and caseworkers. The proposed reforms, he said, “are all prerequisites but they’re not enough.”Tanya Gassenheimer, an attorney with the nonprofit Shriver Center on Poverty Law, which recently began dealing with child welfare issues, said she plans to work with parents and other organizations to address the issues raised by ProPublica Illinois’ reporting.When language barriers get in the way of parents’ ability to communicate with their children, reuniting them is difficult “for a reason completely unrelated to a parents’ ability to care for their children,” she said.State Rep. Delia Ramirez, a Chicago Democrat, said she plans to prioritize the Burgos consent decree during upcoming meetings for a working group of about a dozen state lawmakers who are looking into ways to bring a number of reforms to DCFS.“It’s not just one story or two stories,” she said. “This is happening too often across the state.”The legislative working group sprang from the Adoption and Child Welfare Committee, which is chaired by Feigenholtz and was established this year to bring attention and resources to the beleaguered agency. Smith is the 13th DCFS leader in 10 years. After years of funding cuts, the agency received an $80 million increase in its budget this year.Smith said the agency plans additional improvements, including enhanced training for staff and increased support to the DCFS Burgos coordinator.“We’re making sure all of our practices put us in line with not only the Burgos consent decree but with what we think are best practices in dealing with Spanish-speaking families,” he said.Officials from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a national civil rights group that represents families in the Burgos litigation, said they hope to work with DCFS’ new leadership to ensure the agency complies with the consent decree.Bilingual hiring has long been a problem at DCFS, leading to failures in communicating with families and jeopardizing investigations into allegations of abuse and neglect. Records also show the agency last year only reported 156 bilingual frontline workers, though state law requires 194.State Sen. Julie Morrison, a Democrat from Deerfield, said she was appalled to learn that some caseworkers didn’t speak the language of the families they serve.“How in 2019 do we not have enough Spanish-speaking caseworkers?” she asked. “If it was Mandarin, I’d say that is tough. But there is no excuse for this.” In a recent interview, Illinois Deputy Gov. Sol Flores called the misclassification of Matias’ family “unacceptable” and said his children should not have been placed in a foster home where Spanish was not spoken. Flores, whose Puerto Rican grandparents were bilingual foster parents in Chicago, said that is not how the administration intends to lead moving forward.She said the agency plans to use part of its increased budget to hire 300 additional caseworkers and investigators. DCFS officials said they would like 100 of those positions filled by bilingual workers.Although both Smith and Flores acknowledged the agency’s shortcomings in data collection and tracking, they defended DCFS’ compliance with Burgos, saying the majority of Spanish-speaking families were served in accordance with the court order.In cases where that didn’t happen, they said, the child’s mental or physical health often took priority. They agreed the agency needed to add Spanish-speaking foster homes that are equipped to meet those special needs.“We just don’t want to be in the situation where we have to choose between language and the most appropriate level of mental health and medical care,” Smith said. Ramirez, the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants, said the need to improve how DCFS serves Spanish-speaking families is more important now than ever before, given the Trump administration’s immigration policies that have led to separations of families at the border, in addition to his ongoing threats to deport undocumented immigrants.“As Trump continues to threaten, deport and detain thousands of people across the country, we know we’ll see some impact in the state of Illinois,” she said. “I want to make sure the agency is prepared to provide support to the children whose parents get detained or whose parents for one reason or another are not available.”
Trump Cheers as Pakistan Rounds Up the Usual Suspect in Mumbai Case
by Sebastian Rotella As the news broke Wednesday that Pakistani police had arrested the leader of an Islamist militant group blamed for the terrorist attacks that killed 166 people in Mumbai, India, in 2008, President Donald Trump hailed it as a breakthrough for his tough policy toward Pakistan.“After a ten year search, the so-called ‘mastermind’ of the Mumbai Terror attacks has been arrested in Pakistan,” he declared in a tweet. “Great pressure has been exerted over the last two years to find him!”But Hafiz Saeed, the leader of the group Lashkar-e-Taiba, was hardly on the run. He is a powerful, high-profile figure who oversees a network of charities, schools, hospitals and other institutions as well as armed militants, and he had recently appeared at political rallies and court hearings. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. During the last decade, Pakistani authorities have detained him at least three times, but he was ultimately released without charges or exonerated by the courts.Saeed’s past arrests were seen as part of the Pakistani government’s periodic efforts to placate the increasing impatience in Washington with its longtime support of Lashkar and other militant groups. The Trump administration has suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Islamabad for its failure to rein in Islamist extremists. On Wednesday, skeptical counterterrorism officials and experts warned that the latest arrest of Saeed could be part of a recurring ritual in which Pakistan detains Lashkar bosses in response to international pressure, then fails to follow through. The critics linked the timing to the impending visit of Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, to Washington to meet with Trump.“The U.S. should interpret this as a small step,” said Jason Blazakis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and a former senior counterterrorism official at the State Department. “Any conclusion that this is a paradigm shift in Pakistan’s larger treatment of Lashkar is grossly naive. If Pakistan wanted to send a stronger message, they would arrest individuals indicted by the Americans for killing Americans.”In 2011, U.S. prosecutors charged Lashkar leaders including Sajid Mir, accused of being the operational mastermind of the plot, as well as a Pakistani intelligence officer in the deaths of six Americans in the assault on Mumbai. Pakistan has never arrested Mir, the intelligence officer or other key suspects, despite strong evidence of their involvement and whereabouts and pressure from U.S. law enforcement. Federal prosecutors have not publicly charged Saeed in the case. It could not be learned if prosecutors have filed a sealed indictment naming him.The fact that Saeed faces charges of terrorist financing and diversion of funds from charities, rather than involvement in the Mumbai attacks, suggests that the Pakistani move is largely symbolic, an Indian police counterterrorism chief said in a telephone interview. “If he is charged in the Mumbai attacks, that could be a reason to believe they are taking a more hardline approach, otherwise I think it is just a drill that is performed at regular intervals,” said Deven Bharti, of the Maharashtra state police. Bharti personally battled the Lashkar gunmen in 2008 and led the subsequent investigation.Asked for comment Wednesday, a State Department official confirmed that Pakistani authorities had arrested Saeed on terrorism financing charges.“The United States calls for Saeed’s full and expeditious prosecution for his involvement in the planning of numerous acts of terror, including the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 innocent people, six Americans among them,” the official said.At a 2011 trial in federal court, prosecutors introduced detailed evidence linking Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, the ISI, to the Mumbai attacks. A confessed Pakistani American operative for the ISI and Lashkar, David Coleman Headley, testified that the ISI had worked closely with the group Saeed founded to carry out the three-day assault by a team of 10 gunmen. Saeed and ISI officers intended from the beginning to kill Americans, Jews and Indians, according to interviews and court documents.ProPublica has done extensive reporting on Headley, the role of the ISI in terrorism, and the failure of the U.S., British and Indian governments to detect the plot despite high-tech intelligence and repeated warnings from Headley’s family and associates.In June, Khan promised to get tough with militant groups. The arrest of Saeed came as part of an operation targeting a dozen Lashkar operatives for terrorism financing, according to public statements by Pakistani officials.But experts see few signs of dramatic change. The trial in Pakistan of half a dozen suspects charged in the Mumbai attacks remains stalled nine years after it began. In interviews, U.S. counterterrorism officials have accused the ISI of allowing the defendants to direct terrorist operations while they were held in comfortable jail conditions. Even if Saeed remains in jail or is placed under house arrest, he will probably retain authority over his group, Blazakis said. “Saeed is a well-known individual,” Blazakis said. “He’s a guy who has been arrested before. Even when they are behind bars, the track record shows that Laskhar’s leaders continue to be effective.”By remaining loyal to the Pakistani state, Lashkar has eluded crackdowns and even expanded the presence of its militants in neighboring Afghanistan, where international talks with the Taliban are a U.S. priority, said American University Professor Tricia Bacon, a former State Department intelligence analyst and expert on South Asia. The difficult negotiations with the Taliban to seek peace in Afghanistan are likely to be high on the agenda of Trump’s upcoming meetings with Khan. Because of its deep ties to the Taliban, Pakistan is key to any accord in Afghanistan, and Lashkar can serve as a useful proxy there, Bacon said.“Lashkar has demonstrated its willingness to play the pawn for the Pakistani state,” Bacon said. “This follows a road map we have seen before. I would be surprised if [Saeed’s arrest] turns into anything significant.”Saeed has denied involvement in terrorism and claimed that he has distanced himself from Lashkar, which he founded in the late 1980s. Pakistan has denied U.S. and Indian charges that the indicted Pakistani intelligence officer, identified in court as Major Iqbal, and other ISI officials played a role in directing and financing the plot and protecting Lashkar masterminds afterward.Pakistan’s recent moves against Lashkar also respond to pressure from the Financial Action Task Force, or FATF, an international body that combats terrorism financing and money laundering, experts said. Last year, the FATF put Pakistan on its “gray list” of high-risk nations, finding that the government in Islamabad has not taken sufficient action against illicit funding of militant groups. Pakistani leaders fear the economic consequences of ongoing scrutiny, especially if the international group moves Pakistan to its blacklist of nations that fail to fight financial crime, experts said.
Hate Getting Parking Tickets in Chicago? Here’s How You Can Start Change-Making Conversations About the City’s Ticketing System.
by Derrick Clifton Chicago’s ticketing system hurts everyone in a variety of ways, and the city’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, has promised reforms on tickets, fines and fees that saddle motorists with unbearable debt.Our investigative series Driven Into Debt, reported in partnership with WBEZ Chicago, has revealed how the city’s ticketing and debt collection practices disproportionately affect people in majority black and low-income neighborhoods. Some reforms are underway, and city officials have pledged to do more. And it’s all because of strong public interest in the issue.In March, ProPublica Illinois hosted an event on ticket debt with WBEZ and the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ reporters presented their findings, and research experts highlighted the underlying issues; attendees, both in person and via a livestream, then had a chance to ask questions and participate in a discussion. By bringing people together, the event helped highlight different experiences and perspectives within the community, adding important context to a citywide policy debate.Now it’s time to continue the conversation — and that’s where you come in. We’ve created a toolkit to help you host your own events about Chicago’s ticketing system, gatherings that have strong potential to spark change and unite community members from various viewpoints and walks of life. Our kit includes guidance on how to organize an event, information from the reporting series, sample discussion questions and tips on how to use our online app The Ticket Trap, which allows you to enter an address and see how ticketing issues affect each Chicago neighborhood or ward.Your events could also elevate new issues for local leaders to address. Here are some of the findings from our work that you might want to explore:
Deadly Delays in Jail Construction Cost Lives and Dollars Across California
by Jason Pohl, The Sacramento Bee, and Ryan Gabrielson, ProPublica MERCED, Calif. — Last June, Fabian Cardoza headed to the shower in the dilapidated Merced County Main Jail. The 20-year-old had spent a month there awaiting trial on a robbery charge. Two cellmates boxed him in. One pinned Cardoza to the floor. The other slipped a braided bedsheet around his neck and tightened it.It was just past noon, but no correctional officers took notice. No one was monitoring the video camera that watched the area and, because the facility was so outdated, officers would have had to stand directly in front of the cell to see anything inside.The jail was built in 1968, before most of the prisoners were even born. Inmates live behind rusted bars in the aging cellblocks, where eight people share a space the size of a two-bedroom apartment. The sleeping area has stacked beds bolted to the walls, opening into a dayroom that serves as a bathing and communal eating space. On that Sunday afternoon, it was a killing ground.County officials knew the jail needed to be scrapped, its conditions branded “deplorable” in a scathing 2008 review. The outside reviewers said it was difficult to find the right parts to repair the decades-old sliding cell doors and other fixtures. Gang members mingled in blind spots where staff members were unable to keep track, and design flaws made segregating inmates exceptionally challenging. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. Merced County’s corrections consultants agreed. “The Sheriff’s Department has determined that the antiquated Main Jail needs to be shut down, the infrastructure is post-salvageable, and the dysfunction of the jail layout creates problems in creating a manageable and safe environment for the staff and in-custody,” their written assessment states.Over the years, Merced County officials hoped to fix the jail’s flaws by tapping into $2.1 billion in state construction money, a critical piece of California’s ambitious criminal justice reforms known as “realignment.” Designed to relieve unconstitutional overcrowding in state prisons, the program, which began in 2011, reclassified hundreds of crimes and diverted thousands of offenders to county jails. Sheriffs and corrections officials accepted the changes, in part, because counties received a cash incentive to rebuild or update local facilities.So in 2013, the Merced County sheriff’s office requested funds to build a new facility for maximum-security inmates, a proposal that would have allowed it to close the Main Jail. But county officials failed to meet the state’s basic requirements, including properly documenting the jail’s defects. Their application fell to the bottom of the state’s rankings, and their $40 million request was rejected.Meanwhile, conditions deteriorated in the cellblocks, and inmate-on-inmate murders began. After a decade without any homicides, one man was killed in a gang assassination in 2015. Then another, in 2017.Cardoza would be the third.The county’s chief executive did not respond to interview requests, but, in his proposed budget last month, said the county is taking steps to improve security in its correctional facilities and intends to eventually expand its other jail to hold all inmates. The sheriff’s office declined to answer questions about inmate homicides.A security camera recorded Cardoza’s attackers choking him to death, according to court and autopsy records. They carried him back to his jail bed and placed his lifeless body on the single bunk.Twenty-four hours passed.A correctional officer only discovered the corpse when he came in shortly before an afternoon court hearing for Cardoza’s robbery case. The inmate’s throat was covered in purple markings, his limbs rigid. The officer called for help, but it was too late. Cardoza had been decomposing for a full day.Deadly DelaysNew and improved facilities are a critical pillar of California’s corrections transformation. But bureaucratic roadblocks, indifference from county sheriffs and critical errors in planning by local officials have meant dozens of California jails remain broken and dangerous, unable to adequately serve an influx of inmates, while hundreds of millions of dollars to fix the aging facilities go unspent, a McClatchy and ProPublica investigation has found.Statewide, officials have awarded money for 65 jail construction projects since realignment began eight years ago, according to state project status reports. Only 11 have opened.Another 11 gave up funds after winning them, hindered by a tangle of state processes, shifting political priorities and too little local tax revenue to operate the jails after they’re built.Most of the rest of the projects are several years behind schedule, records show. State and county officials have encountered a variety of delays, from securing land to passing inspections. Three jails from the earliest financing effort in 2011 have still not started construction. The sheriff’s office headquarters in Merced County, California. It also houses the Merced County Main Jail. (Andrew Kuhn/Merced Sun-Star) Tehama County won $20 million in 2013 to build a new 64-bed jail adjacent to the existing facility in Red Bluff, state documents show. The project, between Chico and Redding in Northern California, has been mired in delays and debate, largely over how to move a main road in town. County officials say the jail won’t open until at least late 2021.Sacramento County initially won $56.4 million in that same round of funding to build a 26-bed medical and mental health treatment facility, kitchen and three educational program buildings at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove.Planners expected it to open by October of this year, but the project changed — and stalled — when the county received more state money because a smaller county gave up on its project and returned the award. Sacramento officials in April gave the green light to choose construction firms, with a new goal to open in 2021.Former state officials who helped craft the realignment law said California’s worst county lockups were, for the most part, supposed to have been overhauled or replaced by now.“I just don’t know that we’ve seen the real benefit as of yet,” said Matt Cate, the former state corrections secretary who helped oversee realignment, referring to new jails. “A lot of these are just coming online, so who knows what the benefit will be long term.”The state agency that awards projects and oversees their construction, the Board of State and Community Corrections, said it tries to work with counties, but the agency has little power over local governments. Aaron Maguire, legal counsel for the board, noted that there are no penalties when jail construction is delayed or projects grow more costly.The community corrections board does not believe it has the power to be the counties’ taskmaster.“We could take the money away, but we can’t force them to build anything,” Maguire said. Steve Meinrath, who worked for nearly a decade as legal counsel for the California Legislature and helped draft jail construction legislation, said the goal was always to award projects that would open on time.“When one piece of this falls down,” Meinrath said, “the whole project can become very dangerous.”With dozens of county projects moving glacially, the state’s criminal justice overhaul is now faltering as inmates and corrections staff face more and more risk.Santa Barbara County, for instance, won funds in 2012 to build a 376-bed jail it said would quell fights and improve medical and mental health care. But construction might not finish until 2020 — three years behind schedule. Meanwhile, design flaws in the aging jail are contributing to in-custody deaths.In a report last month, a citizen panel called attention to a suicide in one of the facility’s many blind spots. Guards put a man with a history of mental illness in a holding cell, where he turned his shirt into a noose and hanged himself from the cell bars, which most modern jails don’t use. Hinged metal doors are considered safer.The man’s body was out of the camera’s view. The staff found him 25 minutes later.A Flawed Application, Then Murder in MercedLocated in California’s less-affluent but agriculturally rich Central Valley, Merced County is now home to a quarter-million residents. Farming drives the local economy. Almond trees line the highways and dirt roads frame the city of Merced, whose motto is “gateway to Yosemite.”That bucolic image contrasts sharply with the gang-fueled violence that drives the local crime rate. The Merced Sun-Star’s editorial board once labeled the county the “murder capital of California.”Over the past two decades, the county’s grand juries — groups of volunteers that inspect parts of local government — described the Main Jail as “run-down” and unsafe for those working and incarcerated inside. They highlighted failing ventilation systems, cracked glass windows and crumbling paint. One group of inspectors said the county needed to “actively pursue” construction of a new facility. Narrow hallways, antiquated cellblocks and numerous blind spots in the Merced County Main Jail make it difficult to supervise inmates. County officials have tried and failed to use state money to shutter the building. The jail will continue to operate into the foreseeable future. (Merced Sun-Star File Photo) “The overall condition of the cell blocks is deplorable!” jurors wrote in 2008. “In sum, Merced County needs a new jail! If these deficiencies are not addressed quickly, the potential for inmate disturbances, possible escapes and further, more expensive facility repairs will only grow to unmanageable proportions.”In 2013, Merced County joined the line of 36 applicants vying for funding from the community corrections board, the group that holds the purse strings for state jail funding. It applied for $40 million.The county had plans to build a new maximum-security facility to help stem violence and safety threats in what officials that year described as a “dysfunctional” jail.Cement walls and security bars block views of everything except what’s directly in front of those walking through the Main Jail. It’s even hard to pray there, said Emanuel Cudder, Merced County jail chaplain. There are no inmate gathering spaces, so volunteer ministers stop at every individual cell to pray with defendants and provide biblical readings, requiring five hours or more per visit.Merced County can’t afford to fix the jail buildings itself.“As a county that has experienced some of the worst financial impacts from the real estate bubble and ‘Great Recession,’” officials wrote in their application, “Merced County is making a significant commitment of its already meager resources” to upgrade its jail facilities. Mark Pazin, who was Merced County’s sheriff in 2013 and head of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, was among a small but powerful group of sheriffs who supported realignment, an idea that had divided the Legislature. Seeing an opportunity for jail improvements in his own county and across the state, he sided with the architect of the controversial proposal, then-Gov. Jerry Brown. And he and other county officials were moving ahead with their plan to shut down the expensive, deteriorating Main Jail and make other improvements.But then came what Pazin deemed the “disappointing day in December of 2013.”A rejection letter from the state informed Merced County that its proposal ranked next-to-last among the 11 “medium”-sized counties vying for funds. Evaluators at the state said their 58-page proposal lacked necessary documents showing the county had designated local matching funds, as required by the law.County officials failed to conduct a professional assessment showing why a new jail was necessary. They also did not get the board of supervisors’ official project approval — a critical formality.The county received a failing grade, earning just 68% of points possible during the review.“I thought we were shovel-ready for the project but evidently found out the hard way we were not,” Pazin said in a May interview. “To say I was stunned by the rejection would be an understatement.”The funding denial meant the Main Jail would remain open for the foreseeable future. Pazin left his role as sheriff a month later, in January 2014, for a job in the Brown administration overseeing law enforcement for the state’s office of emergency services.On their second try for state money in 2015, Merced County officials included the proper paperwork. They documented the matching funds. And they completed a detailed needs assessment explaining where the problems were — once again, the Main Jail.Except the county didn’t apply to fix any of that. Instead, it requested and was awarded $40 million to upgrade the John Latorraca Correctional Facility, a much newer jail complex 20 minutes outside of town. The project will add 30 new medical and mental health treatment beds, space for programs and services, and an intake and release area.“The project does not fully meet the needs identified,” county officials wrote in their application, “but will allow the county to make substantial headway in programming and treatment.”Merced County supervisors explained that they chose a more modest project after “a careful fiscal evaluation of what size jail facility the county could maintain and operate on a yearly basis.”A month after Merced County’s board chairman signed the application in 2015, Alejandro Vega, 29, was stabbed and beaten inside a cell at the Main Jail. He died the next day. It was the first inmate-on-inmate killing in the county jail in more than a decade.In pitching the upgrades to the newer facility, the county said building on its own land would speed construction and cut down on costs. But six years since it first applied for funding to improve its jails and four years since it was awarded money, Merced County is still “working through the details” of how exactly to spend it, said Mike North, a county spokesman. The project hasn’t broken ground.Construction on the medical facility might begin next year, officials said. In its proposed budget, Merced County said it was “in the process of exploring financing options” for a second project phase that would consolidate the Main Jail into the other facility grounds.“There is no projected start date and no projected close date for the Main Jail,” North said.The community corrections board said that there are often competing needs within a county. Its selection process is not entirely based on where the most severe needs are, but whether a county has justified its proposal. Local elected officials are responsible for deciding how to fix their problems.In Merced County, the perils remain. Gang conflicts played a role in Cardoza’s shower strangulation last year, the sheriff’s office announced. Cardoza was a low-level member, at worst, said Allyson Prak, Cardoza’s wife and mother of his 3-year-old son, Fabian Jr. It remains unclear, according to court documents, why he was targeted by two other gang members. Their criminal cases are ongoing.McClatchy and ProPublica filed a public records request seeking documents, including video files, used in the sheriff’s examination of Cardoza’s murder. The Merced County Counsel declined to release records as the review remains ongoing, making it difficult to know why correctional officers did not notice the victim’s body.Prak said the sheriff’s office provided no specifics about the murder to her, either. She’s relied on secondhand accounts from Cardoza’s friends.“You always hear about people, five years later they turn their life around,” Prak said of Cardoza’s “dumb” mistakes. “He didn’t get to have that.”“I Just Can’t Afford This”Since realignment, just 17% of jail projects awarded funding have opened. Counties that win money for new or upgraded facilities can face a lengthy effort that ends up costing them — and their taxpayers.In Santa Barbara, for example, inclement weather, as well as design changes to comply with regulations, caused significant delays. And as projects fall years behind schedule, counties eat the increasing costs that come with paying planners, developers and workers who end up in project limbo. A partly state-funded jail facility in Riverside County might be the next to open — possibly in August — but only after lengthy delays and local officials agreed to spend an extra $10.2 million.John Prince, who oversees jail construction at the state’s community corrections board, said the long waits were predictable given the hurdles counties have to clear before they turn dirt. Local officials have been outbid for land and struggled to sort out old claims to mineral rights on construction sites. Some just give up their awards. A shriveling tax base in less-populated places still reeling from the economic downturn means governments are on the hook for millions of dollars needed to complete a project beyond what the state will cover. Then, there’s the added cost of operating the new facilities.“If I know in year two, in year five and year 10 I just can’t afford this, I have to make a decision to walk away each time it’s offered to me,” said Paul A. Smith, a lobbyist at the Rural County Representatives of California. “It’s better to stay in the game, reapply, you never know, than completely walk away.”Years after winning realignment money, supervisors in several counties argued their local tax revenues were insufficient to hire the additional employees needed to secure modern jails, budget records show. In Shasta County, for example, officials dropped projects in 2012 and 2017 because they lacked operational funding.Prince acknowledged the problem, saying the state board does not require counties to provide a detailed accounting for the costs of running the larger facilities after construction. But it has not changed its application process or instituted a penalty for lengthy delays.“We try to reach out with the counties,” Prince said. “We try to make sure that they’re moving forward.”“Their Job Was to Make Sure That He Was Safe”A year before Cardoza’s murder in the shower, Aaron Bonilla was in the same bank of group cells at the Merced County Main Jail. He allegedly stole a car three days earlier, according to prosecutors and Bonilla’s autopsy report.Bonilla struggled through a turbulent childhood, punctuated by the murder of his father and addiction, his sister, Tamara, said. That morphed into low-level crimes, couch surfing and stints at Merced County jails.He first entered the criminal justice system at age 26 when, in 2012, he was arrested in Nevada County for stealing copper wire from a generator station, according to court records. He often visited Tamara Bonilla’s home in Los Banos and would always remind his family that he loved them. He was going to change his life for the better, he promised. But Tamara was “more of the tough-love type,” she said.“I’m not going to reward you for being in jail, but that’s the safest place for you,” she told him. “That backfired on me.”On June 11, 2017, someone in a neighboring cell passed a note to one of Bonilla’s cellmates. Inmates waited for a guard to finish rounds before executing the “hit,” attacking the 31-year-old as a group. Bonilla reportedly failed to smuggle drugs into the lockup. With an inmate on lookout for staff, Bonilla’s cellmates beat him for about 11 minutes, according to the autopsy report.There are no watch stations for correctional officers in Main Jail’s rows of group cells, the facility’s floor plan shows. Staff can only track what’s happening inside cells from a control room, located on the opposite end of the jail, where dozens of security camera feeds play on monitors.Indeed, local investigators have documented delays in the hourly rounds and raised concerns about the ability to pass notes and contraband between cells. Aaron Bonilla with his niece in an undated family picture. (Courtesy of Tamara Bonilla) Tamara Bonilla watched video of the attack in a court hearing for one of her brother’s killers.“They literally took breaths in between. They walked around,” she said, describing how Bonilla’s killers paused to rest. “Then they went back, started stomping him again. Punching him. They dragged him to get a better grip on his body. Somehow in there, they sliced his neck.”The sheriff’s office has not fulfilled a records request from McClatchy and ProPublica seeking footage of the attack and details about law enforcement’s handling of it.Correctional officers eventually learned of Bonilla’s injuries, moved down the narrow hall and evacuated him. “It seemed like forever,” his sister said.He was airlifted to a hospital in Modesto with severe head and neck trauma, respiratory failure and a bleeding brain. He never regained consciousness and died in hospice two weeks after the attack. The county has denied any wrongdoing.“I felt like they didn’t do their job. Their job is to serve and protect and just because my brother was on drugs, he wasn’t your ideal person, his life still matters,” she said, adding, “No matter who he is or what he did, their job was to make sure that he was safe.”Last month, a 25-year-old man was sentenced to 50 years to life for Bonilla’s murder after a Merced County jury found him guilty. But he was only transferred to a state prison recently, after prosecutors charged him with another assault in the Main Jail. In that case, the man allegedly cut a fellow inmate more than 12 times. “Our local jail is not equipped to handle this kind of conduct,” Merced County Deputy District Attorney Tyson McCoy told the judge, who agreed and approved the transfer, the Merced Sun-Star reported.The 2018 grand jury report renewed calls for the county to quickly begin long-planned construction because Main Jail’s design “does not provide a safe environment for inmates or correctional officers.”Jurors had to be evacuated during a recent tour because of an inmate fight.Merced County’s top officials campaign on public safety but do not follow through to ensure people in the jail are actually safe, said Deidre Kelsey, who served 20 years on the Merced County Board of Supervisors before leaving office in 2016. The Merced County Main Jail’s group cells hold up to eight inmates, many of whom are classified by the sheriff’s office as dangerous and requiring more security. But seeing inside cells is only possible if correctional officers stand directly in front of them. (Merced Sun-Star File Photo) Kelsey said she was surprised to hear about the lengthy delays and escalating violence inside the Main Jail, in part because she thought the state funding was already being spent and the improvements already made.Politicians and the public only pay attention to the number of officers on staff. “They look at the force, the law enforcement people,” Kelsey said. “They look at the people, they don’t look at the building.”In a three-sentence news release the day correctional officers found Cardoza in his bed, jail officials announced the death. They said only that staff had “discovered a deceased male inmate” and were investigating it as a homicide. “Additional details are not available at this time,” the sheriff’s office wrote, “but will be released as the investigation proceeds.”More than a year later, the sheriff’s office still has not acknowledged that the jail staff overlooked a corpse in a cell bed for more than a day. Merced County Sheriff Verne Warnke declined to answer reporters’ questions for this story, but he has blamed low staffing levels for jail violence. “Our staffing levels are low, and don’t think for a minute those inmates don’t know it,” Warnke told the Sun-Star in 2017, after Bonilla’s murder. “We’re very sorry an inmate had to die.”Warnke’s recent law-and-order initiatives have not focused on the jail, but instead on expanding gang enforcement throughout the county.Last August, two months after Cardoza’s murder, Warnke re-established the Sheriff’s Tactical and Reconnaissance Team to combat gang crimes. Flanked by men wearing tactical vests, the sheriff vowed in a public meeting that his team would be “going after our nemesis on the streets.”The jail would do its part, Warnke said. “We will make room at the inn for whoever needs it.”
A Border Patrol Agent Reveals What It’s Really Like to Guard Migrant Children
by Ginger Thompson The Border Patrol agent, a veteran with 13 years on the job, had been assigned to the agency’s detention center in McAllen, Texas, for close to a month when the team of court-appointed lawyers and doctors showed up one day at the end of June.Taking in the squalor, the stench of unwashed bodies, and the poor health and vacant eyes of the hundreds of children held there, the group members appeared stunned.Then, their outrage rolled through the facility like a thunderstorm. One lawyer emerged from a conference room clutching her cellphone to her ear, her voice trembling with urgency and frustration. “There’s a crisis down here,” the agent recalled her shouting.At that moment, the agent, a father of a 2-year-old, realized that something in him had shifted during his weeks in the McAllen center. “I don’t know why she’s shouting,” he remembered thinking. “No one on the other end of the line cares. If they did, this wouldn’t be happening.” Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. As he turned away to return to his duties, the agent recalled feeling sorry for the lawyer. “I wanted to tell her the rest of us have given up.”It’s rare to hear from Border Patrol agents, especially since the Trump administration has put them at the front lines of its sweeping immigration crackdown. Public access to them is typically controlled and choreographed. When approached off duty, agents say they risk their jobs if they speak about their work without permission. As a result, much about the country’s largest federal law enforcement agency — with some 20,000 agents policing the borders and ports — remains shrouded in secrecy, even from congressional oversight, making it nearly impossible to hold it accountable.Disturbing glimpses of some agents have recently begun to fill the void, including some that were published recently after ProPublica obtained screenshots from a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents that showed several agents and at least one supervisor had posted crude, racist and misogynistic comments about immigrants and Democratic members of Congress. The posts raised questions about whether the deplorable detention conditions on the border were out of the control of Customs and Border Protection, as the agency had asserted, or a reflection of its culture.Other reports followed, including one from CNN that described agents attempting to humiliate a Honduran immigrant by trying to force him to be photographed holding a sign that read in Spanish, “I like men.” The Intercept published more degrading posts from the secret Facebook group, and it reported that it appeared that Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost had once been a member. Provost has not commented.But there was some nuance. An account of life inside a Border Patrol detention facility outside El Paso, Texas, by The New York Times and The El Paso Times, revealed that two agents there had expressed concerns about the conditions to their supervisors.The agent who spent June in McAllen doesn’t see his reality in any of those depictions. He’s in his late 30s and is a husband and father who served overseas in the military before joining the Border Patrol. He asked not to be identified because he worried that his candor could cost him his job and thrust him and his family into the middle of the angry public debate over the Trump administration’s border policies.His comments come at a particularly fraught moment, as politicians on the left compare the Border Patrol’s detention facilities to “concentration camps” and senior Trump administration officials, including most recently Vice President Mike Pence, dismiss descriptions of the inhumane conditions as “unsubstantiated.”When asked about Pence’s comments, the agent said the damning descriptions of the facilities are “more substantiated than not.” And, while he didn’t embrace the term concentration camp, he didn’t dispute it either. He searched out loud for a term that might be more accurate. Gulag felt too strong. Jail didn’t feel strong enough.He came around to this: “It’s kind of like torture in the army. It starts out with just sleep deprivation, then the next guys come in and sleep deprivation is normal, so they ramp it up. Then the next guys ramp it up some more, and then the next guys, until you have full blown torture going on. That becomes the new normal.” Referring back to the grim conditions inside the Border Patrol holding centers, he said: “Somewhere down the line people just accepted what’s going on as normal. That includes the people responsible for fixing the problems.”He spoke at length in several interviews, making clear that the views and motivations he articulated were his alone. He said he’s not on Facebook, much less a member of any secret Border Patrol social media groups. He also said he did not witness any egregious behavior by his colleagues during his time in McAllen. But he said the agents who were permanently posted there had the shortest fuses, and he’d heard them launch into condescending harangues at the young migrants, blaming them for crossing the border illegally and denying their requests for extra food, water or information about when they’d be released.Most of his colleagues, he said, fall into one of two camps. There are the “law-and-order types” who see the immigrants in their custody, as, first and foremost, criminals. Then, he said, there are those who are “just tired of all the chaos” of a broken immigration system and “see no end in sight.”“The only possible end to this that I see is if there’s some change after the next election,” he said, referring to what might finally end the stalemate in Washington over how to reform the system. “Either this president will win again, and Congress will be forced to work with him. Or a new president will get elected and do things a different way.”In addition to the interviews, the agent shared a journal entry about his time in McAllen, which he wrote in a tentative attempt to sort through what he described as the “roughest” experience of his career; a month that he said revealed a disturbing capacity for detachment.“What happened to me in Texas is that I realized I had walled off my emotions so I could do my job without getting hurt,” he said. “I’d see kids crying because they want to see their dads, and I couldn’t console them because I had 500 to 600 other kids to watch over and make sure they’re not getting in trouble. All I could do was make sure they’re physically OK. I couldn’t let them see their fathers because that was against the rules.“I might not like the rules,” he added. “I might think that what we’re doing wasn’t the correct way to hold children. But what was I going to do? Walk away? What difference would that make to anyone’s life but mine?”When asked whether he simply stopped caring, he said: “Exactly, to a point that’s kind of dangerous. But once you do, you feel better.”Part of that feeling, the agent said, comes from experience. He’s served Republican and Democratic administrations, each one with its own border crisis and wildly unpopular responses. Other people might find it hard to view his agency outside the context of their political leanings, but he said that he didn’t join because he feels strongly one way or the other. He has a criminal justice degree and was looking for a federal law enforcement job that would provide him financial security, without requiring him to go overseas.What keeps him in now, even as his job has morphed into one he and his wife are uncomfortable talking about in public, is that he earns about $100,000 a year, including overtime and holiday pay. He has a top-of-the-line health insurance plan that, among other things, covered nearly the entire cost of his child’s birth. In a little more than a decade, when he turns 51, he’ll be eligible to retire with a full pension that probably won’t cover the cost of a house on the beach, he said, but will give him the freedom to “do just about anything else I want, and not have to worry.”The agent, tall and fit with dirty blond hair, said he thinks of his time left in the Border Patrol like the home stretch of a marathon. He does his work with blinders on to everything but his family and the finish line. “I’m already starting to attend retirement seminars,” he said. “All I’m trying to do is get through the next decade.”That was his mindset, he said, when he landed in McAllen. It was his first time on the border since he was a rookie. He’d spent most of his career posted in the eastern part of the United States, investigating smuggling organizations rather than intercepting undocumented immigrants. But as huge numbers of Central American migrants came to the Rio Grande Valley, he and hundreds of agents across the country were summoned to help.In his journal entry, the agent described what he saw when he arrived at the Border Patrol detention center as a “scene from a zombie apocalypse movie.”His colleagues, he said, wore surgical masks and rubber gloves because there was “sickness and filth everywhere.” And he said the facility “looked like a walled-off compound where the government had the last safe zone and was taking in refugees fleeing the deadly zombie virus.”The scene that struck the agent the hardest that first day was the sight of dozens of children being held in cages — an image publicized this year to widespread condemnation. The children seemed about the same age as his 2-year-old son, but that’s where the similarities ended. “My kid would have been running laps around that entire building, nonstop,” the agent said. “But the boys my kid’s age, they were just there. They weren’t running or playing, even though they had been pent up all day.” The agent said he suspected that the kids were lethargic because they hadn’t been given enough to eat. He said he wondered, “Why are things like this?” He said he didn’t look for answers because he didn’t expect he’d find any. “I decided not to dwell on it, and just do my job.”He went on that way for weeks, seeing things without dwelling on them. His interactions with individual immigrants, he said, are a blur. He vaguely recalled a government staffer combing lice out of a little girl’s hair; 7- and 8-year-olds pacing in circles and sobbing inconsolably because they’d been separated from their parents; a teenage mother who’d swaddled her baby in a filthy sweatshirt that she’d borrowed from another detainee because she’d been forced to throw away the clothes she brought.Only a few of those encounters are mentioned in the agent’s written account of his experiences in McAllen. Most of it reads like a chronicle of a mundane work trip. He got Memorial Day off. He bought groceries and stopped drinking soda. A colleague who was staying at the Residence Inn shared enough free gym passes to last the entire trip, and his waist size went from 33 inches to 32. He started listening to music again: “Not a specific style, language or rhythm rather music that expressed passion.” And he tried meditation.The visit by the team of lawyers to the facility near the end of June seemed to shake up the agent. The team, led by a California attorney named Hope Frye, had arrived to interview children being detained in McAllen. The agent’s duties placed him close enough to them to observe their work.Frye said that typically during such visits, the agents tend to blend into the background; silent and straight-faced, in their badges and drab green uniforms. They didn’t engage much with her because they were instructed not to. She said years of hearing immigrant children tell her how badly they’d been treated in detention had long made her worry about the agents’ humanity. “I’ll look at them and wonder sometimes, ‘What kind of a parent are you when you spend your entire day filled with hate and victimizing other people?’”But to get her work done, Frye said, she tries to keep such thoughts to herself. At some point in McAllen, however, she let a comment slip to the agent about a young child who had been separated from his family. The agent, she said, blurted out that he knew of another woman who was separated from her family and raising a 2-year-old on her own.Frye, 68, said she asked the agent if he was referring to his own family. Her question started a series of exchanges that didn’t diminish her suspicions about the Border Patrol, Frye said, but did change her thinking a bit about the agent.“If what happened was a film, you’d see an older woman with many years of experience, her eyes lined from seeing these poor children, and a young man, with a young family, seeing this nightmare for the first time,” Frye said, recalling her encounter with the agent. “What I thought to myself was, ‘How sad is it that this young man who probably wants to be of service to his country is stuck doing this.’”Referring to the agent’s initial outburst, she said, “I think he was trying to tell me, ‘Hey, I’m human too.’”Katherine Hagan, a Spanish interpreter who worked alongside Frye, also interacted briefly with the agent, and, although he didn’t say it in so many words, she felt he was struggling to reckon with his role at the facility, as if, she said, “he had become so accustomed to seeing children behind wire cages that he had assimilated it as normal and necessary.”At one moment, she said, she recalled him scrambling to find clothes for the baby girl wrapped in the sweatshirt. The baby was so dirty that Frye wiped away rings of black dirt from around her neck. But at another point the agent lectured Hagan about indulging the immigrant children, warning her not to let “the aliens” use the officers’ bathrooms. “I’m trying to find the right words to describe his demeanor,” Hagan, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, said of the agent. “I could tell he felt embarrassed and potentially kind of exposed. I don’t know whether he was having some kind of epiphany. But it was clear he knew that I saw him — really saw him — in the middle of this horrible situation.”When asked about the interactions, the agent said he was trying to communicate to the lawyers that the detainees were not the only ones at the facility who felt trapped. Walking away, at least in his mind, was not an option. Trying to change things on “a macro level,” the agent said, was for fools.“The most I felt I could do was make sure toilet paper was stocked. Or if someone wanted an extra juice, I’d give them an extra juice. Or maybe do something to make someone’s day a little nicer; maybe smile and treat them with respect. That’s all I felt I had the power to do,” the agent said. “The ones that try to save the world, they’re the ones who either get burned out or put on a leash.”The agent compared himself to the cynical donkey in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” who survives by never sticking his neck out.“I’ve decided that I’m not interested in advancement,” he said. “I’d rather be a full-time father than a full-time Border Patrol agent.”But now that he’s home, he feels the experience has somehow followed him.“I go to the playground with my kid, and I say to myself, ‘Why am I not enjoying this?’”
Trump’s Tax Law Threatened TurboTax’s Profits. So the Company Started Charging the Disabled, the Unemployed and Students.
by Justin Elliott and Paul Kiel ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.The 2017 tax overhaul vastly expanded the number of people who could file simplified tax returns, a boon to millions of Americans.But the new law directly threatened the lucrative business of Intuit, the maker of TurboTax.Although the company draws in customers with the promise of a “free” product, its fortunes depend on getting as many customers as possible to pay. It had been regularly charging $100 or more for returns that included itemized deductions for mortgage interest and charitable donations. Under the new law, many wealthier taxpayers would no longer be filing that form, qualifying them to use the company’s free software.Intuit executives came up with a way to preserve the company’s hefty profit margins: It began charging more low-income people. Which ones? Individuals with disabilities, the unemployed and people who owe money on student loans, all of whom use tax forms that TurboTax previously included for free. The shift was described to ProPublica by two people familiar with the process. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. The strategy worked well for the company. In May, it announced that its TurboTax unit had grown quarterly revenue by 10%, to $2.2 billion, despite the new tax law.Intuit CEO Sasan Goodarzi obliquely alluded to the strategy on a call with Wall Street analysts, saying the “tuned product lineup, adjusted for the new tax legislation” helped the company bring in more money. He presented the move as good for taxpayers.“We needed to change our lineup this year to ensure that we delivered for customers, given the tax code changes,” Goodarzi said. He told investors: “We are big supporters of tax simplification. We believe that it enables consumers to take more control over their financial life.”An Intuit spokesman declined to answer detailed questions about the changes, but said in a statement, “More taxpayers filed their taxes last year with TurboTax and paid absolutely nothing than any other year.” He also said the “completely free customer group” grew at a faster rate than TurboTax as a whole. The spokesman declined to break down numbers or comment on specific cases.Under a 2002 deal with the government, most Americans are supposed to be able to file their taxes for free as long as they make under $66,000 a year. In return, the IRS has agreed not to offer its own free service.But, as ProPublica has been reporting, Intuit has steered eligible customers away from the truly free version, aggressively marketing products that are called “free” even though many customers end up paying. For an outsider, Intuit’s lineup of products is dizzying. The company’s commercial ecosystem includes four price tiers: Free Edition, Deluxe, Premier and Self-Employed. The goal, according to former employees, is to draw in people with the promise of “free” and then get them to pay. Some pay because they have to file extra forms. Some pay for ancillary services.Because the new law almost doubled the standard deduction, Intuit faced a loss of users of its Deluxe edition. Most of the millions of Americans who would no longer be itemizing their deductions are relatively affluent — making more than $75,000 a year — but they would now potentially be eligible to use the Free Edition.In response, the company bumped a number of forms typically used by lower-income filers, which were previously available in the Free Edition, into paying editions. “They were always supposed to be customer focused, customer first,” one former staffer said. But the income levels of the groups that were being driven to paid products “was never really considered.”Thirty TurboTax customers told ProPublica that they were charged as a result of needing to use one of the forms that used to be free. A screenshot showing how TurboTax users are directed to the deluxe, paid version. By accepting the Deluxe version, student Kristan Obeng ended up saving $26 on her taxes — at a cost of $151. One of these forms was for a tax credit that goes exclusively to poor taxpayers who are elderly or get disability benefits. Another is used by low- to middle-income households that receive a credit for putting money in a retirement account. A third is used by taxpayers who collected unemployment benefits.One large affected group was current and former students. They are now prompted to upgrade to the Deluxe edition after entering information from basic documents, such as the one that shows tuition costs. And then there are people with student loans, who also have to use Deluxe. Last year, more than 5 million taxpayers in the United States with income below $50,000 claimed the student loan interest deduction.The company’s changes also affected parents who get a credit for child care expenses, as well as people filing the schedule for interest and dividends. Those likely represent a smaller part of TurboTax’s users because its customer base skews lower income, former employees said.Last April, Kristan Obeng, then a student pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Arizona, was running out of time to file her taxes as the semester chugged to an end. So she Googled and soon was on TurboTax’s website, which promised she could file for “Free Guaranteed.” She didn’t realize it, but she was now in Intuit’s paid ecosystem. She was using the “Free Edition.” Starting there, some customers still file for free but many need tax forms that push them into paid products.Her financial details weren’t complicated. She’d made just over $12,000 at her job as a graduate teaching assistant. She had student loans. She was in school. That was it. After she began filling in her details on TurboTax, she got some good news. “Congrats, you qualify for a tax break!” the site said. But there was a catch. She would have to “upgrade to TurboTax Deluxe to claim it.” When Intuit had cut the list of forms covered by TurboTax’s Free Edition in response to the Trump tax overhaul, it had removed Form 1098-E. The form is a statement prepared by companies that handle student loan payments. It shows how much interest the borrower paid that year. To file Obeng’s taxes, TurboTax would not even need the form itself, but it would list a single number, the amount of interest paid, on Schedule 1 of the main tax form, the 1040.That number, it turned out, would cost Obeng $60. Add TurboTax’s charge for state returns, and Obeng owed the company $111. On top of that, she was charged an additional $40 because she opted to pay the TurboTax fee out of her refund, rather than upfront. (If she had been able to file for free, there would have been no need to deduct any fees from her refund.)In all, she ended up paying $151.Although she didn’t realize it at the time, that $151 dwarfed the “tax break” TurboTax had prompted her to claim. The student loan interest deduction had only cut her taxes by $26.Obeng said she was irritated at having to pay for something she thought was going to be free. And she became angry when she read ProPublica’s reporting about how Intuit had hidden access to the program it conducted under the deal with the IRS, which is called “Free File.” The qualifications for that program were income-based, and her income had been well below the level to qualify. So she called up Intuit and asked for her money back. Like many other ProPublica readers, Obeng was denied a refund. She’d started in TurboTax’s Free Edition, not Free File, and she’d been charged because student loan interest wasn’t covered in the Free Edition, the Intuit representative told her.“And was this always the case or did you add this recently?” Obeng asked.“I believe this was always the case,” the Intuit representative said. But that is not accurate. The 1098-E form was free until this year.The changes also affected Americans who got unemployment benefits. That’s what pushed John Symonds of Connecticut into the Deluxe edition. TurboTax charged him $106 to file his federal and state returns. He opted to use his refund to pay that fee, but when the refund didn’t come through, Intuit attempted to take the money from his bank account.He didn’t have $100 in his account, he told ProPublica, and, since he’d turned to driving for Uber after being laid off, he needed what money was in his account to pay for gas. He called his bank and stopped the transaction. “I wouldn’t have been able to continue working,” he said.Inside TurboTax headquarters in San Diego, in the spring and summer of 2018, marketing staffers came up with several options for how the company could change the forms it offered in its free and paid products, according to two former staffers.Throughout 2018, Intuit executives assured Wall Street analysts that they had a plan to address the risk that fewer people would have to use a form that the company charged for.It’s “something that we’re very aware of,” Greg Johnson, the head of Intuit’s TurboTax unit, told investors in September 2018. “And the fact that we’re aware of it allows us to experiment, it allows us to get closer to customers and find out strategies around how we’re going to address that.” Intuit analysts mined the company’s vast store of customer and tax return data to project how much revenue would be gained if a particular tax form was moved from the Free Edition to one of the paid editions, the former staffers said.The change confronting Intuit was seismic. Recent IRS statistics show that, compared with last year, 26 million fewer taxpayers itemized their deductions this year. “When you do the market analysis and you realize how much revenue you’re going to potentially lose, they have to make changes,” one of the former staffers said.Executives were nervous that the changes the company was experimenting with could backfire. In 2015, after Intuit required some users of TurboTax’s desktop version to pay to file previously included tax forms, customers revolted. In response to the backlash, the company reversed the changes, apologized and gave back $25. “I deeply regret the anger and distress we have caused those of you affected by this,” said Goodarzi, TurboTax chief at the time.Despite those concerns, Intuit’s leaders decided in 2018 to remove several forms from its Free Edition.Internal company estimates suggested that as many as 30% of users who had been eligible for the Free Edition would be bumped into a paid product, one of the former staffers said. The Intuit spokesman didn’t respond to a question about the number.Last December, the company issued a press release announcing its Free Edition for the 2019 filing season — “TurboTax Free Edition. Free Federal. Free State. Free To File.” It highlighted seven features of the product, including one allowing customers to import relevant data from last year’s tax return to this year’s, which had previously been part of a paid add-on bundle.It did not disclose that people with student loans, the unemployed and others would no longer be able to use Free Edition.On the company’s website, the only changes were subtle. Whereas last year, when the site had trumpeted that “60 million hard-working Americans” were eligible to file for free with TurboTax, this year, that number dropped to 50 million.
Going Quiet: More States Are Hiding 911 Recordings From Families, Lawyers and the General Public
by Lynn Arditi, The Public’s Radio Troy Phillips was repairing a propane filling station on Cape Cod one afternoon last October when his mother called, her voice frantic.“Something happened to Scott!”Phillips’ younger brother Scott had been rushed to the hospital. Troy’s first thought was that Scott, who worked as a truck driver, must have been hurt in an accident. His mother was so upset on the phone that he could barely understand what she was saying.Then she blurted out, “He died!”At Rhode Island Hospital, Phillips learned that his 46-year-old brother had stopped for lunch at a Subway sandwich shop, in Cranston, when he collapsed.The cause of death was hypertensive cardiovascular disease, according to his death certificate.In the months since his brother’s death, Phillips — a volunteer firefighter and licensed EMT — has been trying to piece together what happened the day Scott died.“Being an EMT,” Troy Phillips said, “you just want to know, what happened?” Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. But he keeps hitting a wall.Rhode Island is one of about a dozen states that prohibit the release of 911 recordings or transcripts without the written consent of the caller or by court order. The goal generally is to protect the privacy of callers in what may be one of the most stressful moments of their lives.But Rhode Island’s restrictive law also keeps families in the dark about how the state’s 911 system has responded to calls involving their loved ones, and it has left the public oblivious to troubling gaps in how the system is performing, according to an investigation by The Public’s Radio and ProPublica.In March, the news organizations reported on the 2018 death of a 6-month-old baby in Warwick after a Rhode Island 911 call taker failed to give CPR instructions to the family. The lapse came to light after a family member who took part in the 911 call requested a copy of the recording.In June, the news organizations reported on the death of Rena Fleury, a 45-year-old woman who collapsed while watching her son’s high school football game in Cumberland last year. Four unidentified bystanders called 911. But none of the 911 call takers recognized that Fleury was in cardiac arrest. And none of them instructed the callers to perform CPR.The 911 recordings for Fleury were never made public. An emergency physician who treated Fleury testified about what happened during a state House committee hearing in March.Across the country, recordings of 911 calls for accidents, medical emergencies, mass shootings and natural disasters have provided insight into the workings of public safety systems and, in some cases, revealed critical failings.After the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando in 2016, recordings of 911 calls showed operators whose lines were so flooded they had to disconnect with some of the victims inside the club so they could answer other calls. After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in 2017, recordings of 911 calls exposed systemic problems in the 911 center. Information about a woman’s deteriorating medical condition wasn’t communicated from one call taker to another, as required by national guidelines, The New York Times reported.And in Maine, transcripts of a 911 call made by two teenagers minutes before they were killed by their landlord in 2012 showed that the teenagers had reported the landlord’s “death threats.” Police who responded to the 911 call had concluded it was a “civil matter” and left.But states across the country are looking to curb access, a trend that troubles media representatives and others.“Oftentimes, 911 calls are one of the primary sources of information for the public to learn what happened,” said Adam A. Marshall, a lawyer for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that provides free legal services to journalists. They “can show what government officials did in response. And that allows the public to evaluate, are the 911 calls working properly?”Troy Phillips comes from a family of first responders. The oldest of three brothers, he’s a captain at the Oakland Mapleville Fire Department in his family’s hometown of Burrillville, Rhode Island. His youngest brother, Jamie, is a New Hampshire state trooper. And Scott, the middle brother, for years volunteered as a firefighter in Rhode Island.As a trained EMT, Troy Phillips knows that when a person’s heart stops, immediately performing CPR increases the odds of survival. So after Scott died, he started asking questions.He found out that when Scott collapsed on the afternoon of Oct. 23, 2018, an unidentified person at the Subway sandwich shop called 911. A photograph of Scott Phillips, center, with brothers Jamie, left, and Troy at Scott’s wedding two years ago. (Kayana Szymczak, special to ProPublica) In Rhode Island, all 911 calls are answered by the state 911 emergency center in Scituate. The calls are then transferred to local public safety departments, which dispatch personnel and equipment.At 12:58 p.m., a 911 call for “medical assistance” came into the Cranston Fire Department dispatcher. The dispatcher logged the call as “someone unconscious and not breathing,” said Paul Casey, director of the Cranston Emergency Medical Services.About six minutes after that, when the EMTs arrived, nobody was performing CPR, Casey said.In the world of emergency medical services, the absence of bystander CPR is a red flag. Every minute delay in performing CPR on a person in cardiac arrest decreases his or her chances of survival by as much as 10%, according to the American Heart Association.Casey said his department’s records show that Cranston EMTs did everything by the book. They performed CPR on scene for 30 minutes, in accordance with state protocols. They provided medications and other advanced life support. And they continued CPR during the ambulance ride to Rhode Island Hospital.But Casey said he hasn’t heard the 911 recording and doesn’t know what happened during the six minutes before the EMTs arrived.Troy Phillips wants to know: Did the 911 call taker instruct the caller to perform CPR? Did anyone at the sandwich shop try to help?“To know that somebody was maybe trying to help him out or do something,” he said. “You know cuz I know he felt alone.”In Rhode Island, 911 calls were public until the mid-1990s, when a local TV station broadcast a 911 call from the wife of a top prosecutor in the state attorney general’s office. “My husband just beat on me,” the woman could be heard crying when WJAR-Channel 10 broadcast the recording.The husband was never charged in the case, though the TV station asked whether Johnston police handled the situation differently because he was a public official, according to The Providence Journal. Channel 10 subsequently reported that the town found no misconduct by the police, the newspaper said.Dan Salamone, Channel 10’s news director at the time, defended the station’s coverage of the case. The 911 recording “may not be conclusive to what happened that night, but I think it was very telling,” he told the Journal in 1996.Outrage over the call’s broadcast spurred one of the most restrictive statutes in the country.Then-Sen. Bradford Gorham, a Republican from Foster, introduced a bill in January 1996 to prevent the public from accessing any recordings or transcripts of 911 calls. Gorham said at the time that he was acting on a complaint about “tabloid journalism” from a friend of the official’s wife at the time, The Providence Journal reported. (Gorham died in 2015.)Supporters of the bill included the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.Steven Brown, the ACLU chapter’s executive director, said the organization’s support was based on the “privacy values in not having these often very intimate types of calls just available to everybody in the public.”But over the years, the interpretation of the law by the courts has been “problematic,” Brown said, because judges have denied access to 911 recordings even when they would serve the public interest. He said the ACLU would support adding a “good cause mechanism” in the law to allow for the release of 911 calls if it can be shown that there is an “important public service in knowing what’s in those calls.” That same argument was made by the lawyer representing The Providence Journal in 2003, when the newspaper sued the town of West Warwick in Kent County Superior Court for access to public safety records — including 911 calls — following The Station nightclub fire, which killed 100 people and injured more than 200 others.Among the patrons who died in the nightclub fire, authorities told the newspaper, were two people found in the women’s bathroom, cellphones to their ears. The newspaper reported that firefighters recovered one of the cellphones that showed the last call was to 911.Joseph V. Cavanagh Jr., who represented the newspaper in the suit, said the 911 calls could have answered questions about how the police, fire and other first responders performed during the fire.In response, Judge Mark A. Pfieffer ordered the release of troves of records, including 277 telephone and radio communications from police and firefighters. But the judge withheld recordings of more than two dozen 911 calls.Pfieffer cited the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act’s recognition of the “desirability of preserving individual dignity,” saying in his ruling that “this Court cannot conceive of a greater affront to such dignity than permitting others to listen to the anguish that is embodied in such communications.”A consultant’s evaluation of the state’s response during the fire, released in July of 2004, revealed radio equipment failures that left many emergency workers unable to communicate with one another. The state spent tens of millions of dollars in homeland security funds for a statewide communication system.Missing from the public discussion were the communications between 911 call takers and the patrons inside the burning nightclub. How were their calls for help answered? And what did the call takers tell the women trapped in the bathroom?“Every case I ever was involved with the media, and I did this for a long time,” Cavanagh said, “we never got any 911 records.”Journalists and their lawyers aren’t the only ones who have been frustrated in their effort to get access to 911 records.Since his brother died, Troy Phillips has been trying to reach the manager of the Subway shop to find out who made the 911 call so he can request the caller’s permission to release the recording.Phillips said he has called the Subway shop three times. The first two times, he said, he was told the manager wasn’t available and to call back. “And the third time,” he said, he was told “we can’t comment on it.”Phone messages left by a reporter at the Subway shop on Park Avenue in Cranston and on the cellphone listed for the shop’s manager have not been returned.So Phillips enlisted the help of his brother Jamie, the New Hampshire state trooper.Jamie Phillips said he emailed a request to the 911 center and didn’t hear back. So he called and spoke to a woman there. He said she asked if he was the one who made the 911 call. He told her no. She said he’d need to get the caller’s permission or get a judge to subpoena the records. (State police confirmed that Jamie Phillips was told the proper protocol.)Jamie Phillips said he understands the purpose of Rhode Island’s confidentiality law, but “I think that sucks for us.”Troy Phillips said it makes no sense to withhold 911 recordings from family members to protect the person who made the call.“They’ve done nothing wrong. They’ve done the ultimate thing. They’ve made that phone call to 911,” he said. “So what is the big secret?”Even in states where 911 recordings aren’t protected, getting access to them can be daunting.In Massachusetts, 911 recordings and transcripts are considered public. But MassLive reported that it requested more than a dozen 911 call recordings and transcripts from various agencies and received only the recording of a single 911 call from a local police department. In one case, the report said, the State 911 Department responded that it considers 911 calls exempt.Nationwide, access to 911 records is becoming harder as state legislatures enact measures to limit what information can be released and under what circumstances, said Marshall, the lawyer for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Rhode Island is now among about a dozen states where 911 records are generally considered confidential, compared with just six states in 2014.This year, bills to prohibit or restrict access to 911 recordings have been introduced in Massachusetts, New York, Tennessee and Texas.In Texas, as in Rhode Island, the effort was prompted by the release of a 911 call that was broadcast on a TV newscast. But the outcome in Texas was very different than in Rhode Island.Texas state Rep. Todd A. Hunter, a Republican, told the Austin American-Statesman that he introduced the bill after the broadcast of a 911 call made by victims of a 2015 flood that killed eight people in his city.Among the victims was Hunter’s dentist and a member of his legislative staff.The lone survivor of the group — a man who lost his wife and two young children — was among those who testified in favor of the bill.Oscar A. Rodriguez, president of the Texas Association of Broadcasters, apologized to the families for the TV stations that broadcast the 911 calls, testifying that they’d violated industry standards of “careful and judicious use.”But, he said, “these failures were the exception,” and that “ensuring the public’s unfettered access to 911 recordings ... is a paramount importance to public safety.”Rodriguez also pushed back on a proposal to limit the release of 911 records to transcripts only, saying that the tone of a person’s voice can reveal valuable information that isn’t apparent in a transcript.The bill died in a state Senate committee.Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said there were “reasonable minds” on both sides.“There was an open dialogue,” Shannon said, “and in the end, the argument for transparency and holding government accountable won out.”One evening in June, Troy Phillips and his wife, Juanita, sat at a conference table at the Oakland Mapleville Fire Department and talked about Scott.He was a bear of a man with a strawberry blond goatee who seemed to get along with everyone. He called his mother every night, even after he got married and began living with his wife and stepson. Scott liked to make people laugh. He worked as a trucker and sometimes drove his 18-wheeler down the narrow, country road in Burrillville where Troy and his family lived, just to stop and chat.“He was so upbeat,” Juanita said, her voice breaking.At family gatherings, Scott would often be on stage, performing karaoke.“He was a wicked singer,” Troy said, scrolling through Scott’s Facebook page.Scott ran his own DJ business, Sounds Good Entertainment. For years, Scott was the DJ for the annual cystic fibrosis fundraiser at Slater Park in Pawtucket. Troy Phillips shows a photograph of his late brother, Scott, holding Troy's son TJ years ago. Scott Phillips died in October 2018. (Kayana Szymczak, special to ProPublica) On weekends and holidays, like the Fourth of July, the brothers and their spouses and kids would gather at their family’s lake house in Connecticut. Scott liked to ride around the woods on his four-wheeler.The last time Troy saw Scott was at the lake house, when he was cleaning up the dock. Scott was riding his four-wheeler and Troy teased him that he bet he couldn’t do a wheelie. The next minute, Scott was kicking up the dirt doing wheelies and laughing.At his funeral, several hundred people, including firefighters and police officers, some in uniform, packed the funeral home and spilled out the doors.Juanita Phillips, a certified nursing assistant, said that every time she walks into a Subway sandwich shop, questions swirl in her mind. She said she knows people in restaurants are supposed to know how to prevent choking. She wonders, do they know how to perform CPR?“We’re trying to find out what happened on the 911 call,” Troy Phillips said. “That’s what we want to know.”“Being a firefighter and being that’s my brother,” he said, “it makes me feel horrible.”
Revelations About a Secret Facebook Group Spawn Investigation of 70 Current and Former Border Patrol Employees
by Ginger Thompson Customs and Border Protection officials announced Monday that the agency has opened investigations into 70 individuals, including 62 current and eight former employees, as a result of media reports that exposed a secret Facebook group in which some current or former Border Patrol employees shared racist, sexist and misogynistic posts about immigrants and members of Congress.During a conference call that was scant on details, Matthew Klein, the assistant commissioner for the CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility, said his office had completed two investigations so far and had forwarded its findings to the agency’s employee relations division for review and any decisions about potential discipline. He declined to say whether his office had substantiated the allegations in those cases. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. Klein also would not identify any of the 70 people under investigation, what types of jobs they hold or held or whether any senior Border Patrol officials were among those under scrutiny. Klein and his deputy, Michele James, also declined to indicate whether any employees had been suspended from duty as a result of their activity in the Facebook group, saying that doing so would violate the employees’ rights to due process.And Klein refused to confirm a report by The Intercept, which had archived some of the posts from the secret group, that Carla Provost, the chief of the Border Patrol, had once been a member of the group, called “I’m 10-15,” or say whether she was under investigation. Provost has not commented.Klein would only say that his investigation is “comprehensive” and is being conducted without regard to rank. Klein said that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General had declined to start an investigation of its own but had remanded the case to his office.The Border Patrol has come under intense scrutiny since ProPublica first exposed the offensive posts by some current and former employees, including at least one supervisor. That report, on July 1, was followed by other media organizations, including The Intercept, which shared even more posts and identified Provost as a member. The posts raised questions about whether they were a reflection of dangerous attitudes by a small number of individuals or a reflection of the agency’s culture. Klein said that in addition to the “I’m 10-15” group, his office is investigating two other secret Facebook groups for Border Patrol employees. And he said his office was seeking to identify not only those responsible for offensive posts, but also those who were aware of them. Agents who are aware of any kind of misconduct, Klein said, are obligated to report it.Klein said his office has signaled to all CBP employees that “expectations of professional conduct don’t end at the end of a shift.” Klein also noted that, dating back to January 2016, his office had investigated at least 80 individuals participating in at least three other secret social media groups for posting inappropriate comments. He did not say how those cases were resolved.
Follow the 2020 Money Trail
by Derek Willis
Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery. The Reels Brothers Spent Eight Years in Jail for Refusing to Leave It.
by Lizzie Presser ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. In the spring of 2011, the brothers Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels were the talk of Carteret County, on the central coast of North Carolina. Some people said that the brothers were righteous; others thought that they had lost their minds. That March, Melvin and Licurtis stood in court and refused to leave the land that they had lived on all their lives, a portion of which had, without their knowledge or consent, been sold to developers years before. The brothers were among dozens of Reels family members who considered the land theirs, but Melvin and Licurtis had a particular stake in it. Melvin, who was 64, with loose black curls combed into a ponytail, ran a club there and lived in an apartment above it. He’d established a career shrimping in the river that bordered the land, and his sense of self was tied to the water. Licurtis, who was 53, had spent years building a house near the river’s edge, just steps from his mother’s.Their great-grandfather had bought the land a hundred years earlier, when he was a generation removed from slavery. The property — 65 marshy acres that ran along Silver Dollar Road, from the woods to the river’s sandy shore — was racked by storms. Some called it the bottom, or the end of the world. Melvin and Licurtis’ grandfather Mitchell Reels was a deacon; he farmed watermelons, beets and peas, and raised chickens and hogs. Churches held tent revivals on the waterfront, and kids played in the river, a prime spot for catching red-tailed shrimp and crabs bigger than shoes. During the later years of racial-segregation laws, the land was home to the only beach in the county that welcomed black families. “It’s our own little black country club,” Melvin and Licurtis’ sister Mamie liked to say. In 1970, when Mitchell died, he had one final wish. “Whatever you do,” he told his family on the night that he passed away, “don’t let the white man have the land.” Mitchell didn’t trust the courts, so he didn’t leave a will. Instead, he let the land become heirs’ property, a form of ownership in which descendants inherit an interest, like holding stock in a company. The practice began during Reconstruction, when many African Americans didn’t have access to the legal system, and it continued through the Jim Crow era, when black communities were suspicious of white Southern courts. In the United States today, 76% of African Americans do not have a will, more than twice the percentage of white Americans.Many assume that not having a will keeps land in the family. In reality, it jeopardizes ownership. David Dietrich, a former co-chair of the American Bar Association’s Property Preservation Task Force, has called heirs’ property “the worst problem you never heard of.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recognized it as “the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss.” Heirs’ property is estimated to make up more than a third of Southern black-owned land — 3.5 million acres, worth more than $28 billion. These landowners are vulnerable to laws and loopholes that allow speculators and developers to acquire their property. Black families watch as their land is auctioned on courthouse steps or forced into a sale against their will.Between 1910 and 1997, African Americans lost about 90% of their farmland. This problem is a major contributor to America’s racial wealth gap; the median wealth among black families is about a tenth that of white families. Now, as reparations have become a subject of national debate, the issue of black land loss is receiving renewed attention. A group of economists and statisticians recently calculated that, since 1910, black families have been stripped of hundreds of billions of dollars because of lost land. Nathan Rosenberg, a lawyer and a researcher in the group, told me, “If you want to understand wealth and inequality in this country, you have to understand black land loss.” By the time of Melvin and Licurtis’ hearing in 2011, they had spent decades fighting to keep the waterfront on Silver Dollar Road. They’d been warned that they would go to jail if they didn’t comply with a court order to stay off the land, and they felt betrayed by the laws that had allowed it to be taken from them. They had been baptized in that water. “You going to go there, take my dreams from me like that?” Licurtis asked on the stand. “How about it was you?”They expected to argue their case in court that day. Instead, the judge ordered them sent to jail, for civil contempt. Hearing the ruling, Melvin handed his 83-year-old mother, Gertrude, his flip phone and his gold watch. As the eldest son, he had promised relatives that he would assume responsibility for the family. “I can take it,” he said. Licurtis looked at the floor and shook his head. He had thought he’d be home by the afternoon; he’d even left his house unlocked. The bailiff, who had never booked anyone in civil superior court, had only one set of handcuffs. She put a cuff on each brother’s wrist, and led them out the back door. The brothers hadn’t been charged with a crime or given a jury trial. Still, they believed so strongly in their right to the property that they spent the next eight years fighting the case from jail, becoming two of the longest-serving inmates for civil contempt in U.S. history.Land was an ideological priority for black families after the Civil War, when nearly 4 million people were freed from slavery. On Jan. 12, 1865, just before emancipation, the Union Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman met with 20 black ministers in Savannah, Georgia, and asked them what they needed. “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land,” their spokesperson, the Rev. Garrison Frazier, told Sherman. Freedom, he said, was “placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor.” Sherman issued a special field order declaring that 400,000 acres formerly held by Confederates be given to African Americans — what came to be known as the promise of “40 acres and a mule.” The following year, Congress passed the Southern Homestead Act, opening up an additional 46 million acres of public land for Union supporters and freed people.The promises never materialized. In 1876, near the end of Reconstruction, only about 5% of black families in the Deep South owned land. But a new group of black landowners soon established themselves. Many had experience in the fields, and they began buying farms, often in places with arid or swampy soil, especially along the coast. By 1920, African Americans, who made up 10% of the population, represented 14% of Southern farm owners. A white-supremacist backlash spread across the South. At the end of the 19th century, members of a movement who called themselves Whitecaps, led by poor white farmers, accosted black landowners at night, beating them or threatening murder if they didn’t abandon their homes. In Lincoln County, Mississippi, Whitecaps killed a man named Henry List, and more than 50 African Americans fled the town in a single day. Over two months in 1912, violent white mobs in Forsyth County, Georgia, drove out almost the entire black population — more than a thousand people. Ray Winbush, the director of the Institute for Urban Research, at Morgan State University, told me, “There is this idea that most blacks were lynched because they did something untoward to a young woman. That’s not true. Most black men were lynched between 1890 and 1920 because whites wanted their land.”By the second half of the 20th century, a new form of dispossession had emerged, officially sanctioned by the courts and targeting heirs’ property owners without clear titles. These landowners are exposed in a variety of ways. They don’t qualify for certain Department of Agriculture loans to purchase livestock or cover the cost of planting. Individual heirs can’t use their land as collateral with banks and other institutions, and so are denied private financing and federal home-improvement loans. They generally aren’t eligible for disaster relief. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina laid bare the extent of the problem in New Orleans, where 25,000 families who applied for rebuilding grants had heirs’ property. One Louisiana real-estate attorney estimated that up to $165 million of recovery funds were never claimed because of title issues.Heirs are rarely aware of the tenuous nature of their ownership. Even when they are, clearing a title is often an unaffordable and complex process, which requires tracking down every living heir, and there are few lawyers who specialize in the field. Nonprofits often pick up the slack. The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, in South Carolina, has cleared more than 200 titles in the past decade, almost all of them for African-American families, protecting land valued at nearly $14 million. Josh Walden, the center’s chief operating officer, told me that it had mapped out a hundred thousand acres of heirs’ property in South Carolina. He said that investors hoping to build golf courses or hotels can target these plots. “We had to be really mindful that we didn’t share those maps with anyone, because otherwise they’d be a shopping catalogue,” he told me. “And it’s not as if it dries up. New heirs’ property is being created every day.”Through interviews and courthouse records, I analyzed more than three dozen cases from recent years in which heirs’ property owners lost land — land that, for many of them, was not only their sole asset but also a critical part of their heritage and their sense of home. The problem has been especially acute in Carteret County. Beaufort, the county seat, was once the site of a major refugee camp for freed people. Black families eventually built homes near where the tents had stood. But in the 1970s the town became a tourist destination, with upscale restaurants, boutiques, and docks for yachts. Real-estate values surged, and out-of-town speculators flooded the county. David Cecelski, a historian of the North Carolina coast, told me, “You can’t talk to an African-American family who owned land in those counties and not find a story where they feel like land was taken from them against their will, through legal trickery.”Beaufort is a quaint town, lined with coastal cottages and Colonial homes. When I arrived, last fall, I drove 20 miles to Silver Dollar Road, where Melvin and Licurtis’ family lives in dozens of trailers and wood-panelled houses, scattered under pine and gum trees.Melvin and Licurtis’ mother, Gertrude, greeted me at her house and led me into her living room, where porcelain angels lined one wall. Gertrude is tough and quiet, her high voice muffled by tobacco that she packs into her cheek. People call her Mrs. Big Shit. “It’s because I didn’t pay them no mind,” she told me. The last of Mitchell Reels’ children to remain on the property, she is the family matriarch. Grandchildren, nieces and nephews let themselves into her house to pick up mail or take out her trash. Around dinnertime on the day I was there, the trickle of visitors turned into a crowd. Gertrude went into the kitchen, coated fish fillets with cornmeal and fried them for everyone.Her daughter Mamie told me that Melvin and Licurtis had revelled in the land as kids, playing among the inky eels and conch shells. In the evenings, the brothers would sit on the porch with their cousins, a rag burning to keep the mosquitoes away. On weekends, a pastor strode down the dirt street, robed in white, his congregants singing “Wade in the Water.” Licurtis was a shy, humble kid who liked working in the cornfields. Melvin was his opposite. “When the school bus showed up, when he come home, the crowd would come with him and stay all night,” Gertrude said. When Melvin was 9, he built a boat from pine planks and began tugging it along the shore. A neighbor offered to teach him how to shrimp, and, in the summer, Melvin dropped nets off the man’s trawler. He left school in the 10th grade; his catch was bringing in around a thousand dollars a week. He developed a taste for sleek cars, big jewelry and women, and started buying his siblings Chuck Taylors and Timberlands.Gertrude was the administrator of the estate. She’d left school in the eighth grade and wasn’t accustomed to navigating the judicial system, but after Mitchell’s death she secured a court ruling declaring that the land belonged to his heirs. The judgment read, “The surviving eleven (11) children or descendants of children of Mitchell Reels are the owners of the lands exclusive of any other claim of any one.” In 1978, Gertrude’s uncle Shedrick Reels tried to carve out for himself the most valuable slice of land, on the river. He used a legal doctrine called adverse possession, which required him to prove that he had occupied the waterfront for years, continuously and publicly, against the owners’ wishes. Shedrick, who went by Shade and worked as a tire salesman in New Jersey, hadn’t lived on Silver Dollar Road in 27 years. But he claimed that “tenants” had stood in for him — he had built a house on the waterfront in 1950, and relatives had rented it or run it as a club at various times since. Some figured that it was Shade’s land. He also produced a deed that his father, Elijah, had given him in 1950, even though Mitchell, another of Elijah’s sons, had owned the land at the time.Shade made his argument through an obscure law called the Torrens Act. Under Torrens, Shade didn’t have to abide by the formal rules of a court. Instead, he could simply prove adverse possession to a lawyer, whom the court appointed, and whom he paid. The Torrens Act has long had a bad reputation, especially in Carteret. “It’s a legal way to steal land,” Theodore Barnes, a land broker there, told me. The law was intended to help clear up muddled titles, but, in 1932, a law professor at the University of North Carolina found that it had been co-opted by big business. One lawyer said that people saw it as a scheme “whereby rich men could seize the lands of the poor.” Even Shade’s lawyer, Nelson Taylor, acknowledged that it was abused; he told me that his own grandfather had lost a 50-acre plot to Torrens. “First time he knew anything about it was when somebody told him that he didn’t own it anymore,” Taylor said. “That was happening more often than it ever should have.”Mitchell’s kids and grandkids were puzzled that Shade’s maneuver was legal—they had Mitchell’s deed and a court order declaring that the land was theirs. And they had all grown up on that waterfront. “How can they take this land from us and we on it?” Melvin said. “We been there all our days.” Gertrude’s brother Calvin, who handled legal matters for the family, hired Claud Wheatly III, the son of one of the most powerful lawyers in town, to represent the siblings at a Torrens hearing about the claim. Gertrude, Melvin and his cousin Ralphele Reels, the only surviving heirs who attended the hearing, said that they left confident that the waterfront hadn’t gone to Shade. “No one in the family thought at the end of the day that it was his land and we were going to walk away from it forever,” Ralphele told me. Wheatly told me a different story. In his memory, the Torrens hearing was chaotic, but the heirs agreed to give Shade, who has since died, the waterfront. When I pressed Wheatly, he conceded that not all the heirs liked the outcome, but he said that Calvin had consented. “I would have been upset if Calvin had not notified them, because I generally don’t get involved in those things without having a family representative in charge,” he told me. He said that he never had a written agreement with Calvin — just a conversation. (Calvin died shortly after the hearing.) The lawyer examining Shade’s case granted him the waterfront, and Wheatly signed off on the decision. The Reels family, though it didn’t yet know it, had lost the rights to the land on the shoreline.Licurtis had set up a trailer near the river a couple of years earlier, in 1977. He was working as a brick mason and often hosted men from the neighborhood for Budweiser and beans in the evenings. Melvin had become the center of a local economy on the shore. He taught the men how to work the water, and he paid the women to prepare his catch, pressing the soft crevice above the shrimps’ eyes and popping off their heads. He had a son, Little Melvin, and in the summers his nephews and cousins came to the beach, too. One morning, he took eight of them out on the water and then announced that he’d made a mistake: only four were allowed on the boat. He threw them overboard one by one. “We’re thinking, We’re gonna drown,” one cousin told me. “And he jumps off the boat with us and teaches us how to swim.”In 1982, Melvin and Gertrude received a trespassing notice from Shade. They took it to a lawyer, who informed them that Shade now legally owned a little more than 13 acres of the 65-acre plot. The family was stunned, and suspicious of the claim’s validity. Many of the tenants listed to prove Shade’s continuous possession were vague or unrecognizable, like “Mitchell Reels’ boy,” or “Julian Leonard,” whom Gertrude had never heard of. (She had a sister named Julia and a brother named Leonard but no memory of either one living on the waterfront.) The lawyer who granted the land to Shade had also never reported the original court ruling that Gertrude had won, as he should have done.Shade’s ownership would be almost impossible to overturn. There’s a one-year window to appeal a Torrens decision in North Carolina, and the family had missed it by two years. Soon afterward, Shade sold the land to developers. The Reelses knew that if condos or a marina were built on the waterfront the remaining 50 acres of Silver Dollar Road could be taxed not as small homes on swampy fields but as a high-end resort. If they fell behind on the higher taxes, the county could auction off their property. “It would break our family right up,” Melvin told me. “You leave here, you got no more freedom.”This kind of tax sale has a long history in the dispossession of heirs’ property owners. In 1992, the NAACP accused local officials of intentionally inflating taxes to push out black families on Daufuskie, a South Carolina sea island that has become one of the hottest real-estate markets on the Atlantic coast. Property taxes had gone up as much as 700% in a single decade. “It is clear that the county has pursued a pattern of conduct that disproportionately displaces or evicts African-Americans from Daufuskie, thereby segregating the island and the county as a whole,” the NAACP wrote to county officials. Nearby Hilton Head, which as recently as two decades ago comprised several thousand acres of heirs’ property, now, by one estimate, has a mere 200 such acres left. Investors fly into the county each October to bid on tax-delinquent properties in a local gymnasium.In the upscale town of Summerville, South Carolina, I met Wendy Reed, who, in 2012, was late paying $83.81 in taxes on the lot she had lived on for nearly four decades. A former state politician named Thomas Limehouse, who owned a luxury hotel nearby, bought Reed’s property at a tax sale for $2,000, about an eighth of its value. Reed had a year to redeem her property, but, when she tried to pay her debt, officials told her that she couldn’t get the land back, because she wasn’t officially listed as her grandmother’s heir; she’d have to go through probate court. Here she faced another obstacle: heirs in South Carolina have 10 years to probate an estate after the death of the owner, and Reed’s grandmother had died 30 years before. Tax clerks in the county estimate that each year they send about a quarter of the people who try to redeem delinquent property to probate court because they aren’t listed on the deed or named by the court as an heir. Limehouse told me, “To not probate the estate and not pay the taxes shouldn’t be a reason for special dispensation. When you let things go, you can’t blame the county.” Reed has been fighting the case in court since 2014. “I’m still not leaving,” she told me. “You’ll have to pack my stuff and put me off.”For years, the conflict on Silver Dollar Road was dormant, and Melvin continued expanding his businesses. Each week, Gertrude packed two-pound bags of shrimp to sell at the farmers’ market, along with petunias and gardenias from her yard. Melvin was also remodelling a night club, Fantasy Island, on the shore. He’d decked it out with disco lights and painted it white, he said, so that “on the water it would shine like gold.”The majority of the property remained in the family, including the land on which Gertrude’s house stood. But Licurtis had been building a home in place of his trailer on the contested waterfront. “It was the most pretty spot,” he told me. “I’d walk to the water, and look at my yard, and see how beautiful it was.” He’d collected the signatures of other heirs to prove that he had permission, and registered a deed. When real-estate agents or speculators came to the shore, Melvin tried to scare them away. A developer told me that once, when he showed the property to potential buyers, “Melvin had a roof rack behind his pickup, jumped out, snatched a gun out.” It wasn’t the only time that Melvin took out his rifle. “You show people that you got to protect yourself,” he told me. “Any fool who wouldn’t do that would be crazy.” His instinct had always been to confront a crisis head on. When hurricanes came through and most people sought higher ground, he’d go out to his trawler and steer it into the storm.The Reels family began to believe that there was a conspiracy against them. They watched Jet Skis crawl slowly past in the river and shiny SUVs drive down Silver Dollar Road; they suspected that people were scouting the property. Melvin said that he received phone calls from mysterious men issuing threats. “I thought people were out to get me,” he said. Gertrude remembers that, one day at the farmers’ market, a white customer sneered that she was the only thing standing in the way of development.In 1986, Billie Dean Brown, a partner at a real-estate investment company called Adams Creek Associates, had bought Shade’s waterfront plot sight unseen to divide and sell. Brown was attracted to the strength of the Torrens title, which he knew was effectively incontrovertible. When he discovered that Melvin and Licurtis lived on the property, he wasn’t troubled. Brown was known among colleagues as Little Caesar — a small man who finished any job he started. In the early 2000s, he hired a lawyer: Claud Wheatly III. The man once tasked with protecting the Reels family’s land was now being paid to evict them from it. Melvin and Licurtis saw Wheatly’s involvement as a clear conflict of interest. Their lawyers tried to disqualify Wheatly, arguing that he was breaching confidentiality and switching sides, but the judge denied the motions. Earlier this year, I met Wheatly in his office, a few blocks from the county courthouse. Tall and imposing, he has a ruddy face and a teal-blue stare. We sat under the head of a stuffed warthog, and he chewed tobacco as we spoke. He told me that he had no confidential information about the Reelses, and that he’d never represented Melvin and Licurtis; he’d represented their mother and her siblings. “Melvin won’t own one square inch until his mother dies,” he said.In 2004, Wheatly got a court order prohibiting the brothers from going on the waterfront property. The Reels family began a series of appeals and filings asking for the decree to be set aside, but judge after judge ruled that the family had waited too long to contest the Torrens decision.Licurtis didn’t talk about the case, and tried to hide his stress. But, Mamie told me, “you could see him wearing it.” Occasionally, she would catch a glimpse of him pacing the road early in the morning. When he first understood that he could face time in jail for remaining in his house, he tried removing the supports underneath it, thinking that he could hire someone to wrench the foundation from the mud and move it elsewhere. Gertrude wouldn’t allow him to go through with it. “You’re not going with the house nowhere,” she told him. “That’s yours.”At 4 a.m. on a spring day in 2007, Melvin was asleep in his apartment above the club when he heard a boom, like a crash of thunder. He went to the shore and found that his trawler, named Nancy J., was sinking. Yellow plastic gloves, canned beans and wooden crab boxes floated in the water. There was a large hole in the hull, and Melvin realized that the boom had been an explosion. He filed a report with the sheriff’s office, but it never confirmed whether an explosive was used or whether it was an accident, and no charges were filed. Melvin began to wake with a start at night, pull out his flashlight, and scan the fields for intruders.By the time of the brothers’ hearing in 2011, Melvin had lost so much weight that Licurtis joked that he could store water in the caverns by his collarbones. The family had come to accept that the dispute wasn’t going away. If the brothers had to go to jail, they would. Even after the judge in the hearing found them guilty of civil contempt, Melvin said, “I ain’t backing down.” Licurtis called home later that day. “It’ll be all right,” he told Gertrude. “We’ll be home soon.” One of the most pernicious legal mechanisms used to dispossess heirs’ property owners is called a partition action. In the course of generations, heirs tend to disperse and lose any connection to the land. Speculators can buy off the interest of a single heir, and just one heir or speculator, no matter how minute his share, can force the sale of an entire plot through the courts. Andrew Kahrl, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Virginia, told me that even small financial incentives can have the effect of turning relatives against one another, and developers exploit these divisions. “You need to have some willing participation from black families — driven by the desire to profit off their land holdings,” Kahrl said. “But it does boil down to greed and abuse of power and the way in which Americans’ history of racial inequality can be used to the advantage of developers.” As the Reels family grew over time, the threat of a partition sale mounted; if one heir decided to sell, the whole property would likely go to auction at a price that none of them could pay.When courts originally gained the authority to order a partition sale, around the time of the Civil War, the Wisconsin Supreme Court called it “an extraordinary and dangerous power” that should be used sparingly. In the past several decades, many courts have favored such sales, arguing that the value of a property in its entirety is greater than the value of it in pieces. But the sales are often speedy and poorly advertised, and tend to fetch below-market prices.On the coast of North Carolina, I met Billy Freeman, who grew up working in the parking lot of his uncle’s beachside dance hall, Monte Carlo by the Sea. His family, which once owned thousands of acres, ran the largest black beach in the state, with juke joints and crab shacks, an amusement park and a three-story hotel. But, over the decades, developers acquired interests from other heirs, and, in 2008, one firm petitioned the court for a sale of the whole property. Freeman attempted to fight the partition for years. “I didn’t want to lose the land, but I felt like everybody else had sold,” he told me. In 2016, the beach, which covered 170 acres, was sold to the development firm for $1.4 million. On neighboring beaches, that sum could buy a tiny fraction of a parcel so large. Freeman got only $30,000. The lost property isn’t just money; it’s also identity. In one case that I examined, the mining company PCS Phosphate forced the sale of a 40-acre plot, which contained a family cemetery, against the wishes of several heirs, whose ancestors had been enslaved on the property. (A spokesperson for the company told me that it is a “law-abiding corporate citizen.”)Some speculators use questionable tactics to acquire property. When Jessica Wiggins’ uncle called her to say that a man was trying to buy his interest in their family’s land, she didn’t believe him; he had dementia. Then, in 2015, she learned that a company called Aldonia Farms had purchased the interests of four heirs, including her uncle, and had filed a partition action. “What got me was we had no knowledge of this person,” Wiggins told me, of the man who ran Aldonia. (Jonathan S. Phillips, who now runs Aldonia Farms, told me that he wasn’t there at the time of the purchase, and that he’s confident no one would have taken advantage of the uncle’s dementia.) Wiggins was devastated; the 18 acres of woods and farmland that held her great-grandmother’s house was the place that she had felt safest as a child. The remaining heirs still owned 61% of the property, but there was little that they could do to prevent a sale. When I visited the land with Wiggins, her great-grandmother’s house had been cleared, and Aldonia Farms had erected a gate. Phillips told me, “Our intention was not to keep them out but to be good stewards of the property and keep it from being littered on and vandalized.”Last fall, Wiggins and her relatives gathered for the auction of the property on the courthouse steps in the town of Windsor. A bronze statue of a Confederate soldier stood behind them. Wiggins’ cousin Danita Pugh walked up to Aldonia Farms’ lawyer and pulled her deed out of an envelope. “You’re telling me that they’re going to auction it off after showing you a deed?” she said. “I’m going to come out and say it. The white man takes the land from the black.”Hundreds of partition actions are filed in North Carolina every year. Carteret County, which has a population of 70,000, has one of the highest per-capita rates in the state. I read through every Carteret partition case concerning heirs’ property from the past decade, and found that 42% of the cases involved black families, despite the fact that only 6% of Carteret’s population is black. Heirs not only regularly lose their land; they are also required to pay the legal fees of those who bring the partition cases. In 2008, Janice Dyer, a research associate at Auburn University, published a study of these actions in Macon County, Alabama. She told me that the lack of secure ownership locks black families out of the wealth in their property. “The Southeast has these amazing natural resources: timber, land, great fishing,” she said. “If somebody could snap their fingers and clear up all these titles, how much richer would the region be?” Thomas W. Mitchell, a property-law professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, has drafted legislation aimed at reforming this system, which has now passed in 14 states. He told me that heirs’ property owners, particularly those who are African-American, tend to be “land rich and cash poor,” making it difficult for them to keep the land in a sale. “They don’t have the resources to make competitive bids, and they can’t even use their heirs’ property as collateral to get a loan to participate in the bidding more effectively,” he said. His law, the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, gives family members the first option to buy, sends most sales to the open market, and mandates that courts, in their decisions to order sales, weigh non-economic factors, such as the consequences of eviction and whether the property has historic value. North Carolina is one of eight states in the South that has held out against these reforms. The state also hasn’t repealed the Torrens Act. It is one of fewer than a dozen states where the law is still on the books.Last year, Congress passed the Agricultural Improvement Act, which, among other things, allows heirs’ property owners to apply for Department of Agriculture programs using nontraditional paperwork, such as a written agreement between heirs. “The alternative documentation is really, really important as a precedent,” Lorette Picciano, the executive director of Rural Coalition, a group that advocated for the reform, told me. “The next thing we need to do is make sure this happens with FEMA, and flood insurance, and housing programs.” The bill also includes a lending program for heirs’ property owners, which will make it easier for them to clear titles and develop succession plans. But no federal funding has been allocated for these loans.The first time I met Melvin and Licurtis in the Carteret jail, Melvin filled the entire frame of the visiting-room window. He is a forceful presence, and prone to exaggeration. His hair, neatly combed, was streaked with silver. He didn’t blink as he spoke. Licurtis had been given a diagnosis of diabetes, and leaned against a stool for support. He still acted like a younger brother, never interrupting Melvin or challenging his memory. He told me that, at night, he dreamed of the shore, of storms blowing through his house. “The water rising,” Licurtis said. “And I couldn’t do nothing about it.” He was worried about his mother. “If they took this land from my mama at her age, and she’d been farming it all her life, you know that would kill her,” he told me.The brothers were seen as local heroes for resisting the court order. “They want to break your spirits,” their niece Kim Duhon wrote to them. “God had you both picked out for this.” Even strangers wrote. “When I was a kid, it used to sadden me that white folks had Radio Island, Atlantic Beach, Sea Gate and other places to swim, but we didn’t!” one letter from a local woman read. She wrote that, when she was finally taken to Silver Dollar Road, “I remember seeing nothing but my own kind (Blk Folks!).”In North Carolina, civil contempt is most commonly used to force defendants to pay child support. When the ruling requires a defendant to pay money other than child support, a new hearing is held every 90 days. After the first 90 days had passed, Melvin asked a friend in jail to write a letter on his behalf. (Melvin couldn’t read well, and he needed help writing.) “I’ve spent 91 days on a 90 day sentence and I don’t understand why,” the letter read. “Please explain this to me! So I can go home, back to work. Sincerely, Melvin Davis.” The brothers learned that although Billie Dean Brown’s lawyer had asked for 90 days, the court had decided that there would be no time restriction on their case, and that they could be jailed until they presented evidence that they had removed their homes. They continued to hold out. Brown wasn’t demolishing their buildings while they were incarcerated, and so they believed that they still had a shot at convincing the courts that the land was theirs. That fall, Brown told the Charlotte Observer, “I made up my mind, I will die and burn in hell before I walk away from this thing.” When I reached Brown recently, he told me that he was in an impossible position. “We’ve had several offers from buyers, but once they learned of the situation they withdrew,” he said. Three months turned into six, and a year turned into several. Jail began to take a toll on the brothers. The facility was designed for short stays, with no time outside, and nowhere to exercise. They couldn’t be transferred to a prison, because they hadn’t been convicted of a crime. Early on, Melvin mediated fights between inmates and persuaded them to sneak in hair ties for him. But over time he stopped taking care of his appearance and became withdrawn. He ranted about the stolen land, though he couldn’t quite nail down who the enemy was: Shade or Wheatly or Brown, the sheriffs or the courts or the county. The brothers slept head to head in neighboring beds. “Melvin would say crazy things,” Licurtis told me. “Lay on down and go to sleep, wake up, and say the same thing again. It wore me down.” Melvin is proud and guarded, but he told me that the case had broken him. “I’m not ashamed to own it,” he said. “This has messed my mind up.”Without the brothers, Silver Dollar Road lost its pulse. Mamie kept her blinds down; she couldn’t stand to see the deserted waterfront. At night, she studied her brothers’ case, thumbing through the court files and printing out the definitions of words that she didn’t understand, like “rescind” and “contempt.” She filled a binder with relatives’ obituaries, so that once her brothers got out they would have a record of who had passed away. When Claud Wheatly’s father died, she added his obituary. “I kept him for history,” she told me.Gertrude didn’t have the spirit to farm. Most days, she sat in a tangerine armchair by her window, cracking peanuts or watching the shore like a guard. This winter, we looked out in silence as Brown’s caretaker drove through the property. Melvin and Licurtis wouldn’t allow Gertrude to visit them in jail. Licurtis said that “it hurt so bad” to see her leave.Other members of the family — Melvin and Licurtis’ brother Billy, their nephew Roderick and their cousin Shawn — kept trying to shrimp, but the river suddenly seemed barren. “It might sound crazy, but it was like the good Lord put a curse on this little creek, where ain’t nobody gonna catch no shrimp until they’re released,” Roderick told me. Billy added, “It didn’t feel right no more with Melvin and them not there, because we all looked out for one another. Some mornings, you didn’t even want to go.” Sheriff’s deputies came to the property a few times a week, and they wouldn’t allow the men to dock their boats on the pier. One by one, the men lost hope and sold their trawlers. Shawn took a job at Best Buy, cleaning the store for $11.50 an hour, and eventually moved to Newport, 30 miles southwest, where it was easier to make rent. Billy got paid to fix roofs but soon defaulted on the mortgage for his house on Silver Dollar Road. “One day you good, and the next day you can’t believe it,” he told me.Roderick kept being charged with trespassing, for walking on the waterfront, and he was racking up thousands of dollars in legal fees. He’d recently renovated his boat — putting in an aluminum gas tank, large spotlights and West Marine speakers — but, without a place to dock, he saw no way to hold on to it. He found work cutting grass and posted his boat on Craigslist. A white man responded. They met at the shore, and, as the man paid, Roderick began to cry. He walked up Silver Dollar Road with his back to the river. He told me, “I just didn’t want to see my boat leave.”The Reels brothers were locked in a hopeless clash with the law. One judge who heard their case likened them to the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” who attempts to guard his forest against King Arthur. “Even after King Arthur has cut off both of the Black Knight’s arms and legs, he still insists that he will continue to fight and that no one may pass — although he cannot do anything,” the judge wrote, in an appeals-court dissent.In February, nearly eight years after Melvin and Licurtis went to jail, they stood before a judge in Carteret to request their release. They were now 72 and 61, but they remained defiant. Licurtis said that he would go back on the property “just as soon as I walk out of here.” Melvin said, “I believe that land is mine.” They had hired a new lawyer, who argued that it would cost almost $50,000 to tear down the brothers’ homes. Melvin had less than $4,000 in the bank; Licurtis had nothing. The judge announced that he was releasing them. He warned them, however, that if they returned to their homes they’d “be right back in jail.” He told them, “The jailhouse keys are in your pockets.” An hour later, the brothers emerged from the sheriff’s department. Melvin surveyed the parking lot, which was crowded with friends and relatives. “About time!” he said, laughing and exchanging hugs. “You stuck with me.” When he spotted Little Melvin, who was now 39, he extended his arm for a handshake. Little Melvin pulled it closer and buried his face in his father’s shoulder, sobbing.When Licurtis came out, he folded over, as if his breath had been pulled out of him. Mamie wrapped her arms around his neck, led him to her car, and drove him home. When they reached Silver Dollar Road, she honked the horn all the way down the street. “Back on Silver Dollar Road,” Licurtis said, pines flickering by his window. “Mm-mm-mm-mm-mm.”Melvin spent his first afternoon shopping for silk shirts and brown leather shoes and a cell phone that talked to him. Old acquaintances stopped him — a man who thanked him for his advice about hauling dirt, a DJ who used to spin at Fantasy Island. While in jail, Melvin had been keeping up with his girlfriends, and 11 women called looking for him.Melvin told me that he’d held on for his family, and for himself, too. But away from the others his weariness showed. He acknowledged that he was worried about what would happen, his voice almost a whisper. “They can’t keep on doing this. There’s got to be an ending somewhere,” he said.A few days later, Gertrude threw her sons a party, and generations of relatives came. The family squeezed together on her armchairs, eating chili and biscuits and lemon pie. Mamie gave a speech. “We gotta get this water back,” she said, stretching her arms wide. “We gotta unite. A chain’s only as strong as the links in it.” The room answered, “That’s right.” The brothers, who were staying with their mother, kept saying, “Once we get this land stuff sorted out . . .” Relatives who had left talked about coming back, buying boats and go-karts for their kids. It was less a plan than a fantasy — an illusion that their sense of justice could overturn the decision of the law. The brothers hadn’t stepped onto the waterfront since they’d been back. The tract was 100 feet away but out of reach. Fantasy Island was a shell, the plot around it overgrown. Still, Melvin seemed convinced that he would restore it. “Put me some palm trees in the sand and build some picnic tables,” he said.After the party wound down, I sat with Licurtis on his mother’s porch as he gazed at his house, which was moldy and gutted, its frame just visible in the purple dusk. He reminisced about the house’s wood-burning heater, the radio that he’d always left playing. He said that he planned to build a second story and raise the house to protect it from floods. He wanted a wraparound deck and big windows. “I’ll pour them walls solid all the way around,” he said. “We’ll bloom again. Ain’t going to be long.”Worried about protecting heirs’ property owners? We made a list of ways that families can protect themselves and describe legislative reforms that experts have proposed.
How to Close Heirs’ Property Loopholes
by Lizzie Presser The Reels brothers grew up on waterfront land that their great-grandfather bought one generation after slavery. Their family has lived there for more than a century. But because it was passed down without a will, it became heirs’ property, a form of ownership in which descendants inherit an interest, like holding stock in a company. Without a clear title, these landowners are vulnerable to laws that allow speculators and developers to acquire their property. One attorney called heirs’ property “the worst problem you never heard of.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recognized it as “the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss.”Read about the Reels brothers and the risks of heirs’ property. What can heirs’ property owners do to protect their land?
Border Patrol Official Circulates Article That Deems Our Reporting on Secret Facebook Group a Threat
by Ginger Thompson A senior Border Patrol official, who directs a key intelligence-gathering center, on Thursday circulated an inflammatory opinion article that blasted ProPublica’s reporting on a secret Facebook group for current and former agents and described the news organization as a threat to the agency and its members.A link to the article, which specifically castigates ProPublica reporter A.C. Thompson for his articles about the degrading posts in the group, was sent in an email to top intelligence officials at the agency’s headquarters in Washington and to field offices across the country. Sources said other supervisors then shared it widely with agents under their command.The article was widely distributed by Michael E. Powell, director of the Customs and Border Protection’s Northern Border Coordination Center, and comes as the heads of the Department of Homeland Security, the CPB, which it oversees, and the Border Patrol have publicly condemned the Facebook posts and launched investigations into the group. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. And the article raises questions about whether internally, agency officials may be having different reactions to the public exposure of anti-migrant and misogynistic posts by some of its agents. On Friday, The Intercept reported that Border Patrol head Carla Provost appeared to have once been a member of the group. She has not commented.A Border Patrol spokesman responded angrily Friday to questions about the significance of a senior intelligence official circulating such an article.“I’m not going to comment on a third party opinion piece simply because you disagree with it,” said Matthew Leas, a Border Patrol spokesman. “The author isn’t even a CBP employee. Last time I checked, agency responses typically come from the agency…”Powell did not respond to questions about the email.The article was published on a website called Law Enforcement Today, and was written by a woman named Dawn Perlmutter, who describes herself as an expert on “symbols, symbolic methodologies, atypical homicide and ritualistic crimes.”It alleges that ProPublica’s reporting about the secret Facebook group, which was known as “I’m 10-15,” was part of an “anti-police information operation” that was “calculated to incite hatred against CBP, ICE and DHS officers, provide party-line propaganda for the media and ignite protests to further political agendas.” And it claimed that Thompson, who broke the story about the Facebook group, “essentially doxed CBP officers,” when he published the posts.“Thompson’s byline says he covers hate crimes and racial extremism, when in fact, he perpetuates it,” the piece reads. “His irresponsible reporting incites police hatred and endangers officers’ lives under the guise of social justice.” One agent who received the piece was troubled that an official in charge of an intelligence unit would send it out under his Border Patrol email, and worried that it could undermine trust in the unit’s work.“We need effective intel units that have garnered the trust of agents, the community, and elected officials,” said the agent, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. “Distributing partisan opinion pieces under the guise of intelligence, undermines the credibility of our intelligence department and raises doubt about the intelligence we distribute.”“Revealing hateful posts circulated to 9,500 people on Facebook hardly constitutes doxing,” said Richard Tofel, the president of ProPublica. “ProPublica seeks to hold public officials to account, including making sure the Border Patrol lives up to the standards of decency that every American law enforcement agency pledges to live by.”The article’s distribution came as the House Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing Friday on recent reports about appalling conditions inside Border Patrol detention facilities and the disturbing Facebook posts revealed in ProPublica and The Intercept’s reporting. Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat, had requested that Kevin McAleenan, the acting chief of the Department of Homeland Security testify at the hearing. But McAleenan did not attend.Instead, the hearing devolved into a fierce partisan debate with Democratic legislators accusing the Republicans of “manufacturing” the crisis at the border for political gain and Republicans admonishing Democrats for “vilifying” border patrol agents.
Maryland Sues Notorious For-Profit Group Homes. The Company Was the Subject of ProPublica Investigation.
by Heather Vogell Alleging “Dickensian” conditions, Maryland’s Attorney General has sued a group home provider that has long faced allegations in multiple states of abusing children with severe developmental disabilities and behavioral challenges.The for-profit company, which in recent years changed its name from AdvoServ to Bellwether Behavioral Health, ran group homes in Delaware that took in residents from Maryland. Maryland removed the last of its children from the homes in October 2016, after inspections found filthy conditions and a teenage girl from Maryland died after being restrained.A ProPublica investigation in 2015 detailed problems similar to those over which Maryland is now suing. We found that AdvoServ fended off regulators’ scrutiny for decades despite a long track record of clients being abused. The company continued to use controversial methods such as so-called mechanical restraints – devices such as chairs with straps – to hold down uncooperative residents when most other similar facilities had long abandoned such measures.State regulators have begun taking a harder line in recent years.Maryland’s lawsuit accuses the company of failing at some of its most basic responsibilities, including administering medication properly and staffing its facilities adequately, as well as covering up incidents where staff injured residents. The company charged Maryland more than $230,000 per child annually. The state paid more than $13 million over little more than a year for what it says was substandard treatment.In one case, a girl suffered a broken nose and injured elbow while being physically restrained by staff. She complained that a staff member had hit her, but workers didn’t get medical help or take other action until prompted by her grandfather, the lawsuit said. The staff member eventually pled guilty to criminal charges.In another case, a Maryland child ran away with a staff member who engaged in a sexual relationship with the child, the lawsuit alleged. Other workers had seen the employee spend time in the child’s bedroom but had done nothing. Another time, it said, staff watched but didn’t intervene as a girl prone to self-injurious behavior banged her head against a wall eight times.In the lawsuit, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh claims the company’s group homes and schools were understaffed, and that workers received inadequate training and pay. The legal action also asserts what critics have long suspected: that workers routinely defaulted to restraining children instead of trying more therapeutic, less physical methods of managing their difficult behaviors.Efforts to reach a spokesperson for Bellwether were unsuccessful.The company has provided care and schooling for hundreds of children and adults with severe developmental disabilities and mental illnesses in its homes in Delaware, New Jersey, Virginia and Florida.In New Jersey, where Bellwether has been the largest provider of group homes, the financially distressed company is moving residents out after the state announced in May that it was terminating the company’s contracts.In Florida, the last of nearly 200 residents with disabilities moved out of the company’s sprawling Carlton Palms campus northwest of Orlando in October. The now-shuttered compound was the site of the 2013 death of another teenage girl who was tied to a bed and chair while vomiting overnight. She was found dead of dehydration the next morning.At the time, company executives denied there was a pattern of abuse and said employees who mistreat residents are disciplined.The company was bought by the private equity firm Wellspring Capital Management in 2015. The firm was not named in the Maryland lawsuit. A call to Wellspring was not immediately returned.
Border Patrol Agents Are Passing Around A Commemorative Coin Mocking Care for Migrant Kids
by Dara Lind An unofficial commemorative coin has been circulating among Border Patrol agents at the U.S./Mexico border, mocking the task of caring for migrant children and other duties that have fallen to agents as families cross into the U.S.On the front, the coin declares “KEEP THE CARAVANS COMING” under an image of a massive parade of people carrying a Honduran flag — a caricature of the “caravan” from last fall, which started in Honduras and attracted thousands of people as it moved north. (While the caravan included many women and children, the only visible figures on the coin appear to be adult men.)The coin’s reverse side features the Border Patrol logo and three illustrations: a Border Patrol agent bottle-feeding an infant; an agent fingerprinting a teen boy wearing a backwards baseball cap; and a U.S. Border Patrol van. The text along the edge reads “FEEDING ** PROCESSING ** HOSPITAL ** TRANSPORT.”The coin appears to poke fun at the fact that many border agents are no longer out patrolling and instead are now caring for and processing migrants — including families and children. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. Government officials told ProPublica the coin was not approved or paid for by the government, unlike official “challenge coins” that go through an agency approval process. One Customs and Border Protection official, who was not authorized to give his name, characterized the coin as “something that somebody’s doing on their free time” — comparing it to woodworking. “A lot of the agents have little hobbies on the side, they build little wooden figures that they have at their homes,” the official said.It’s not clear who created the coin or how widely it’s been circulated among border agents. But Border Patrol agents in California and Texas — on opposite ends of the U.S./Mexico border — had seen the coin circulated at their workplaces. One of the agents received a coin in April when a colleague brought several to pass around at the office; the other was shown an online order form for the coins by a colleague at work.Both said the coins were promoted via the secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol officials that, as ProPublica recently detailed, included racist and violent posts.The coin is part of a tradition of unofficial “challenge coins” — which generally outnumber official ones — which are common in the military and law enforcement as a way for members to celebrate achievements and build camaraderie.But outside observers found this particular coin anything but harmless.Theresa Cardinal Brown, who worked at CBP under the Bush and Obama administrations, said that the coin was evidence (like the 10-15 Facebook group) of “reflexive dehumanization” by Border Patrol agents, and that the “tolerance for shenanigans” by supervisors and leadership had gone too far. “You have to say, ‘This is affecting the integrity and authority of us all.’”The coin appears to have been designed, ordered and distributed months into the surge of Central American families at the border. Coins were being distributed to agents by late April, before the current wave of public attention and outrage over conditions for migrants in Border Patrol custody. Customs and Border Protection officials said they did not know about the coin until contacted by ProPublica. They said they would investigate it for potential trademark violation since the coin includes the Border Patrol’s logo.“U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has a firm policy on the use and production of challenge coins bearing CBP identifiers,” a CBP official said, including the U,S. Border Patrol logo. “The coin in question is not an officially approved CBP coin. CBP intends to investigate the matter and will make a determination when all the facts are known.”However, officials implied that if the coin had not used the official logo, it would be beyond their control. “If it’s something that somebody’s doing on their free time,” said the official who asked not to be named, it is not something the agency can control.Hector Garza of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing Border Patrol agents, said he had not seen the coin either. When shown pictures of it by ProPublica, and in response to follow-up questions, he said, “I have no thoughts about the coin.”Challenge coins have spread throughout the federal government, but are especially popular within Border Patrol. They depict individual offices or stations or particular missions. If official visitors come by to tour a station, a coin may be presented.In this case, the “mission” being mockingly commemorated is the unprecedented amount of migrant care and processing Border Patrol agents did in the spring of this year.Taking care of migrants (including children) in short-term custody is part of the Border Patrol’s job. When the intake system for migrant children is overwhelmed, as it was in 2014 and has been again in 2019, Border Patrol often holds children for longer than the 72 hours prescribed by the federal Flores settlement (a court agreement that governs the treatment of children in immigration custody), often in spaces not designed for children — or anyone. In recent weeks the government has greatly reduced the number of children in Border Patrol custody, thanks in large part to funding from Congress that expanded the intake system’s capacity. Some agents say that childcare and support have an opportunity cost: Any time an agent spends driving a van full of children to a child-only facility, for example, is time not spent “in the field” apprehending people who are trying to get away.“Us caring for kids and families, that’s not the frustration,” Garza said. “Drugs coming into the country? That is a frustration. People with criminal records coming in and us not being able to catch them? That is a frustration.”That tradeoff appears to be fueling the emotions expressed by the coin — with the back side depicting the tasks that agents must do instead of being out “on the line,” and the front side referring to the legal “loopholes” that make it harder to detain and deport migrants under 18 and families.One Border Patrol agent, when asked about morale among agents detailed to care and transport, replied with a photo of a dumpster floating down a flooded river.
Tuberculosis. Chicken Pox. Traumatized: 5 Updates on Immigrant Youth Shelters in Illinois.
by Logan Jaffe Hello, ProPublicans in Illinois and elsewhere,This week, we published an update to our investigative reporting on immigrant children and teens who are detained in a secretive network of shelters throughout the Chicago area. I encourage you to read the story in full. In the meantime, here are five things you need to know:1. Officials at Heartland Human Care Services say children are arriving to their facilities increasingly traumatized and sick after spending a week or longer in dirty and overcrowded U.S. Border Patrol facilities. Some are contagious with tuberculosis, chicken pox, strep throat or fever and are being quarantined and treated. Heartland officials said the rise in contagious diseases they are seeing in children is unlike anything they’ve seen before. Children have described to staff “horrible and inhumane conditions” at border facilities.2. Two nonprofits have contracts with the federal government to shelter immigrant children in Illinois: Heartland and Maryville Academy. Heartland, the larger of the two, houses nearly 400 children, including 15 separated from their parents at the southern U.S. border. The organization operates five shelters: two in Rogers Park, and one each in the Beverly, Englewood and Bronzeville neighborhoods. Maryville operates three shelters in suburban Des Plaines and this month plans to open one in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. Dive Deeper Into Our Reporting Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois reporter every week Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. 3. There’s been a wave of protests in Chicago sparked by the Trump administration’s immigration policy, and at least one group is calling for the release of children and teenagers from Heartland facilities. Heartland has tried to distance itself from the administration’s policies and last month published a fact sheet about its shelters.4. Our previous reporting on Heartland revealed allegations of abuse, threats and inappropriate sexual relationships inside the shelters. We learned that children and teenagers inside had contemplated suicide and escape and that at least 10 children had run away in recent years. More than a dozen current and former Heartland employees told our reporters last year that they felt overworked in emotionally draining jobs. In March 2019, Heartland announced plans to close four of its shelters, hire more staff and increase training within the remaining five shelters it operates.5. You can help us get more information about what goes on inside Heartland and Maryville facilities. We are looking to hear from current or former employees, family members and sponsors of children detained there, as well as those who have been detained themselves. If any of these apply to you, reach out to us via the information below. If not, please save this image below and share within your own networks. Thanks. More next week …Logan JaffeEngagement reporter, ProPublica IllinoisP.S. Thanks to those who came out to our event in Rockford to talk about video gambling. More on that soon.
Judge Orders Expanded Oversight for Mentally Ill New Yorkers In Supported Housing
by Joaquin Sapien Not enough people are covered by an oversight system meant to safeguard residents of a New York housing program for people with mental illness, a federal judge found this week, after reviewing a report commissioned in response to a ProPublica and Frontline investigation.Since January 2014, more than 750 people with severe mental illness have moved out of troubled New York City adult group homes and into subsidized apartments under a federal court order. The idea was to give them a chance to live outside institutions, with services coming to them as needed through a program called supported housing. But last December, ProPublica and Frontline revealed that more than two dozen people who had moved out struggled to live safely on their own. Many had been repeatedly hospitalized. One went missing; another was in jail. At least six had died under suspicious circumstances, and the state had only recently developed a system to track such incidents.The story prompted U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis to order a report from Clarence Sundram, the independent court monitor assigned to oversee the transition. Garaufis asked Sundram to gauge the effectiveness of the incident reporting system implemented in the summer of 2018.The report, filed this week and discussed in a hearing on Wednesday, uncovered a number of shortcomings — delays of weeks or months in filing incident reports, confusion over which of the myriad service providers are required to report what, and an overall failure by the state to sufficiently investigate problems and share results. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. Perhaps the biggest flaw is that the new reporting system only covers about a quarter of the people who have moved out of adult homes — those enrolled in what’s called Adult Home Plus, a special program where residents are assigned a “care coordinator” with a caseload of no more than 12 to meet with them four times a month and help them organize their services.According to the latest figures in Sundram’s report, only 179 residents are enrolled in Adult Home Plus out of the 774 who have moved out.Except for the neediest supported housing residents, that program is only supposed to last for the first six months after they move out. Sundram found that serious incidents often occur well after someone’s first six months in supported housing.“We recommend strongly, as we have previously, that the requirements for Incident Reporting be extended to include all class members living in supported housing,” Sundram said in his report. “It seems incongruous that two class members could be sharing the same apartment and have different levels of protection based on factors that are not related to the potential risks they face.”Garaufis, the judge, questioned the state about this very issue at a hearing in February.“If (the incident reporting system) doesn’t give us a complete picture of what is going on… then it would be inadequate for the court,” he said.In response, Robert Begleiter, an attorney representing the state, said it was his understanding that “one quarter was meant to be a statistically significant sample,” but promised to “revisit” the matter if Garaufis thought it “too small a number.”On Wednesday, government officials gathered in a courtroom with the mental health advocates who filed the lawsuit 16 years ago that led to the transition to independent living. Garaufis asked the plaintiffs why they had agreed to allow the state to monitor such a small portion of the population. The plaintiffs shifted blame to the state, saying they were disappointed it took so long for officials to acknowledge that the incident reporting system was lacking. Garaufis told all sides to work together to expand the number of people covered, and come back with a plan in September to improve oversight. Garaufis said that having such a system in place was important for people interested in moving out of the adult homes as well as those who have already left.But his attention was mostly focused on the fact that more people with severe mental illness are moving into the adult homes, defying state regulations at the heart of the court order that are supposed to prevent the homes from accepting people with such a diagnosis. Between February and April of this year, adult homes have gained 113 such residents.At one point, as a state official told Garaufis how excited she was to describe the services being offered to people who had moved out of the adult homes, he banged on his podium, annoyed.“I’m not a cheerleader, I’m a judge,” he said. “I get the feeling you are trying to convince me you’ve got it all under control. I’m sorry, you don’t have it under control.”Lisa Ullman, who leads the effort to implement the settlement for the Department of Health and Office of Mental Health, told Garaufis she had referred the new admissions to the enforcement branch for further investigation.Garaufis said he wanted a monthly update on the matter.In his report, Sundram also found that many of the housing contractors involved in the transition outright failed to report incidents even when their clients were in Adult Home Plus. Then, when the reports were filed, Sundram said the state often failed to gather all the records that would help explain how the incidents occurred or interview the caretakers responsible for letting their clients slip through the cracks. Sundram examined all 27 incidents reported to the state between July and December 2018. Many involved “repeated crisis episodes,” wherein people living in supported housing experienced symptoms of their mental illness severe enough to necessitate psychiatric attention. There were three deaths, but the details of them are not available in the report. He also found that four people had “insufficient life necessities,” meaning that they lacked food or medication. Four more lived in unsafe or unsanitary conditions.Sundram’s findings echo those of the ProPublica and Frontline stories, particularly that of Nestor Bunch, a man with schizophrenia who moved into an apartment of his own for the first time at the age of 54.Bunch had difficulty keeping up with his medication regimen, struggled with suicidal thoughts, found one roommate dead, then landed in the hospital for weeks with injuries from what appeared to be a beating. He lived in a series of supported housing apartments and was repeatedly hospitalized for psychiatric breaks. In a previous report, Sundram said Bunch’s experience showed the need for a “robust quality assurance program.”At the end of this week’s report, Sundram issued several recommendations: that the state expand the incident reporting system to cover all supported housing residents in the class; that it complete all investigations within 30 days except under exceptional circumstances, when it would be given 90; that the state consider sharing guidance based on its investigations with an array of providers involved in the transition; and that the state gather more documents and interview more people involved in each incident.In response to questions for this story, Department of Health spokesman Jonah Bruno referred ProPublica to statements made in court, but added this comment:"We review all incident reports, and when we find the incident has broad applicability and demonstrates how similar incidents can be avoided in the future, we do share our findings with other settlement providers. We will continue to expand the ways we share what we learn with providers.
Inmigrantes Menores Enviados a Albergues de Chicago Están Traumatizados y Enfermos, a veces con Varicela o Tuberculosis
por Melissa Sanchez, Jodi S. Cohen y Duaa Eldeib La administración Trump está enviando a inmigrantes menores de edad que están solos, asustados y enfermos con fiebre, varicela y hasta tuberculosis a albergues en Chicago, donde están siendo aislados aún más para impedir la propagación de enfermedades, según una de las organizaciones sin ánimo de lucro que les cuida.Como aún otra consecuencia derivada de la política de inmigración de la administración, muchos de estos menores también llegan cada vez más traumatizados después de pasar una semana o más en instalaciones sucias y sobrepobladas de la Patrulla Fronteriza de Estados Unidos.Algunos de los menores, que varían en edad desde bebés a adolescentes, han sido arrancados de sus madres y padres en la frontera a pesar de la promesa del gobierno de frenar la separación de familias, dijeron oficiales de la organización sin ánimo de lucro, Heartland Human Care Services. Alrededor de 15 de casi 400 menores actualmente en centros de acogida de Heartland fueron separados de sus padres. Manténte informado/a Suscríbete a nuestra newsletter en español y te avisaremos cada vez que publiquemos una historia en español. Funcionarios de Heartland dijeron que los menores que están llegando a sus cinco albergues muestran “comportamientos consistentes con trauma, como ansiedad elevada, y temor excesivo” y han descrito al personal de Heartland “condiciones horribles e inhumanas” en las instalaciones de la frontera.La semana pasada, la Oficina del Inspector General del Departamento de Seguridad Nacional hizo un informe sobre la sobrepoblación peligrosa y las detenciones prolongadas de niños y adultos en instalaciones de la Patrulla Fronteriza en el Rio Grande Valley de Texas. Casi un tercio de los menores en las instalaciones habían estado encarcelados por más de 72 horas—una violación de los límites federales. Muchos de ellos tuvieron poco o ningún acceso a duchas o ropa limpia.Informes han descrito brotes de sarna, culebrilla, varicela y paperas en las instalaciones. Oficiales de Heartland dijeron que el aumento brusco de enfermedades contagiosas que están experimentando ahora es diferente a cualquier cosa que han visto antes.“Históricamente, hemos visto casos intermitentes de TB y varicela,” dijeron oficiales de Heartland en respuesta a preguntas de ProPublica Illinois. “Sin embargo, últimamente los vemos llegar en grupos.”Oficiales de Heartland, la más grande de las dos organizaciones que tienen contratos federales para albergar a menores inmigrantes en Illinois, no dijeron por cuánto rato se está manteniendo a los menores en cuarentena. Pero dijeron que convierten las habitaciones de un ocupante en salas de aislamiento médico cuando los niños son contagiosos, y que los niños son cuidados por médicos, asistentes de médico y enfermeras en plantilla, o son llevados a hospitales cuando es necesario.El renovado enfoque sobre la política de inmigración de la administración y las condiciones en centros de detención en la frontera ha, en meses recientes, provocado una nueva ola de protestas en Chicago y fomentado preguntas acerca de cómo se cuida a estos menores en el sistema de albergues de la nación. Heartland ha intentado distanciarse de las políticas de la administración. A finales del mes pasado, publicó un informe con datos sobre sus centros de acogida mostrando fotos de cuartos limpios y niños sentados en clase y jugando voleibol afuera. “Dejar a los niños solos en la frontera para que se valgan por sí mismos o a riesgo de ser detenidos en condiciones deplorables no es aceptable,” según el informe, que dice que la organización “está profundamente comprometida con el trato justo” a refugiados y solicitantes de asilo. “Las diferencias entre nuestros programas y lo que se está reportando sobre los centros de detención de la Patrulla Fronteriza son múltiples.”A diferencia de las instalaciones de la Patrulla Fronteriza, que son supervisadas por el Departamento de Seguridad Nacional, los albergues para menores inmigrantes son operados por agencias privadas bajo contrato con la Oficina de Reasentamiento de Refugiados del Departamento de Salud y Servicios Humanos. Los menores tienen que ser ubicados en instalaciones apropiadas para su edad y tener acceso a asistentes sociales, asesoramiento y educación mientras esperan para ser asignados a familias de acogida.Heartland, una filial de Heartland Alliance, tiene capacidad para cuidar a 396 menores en sus cinco albergues en Chicago. La semana pasada, Heartland estaba albergando a 374 menores, desde infantes a jóvenes de 17 años, según la agencia.El año pasado, ProPublica Illinois investigó la hermética red de centros de acogida de Heartland para menores inmigrantes en Illinois y descubrió problemas repetidos de supervisión negligente y condiciones preocupantes, entre ellas acusaciones de descuido y abuso físico y sexual. Funcionarios de protección infantil del estado han citado a Heartland por no brindar supervisión apropiada en casos en los cuales una empleada tuvo una supuesta relación sexual con un joven, niños tuvieron relaciones sexuales en una sala común, y numerosos casos de jóvenes fugados.El mes pasado, Heartland cerró una problemática red de cuatro albergues conocida colectivamente como Casa Guadalupe en el suburbio de Des Plaines.Después de los reportajes de ProPublica Illinois el año pasado, Heartland añadió nuevos puestos de trabajo, entrenamiento y otros recursos para ayudar mejor a sus empleados a trabajar con menores traumatizados. También dejó de contratar a empleados temporales. La organización ha luchado por años con un alto índice en la rotación de personal.“Hemos expandido nuestros recursos en servicios de salud clínicos y salud mental, asociándonos, por ejemplo, con varios servicios médicos y de asesoramiento externos para apoyar a los menores que llegan a nosotros buscando refugio,” dijeron oficiales de Heartland. “También hemos expandido las oportunidades para hacer excursiones y hemos fortalecido programas para desarrollar los talentos de los menores, como nuestros programas de hermanos y hermanas mayores.”Mientras Heartland cerraba albergues, otro operador mucho más pequeño abrió un nuevo centro. Maryville Academy, una agencia católica de bienestar infantil, abrió su tercer albergue en las afueras de Chicago la semana pasada y tiene planes para abrir otro en el barrio de Lakeview de la ciudad este mes. Esto aumentaría su capacidad a 105 menores. La expansión vino después de que el gobierno federal se pusiera en contacto con Maryville y otras organizaciones este año preguntando si podrían aceptar más niños, dijo la Hermana Catherine Ryan, directora ejecutiva de Maryville.La semana pasada, Maryville albergaba sobre 60 menores. Funcionarios federales avisaron a Maryville que algunos de los menores enviados a sus albergues podían haber estado expuestos a sarampión o varicela en la frontera, dijo Ryan. Pero hasta ahora ninguno de los menores que han llegado han tenido estas enfermedades. Sin embargo, dijo, “tomamos precauciones adicionales.”Los menores, dijo, siguen llegando angustiados. “Hemos visto consistentemente que los niños llegan habiendo experimentado trauma durante el viaje,” dijo Ryan.El verano pasado, ProPublica Illinois reportó que los menores estaban siendo albergados durante períodos más prolongados en instalaciones de Heartland—a veces varios meses—parcialmente por causa de demoras en convencer a potenciales familias de acogida en cumplir con nuevos requerimientos federales, como tomar las huellas dactilares de todo los miembros del hogar. En diciembre, el gobierno federal dejó de exigir que todos los miembros del hogar se sometieran a controles de sus huellas dactilares. La estancia promedio de menores en centros de Heartland es actualmente de 56 días, menos de la media de 90 días durante el momento más álgido de la política de tolerancia cero el verano pasado, dijo la organización. La duración media nacional fue 60 días en el año fiscal 2018, un aumento desde 34 días el año anterior.La caótica secuela de la política de tolerancia cero de Trump de separar a niños de sus padres el verano pasado también contribuyó al aumento de la duración de las estadías de menores en albergues, ProPublica Illinois determinó. En total, Heartland recibió a 99 niños separados de sus padres bajo la política de tolerancia cero. Personal de los centros dijeron que sintieron presión para reunir a estas familias primero, a veces en detrimento de otros menores en los albergues.La administración Trump dijo que terminó su política formal de separar a familias el verano pasado, pero las separaciones han continuado. El Houston Chronicle informó el mes pasado que el gobierno federal ha justificado cientos de separaciones basándose en pruebas a veces dudosas como que los padres tienen antecedentes criminales serios o vínculos con pandillas. ProPublica reportó esta semana sobre cómo las autoridades de inmigración usan bancos de datos secretos operados por policías y militares extranjeros para detectar vínculos con pandillas.De los aproximadamente 15 niños separados actualmente en centros de acogida en Chicago, la mayoría tienen un padre o madre con una acusación criminal anterior o pendiente, dijeron oficiales de Heartland. Algunos de esos niños separados han estado en albergues de Heartland hasta cinco meses.Heartland declinó dar detalles adicionales sobre los menores separados bajo su cuidado. Pero archivos sobre menores separados de sus padres, obtenidos por grupos que abogan por los inmigrantes, mostraron que entre el 20 de junio de 2018, cuando Trump firmó una orden ejecutiva para terminar la práctica, y marzo de 2019, nueve niños fueron enviados a albergues de Heartland.Ellos incluyen un bebé de Honduras y un niño de cuatro años de El Salvador.
When Fracking Companies Own the Gas Beneath Your Land
by Mayeta Clark When Beth Crowder and David Wentz bought their 351-acre property in West Virginia in 1975, they knew that they would only own the surface land, not the minerals beneath it. But it didn’t bother them.“They showed us gas wells, which were these two tracks in a field where a vehicle would go to, to check on them monthly or even less often,” Crowder recalled. “They were really very, very innocuous.”At that time, Crowder and Wentz did not envision what future drilling technology might entail and the scale of disruption it would bring to their lives. (They subsequently divorced, but both continue to live on the land.) Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. Since the mid-2000s, however, drilling companies have crisscrossed West Virginia using a technique that allowed them to drill horizontally from one property into gas deposits across a wide area. The boom is reshaping how West Virginia looks and sounds, as the Charleston Gazette-Mail and ProPublica documented last year.Before 2007, West Virginia issued only a few dozen permits for horizontal drilling. Over the last decade, the state has issued nearly 5,000.A new documentary released today by ProPublica and CBSN Originals shows how Crowder and Wentz found themselves right in the middle of this boom.In late 2010, Crowder ran into a survey crew on the dirt road leading to her home. She learned of plans for a large well site on the property, which would include a 13-well “pad.” Crowder and Wentz fought back against the gas driller on their property, Pittsburgh-based EQT. They hired a lawyer and sent letters telling EQT that it did not have the right to build the pad site.EQT went ahead anyway, clearing 42 acres of forest, some of which Wentz had cultivated for years for timber. The company put in a road, a 20-acre well pad and a storage pond.Drilling and fracking just one of the wells that EQT built on Crowder and Wentz’s property required almost 11 million gallons of water and 1.8 million pounds of sand, all of which had to be trucked to the site. By comparison, vertical wells drilled on the property previously used just 305,000 pounds of sand in total.West Virginia law states that mineral owners have the right to do what is “reasonably necessary” to access their minerals. But the legal concept of “reasonably necessary” was developed at a time when gas wells were a few pipes sticking out of the ground.The majority of gas that EQT extracted from the well site on the property did not come from beneath Crowder and Wentz’s land, but rather from neighboring properties. The 1901 lease gave the company the right to produce gas from beneath the land owned by Crowder and Wentz, but it did not give them permission to use their land to drill into neighboring tracts.In 2014, they sued EQT for trespassing. In 2017, they won a $190,000 victory in Doddridge County Circuit Court. EQT later appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court.Filing a lawsuit against a gas company in West Virginia is a difficult decision. Judges are elected in the state and some, including Supreme Court justices, receive donations from the industry for their election campaigns. Natural gas companies are also valued in communities where work is scarce.In the last decade, the number of jobs provided by the sector has risen from around 8,000 to over 18,000, with average salaries ranging from $67,000 to more than $117,000, compared with $45,000 for most private-sector jobs in West Virginia, according to an analysis of data collected by Workforce West Virginia. In 2018, more than half of the natural gas jobs were in the highest paid category, pipeline construction. But those jobs will likely decline in the next few years as the need for new pipelines diminishes.On June 5, the West Virginia Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Crowder and Wentz. The court said that natural gas companies must get permission from surface owners to use their land to drill into minerals under neighboring properties.“The right must be expressly obtained, addressed, or reserved in the parties’ deeds, leases, or other writings,” Justice John Hutchison wrote.For Crowder, Wentz and their lawyers, the decision was grounds for celebration.“The short answer is, we won. And we won big time,” David McMahon, the couple’s lawyer, told them over the phone.“It isn’t April Fool’s Day, is it?” Crowder asked, while Wentz, usually taciturn, cheered.Joshua Fershee, a West Virginia University law professor who followed the case, said that the decision is not going to stop the drilling, but it will cost drillers more. “This is just really about making sure that people are compensated for giving up their rights,” he said.A representative from EQT said in a statement last month that since November 2018, a new management team has been in charge of the company, and it has undergone a “cultural transformation.” The company now seeks “to maintain more cooperative relationships with landowners and the residents of the communities in which we operate.”
A Resolution Condemning Pipeline Challengers Passed Easily. A Pipeline Lobbyist Wrote It.
by Kate Mishkin, The Charleston Gazette-Mail CHARLESTON, W.Va. — It was getting late on March 7 in the West Virginia House of Delegates chamber.There were only two days left in the 60-day legislative session, and lawmakers had been voting for hours.By 8:30 p.m., delegates had moved past bills and onto resolutions — measures that don’t become law but express the legislative body’s sentiment. They acted on a batch of resolutions on a voice vote: One to name a Kanawha County bridge in honor of the late Charleston police Capt. Jerry Hill. Another proposed a study to see if struggling rural fire departments could be consolidated to save money. There was a resolution to designate the Mountain Cur (a medium-sized, rough-coated brown dog) as the state dog. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. But one resolution seemed different from the others, Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, said. He asked that House Resolution 11, titled “Recognizing the importance of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” be read and voted on separately.“I understand this is just a resolution and that it’s late, but I just want to make sure people have read this resolution,” said Hansen, one of two delegates to speak up against it.House Resolution 11, sponsored by nearly half the delegates, praised the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a major natural gas project. Then, the resolution sharply condemned the citizens’ groups that challenged the project in court, calling their legal challenge an “all-out assault” with the goal of “forcing its cancelation.”The resolution passed 80 to 17.What wasn’t mentioned on the House floor that night was that the resolution was drafted by the pipeline company itself. Bob Orndorff, a lobbyist for Dominion Energy, wrote the resolution and sent it to the House of Delegates, according to documents obtained through a public records request filed by the Charleston Gazette-Mail with the clerk of the House of Delegates.At the end of January, as the resolution was being drafted, Orndorff took five Republican delegates — Eric Nelson; Jason Harshbarger, who works for Dominion Energy; Scott Cadle; John Hott and Chris Phillips — out to dinner at Fazio’s, an old-style Italian restaurant in Charleston, according to a disclosure filed with the West Virginia Ethics Commission. The bill: $575.All of those delegates would sponsor House Resolution 11, which was introduced one week later.Harshbarger said he normally goes out to dinner with Orndorff during the legislative session, and that the dinner was “more as a social thing than anything.”(The other legislators did not return phone calls seeking comment.)Then, the day before the resolution passed on the floor, Orndorff, the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association and Antero Resources, the state’s largest gas producer, hosted a luncheon that cost $830 for the House Energy Committee, in the office of Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood, the resolution’s lead sponsor and chairman of the committee, another disclosure filing shows.On the floor the night the resolution passed, Anderson called natural gas pipelines “absolutely necessary.”It’s not abnormal for a lobbyist to provide insight or help draft legislation. But Orndorff’s resolution was different from other pieces of legislation because it singled out a specific group. It sheds light on the close relationship between West Virginia’s growing natural gas industry and its legislative branch, as the Gazette-Mail and ProPublica chronicled last year.“What I was trying to communicate to some legislators, what I thought was odd, was how it was directed at citizens who were pursuing mechanisms to make sure that laws are enforced. It seems almost like they were undermining their own authority at the Legislature,” said Angie Rosser, executive director for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, which lobbies on behalf of environmental groups.Orndorff confirmed that he wrote the resolution but said it was because Anderson asked him for a draft. There’s nothing unusual about that, he said — legislation has to start somewhere.“I gave them a draft and they took the draft and rewrote it, and they asked me for a resolution, so I said, ‘I’ll give you some talking points,’ and they took it from there,” Orndorff said in an interview.He also said: “I take delegates out to dinner all the time. I don’t think there’s a correlation between me feeding them and passing a resolution. It’s relationship-building.”Orndorff said he didn’t actually lobby for the resolution after it was introduced. Any other group was welcome to write its own resolution, too, he said.Anderson, however, said he didn’t know that Orndorff wrote it. “I had no knowledge of it,” he said. As for the luncheon in his office paid for in part by Orndorff, Anderson said such events are commonly sponsored by energy lobbyists. The resolution, Anderson said, “was not discussed at that luncheon. I don’t do business that way.”Anderson also noted that the draft he first saw, which a reporter told him was written by Orndorff, was not identical to the resolution that passed. But the wording changes were minor. One changes “the Atlantic Coast Pipeline” to “the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and others”; another deleted the words “extremist environmental” from the description of the groups that challenged the project.The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a 600-mile-long project primarily being built by Dominion Energy that will ship natural gas from Northern West Virginia into North Carolina. Although developers say the project is key to transporting gas to the Mid-Atlantic region, citizens’ groups argue that regulators were hasty in their approval of the pipeline. In December, a federal appeals court sided with the citizens’ groups and vacated a key permit, saying the U.S. Forest Service had abandoned its responsibility to protect national forests. Earlier that month, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also issued a stay to the project’s permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. By March, construction on the project had been stalled for three months after the court’s decisions. Developers blamed the environmental groups’ “assaults and delaying tactics.”“These unwarranted attacks have resulted in regulatory and legal proceedings that have repeatedly delayed both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the related Supply Header Project,” the resolution said.Dominion Energy is among several companies trying to tap into the booming Marcellus Shale formation by building a natural gas pipeline. The work stoppage forced the company to lay off about 4,500 workers and pushed the project’s completion date back by about three years, according to a Dominion spokesman. Originally projected to cost about $4.5 billion, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline might now cost $7 billion. Its developers are appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.“Forty-eight hundred men and women lost their job a week before Christmas. Now, your paper doesn’t seem to be sensitive to that,” Orndorff said when asked about his role in the resolution. “Obviously, you will write a story saying that Dominion Energy is trying to influence the process. Yes, that’s our right to do that.”Some of those workers were able to find new jobs quickly; some were out of work for longer, said Steve White, director of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation.“What I would say is, it was our workers that got hurt when this project was put on hold,” White said. “We really wish that, whatever the problems are, they would be resolved and that our workers would not be the ones to bear the brunt of the legal battles.”The Atlantic Coast Pipeline isn’t the only multibillion-dollar project that has been stopped after an appeals court ruled that federal agencies had neglected to follow their own rules. The Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-mile-long pipeline that will run from Northern West Virginia into Virginia, also was temporarily halted last year after the court said the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management ignored rules that protect rivers and forests. That pipeline also is under federal investigation for possible violations of the Clean Water Act. Construction is still underway, with a targeted completion by the end of this year.A review last year by the Gazette-Mail and ProPublica showed how federal and state agencies tasked with enforcing the nation’s environmental laws repeatedly cleared roadblocks and expedited natural gas projects like the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines.“It concerns me that, even with all the consequences we’ve seen because of this hasty process or shortcutting process, we still have a resolution where they’re pushing it aside and saying, ‘As quickly as possible, let’s get this done,’” Rosser said. “That remains distressing and really not considering the communities and peoples’ properties being damaged when laws are skirted.”A Resolution Two Months in the MakingAccording to records obtained by the Gazette-Mail, the groundwork for the resolution began in January.On Jan. 8, a day before the regular legislative session resumed, Orndorff stood in front of the Joint Committee on Natural Gas Development in a Senate committee room.He had a request.“I think it’s important for the Legislature to stand up to these rogue environmental groups to say, ‘You’re going to impact our economy in West Virginia, you’re going to impact job growth in West Virginia,’” Orndorff said, referring to the citizens’ groups that had challenged the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife in federal court.“Do a resolution supporting condemning them,” Orndorff said. “I think it’s important for West Virginia to go on record that the end result of their tactics hurt the state economy of West Virginia.”A simple resolution, like House Resolution 11, is read over once before it’s adopted or rejected, and it doesn’t require action by the other house or the governor. A bill, on the other hand, is formally introduced in the House or Senate before it’s considered in committees, read three times and sent to the other house where it’s subject to the same process. It can also be vetoed by the governor.A few hours after the committee meeting, Orndorff sent an email to two staffers and another Dominion lobbyist with a note: “Attached is the resolution” we “spoke about today” and a copy of his draft, dated Jan. 7 — the day before he presented to the joint committee.The resolution he wrote said the Legislature “categorically condemns these irrational, counterproductive and economically damaging assaults on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and other urgently needed energy infrastructure” and said “some extremist environmental groups have launched an all-our [sic] assault on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, with the ultimate aim of forcing its cancellation.”Almost three weeks later, Robert Akers, the chief lawyer for the House Energy Committee and staff on the Joint Committee, wrote back to Orndorff. The resolution draft Akers sent was almost identical to Orndorff’s first draft.On the night the resolution was considered, which was one night after the luncheon Orndorff hosted for the House Energy Committee, Hansen, the delegate who opposed it, contrasted this resolution with one read right before. The other resolution, adopted on a voice vote without any debate, recognized “the importance of West Virginia’s energy resources and critical energy infrastructure to support economic development and national security.” Hansen, who is an environmental scientist, didn’t have any problem with the message or language of the other bill, he later said.As for House Resolution 11, he said: “I just thought this was such an irresponsible issue, I had no choice but to speak up. It was essentially the legislative branch saying we don’t want pipeline companies to follow the law, and that’s a very irresponsible stance for the Legislature to take.”“The real attack is in the resolution itself,” Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, said on the floor.Delegate Andrew Byrd, D-Kanawha, voted for the resolution. He said he didn’t realize Orndorff wrote it.“Ideas can come from your constituents, but drafting is usually put together by a delegate and reviewed by a delegate,” Byrd said. “I’m kind of shocked to hear that” the resolution was drafted by a lobbyist.Asked whether he’d vote again in favor, he looked at the resolution.After a pause, Byrd said he would — the “overall concept” was enough to outweigh the harsh language.
Immigrant Children Sent to Chicago Shelters Are Traumatized and Sick, in Some Instances With Chicken Pox or Tuberculosis
by Melissa Sanchez, Jodi S. Cohen and Duaa Eldeib Leer en Español.The Trump administration is sending immigrant children who are alone, afraid and sick with fever, chicken pox and even tuberculosis to shelters in Chicago, where they are further isolated to prevent the spread of disease, according to one of the nonprofit organizations caring for them.In yet another byproduct of the administration’s immigration policy, many of those children also are arriving increasingly traumatized after spending a week or longer in dirty and overcrowded U.S. Border Patrol facilities.Some of the children, who range from toddlers to teens, have been torn from their mothers and fathers at the border in spite of the government’s pledge to end separations, said officials from the nonprofit, Heartland Human Care Services. Around 15 of the nearly 400 children currently in Heartland shelters were separated from their parents.Heartland officials said the children now arriving at their five shelters are exhibiting “behaviors consistent with trauma like heightened anxiety, and fearfulness” and have described to staff “horrible and inhumane conditions” at border facilities. Dive Deeper Into Our Reporting Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois reporter every week Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. Last week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s independent watchdog reported on dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention of children and adults in Border Patrol facilities in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Nearly a third of the children in the facilities had been detained for more than 72 hours — a violation of federal limits. Many had little or no access to showers or clean clothes.Reports have described outbreaks of scabies, shingles, chickenpox and mumps at the facilities. Heartland officials said the spike in contagious diseases they are now experiencing is unlike anything they’ve seen before.“Historically, we have seen intermittent cases of TB and chickenpox,” Heartland officials said this week in response to questions from ProPublica Illinois. “However, lately, we are seeing them come in clusters.”Officials at Heartland, the larger of two organizations with federal contracts to shelter immigrant children in Illinois, did not say for how long children are being quarantined. But they said that they convert single-occupancy bedrooms into medical isolation rooms when children are contagious, and that the children are treated by staff doctors, physician assistants and nurses or taken to hospitals when needed.Renewed attention to the administration’s immigration policy and conditions at border detention centers has, in recent months, led to a new wave of protests in Chicago and questions about how those children are cared for in the nation’s shelter system. Heartland has tried to distance itself from administration policies. Late last month, it published a fact sheet about its shelters showing photos of tidy bedrooms as well as children sitting in class and outside playing volleyball.“Leaving children alone at the border to fend for themselves or at risk of detention in deplorable conditions is unacceptable,” according to the fact sheet, which says the organization is “deeply committed to the fair treatment” of refugees and asylum-seekers. “The differences between our programs and what is being reported about Border Patrol detention facilities are many.” Unlike Border Patrol facilities, which are overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, shelters for immigrant children are run by private agencies under contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Children are supposed to be placed in age-appropriate facilities and have access to social workers, counseling and education while they wait to be placed with sponsors.Heartland, a subsidiary of the larger Heartland Alliance, has the capacity to care for 396 children at its five shelters in Chicago. As of last week, Heartland was housing 374 children, ranging from infants to 17-year-olds, according to the agency.ProPublica Illinois last year investigated Heartland’s secretive network of shelters for immigrant children in Illinois and found repeated problems of lax supervision and troubling conditions, including allegations of physical and sexual abuse and neglect. State child welfare officials had cited Heartland for failures to provide appropriate supervision in cases involving an employee having an alleged sexual relationship with a detained teen, children having sex in a common room and numerous runaways.Last month, Heartland shut down a troubled complex of four shelters known collectively as Casa Guadalupe in suburban Des Plaines.Following ProPublica Illinois reporting last year, Heartland added new positions, training and other resources to better help employees work with traumatized children. It also stopped employing temporary workers. The organization has, for years, struggled with high employee turnover.“We have expanded our resources for clinical and mental health services, partnering, for instance, with a number of outside medical and counseling services to support the children who come to us seeking refuge,” Heartland officials said. “We have also expanded opportunities for field trips and bolstered programming to build on children’s talents, such as our big brothers/big sisters programming.” As Heartland closed shelters, another much smaller operator opened a new facility. Maryville Academy, a Catholic child welfare agency, opened its third shelter in suburban Chicago last week and plans to open a fourth in the city’s Lakeview neighborhood this month. That would bring its capacity to 105 children. The expansion came after the federal government reached out to Maryville and other operators this year asking if they could accept more children, said Sister Catherine Ryan, Maryville’s executive director.As of late last week, Maryville housed about 60 children. Federal officials notified Maryville that some of the children sent to its shelters may have been exposed to measles or chickenpox at the border, Ryan said. But so far none of the children who have arrived have had either. Still, she said, “we take extra precautions.”The children, she said, continue to arrive in distress. “We’ve consistently seen that children come having experienced trauma on the journey,” Ryan said.Last summer, ProPublica Illinois reported that children were being housed longer in Heartland facilities — sometimes several months — in part due to delays in convincing potential sponsors to comply with new federal requirements, such as fingerprinting all household members. In December, the federal government stopped requiring all household members to submit to fingerprint checks.The average length of stay for children in Heartland facilities is currently 56 days, down from 90 days during the height of the zero-tolerance policy last summer, the organization said. The average length of stay nationally was 60 days in fiscal year 2018, up from 34 days the year before.The chaotic aftermath of Trump’s zero-tolerance policy of separating children from their parents last summer also contributed to increasing lengths of stay for the children in shelters, ProPublica Illinois found. In all, Heartland received 99 children separated from their parents under the zero-tolerance policy. Shelter staff said they felt pressure to reunite those families first, which sometimes came at the expense of other children in the shelters. The Trump administration said it ended its formal policy of separating families last summer, but the separations have continued. The Houston Chronicle reported last month that the federal government has justified hundreds of separations based on sometimes dubious evidence that parents have serious criminal records or gang affiliations. ProPublica reported this week on how immigration authorities are using secret databases run by foreign police and militaries to identify gang ties.Of the 15 or so separated children now at shelters in Chicago, most have a parent with a prior or pending criminal charge, Heartland officials said. Some of these separated children have been in Heartland shelters for as long as five months.Heartland declined to provide additional details about the separated children in its care. But records obtained by a group of immigration advocacy groups on children separated from their parents showed that between June 20, 2018, when Trump signed an executive order to end the practice, and March 2019, nine children were sent to Heartland shelters.They include an infant from Honduras and a 4-year-old from El Salvador.
Border Patrol Condemns Secret Facebook Group, but Reveals Few Specifics
by A.C. Thompson Long known for its insular culture and tendency toward secrecy, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency is saying little in the aftermath of news reports exposing a vulgar and hateful Facebook group for current and retired Border Patrol agents, including supervisors.While CBP officials have publicly condemned the offensive social media posts, they’ve disclosed few details about the steps the agency has taken to identify employees who behaved inappropriately online and hold them accountable.The agency, which is responsible for policing the nation’s borders and official ports of entry, declined to say how many employees CBP has disciplined or how many remain under investigation. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. In response to questions from ProPublica, a CBP spokesperson would only say that “several” employees had been placed on restricted duty as a result of postings in the three-year-old Facebook group, and that so far no one had been suspended from the patrol, a more serious disciplinary action. The agency would not say whether the agents now on restricted duty are allowed to have contact with the public, and it refused to answer questions about specific agents who appear to have made posts celebrating sexual violence and demeaning migrants and women.The “majority of employees who have been positively identified” as being active in the Facebook group have been issued letters instructing them stop posting objectionable material, said the spokesperson, who declined to specify how many people had received the letters, described as “cease and desist” notices.“This secrecy is unacceptable,” said Joaquin Castro, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and representative for San Antonio. “This secrecy is dangerous to human life. CBP is perhaps the least transparent law enforcement agency in the country.”ProPublica last week revealed the existence of the secret 9,500-member Facebook group, called “I’m 10-15,” a reference to the Border Patrol code for “alien in custody.” In the private group, current and former Border Patrol agents, including supervisors, mocked dead migrants, called congresswomen “scum buckets,” and uploaded misogynistic images, including an illustration of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a harsh critic of CBP, engaged in oral sex with a migrant in a detention facility. A later story by The Intercept published additional graphic posts from the group and information about its members.CBP policies bar employees from making “abusive, derisive, profane, or harassing statements or gestures” about any person or group on private or public social media. Among those who apparently made egregious posts is Thomas Hendricks, a 20-year veteran of the Border Patrol who serves as a supervisor of the Calexico station, a desert outpost in Southern California’s Imperial County. Hendricks — or someone using his Facebook account — uploaded a photo illustration of President Donald Trump forcing the head of Ocasio-Cortez toward his crotch. The image was accompanied by a cryptic message that appeared to refer to prior issues within the patrol: “That’s right bitches. The masses have spoken and today democracy won. I have returned.”Hendricks did not respond to requests for comment from ProPublica.An agent at the Alamogordo station in New Mexico, Mario Marcus Ponce, apparently described Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso, Texas, both Democrats, as “hoes” in a discussion in the Facebook group. Ponce did not answer calls and text messages from ProPublica.CBP would not discuss the current status of Hendricks and Ponce or two other agents identified by ProPublica. “We cannot comment on individual cases,” the CBP spokesperson said.Unlike many big city police departments, the Border Patrol generally divulges little information about agents found to have engaged in misconduct or those involved in shooting incidents. At times, the agency has refused even to reveal the names of agents facing trial on criminal corruption charges.“They are not used to being questioned. They are not used to be scrutinized,” said Josiah Heyman, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at El Paso who has been studying the border since 1982.The Facebook group, he said, is “an indicator of broader problems” within the Border Patrol. “There is an attitude within CBP and Border Patrol that everybody crossing the border is invading the United States and coming to do bad things,” he said. While Heyman noted that there is little solid statistical data on the views held by Border Patrol agents, he pointed to a survey of approximately 1,100 migrants who’d been deported to Mexico. Nearly a quarter of the respondents said they’d been verbally abused by U.S. government employees, primarily Border Patrol. “It is an enormous number,” said Heyman, director of the school’s Center for Inter-American and Border Studies.In a statement issued last week, Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost said the Facebook images and comments aren’t representative of the patrol as a whole. “These posts are completely inappropriate and contrary to the honor and integrity I see—and expect—from our agents day in and day out,” she said. “Any employees found to have violated our standards of conduct will be held accountable.”At least two oversight bodies are now looking into the conduct of Border Patrol agents on social media. One inquiry is being led by CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility, essentially an internal affairs unit staffed with professional investigators.In Congress, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, led by Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings has opened an investigation and committee staffers are currently gathering facts. Cummings has requested that Kevin McAleenan, the acting chief of the Department of Homeland Security — CBP’s parent organization — testify before the committee this week about “racist, sexist, and xenophobic posts by Border Patrol agents,” as well as reports of inhumane conditions and severe overcrowding at CBP detention facilities. The congressman has also instructed Facebook to turn over digital evidence related to the group. “The Committee requests that you preserve all documents, communications, and other data related to the ‘I’m 10-15’ group. This includes log files and metadata,” Cummings wrote in a letter to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg.At the House Homeland Security Committee, chair Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, has called on the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security to mount an investigation into the Facebook group.The inspector general’s office would not comment on whether it has opened an inquiry.For his part, Castro said he intends to ask some questions of his own. “I am going to set up a call with Secretary McAleenan to have a conversation about the discipline and accountability process within DHS,” Castro, a Democrat, said. “I don’t know if there is any accountability. I don’t know if there is any discipline.”
ProPublica Illinois and ProPublica Earn Three NABJ Salute to Excellence Awards Nominations
by ProPublica Three projects from ProPublica Illinois and ProPublica were named finalists for the National Association of Black Journalists’ 2019 Salute to Excellence Awards.The Driven Into Debt series, begun by ProPublica Illinois and continued in partnership with WBEZ Chicago, received a nomination in the Digital Media - Online News Project category. The investigation revealed that Chicago’s parking ticket system has been driving motorists into bankruptcy through fines and fees that unfairly target majority-black neighborhoods and people who can least afford to pay. The reporting led to a number of policy proposals and reforms, including city officials agreeing to refund or dismiss 35,000 duplicate citations and calls for action from Chicago mayoral election candidates. ProPublica Illinois reporter Melissa Sanchez and WBEZ Chicago’s digital editor Elliott Ramos collaborated on the series, with contributions from ProPublica Illinois news applications developer David Eads and former data reporter Sandhya Kambhampati. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. ProPublica’s Miseducation was also nominated in the Digital Media - Online News Project category. The online news application allows users across the country to look up racial disparities in education opportunity and school discipline for more than 96,000 schools and 17,000 districts using data from the 2015-16 school year. The many local stories informed by the Miseducation database included examinations of the history of segregation and resistance to integration in Charlottesville, Virginia, and how discrimination has fueled high school dropouts on a Montana reservation. Eads, ProPublica reporter Annie Waldman, news applications developer Lena V. Groeger and New York Times correspondent Erica L. Green collaborated on the project.“I Don’t Want to Shoot You, Brother,” an investigative narrative about a fatal police shooting in Weirton, West Virginia, was named a finalist in the Digital Media - Single Story category. Written by ProPublica senior editor Joe Sexton and published in partnership with The Frontline Dispatch, the story highlights how police officer Stephen Mader opted to defuse a tense situation rather than shooting a young man, and the surprising ramifications of his decision.ProPublica Illinois reporting fellow Lakeidra Chavis was also nominated in the Radio News Series Category (Top 15 Markets) for “Chicago’s Black Communities Hit Hardest in Opioid Overdoses.” The story, which aired while she worked at WBEZ Chicago before joining ProPublica Illinois, highlighted how the opioid epidemic deeply affects African Americans in the city, even as most narratives about the crisis have focused on white, suburban areas. WBEZ Chicago senior news editor Rob Wildeboer also contributed to the project.For a full list of finalists and to learn more about the NABJ Salute to Excellence Awards, visit nabj.org.
Help Us Investigate: Ask a Member of Congress About Hate Crimes
by Rachel Glickhouse As part of our Documenting Hate project, we’ve been collaborating with newsrooms around the country to report on hate crimes, bias incidents and white supremacist violence. More than 170 newsrooms joined the effort since we launched. The coalition has reported on a neo-Nazi group tied to several homicides, hate crime prosecutions, racist harassment in schools and hate incidents targeting Latinos, among many other stories of bias and brutality.Our database of tips submitted by readers of their own experiences with hate crimes and bias violence are clear evidence that this is a national problem.We want to know what members of Congress really think about this issue beyond offering thoughts and prayers, and whether they plan to do anything about it. So today we’re launching a collaborative reporting initiative to get answers — and we need you.We need local reporters to contact their members of Congress to ask two short questions and to report back to us on the answers. We’ll then gather and share the results.There are 535 legislators to contact; that’s why this is a team effort.What to AskAsk your representative and/or senators:
ProPublica Adds Four Reporters to Its Washington News Staff
by ProPublica ProPublica announced on Tuesday that reporters Akilah Johnson, Lizzie Presser, Mike Spies and Maryam Jameel will be joining its Washington, D.C., team this summer.Johnson and Presser will focus on narrative policy stories on health care while Spies will be investigating federal agencies. Jameel, the Washington newsroom’s engagement reporter, will work to mobilize communities around civic issues and use their input to hold officials to account.Akilah Johnson just completed a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship, focusing on the ways news organizations can improve access and credibility in underserved communities. She comes to ProPublica after eight years with The Boston Globe, most recently as a reporter covering politics and immigration. Her work on the Globe’s Spotlight Team investigation, “Boston. Racism. Image. Reality,” exploring the city’s fraught history of race relations was named a 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist in local reporting. Johnson was also part of the Globe’s reporting team covering the Boston Marathon bombing, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in breaking news. Previously, she was an education reporter for the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, as well as a Metpro fellow and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.Lizzie Presser is currently a contributing reporter for ProPublica. She was previously a contributing writer for The California Sunday Magazine, where her work spanned a wide range of social justice and labor issues, including how barriers to high-quality, clinical abortions have led many women to choose home abortions instead; the human toll of deportation on the U.S.-born children who are left behind; and the brutal exploitation of cruise ship workers. Presser has also written for The Guardian, This American Life, The Independent and elsewhere. She has twice been recognized as a finalist for the National Magazine Award and the Livingston Award.Mike Spies is a senior reporter for The Trace, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to expanding coverage of guns in the U.S. Over the past four years, he has produced deep, high-impact investigative projects focusing on the gun lobby, including his 2017 series, “The Gunfighters,” examining the unchecked influence of the NRA. Spies has been recognized as a finalist for the Livingston Award, and his work on the NRA won the 2019 New York Press Club Award for continuing coverage. Before The Trace, Spies was a senior reporter for Vocativ. His byline has appeared in The New Yorker, Politico Magazine and Rolling Stone, among other publications.Maryam Jameel comes to ProPublica from The Center for Public Integrity, where she has reported on workers’ rights since 2014. Her most recent stories have focused on racial discrimination in U.S. workplaces and enforcement of the Civil Rights Act’s employment protections. Jameel’s previous reporting has dug into toxic workplace exposures, wage theft by federal contractors and other topics. She has also been a freelance contributor to NPR’s Latino USA and worked for Al Jazeera English, public radio station KQED and StoryCorps.“We’re very pleased to welcome Akilah, Mike, Maryam and Lizzie to ProPublica’s D.C. reporting team as we double down on our Washington coverage,” senior editor Marilyn Thompson said. “They bring an outstanding record of innovative, compelling journalism that will be key in helping us break through the noise, especially in the run-up to 2020, as we dig into the federal government and the important accountability stories that need to be told.”
Immigration Officials Use Secretive Gang Databases to Deny Migrant Asylum Claims
by Melissa del Bosque With scant public notice, federal immigration officials are relying on databases run by foreign police and militaries to check whether migrants crossing the United States border have gang affiliations, which would allow officials to detain and eventually deport them.The information is being provided through a new “fusion” intelligence-gathering center in El Salvador that is funded by the State Department and works in tandem with the Department of Homeland Security.But legal experts and human rights advocates say the government has kept the use of databases at the border largely secret, subverting potential challenges to the reliability of the information in them. An attorney in Texas recently discovered that her Salvadoran client had been falsely accused of being in the MS-13 gang based on intelligence from the center. The man was jailed in a maximum-security facility for violent criminals for six months, and his two children were taken away.Government attorneys, pressed repeatedly in court to provide evidence, eventually dropped the allegation of gang membership against him without explanation. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. Officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection declined to answer questions about the fusion center, including where and how often the gang intelligence is being used along the border and whether it has been the cause of other family separations.The fusion center was created in May 2017 as part of a multinational initiative called Grupo Conjunto de Inteligencia Fronteriza, or GCIF, and funded through the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, which supports border security and police and military training programs in Central America as part of the U.S.-funded Central America Regional Security Initiative.Very little is publicly known about the center, based in San Salvador, but in testimony before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee in January 2018, Richard H. Glenn, then an acting deputy assistant secretary of state in the bureau, said that several Salvadoran police officers had been sent to the border in McAllen, Texas, for eight months in 2017 to “conduct research and report information to DHS” and to “help DHS, state and local law enforcement identify, arrest or deny entry to gang members.”The officers later returned to El Salvador, Glenn testified, to become part of a permanent team of 10 police officers, five migration officials and two corrections officers working with agents from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI’s joint gang task force in Central America.Glenn praised the new intelligence center’s successes, noting that in less than a year, it had allowed them to identify “240 MS-13 members not previously known to U.S. law enforcement, and 46 not previously known to Salvadoran authorities.” It is unclear where these identifications took place or what action resulted.Salvadoran gangs, especially MS-13, have been a frequent fixation for President Donald Trump who has referred to them as “animals” who “pour into and infest our country” despite the gang’s relatively small presence in the United States. At the Department of Justice, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed prosecutors to aggressively pursue gang-related immigration offenses. Read More He Drew His School Mascot — and ICE Labeled Him a Gang Member How high schools have embraced the Trump administration’s crackdown on MS-13, and destroyed immigrant students’ American dreams. But legal experts and human rights advocates said the reliance on Salvadoran police as analysts at the fusion center raises a host of troubling questions, including how the analysts are vetted and whether the gang intelligence is verified before being used by U.S. immigration officials to deny asylum-seekers.“There’s a lot of gang infiltration and influence on the police force in El Salvador,” said Geoff Thale, vice president of programs for the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit human rights group.“Do I think there’s retaliatory data that gets entered because cops are pissed off at somebody or because a street guy is paying off a cop to only put down names of his rivals on the gang list? Yeah, I think that’s very likely,” said Thale, who has worked on issues involving human rights, security and law enforcement in El Salvador since the mid-’80s.In 2018, after then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Vice President Mike Pence visited Central America in the wake of the family separation crisis, the center, at their urging, was expanded to include intelligence from Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. In an email, Noel Clay, a State Department spokesperson, would not specify what type of information was being shared, only that it “comes from the criminal and intelligence databases of each participating country.”Every analyst working at the center is vetted as required by law, according to another State Department spokesperson who declined to provide his name. But critics of the vetting process say that it isn’t transparent, and that human rights violations still occur. An investigation by the United Nations in 2018 found that U.S.-funded police forces in El Salvador had falsely accused people of gang membership and committed extrajudicial killings. The State Department, in its 2018 “Country Report on Human Rights Practices in El Salvador,” noted extensive police involvement in arbitrary arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings.In the United States, gang databases have long been criticized for disproportionately targeting people of color and for containing false or retaliatory information, which is difficult to remove from a person’s record, even with proof of innocence.“These are internal police lists and not public,” Thale said. “I would be shocked if there’s a way to clear your name from the database in El Salvador, because most of the time you can’t even do it here in the United States.”Clay, the State Department spokesperson, said if a person is falsely accused of membership in a gang as a result of information from the center, it would be up to each country’s law enforcement agency to correct the problem. “This is because the information shared through the GCIF platform is proprietary information owned by the host country,” Clay said.Efrén Olivares, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project who has worked on hundreds of family separation and asylum cases, said that what the State Department is asking is impossible. “The whole reason people seek asylum is because their own government can’t protect them or is complicit in the violence,” he said. “Returning home is not an option.” Read More What’s It Like for an Immigrant Child to Have a Glimpse of the American Dream, Then Have It Taken Away? The Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy separated kids and parents, putting the children in foster care, where many of them got a taste of a life much better than the one they left. What happens when they land back home? The fusion center has also begun expanding its gang intelligence network into the United States by working with local police departments. Analysts have worked with police in Chelsea Massachusetts, and the Suffolk County Police Department on New York’s Long Island, Clay said. Glenn, in his testimony before congress, said the Suffolk County police submitted a list of 454 people suspected of having a gang affiliation to the center. Analysts then identified and provided the Police Department with “potential residential locations of known gang members and individuals wanted in El Salvador,” he said.Several immigration attorneys representing asylum-seekers along the border said they were unaware of the existence of the fusion center and now wonder how often its intelligence is being used — and whether it may be wrongly labeling migrants as criminals.Last year, ProPublica wrote about the case of Julio, a migrant from El Salvador who was separated from his 4-year-old-son in McAllen, Texas, after the Border Patrol alleged that he was in a gang. Julio’s attorney, Georgia Evangelista, said immigration officials never told her what evidence they had to support the allegation, nor did they explain where they got the information. Evangelista challenged the allegation during a court hearing in Julio’s asylum case. But the government attorneys said they couldn’t discuss the evidence because it was confidential.Eventually, Julio was released on a $8,000 bond and reunited with his son. Since the asylum hearing, the government has dropped any mention of the gang allegation. “If they want to accuse him of being a gang member, they have to tell us what the evidence is so that we can properly respond,” Evangelista said recently. “I don’t believe there is any evidence. That’s why they’re not making the allegation anymore.”Attorney Laura Peña, who represents Carlos, the 36-year-old Salvadoran man accused of being in MS-13, only discovered the center by chance after an official charged with overseeing family shelters referenced it in an affidavit in his case. The official said the information identifying him as a gang member came from El Salvador and had been put into a “U.S. database” by the State Department.The mention of the database piqued Peña’s interest as a former State Department employee. Peña said that information sharing between U.S. immigration officials and Central American countries has taken place for years, but that it has largely been limited to people with active arrest warrants and criminal convictions for use in deportation proceedings. The difference now, Peña said, is that it is being used to ferret out alleged gang members and separate families. Carlos, near his home in Washington state, was falsely accused of being a member of MS-13 based on intelligence from the center in El Salvador. (David Ryder, special to ProPublica) Like Julio, Peña’s client, Carlos, was separated from his children after agents said a background check showed that he was a gang member. Carlos and his two children, ages 7 and 11, had arrived in South Texas seeking asylum five months after Trump signed an executive order ending family separations and after a federal judge ruled that families could only be separated if a parent is mentally unfit or a danger to the child.Peña believes the Trump administration is using the new gang intelligence initiative to undermine the intent of the judge’s ruling, so it can quickly deport more families. Once a person is flagged as having a gang affiliation, they are fast-tracked for removal.Carlos, who asked that only his first name be used because he fears persecution from gangs in El Salvador, said he told the agents he’d never been in a gang and provided them with an official letter from the Ministry of Justice in El Salvador certifying that he had no criminal record. He also gave them a letter from his former employer of several years vouching for his good moral character, he said.The agents didn’t believe him, he said, and searched him repeatedly for gang tattoos. “I told them I’ve never been in a gang,” Carlos said. “And the agent said your government is saying you are. I asked him to show me the information.”The agents refused, he said and told him “because I was a gang member my children couldn’t be with me anymore,” he said. “And after I was deported, my children would be put up for adoption.”Peña and another pro bono attorney challenged Carlos’ detention and the family separation in federal court in Washington, D.C., on constitutional grounds, which prevented Carlos from being immediately deported without his children. Peña said they only discovered the false intelligence from El Salvador because they’d gone to court, which does not happen in most family separation cases. During the hearing, government attorneys maintained that since Carlos was flagged by databases as a member of MS-13, he should be deported.After six months in a jail in Laredo, Texas, and extensive negotiations with government attorneys, Carlos was finally granted a chance to file for asylum. He was released on bond in May after passing his credible fear interview. At the bond hearing, the government attorney made no mention of the gang allegation and agreed to his release. Throughout, Peña said the government attorneys never provided the evidence linking Carlos with MS-13.The Department of Justice and Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to ProPublica’s requests for comment.“It’s probably been at least $100,000 in legal fees, pro bono on this case — but that’s what it takes,” Peña said. “You have to move heaven and earth.”Both Carlos and Peña worry that the gang allegation still remains somewhere in his government file.Carlos, now reunited with his two children, said he wants to clear his record, but he doesn’t know how, and he can’t return to El Salvador because it would be a death sentence. “I came here seeking protection and because I had no other choice,” he said. “And I was accused of being in a gang, when I was fleeing the gangs, all based on evidence I’ve never seen.”
ProPublica Is Expanding Its Local Reporting Network to Youngstown, Ohio
by ProPublica ProPublica announced Monday that it will immediately open up a spot in its Local Reporting Network for a local news organization to cover accountability issues in Youngstown, Ohio, after the region’s only daily newspaper, The Vindicator, announced it will close at the end of next month.Under the program, which currently works with 20 local partners across the country, ProPublica pays the salary and a stipend for benefits so news organizations can devote a full-time reporter to work on an accountability journalism project for a year. ProPublica also offers editing support, as well as data, research, engagement, audience and production/design assistance.“What’s going on in Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley cries out for solid investigative reporting,” said Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica’s editor in chief. “We created the Local Reporting Network to fill that critically important need.”News organizations and reporters interested in applying for the Youngstown reporting spot should fill out this form and describe what they plan to investigate. Applications are due by July 22. The news organization we select will receive funding for the salary and benefits of a full-time reporter through June 2020. (Freelance reporters can apply, but they need to secure the backing of an Ohio-based news organization willing to run their work.)The news unfolding in Youngstown and its surrounding area, which has a population of more than 500,000, requires journalistic attention, Engelberg said.General Motors recently closed its plant in neighboring Lordstown, which made the Chevrolet Cruze, and eliminated as many as 1,700 hourly positions. An electric vehicle startup has been in talks to buy the plant, but a deal hasn’t been finalized. The plant’s closure is expected to have broad effects, including on small parts manufacturers that relied on the GM facility for work.Youngstown is also struggling with the quality of its school system, which was taken over by the state in 2015. A review last year by the Ohio Department of Education found that the district remains severely challenged, failing key metrics for educating kids.Youngstown was the hometown of James Traficant, who was expelled from the U.S. House of Representatives after he was convicted of racketeering, bribery and fraud. He died in 2014. The area’s current congressman, Rep. Tim Ryan, is running for president.ProPublica is no stranger to Youngstown. In 2012, ProPublica and Engelberg worked with The News Outlet at Youngstown State University to provide advice on investigative projects. Engelberg visited the campus and conducted weekly video calls with reporters and editors to provide ongoing advice. The reporters worked on stories about charter schools, lobbying conflicts by a member of the state school board and nursing home abuse.The impact of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network has been felt widely.In Indiana last year, the South Bend Tribune, working with ProPublica senior reporter Ken Armstrong, reported on how police officers in Elkhart, Indiana, beat a handcuffed man and about how the police chief promoted officers despite records of discipline. As a result of those articles, the police chief was forced to resign, an independent investigation was launched and the officers were criminally charged. The mayor of Elkhart also abandoned his reelection effort.This year, WNYC, another LRN partner, reported on how a company in Camden, New Jersey, provided a false answer on an application for tax breaks, leading the state to freeze the tax break pending further investigation.The Anchorage Daily News, in a first-of-its-kind investigation, found that one in three communities in Alaska has no local law enforcement. No state troopers to stop an active shooter, no village police officers to break up family fights, not even untrained city or tribal cops to patrol the streets. Following that coverage, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr visited Alaska and later declared a state of emergency, releasing millions in federal funds to devote to the problem.In Rhode Island, The Public’s Radio reported how 911 call takers were not trained to provide CPR instructions by phone and about people who died after those call takers failed to provide proper guidance. The state legislature is poised to add money for training in the coming year’s budget.And MLK50, a nonprofit news organization in Memphis, Tennessee, reported on how the largest hospital system sued and garnished the wages of thousands of poor patients, including its own employees, for unpaid medical debts. Within days, the hospital suspended the lawsuits and said it would reevaluate its financial assistance and collections policies.Again, applications are due by July 22. Questions should be sent to local.reporting@propublica.org.
New York Is Investigating Whether Facebook Lets Advertisers Discriminate
by Ariana Tobin New York state’s Department of Financial Services has launched an investigation into reports that advertisers can use Facebook’s targeted advertising tools to discriminate against protected groups of people.The investigation, announced Monday, is the latest action against the social media company’s advertising system. In March, Facebook reached a settlement with civil rights groups and agreed to make sweeping changes to the ways landlords, employers and lenders buy housing, employment or credit ads. A week later, the Department of Housing and Urban Development charged Facebook with violating the Fair Housing Act, claiming that the ad system discriminates against certain types of users even when advertisers did not choose to exclude them from seeing ads.In a press release July 1, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state’s investigation will explore both the tools available to advertisers and allegations that Facebook “uses machine learning and predictive analytics to categorize users to project each user’s likely response to a given ad, which may recreate groupings defined by their protected class.”ProPublica first reported that Facebook allowed housing advertisers to exclude users by race in 2016. Then, in 2017, ProPublica returned to the issue and found that — despite Facebook’s promised changes — the company was still letting landlords exclude users by race, gender, ethnicity, family status, ability and other characteristics protected by federal anti-discrimination law. In response to these lawsuits, Facebook has said it will create a new advertising portal specifically for advertisers buying housing, employment and credit ads, limiting the options available and removing more than 5,000 categories related to race, gender, national origin and age. These changes are to be completed by September 2019, according to a civil rights audit released this week.In response to questions about New York’s investigation, a Facebooks spokesman pointed ProPublica to the civil rights audit. In a related blog post, COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote: “Our policies have always prohibited advertisers from using our tools to discriminate. In 2018, we went further by removing thousands of categories from targeting related to protected classes such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion. But we can do better.”The civil rights audit also recommended stronger hate speech policies and stricter rules to prevent the spread of white supremacy on Facebook, a topic in the spotlight after ProPublica obtained offensive posts in a secret group for current and former Border Patrol agents. A Facebook spokesperson has refused to answer any questions about how it policed this group, citing a federal investigation.
How Chicago, a Hospital and Private Companies Make Money Off the Poor
by Logan Jaffe Happy First Friday of July, Illinois. We’ve got some updates and some stories we think you should read this week about debt, bankruptcy and profiting off the poor:1. Our ongoing reporting on how Chicago’s vehicle ticketing policies harm black and low-income motorists helped spark a decision from a federal appeals court that may allow thousands of motorists every year to get their impounded cars and trucks back sooner than before.The city of Chicago used to immediately return impounded vehicles to people who filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. But two years ago, it stopped doing so, sometimes holding onto the vehicles for months until motorists agreed to pay back more of what they owed in ticket debt during their bankruptcy payment plans. City lawyers had a number of justifications for holding onto the cars and trucks, including saying it was a matter of traffic safety. Lawyers for motorists argued that the city was trying to pressure them to pay and generate revenue.A panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the motorists.“We are persuaded that, on balance, this is an exercise of revenue collection more so than police power,” the judges wrote.Basically, the court said that the city was just trying to make money from people who are already financially struggling, and that the policy violates one of the leading purposes of bankruptcy, which is to help get people back on their feet. Dive Deeper Into Our Reporting Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois reporter every week Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. 2. Last week, ProPublica and MLK50, a member of our Local Reporting Network, reported on a hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, that’s filed thousands of lawsuits against patients — and even its own employees — for unpaid medical bills. While Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare isn’t the only hospital in Memphis or in the country that sues patients, Methodist also owns a collection agency, and the hospital’s aggressive collection practices stand out in a city where nearly 1 in 4 residents live below the poverty line. The hospital’s CEO has since promised a review of its policies and this week suspended its “court collection activities.”3. ProPublica also reported this week on how electronic monitoring devices such as ankle bracelets are driving defendants into debt. Private companies charge defendants hundreds of dollars a month to wear the surveillance devices. If people can’t pay, they may end up behind bars. In Illinois, lawmakers recently passed a bill that would require the Illinois Department of Corrections and the Prisoner Review Board to collect data on how electronic monitoring devices are being used and post that information publicly. Learn more about that in this story from WILL-Illinois Public Media. One last thing: You may have seen a big story from ProPublica this week about a secret Facebook group where Border Patrol agents joke about migrant deaths and post sexist memes. Since then, lots of people have reached out to tell us about other secret Facebook groups that may warrant closer scrutiny. If you know something, here’s how to tell us about it.
Nonprofit Christian Hospital Suspends Debt Collection Lawsuits Amid Furor Over Suing Its Own Employees
by Wendi C. Thomas, MLK50 Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, the largest hospital system in Memphis, Tennessee, said it has suspended “court collection activities” over unpaid medical bills, days after an investigation by MLK50 and ProPublica detailed its relentless pursuit of debts held by poor people and even its own employees.“We recognize that we serve a diverse community and we are always thinking about how we can do more and serve our community better,” Methodist said in a statement. “Over the next 30 days we will be reviewing our policies and procedures to ensure we are doing everything possible to provide the communities we serve with the care and assistance they need. Also, we will immediately suspend any further court collection activities during this period.“As a learning organization that is committed to continuous quality improvement, we want to be absolutely sure that our practices continue to support our mission and vision of improving every life we touch regardless of ability to pay.”Methodist dropped more than two dozen cases that were set for initial hearings on Wednesday’s morning docket at Shelby County General Sessions Court. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. “Currently, Methodist is in the process of reviewing its collection processes,” R. Alan Pritchard, one of Methodist’s attorneys, told General Sessions Court Judge Deborah M. Henderson.“You are free to leave,” Henderson told one defendant, who looked puzzled, a purse on her shoulder and a folder full of papers in her hand.Henderson called the names of other defendants whose cases were on the docket.Again and again, Pritchard said: “Dropped, please, your honor.”One of the defendants whose case was dropped is Adrien Johnson, who works for the city of Memphis. Methodist sued him this year for an unpaid hospital bill of more than $900.Reached by phone, Johnson said he believes the hospital bill was for X-rays he had taken while he was covered by his wife’s insurance. Wednesday was his first court date, and after the hearing, he said he wasn’t clear what the status of his debt was.“I don’t know what they’re doing,” he said. “I need to find out what’s going on.”From 2014 through 2018, the hospital system affiliated with the United Methodist Church filed more than 8,300 lawsuits, according to an MLK50-ProPublica analysis of Shelby County General Sessions Court records. That’s more than all but one creditor during that five-year period.One story by the news organizations chronicled the struggle of Carrie Barrett, who makes $9.05 an hour at Kroger, to pay her 2007 hospital bill for $12,019. The bill has ballooned to more than $33,000 due to interest and attorney’s fees.Another detailed how Methodist sues its own employees, some of whom make less than $13 an hour, for unpaid bills related to care delivered at its hospitals. Its health plan doesn’t allow workers to seek care at hospitals with more generous financial assistance policies.Defendants talked about how the lawsuits upended their lives and left them in a position where they would never be able to pay off their debts, which grew from year to year as interest mounted.With $2.1 billion in revenue and a health system that includes six hospitals, Methodist leads the market: In 2017, it had the most discharges per year and profits per patient, according to publicly available data analyzed by Definitive Healthcare, an analytics company. Methodist says it has “a hospital in all four quadrants of the greater Memphis area, unparalleled by any other healthcare provider in our region,” plus more than 150 outpatient centers, clinics and physician practices. The system also said it provides community benefits of more than $226 million annually.The number of lawsuits Methodist files isn’t out of proportion to its size, at least compared to competitor Baptist Memorial Health Care and Regional One Health, the county’s public hospital. But Methodist stands out in other respects.Its financial assistance policy, unlike those of many of its peers around the country, all but ignores patients with any form of health insurance, no matter their out-of-pocket costs. If they are unable to afford their bills, patients then face what experts say is rare: A licensed collection agency owned by the hospital.Also, after the hospital sues and wins a judgment, it repeatedly tries to garnish patients’ wages, which it does in a far higher share of cases than other nonprofit hospitals in Memphis. A court-ordered garnishment requires that the debtor’s employer send to the court 25% of a worker’s after-tax income, minus basic living expenses and a tiny deduction for children under 15.Methodist secured garnishment orders in 46% of cases filed from 2014 through 2018, compared with 36% at Regional One and 20% at Baptist, according to an analysis of court records by MLK50.Methodist’s announcement was welcomed by some local lawmakers. “Methodist has been such a great community partner throughout Shelby County that I’m glad to hear they’re reviewing their process over the next 30 days,” said Shelby County Commissioner Mickell Lowery, whose district includes Methodist University Hospital.U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said: “I was surprised to read about Methodist Le Bonheur’s billing practices, and I’m glad that the company is re-examining them. … I will continue to monitor this situation and look forward to the company’s assessment.”But the Rev. Anthony Anderson, a United Methodist elder at Faith United Methodist in Memphis, was more reserved.“I am still heartbroken, and I say that spiritually,” Anderson said. “It breaks my heart to know that a Methodist-related entity, a hospital, would have these types of practices.”He welcomed the policy review, but only if it leads to the complete erasure of all outstanding patient debt.“This debt needs to be wiped away,” he said. “That will be the direction I will be pushing towards as a Methodist, that we don’t burden families with these type of financial penalties.”New data obtained from Shelby County General Sessions Court shows that Methodist has filed more than 600 new lawsuits this year. Its most recent suits were filed on June 21, days before the MLK50-ProPublica stories were published. Its most recent garnishment order was filed on Tuesday.
Meet the Data Institute Class of 2019
by ProPublica Noah Arroyo (@noah_arroyo) is the assistant editor at the San Francisco Public Press, where he covers housing and homelessness. His work ranges from the explanatory to the investigative and often takes a data-driven approach.Ko Bragg (@keaux_) is a Mississippi-based journalist with a focus on kids behind bars and other criminal justice issues. She is an investigative fellow with Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and has published work with Scalawag magazine and The Appeal.Daphne Duret (@dd_writes) is an investigative reporter for The Palm Beach Post. She began her journalism career at the Miami Herald, and she previously worked at the Chicago Tribune and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Daphne has spent her career primarily covering crime and courts. She was born in Chicago to Haitian parents and speaks French, Creole and Spanish.Bracey Harris (@braceyharris) is a K-12 education reporter in Mississippi for the Clarion Ledger. When she’s not squeezing into classroom desks, Bracey focuses on government accountability for the paper’s investigative and enterprise team. A Mississippi native, Bracey studied journalism at the University of Mississippi.John Hernandez (@johnhrnndz) is a fellow and research assistant for APM Reports in St. Paul, Minnesota. He works on producing audio documentaries about childhood literacy and the racial climate on college campuses. John is also producing his first podcast episode for “Educate” and is proud to have read hundreds of pages of court transcripts for “In the Dark” at APM Reports. John has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Texas State University.Joe Hong (@jjshong5) is the education reporter for The Desert Sun, a newspaper in Palm Springs, California. Previously, he covered race and equity issues in higher education at Diverse: Issues In Higher Education. Joe has a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from the University of California, Irvine, and a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia Journalism School.Esmy Jimenez (@esmyjimenez) is the immigration reporter for KUOW in Seattle. Before joining public media, she had stops as a legal assistant, Alaskan farmhand and state park employee in the California redwoods. Esmy is a University of Southern California graduate, an NPR Next Gen alum and a Maynard Institute fellow. She was born in Mexico and raised in rural Washington.Rashah McChesney (@litmuslens) covers energy and environmental policy for KTOO Public Media at Alaska’s Energy Desk, a regional journalism collaboration of public media and print reporters in Alaska. She also regularly collaborates with the Polish photojournalism collective Testigo. Born and raised in Texas, she has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Iowa State University, where she specialized in visual communications.Hurubie Meko (@HurubieLNP) is a Steinman Fellow at Lancaster Newspaper and LancasterOnline. Based out of Lancaster City, she works as a general assignment reporter covering issues that impact all of Lancaster County. She graduated from American University’s School of Communication.Gwen Pepin (@Missgsp) is a workshop facilitator, reporter and social media manager for the Westside Media Project, a Chicago-based nonprofit that teaches civic engagement, journalism and digital media skills to inner-city youth of color. She started with WMP as a middle schooler who liked to write and was interested in her community. Ten years later, she’s a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who still feels passionate about reaching fellow Westsiders through storytelling and technology.Edward G. Robinson III (@EdwardGRobinso9) is a lecturer at Morgan State University. He is a co-adviser of the student paper, The Spokesman. Before joining Morgan, he worked as a sports reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he covered collegiate athletics. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.Miacel Spotted Elk (@MiacelSelk) is committed to a career in investigative journalism and covering the vital matters within the American West and Indian Country. Currently, she is interning at City Weekly, an award-winning independent weekly, and reporting for the Daily Utah Chronicle. Miacel grew up near Bears Ears and is a Salt Lake City resident. In 2021, she will graduate from the University of Utah with a degree in political science.
Digital Jail: How Electronic Monitoring Drives Defendants Into Debt
by Ava Kofman On Oct. 12, 2018, Daehaun White walked free, or so he thought. A guard handed him shoelaces and the $19 that had been in his pocket at the time of his booking, along with a letter from his public defender. The lanky 19-year-old had been sitting for almost a month in St. Louis’ Medium Security Institution, a city jail known as the Workhouse, after being pulled over for driving some friends around in a stolen Chevy Cavalier. When the police charged him with tampering with a motor vehicle — driving a car without its owner’s consent — and held him overnight, he assumed he would be released by morning. He told the police that he hadn’t known that the Chevy, which a friend had lent him a few hours earlier, was stolen. He had no previous convictions. But the $1,500 he needed for the bond was far beyond what he or his family could afford. It wasn’t until his public defender, Erika Wurst, persuaded the judge to lower the amount to $500 cash, and a nonprofit fund, the Bail Project, paid it for him, that he was able to leave the notoriously grim jail. “Once they said I was getting released, I was so excited I stopped listening,” he told me recently. He would no longer have to drink water blackened with mold or share a cell with rats, mice and cockroaches. He did a round of victory pushups and gave away all of the snack cakes he had been saving from the cafeteria.When he finally read Wurst’s letter, however, he realized there was a catch. Even though Wurst had argued against it, the judge, Nicole Colbert-Botchway, had ordered him to wear an ankle monitor that would track his location at every moment using GPS. For as long as he would wear it, he would be required to pay $10 a day to a private company, Eastern Missouri Alternative Sentencing Services, or EMASS. Just to get the monitor attached, he would have to report to EMASS and pay $300 up front — enough to cover the first 25 days, plus a $50 installation fee. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. White didn’t know how to find that kind of money. Before his arrest, he was earning minimum wage as a temp, wrapping up boxes of shampoo. His father was largely absent, and his mother, Lakisha Thompson, had recently lost her job as the housekeeping manager at a Holiday Inn. Raising Daehaun and his four siblings, she had struggled to keep up with the bills. The family bounced between houses and apartments in northern St. Louis County, where, as a result of Jim Crow redlining, most of the area’s black population lives. In 2014, they were living on Canfield Drive in Ferguson when Michael Brown was shot and killed there by a police officer. During the ensuing turmoil, Thompson moved the family to Green Bay, Wisconsin. White felt out of place. He was looked down on for his sagging pants, called the N-word when riding his bike. After six months, he moved back to St. Louis County on his own to live with three of his siblings and stepsiblings in a gray house with vinyl siding.When White got home on the night of his release, he was so overwhelmed to see his family again that he forgot about the letter. He spent the next few days hanging out with his siblings, his mother, who had returned to Missouri earlier that year, and his girlfriend, Demetria, who was seven months pregnant. He didn’t report to EMASS.What he didn’t realize was that he had failed to meet a deadline. Typically, defendants assigned to monitors must pay EMASS in person and have the device installed within 24 hours of their release from jail. Otherwise, they have to return to court to explain why they’ve violated the judge’s orders. White, however, wasn’t called back for a hearing. Instead, a week after he left the Workhouse, Colbert-Botchway issued a warrant for his arrest.Three days later, a large group of police officers knocked on Thompson’s door, looking for information about an unrelated case, a robbery. White and his brother had been making dinner with their mother, and the officers asked them for identification. White’s name matched the warrant issued by Colbert-Botchway. “They didn’t tell me what the warrant was for,” he said. “Just that it was for a violation of my release.” He was taken downtown and held for transfer back to the Workhouse. “I kept saying to myself, ’Why am I locked up?’” he recalled. Daehaun White couldn’t afford to pay $10 a day to a private company for an ankle monitor after his release from jail. (Zora J Murff for The New York Times) The next morning, Thompson called the courthouse to find the answer. She learned that her son had been jailed over his failure to acquire and pay for his GPS monitor. To get him out, she needed to pay EMASS on his behalf.This seemed absurd to her. When Daehaun was 13, she had worn an ankle monitor after violating probation for a minor theft, but the state hadn’t required her to cover the cost of her own supervision. “This is a 19-year-old coming out of the Workhouse,” she told me recently. “There’s no way he has $300 saved.” Thompson felt that the court was forcing her to choose between getting White out of jail and supporting the rest of her family.Over the past half-century, the number of people behind bars in the United States jumped by more than 500%, to 2.2 million. This extraordinary rise, often attributed to decades of “tough on crime” policies and harsh sentencing laws, has ensured that even as crime rates have dropped since the 1990s, the number of people locked up and the average length of their stay have increased. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the cost of keeping people in jails and prisons soared to $87 billion in 2015 from $19 billion in 1980, in current dollars.In recent years, politicians on both sides of the aisle have joined criminal-justice reformers in recognizing mass incarceration as both a moral outrage and a fiscal sinkhole. As ankle bracelets have become compact and cost-effective, legislators have embraced them as an enlightened alternative. More than 125,000 people in the criminal-justice system were supervised with monitors in 2015, compared with just 53,000 people in 2005, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Although no current national tally is available, data from several cities — Austin, Texas; Indianapolis; Chicago; and San Francisco — show that this number continues to rise. Last December, the First Step Act, which includes provisions for home detention, was signed into law by President Donald Trump with support from the private prison giants GEO Group and CoreCivic. These corporations dominate the so-called community-corrections market — services such as day-reporting and electronic monitoring — that represents one of the fastest-growing revenue sectors of their industry.By far the most decisive factor promoting the expansion of monitors is the financial one. The United States government pays for monitors for some of those in the federal criminal-justice system and for tens of thousands of immigrants supervised by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But states and cities, which incur around 90% of the expenditures for jails and prisons, are increasingly passing the financial burden of the devices onto those who wear them. It costs St. Louis roughly $90 a day to detain a person awaiting trial in the Workhouse, where in 2017 the average stay was 291 days. When individuals pay EMASS $10 a day for their own supervision, it costs the city nothing. A 2014 study by NPR and the Brennan Center found that, with the exception of Hawaii, every state required people to pay at least part of the costs associated with GPS monitoring. Some probation offices and sheriffs run their own monitoring programs — renting the equipment from manufacturers, hiring staff and collecting fees directly from participants. Others have outsourced the supervision of defendants, parolees and probationers to private companies.“There are a lot of judges who reflexively put people on monitors, without making much of a pretense of seriously weighing it at all,” said Chris Albin-Lackey, a senior legal adviser with Human Rights Watch who has researched private-supervision companies. “The limiting factor is the cost it might impose on the public, but when that expense is sourced out, even that minimal brake on judicial discretion goes out the window.”Nowhere is the pressure to adopt monitors more pronounced than in places like St. Louis: cash-strapped municipalities with large populations of people awaiting trial. Nationwide on any given day, half a million people sit in crowded and expensive jails because, like Daehaun White, they cannot purchase their freedom.As the movement to overhaul cash bail has challenged the constitutionality of jailing these defendants, judges and sheriffs have turned to monitors as an appealing substitute. In San Francisco, the number of people released from jail onto electronic monitors tripled after a 2018 ruling forced courts to release more defendants without bail. In Marion County, Indiana, where jail overcrowding is routine, roughly 5,000 defendants were put on monitors last year. “You would be hard-pressed to find bail-reform legislation in any state that does not include the possibility of electronic monitoring,” said Robin Steinberg, the chief executive of the Bail Project. Yet like the system of wealth-based detention they are meant to help reform, ankle monitors often place poor people in special jeopardy. Across the country, defendants who have not been convicted of a crime are put on “offender funded” payment plans for monitors that sometimes cost more than their bail. And unlike bail, they don’t get the payment back, even if they’re found innocent. Although a federal survey shows that nearly 40% of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to cover an emergency, companies and courts routinely threaten to lock up defendants if they fall behind on payment. In Greenville, South Carolina, pretrial defendants can be sent back to jail when they fall three weeks behind on fees. (An officer for the Greenville County Detention Center defended this practice on the grounds that participants agree to the costs in advance.) In Mohave County, Arizona, pretrial defendants charged with sex offenses have faced rearrest if they fail to pay for their monitors, even if they prove that they can’t afford them. “We risk replacing an unjust cash-bail system,” Steinberg said, “with one just as unfair, inhumane and unnecessary.”Many local judges, including in St. Louis, do not conduct hearings on a defendant’s ability to pay for private supervision before assigning them to it; those who do often overestimate poor people’s financial means. Without judicial oversight, defendants are vulnerable to private-supervision companies that set their own rates and charge interest when someone can’t pay up front. Some companies even give their employees bonuses for hitting collection targets.It’s not only debt that can send defendants back to jail. People who may not otherwise be candidates for incarceration can be punished for breaking the lifestyle rules that come with the devices. A survey in California found that juveniles awaiting trial or on probation face especially difficult rules; in one county, juveniles on monitors were asked to follow more than 50 restrictions, including not participating “in any social activity.” For this reason, many advocates describe electronic monitoring as a “net-widener": Far from serving as an alternative to incarceration, it ends up sweeping more people into the system.Dressed in a baggy yellow City of St. Louis Corrections shirt, White was walking to the van that would take him back to the Workhouse after his rearrest, when a guard called his name and handed him a bus ticket home. A few hours earlier, his mom had persuaded her sister to lend her the $300 that White owed EMASS. Wurst, his public defender, brought the receipt to court.The next afternoon, White hitched a ride downtown to the EMASS office, where one of the company’s bond-compliance officers, Nick Buss, clipped a black box around his left ankle. Based in the majority white city of St. Charles, west of St. Louis, EMASS has several field offices throughout eastern Missouri. A former probation and parole officer, Michael Smith, founded the company in 1991 after Missouri became one of the first states to allow private companies to supervise some probationers. (Smith and other EMASS officials declined to comment for this story.)The St. Louis area has made national headlines for its “offender funded” model of policing and punishment. Stricken by postindustrial decline and the 2008 financial crisis, its municipalities turned to their police departments and courts to make up for shortfalls in revenue. In 2015, the Ferguson Report by the United States Department of Justice put hard numbers to what black residents had long suspected: The police were targeting them with disproportionate arrests, traffic tickets and excessive fines.EMASS may have saved the city some money, but it also created an extraordinary and arbitrary-seeming new expense for poor defendants. When cities cover the cost of monitoring, they often pay private contractors $2 to $3 a day for the same equipment and services for which EMASS charges defendants $10 a day. To come up with the money, EMASS clients told me, they had to find second jobs, take their children out of day care and cut into disability checks. Others hurried to plead guilty for no better reason than that being on probation was cheaper than paying for a monitor.At the downtown office, White signed a contract stating that he would charge his monitor for an hour and a half each day and “report” to EMASS with $70 each week. He could shower, but was not to bathe or swim (the monitor is water-resistant, not waterproof). Interfering with the monitor’s functioning was a felony. The St. Louis office of EMASS, which charges defendants $300 up front to get the monitor attached. (Zora J Murff for The New York Times) White assumed that GPS supervision would prove a minor annoyance. Instead, it was a constant burden. The box was bulky and the size of a fist, so he couldn’t hide it under his jeans. Whenever he left the house, people stared. There were snide comments ("nice bracelet") and cutting jokes. His brothers teased him about having a babysitter. “I’m nobody to watch,” he insisted.The biggest problem was finding work. Confident and outgoing, White had never struggled to land jobs; after dropping out of high school in his junior year, he flipped burgers at McDonald’s and Steak ’n Shake. To pay for the monitor, he applied to be a custodian at Julia Davis Library, a cashier at Home Depot, a clerk at Menards. The conversation at Home Depot had gone especially well, White thought, until the interviewer casually asked what was on his leg.To help improve his chances, he enrolled in Mission: St. Louis, a job-training center for people reentering society. One afternoon in January, he and a classmate role-played how to talk to potential employers about criminal charges. White didn’t know how much detail to go into. Should he tell interviewers that he was bringing his pregnant girlfriend some snacks when he was pulled over? He still isn’t sure, because a police officer came looking for him midway through the class. The battery on his monitor had died. The officer sent him home, and White missed the rest of the lesson.With all of the restrictions and rules, keeping a job on a monitor can be as difficult as finding one. The hours for weekly check-ins at the downtown EMASS office — 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. on Mondays — are inconvenient for those who work. In 2011, the National Institute of Justice surveyed 5,000 people on electronic monitors and found that 22% said they had been fired or asked to leave a job because of the device. Juawanna Caves, a young St. Louis native and mother of two, was placed on a monitor in December after being charged with unlawful use of a weapon. She said she stopped showing up to work as a housekeeper when her co-workers made her uncomfortable by asking questions and later lost a job at a nursing home because too many exceptions had to be made for her court dates and EMASS check-ins.Perpetual surveillance also takes a mental toll. Nearly everyone I spoke to who wore a monitor described feeling trapped, as though they were serving a sentence before they had even gone to trial. White was never really sure about what he could or couldn’t do under supervision. In January, when his girlfriend had their daughter, Rylan, White left the hospital shortly after the birth, under the impression that he had a midnight curfew. Later that night, he let his monitor die so that he could sneak back before sunrise to see the baby again.EMASS makes its money from defendants. But it gets its power over them from judges. It was in 2012 that the judges of the St. Louis court started to use the company’s services — which previously involved people on probation for misdemeanors — for defendants awaiting trial. Last year, the company supervised 239 defendants in the city of St. Louis on GPS monitors, according to numbers provided by EMASS to the court. The alliance with the courts gives the company not just a steady stream of business but a reliable means of recouping debts: Unlike, say, a credit-card company, which must file a civil suit to collect from overdue customers, EMASS can initiate criminal-court proceedings, threatening defendants with another stay in the Workhouse. In early April, I visited Judge Rex Burlison in his chambers on the 10th floor of the St. Louis civil courts building. A few months earlier, Burlison, who has short gray hair and light blue eyes, had been elected by his peers as presiding judge, overseeing the city’s docket, budget and operations, including the contract with EMASS. It was one of the first warm days of the year, and from the office window I could see sunlight glimmering on the silver Gateway Arch.I asked Burlison about the court’s philosophy for using pretrial GPS. He stressed that while each case was unique and subject to the judge’s discretion, monitoring was most commonly used for defendants who posed a flight risk, endangered public safety or had an alleged victim. Judges vary in how often they order defendants to wear monitors, and critics have attacked the inconsistency. Colbert-Botchway, the judge who put White on a monitor, regularly made pretrial GPS a condition of release, according to public defenders. (Colbert-Botchway declined to comment.) But another St. Louis city judge, David Roither, told me, “I really don’t use it very often because people here are too poor to pay for it.”Whenever a defendant on a monitor violates a condition of release, whether related to payment or a curfew or something else, EMASS sends a letter to the court. Last year, Burlison said, the court received two to three letters a week from EMASS about violations. In response, the judge usually calls the defendant in for a hearing. As far as he knew, Burlison said, judges did not incarcerate people simply for failing to pay EMASS debts. “Why would you?” he asked me. When people were put back in jail, he said, there were always other factors at play, like the defendant’s missing a hearing, for instance. (Issuing a warrant for White’s arrest without a hearing, he acknowledged after looking at the docket, was not the court’s standard practice.)The contract with EMASS allows the court to assign indigent defendants to the company to oversee “at no cost.” Yet neither Burlison nor any of the other current or former judges I spoke with recalled waiving fees when ordering someone to wear an ankle monitor. When I asked Burlison why he didn’t, he said that he was concerned that if he started to make exceptions on the basis of income, the company might stop providing ankle-monitoring services in St. Louis.“People get arrested because of life choices,” Burlison said. “Whether they’re good for the charge or not, they’re still arrested and have to deal with it, and part of dealing with it is the finances.” To release defendants without monitors simply because they can’t afford the fee, he said, would be to disregard the safety of their victims or the community. “We can’t just release everybody because they’re poor,” he continued.But many people in the Workhouse awaiting trial are poor. In January, civil rights groups filed suit against the city and the court, claiming that the St. Louis bail system violated the Constitution, in part by discriminating against those who can’t afford to post bail. That same month, the Missouri Supreme Court announced new rules that urged local courts to consider releasing defendants without monetary conditions and to waive fees for poor people placed on monitors. Shortly before the rules went into effect, on July 1, Burlison said that the city intends to shift the way ankle monitors are distributed and plans to establish a fund to help indigent defendants pay for their ankle bracelets. But he said he didn’t know how much money would be in the fund or whether it was temporary or permanent. The need for funding could grow quickly. The pending bail lawsuit has temporarily spurred the release of more defendants from custody, and as a result, public defenders say, the demand for monitors has increased.Judges are anxious about what people released without posting bail might do once they get out. Several told me that monitors may ensure that the defendants return to court. Not unlike doctors who order a battery of tests for a mildly ill patient to avoid a potential malpractice suit, judges seem to view monitors as a precaution against their faces appearing on the front page of the newspaper. “Every judge’s fear is to let somebody out on recognizance and he commits murder, and then everyone asks, ’How in the hell was this person let out?’” said Robert Dierker, who served as a judge in St. Louis from 1986 to 2017 and now represents the city in the bail lawsuit. “But with GPS, you can say, ’Well, I have him on GPS, what else can I do?’”Critics of monitors contend that their public-safety appeal is illusory: If defendants are intent on harming someone or skipping town, the bracelet, which can be easily removed with a pair of scissors, would not stop them. Studies showing that people tracked by GPS appear in court more reliably are scarce, and research about its effectiveness as a deterrent is inconclusive.“The fundamental question is, What purpose is electronic monitoring serving?” said Blake Strode, the executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights law firm in St. Louis that is one of several firms representing the plaintiffs in the bail lawsuit. “If the only purpose it’s serving is to make judges feel better because they don’t want to be on the hook if something goes wrong, then that’s not a sensible approach. We should not simply be monitoring for monitoring’s sake.”Electronic monitoring was first conceived in the early 1960s by Ralph and Robert Gable, identical twins studying at Harvard under the psychologists Timothy Leary and B.F. Skinner, respectively. Influenced in part by Skinner’s theories of positive reinforcement, the Gables rigged up some surplus missile-tracking equipment to monitor teenagers on probation; those who showed up at the right places at the right times were rewarded with movie tickets, limo rides and other prizes.Although this round-the-clock monitoring was intended as a tool for rehabilitation, observers and participants alike soon recognized its potential to enhance surveillance. All but two of the 16 volunteers in their initial study dropped out, finding the two bulky radio transmitters oppressive. “They felt like it was a prosthetic conscience, and who would want Mother all the time along with you?” Robert Gable told me. Psychology Today labeled the invention a “belt from Big Brother.”The reality of electronic monitoring today is that Big Brother is watching some groups more than others. No national statistics are available on the racial breakdown of Americans wearing ankle monitors, but all indications suggest that mass supervision, like mass incarceration, disproportionately affects black people. In Cook County, Illinois, for instance, black people make up 24% of the population, and 67% of those on monitors. The sociologist Simone Browne has connected contemporary surveillance technologies like GPS monitors to America’s long history of controlling where black people live, move and work. In her 2015 book, “Dark Matters,” she traces the ways in which “surveillance is nothing new to black folks,” from the branding of enslaved people and the shackling of convict laborers to Jim Crow segregation and the home visits of welfare agencies. These historical inequities, Browne notes, influence where and on whom new tools like ankle monitors are imposed.For some black families, including White’s, monitoring stretches across generations. Annette Taylor, the director of Ripple Effect, an advocacy group for prisoners and their families based in Champaign, Illinois, has seen her ex-husband, brother, son, nephew and sister’s husband wear ankle monitors over the years. She had to wear one herself, about a decade ago, she said, for driving with a suspended license. “You’re making people a prisoner of their home,” she told me. When her son was paroled and placed on house arrest, he couldn’t live with her, because he was forbidden to associate with people convicted of felonies, including his stepfather, who was also on house arrest.Some people on monitors are further constrained by geographic restrictions — areas in the city or neighborhood that they can’t go without triggering an alarm. James Kilgore, a research scholar at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, has cautioned that these exclusionary zones could lead to “e-gentrification,” effectively keeping people out of more-prosperous neighborhoods. In 2016, after serving four years in prison for drug conspiracy, Bryan Otero wore a monitor as a condition of parole. He commuted from the Bronx to jobs at a restaurant and a department store in Manhattan, but he couldn’t visit his family or doctor because he was forbidden to enter a swath of Manhattan between 117th Street and 131st Street. “All my family and childhood friends live in that area,” he said. “I grew up there.” Michelle Alexander, a legal scholar and columnist for The Times, has argued that monitoring engenders a new form of oppression under the guise of progress. In her 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow,” she wrote that the term “mass incarceration” should refer to the “system that locks people not only behind actual bars in actual prisons, but also behind virtual bars and virtual walls — walls that are invisible to the naked eye but function nearly as effectively as Jim Crow laws once did at locking people of color into a permanent second-class citizenship.”As the cost of monitoring continues to fall, those who are required to submit to it may worry less about the expense and more about the intrusive surveillance. The devices, some of which are equipped with two-way microphones, can give corrections officials unprecedented access to the private lives not just of those monitored but also of their families and friends. GPS location data appeals to the police, who can use it to investigate crimes. Already the goal is both to track what individuals are doing and to anticipate what they might do next. BI Incorporated, an electronic-monitoring subsidiary of GEO Group, has the ability to assign risk scores to the behavioral patterns of those monitored, so that law enforcement can “address potential problems before they happen.” Judges leery of recidivism have begun to embrace risk-assessment tools. As a result, defendants who have yet to be convicted of an offense in court may be categorized by their future chances of reoffending.The combination of GPS location data with other tracking technologies such as automatic license-plate readers represents an uncharted frontier for finer-grained surveillance. In some cities, police have concentrated these tools in neighborhoods of color. A CityLab investigation found that Baltimore police were more likely to deploy the Stingray — the controversial and secretive cellphone tracking technology — where African Americans lived. In the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, the police spied on Black Lives Matter protesters with face recognition technology. Given this pattern, the term “electronic monitoring” may soon refer not just to a specific piece of equipment but to an all-encompassing strategy.If the evolution of the criminal-justice system is any guide, it is very likely that the ankle bracelet will go out of fashion. Some GPS monitoring vendors have already started to offer smartphone applications that verify someone’s location through voice and face recognition. These apps, with names like Smart-LINK and Shadowtrack, promise to be cheaper and more convenient than a boxy bracelet. They’re also less visible, mitigating the stigma and normalizing surveillance. While reducing the number of people in physical prison, these seductive applications could, paradoxically, increase its reach. For the nearly 4.5 million Americans on probation or parole, it is not difficult to imagine a virtual prison system as ubiquitous — and invasive — as Instagram or Facebook.On Jan. 24, exactly three months after White had his monitor installed, his public defender successfully argued in court for its removal. His phone service had been shut off because he had fallen behind on the bill, so his mother told him the good news over video chat.When White showed up to EMASS a few days later to have the ankle bracelet removed, he said, one of the company’s employees told him that he couldn’t take off his monitor until he paid his debt. White offered him the $35 in his wallet — all the money he had. It wasn’t enough. The employee explained that he needed to pay at least half of the $700 he owed. Somewhere in the contract he had signed months earlier, White had agreed to pay his full balance “at the time of removal.” But as White saw it, the court that had ordered the monitor’s installation was now ordering its removal. Didn’t that count?“That’s the only thing that’s killing me,” White told me a few weeks later, in early March. “Why are you all not taking it off?” We were in his brother’s room, which, unlike White’s down the hall, had space for a wobbly chair. White sat on the bed, his head resting against the frame, while his brother sat on the other end by the TV, mumbling commands into a headset for the fantasy video game Fortnite. By then, the prosecutor had offered White two to three years of probation in exchange for a plea. (White is waiting to hear if he has been accepted into the city’s diversion program for “youthful offenders,” which would allow him to avoid pleading and wipe the charges from his record in a year.)White was wearing a loosefitting Nike track jacket and red sweats that bunched up over the top of his monitor. He had recently stopped charging it, and so far, the police hadn’t come knocking. “I don’t even have to have it on,” he said, looking down at his ankle. “But without a job, I can’t get it taken off.” In the last few weeks, he had sold his laptop, his phone and his TV. That cash went to rent, food and his daughter, and what was left barely made a dent in what he owed EMASS.It was a Monday — a check-in day — but he hadn’t been reporting for the past couple of weeks. He didn’t see the point; he didn’t have the money to get the monitor removed and the office was an hour away by bus. I offered him a ride.EMASS check-ins take place in a three-story brick building with a low-slung facade draped in ivy. The office doesn’t take cash payments, and a Western Union is conveniently located next door. The other men in the waiting room were also wearing monitors. When it was White’s turn to check-in, Buss, the bond-compliance officer, unclipped the band from his ankle and threw the device into a bin, White said. He wasn’t sure why EMASS had now softened its approach, but his debts nonetheless remained.Buss calculated the money White owed going back to November: $755, plus 10% annual interest. Over the next nine months, EMASS expected him to make monthly payments that would add up to $850 — more than the court had required for his bond. White looked at the receipt and shook his head. “I get in trouble for living,” he said as he walked out of the office. “For being me.”
Have You Worn an Electronic Monitoring Device or Supervised Someone Wearing One? We Want to Hear About It.
by Ava Kofman Electronic monitors have emerged as a popular alternative to keeping someone behind bars. The ankle bracelets enable courts and corrections officials to track the location 24 hours a day of people on probation, parole or awaiting trial. Many people wearing monitors prefer them to overcrowded and often dangerous cells.But, as we reported, cities and states are increasingly passing the costs of these monitors onto those who wear them, which drives defendants and their families into debt. Some companies and courts routinely threaten to lock up defendants who fall behind on payments. Family members have to scramble to find the money to keep loved ones from being sent back to jail.We plan to keep reporting on this story, and we need your help. We’re interested in learning more about the costs of monitoring; the reliability of the technology; and how the data is collected, shared and acted on.If you’ve been ordered to wear an ankle monitor or use a location-tracking application as a condition of your release from jail or prison, we would like to learn about your experiences.We’d also love to hear from current and former employees at electronic monitoring companies, and from people who have known someone on a monitor.If you prefer to reach us by email or phone, call or text 347-244-2134 or write to ava.kofman@propublica.org. Fill out our questionnaire.
Chicago Can’t Hold Impounded Vehicles After Drivers File for Bankruptcy, Court Says
by Melissa Sanchez Thousands of Chicago motorists may be able to get their cars and trucks out of city impound lots immediately after filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy following a federal appeals court ruling that the city could no longer hold onto the vehicles.The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the city’s aggressive strategy, aimed at discouraging motorists whose vehicles had been impounded over unpaid tickets from filing under Chapter 13, violated the basic protections of bankruptcy, and the city was doing so mostly to generate revenue.“This allows Chapter 13 to accomplish its intended purpose, which is to put the property that a debtor needs to go on with the debtor’s life in the hands of the debtor,” said Eugene Wedoff, a retired chief bankruptcy judge for the Northern District of Illinois who argued the appeal on behalf of the debtors.The opinion, which upholds orders issued by judges in four cases in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Chicago, draws on reporting by ProPublica Illinois last year that showed how debt from unpaid parking and automated traffic camera tickets has led thousands of mostly black and low-income drivers to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Dive Deeper Into Our Reporting Our newsletter is written by a ProPublica Illinois reporter every week Discover what makes Illinois tick from our team of investigative journalists covering the state. Delivered every Friday. This kind of bankruptcy allows for ticket debt forgiveness and what’s known as an “automatic stay,” a protection that gives debtors the opportunity to regain their financial footing and repay their creditors. For years, what that meant for indebted motorists in Chicago was the ability to quickly reinstate drivers’ licenses suspended over unpaid tickets and retrieve impounded vehicles without having to first pay fines or fees.Chapter 13 bankruptcy is also cheaper, at the onset, than enrolling in a city ticket payment plan. Many law firms will file cases without a retainer, spreading legal fees over the life of the bankruptcy. A city payment plan can require a down payment of up to $1,000.Filing for bankruptcy is rarely a long-term solution, however; impoverished debtors frequently fail to make required monthly payments, leaving their bankruptcies to collapse without debt relief, ProPublica has reported. When that happens with cases involving ticket debt, the city recovers little if any money.Hoping to stem the flood of bankruptcies and bring in more revenue, city officials in 2017 began claiming that the city had liens on impounded vehicles and that it didn’t have to return them immediately after motorists filed for bankruptcy. Instead, the city held onto the cars until motorists agreed to prioritize paying off ticket debt in their bankruptcy payment plan, a process that often took months and left many people unable to get to work. This assured the city it would get paid back more of what it was owed; typically, debtors pay just pennies on the dollar for unpaid tickets in bankruptcy payment plans, which can last up to five years. Officials would not say how many vehicles the city refused to return after launching its lien policy. But in 2016, the city returned close to 3,800 impounded vehicles to debtors who had filed for bankruptcy.The federal appeals court said the city’s claim that it had liens on the impounded vehicles was valid, but that it still needed to return the vehicles to their owners immediately after they filed for bankruptcy.“At bottom, the City wants to maintain possession of the vehicles not because it wants the vehicles but to put pressure on the debtors to pay their tickets,” a three-judge panel wrote in its opinion last month. “That is precisely what the [automatic] stay is intended to prevent.”A spokesman for the city’s Law Department declined to comment on the ruling.The court’s ruling means the city must go to court on a case-by-case basis if, for example, it believes the bankruptcy was filed in bad faith or wants assurances it will get paid more of what it’s owed.“The City’s argument that it will be overburdened with responding to Chapter 13 petitions is ultimately unavailing; any burden is a consequence of the Bankruptcy Code’s focus on protecting debtors and on preserving property of the estate for the benefit of all creditors,” the judges wrote. “It perhaps also reflects the importance of vehicles to residents’ everyday lives, particularly where residents need their vehicles to commute to work and earn an income in order to eventually pay off their fines and other debts.”The court also rejected the city’s argument that it needed to hold onto impounded vehicles to keep bad drivers off the road. The judges wrote that the kind of violations that typically lead to impoundments are “for parking tickets, failure to display a City tax sticker, and minor moving violations. Even tickets for a suspended license, a seemingly more serious offense, are often the result of unpaid parking tickets and are thus not related to public safety.”ProPublica Illinois has reported on how violations for not having vehicle city sticker — which can grow to $488 with late penalties and collections fees — are the biggest source of ticket debt in Chicago. It’s unclear whether Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case and fight to continue a legal strategy crafted during Rahm Emanuel’s tenure as mayor. Lightfoot’s office did not respond to requests for comment. During her mayoral campaign, Lightfoot said she would look for more progressive revenue alternatives to tickets, saying “our regressive, extractive ticketing system has forced thousands of motorists of color into bankruptcy, which imposes its own costs on our city budget.”Even before Lightfoot’s election, city officials were looking for other ways to steer motorists away from Chapter 13, the only kind of bankruptcy in which ticket debt can be wiped out. In November, the city approved a proposal from the Law Department to forgive old ticket debt for motorists who file for bankruptcy under Chapter 7, which almost always end with debt relief.The city’s “Fresh Start” program wipes away unpaid tickets, fines and fees issued more than three years before debtors file for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, as long as they complete a city payment plan for more recent ticket debt. Late penalties and collection fees are also forgiven.The Law Department said 605 people have signed up for the program since it went into effect in January. If they successfully complete the program, the city could waive almost $4 million in ticket debt, or about $6,500 per person.
Civil Rights Groups Have Been Warning Facebook About Hate Speech In Secret Groups For Years
by Ariana Tobin Facebook says its standards apply just as much in private groups as public posts, prohibiting most slurs and threats based on national origin, sex, race and immigration status.But dozens of hateful posts in a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents raise questions about how well if at all the company is policing disturbing postings and comments made outside of public view.Many of the posts ProPublica obtained from the 9,500-member “I’m 10-15” group (10-15 is Border Patrol code for “alien in custody”) include violent or dehumanizing speech that appears to violate Facebook’s standards. For example, a thread of comments before a visit to a troubled Border Patrol facility in Texas by Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, and Veronica Escobar, of Texas, included “fuck the hoes” and “No mames [fist].” Another post encouraged Border Patrol agents to respond to the Latina lawmakers visit by hurling a “burrito at these bitches.” And yet another mocked a video of a migrant man trying to carry a child through a rushing river in a plastic bag. A commenter joked, “At least it’s already in a trash bag” — all probable violations of the rules. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. Facebook, citing an open federal investigation into the group’s activities, declined to answer questions about whether any posts in the 10-15 group violated its terms of service or had been removed, or whether the company had begun scrutinizing the group’s postings since ProPublica’s story was published. It also refused to say whether it had previously flagged posts by group members or had received complaints.Facebook’s only response, emailed by a spokeswoman who refused to let ProPublica use her name, was: “We want everyone using Facebook to feel safe. Our Community Standards apply across Facebook, including in secret Groups. We’re cooperating with federal authorities in their investigation.”Since April, the company has been calling community groups “the center of Facebook.” It has put new emphasis on group activity in the newsfeed and has encouraged companies, communities and news organizations to shift resources into private messaging. These forums can give members a protected space to discuss painful topics like domestic violence, or to share a passion for cookbooks. Groups can be either private, which means they can be found in search results, or secret, which means they are hidden unless you have an invitation. This is part of an intentional “pivot toward privacy.” In a March blog post, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote, “Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally, which is why we build social networks.”But this pivot also fosters hidden forums where people can share offensive, potentially inflammatory viewpoints. “Secret” groups such as 10-15 are completely hidden from non-members. Would-be participants need an invitation to even find the landing page, and administrators of the groups have full jurisdiction to remove a person’s access at any time.When such groups operate out of sight, like 10-15, the public has a more limited view into how people are using, or misusing, the platform. In a secret group, only members can flag or report content that might be in violation of Facebook’s policies. The administrators of the group can set stricter policies for members’ internal conversations. They cannot, however, relax broader Facebook standards. They also can’t support terrorist organizations, hate groups, murderers, criminals, sell drugs or attack individuals.Civil rights groups say they have been noticing and raising the issue of hateful posts in hidden forums for years — with limited response from Facebook.Henry Fernandez, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and a member of Change the Terms, a coalition of civil rights groups pushing for better content moderation on Facebook, said the platform keeps creating features without “without vetting them for their implications for the use by hate groups or, in this case, Border Patrol agents acting in hateful ways.”Posts in hidden groups have incited incidents of violence in the real world, most famously against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and at the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia. The military launched an investigation of a secret Facebook group in 2017 after Marines shared naked pictures of female service members. Facebook has acknowledged the problem and has made some efforts to address it with new initiatives, such as a proposed independent review board and consultations with a group of 90 organizations, most focusing on civil rights.ProPublica’s Border Patrol story came out the day after Facebook released an audit of civil rights issues on the platform. Recommendations included strengthening hate speech policies around national origin, enforcing a stricter ban on the promotion of white supremacy and removing an exemption that had allowed humorous posts that contained offensive content. Facebook did not say whether it will make all of the recommended changes. But in a blog post, COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote, “We will continue listening to feedback from the civil rights community and address the important issues they’ve raised so Facebook can better protect and promote the civil rights of everyone who uses our services.”Jessica Gonzalez, vice president of strategy and senior counsel at FreePress and co-founder of Change the Terms, said that even after the back and forth with auditors, she was not surprised that the hateful posts in 10-15 were not flagged.“What Facebook released on Sunday is an improvement,” she said, “but I think Facebook has engaged in this all along in an appeasement strategy. They’ll do what they need to do to get the bad publicity off [their] backs.”The civil rights audit also called for better transparency about civil rights issues on Facebook’s advertising portal, which became a priority for the company after multiple ProPublica investigations and lawsuits by civil rights groups.Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Business, said the new emphasis on privacy is part of Facebook’s attempt to keep users on the platform, while reassuring investors.“So to the extent that Facebook provides shelter to groups of all kinds — whether they are people who are sharing hateful messages or messages for the good of the world — it benefits their business model.”
People Are Using Secret Facebook Groups To Spread Hate We Can’t See. We Need Your Help.
by Ariana Tobin, Thalia Beaty and Lucas Waldron We recently uncovered racist, sexist and hateful posts and comments in a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents.Such secret Facebook groups are only visible to their members. This means the general public cannot flag inflammatory posts and exchanges, such a photo illustration depicting President Donald Trump sexually assaulting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and posts making fun of migrants who died while crossing the Rio Grande.Since we published our story, more people have gotten in touch to tell us about other secret groups that may warrant closer scrutiny.We know there are members of groups who don’t agree with everything that is said in these forums. We also recognize that these groups can be a helpful support network for often-complicated issues that come up on the job. So we need your guidance to do more reporting. We’d like to hear about what’s happening in your communities, particularly from those of you who are concerned public servants.Here’s how you can help:
En un grupo secreto en Facebook, agentes de la Patrulla Fronteriza se burlan de inmigrantes muertos y publican memes sexistas
por A.C. Thompson Miembros de un grupo secreto de Facebook para exagentes y agentes actuales de la Patrulla Fronteriza se burlaron de migrantes fallecidos, conversaron acerca de lanzarles burritos a las legisladoras latinas del Congreso que visitarían un centro de detención en Texas este lunes; y publicaron una vulgar imagen falsa que muestra a la Representante Alexandria Ocasio-Cortéz participando en sexo oral con un inmigrante detenido, según capturas de pantalla de estas publicaciones. Manténte informado/a Suscríbete a nuestra newsletter en español y te avisaremos cada vez que publiquemos una historia en español. En una de las conversaciones del grupo, sus miembros respondieron con indiferencia y burlas ante la publicación de un reportaje sobre un joven migrante guatemalteco, de 16 años, que murió en mayo pasado estando detenido en la estación de la Patrulla Fronteriza de Weslaco, Texas. Uno de los miembro subió un GIF del personaje Elmo con la cita: “Oh well” (Y, bueno, ¿qué?) Otro respondió con otra imagen con estas palabras “If he dies, he dies” (Si se muere, se muere).El grupo de Facebook llamado “I’m 10-15” (Soy 10-15) fue creado en agosto de 2016 y tiene unos 9,500 por todo el país (“10-15” es el código que usa la Patrulla Fronteriza para denominar a “extranjeros detenidos”). En una introducción en línea, se describe al grupo como un foro de charlas “chistosas” y “serias” relacionadas con trabajar en la Patrulla. “Recuerda que nunca estás solo en esta familia”, señala dicha introducción. Captura de pantalla del grupo de Facebook con estas palabras: “Eso es putas. El pueblo ha hablado y hoy ganó la democracia. Ya regresé. A todos quienes conocen mi verdadero yo, y me respaldaron, les agradezco. ¿A los demás? Esto es lo que tengo que decirles.....” Como entidad encargada de patrullar las fronteras norte y sur del país, la Patrulla Fronteriza ha sido fuente de escrutinios intensos recientemente, debido a las nuevas y agresivas medidas del gobierno de Trump, que tienen como objetivo detener el flujo de migrantes indocumentados que atraviesan la frontera entre México y los Estados Unidos. Dentro de la Agencia de Aduanas y Protección Fronteriza de EE.UU. operan unos 20,000 agentes de la Patrulla. A su vez, la agencia del orden ha sido criticada por el supuesto maltrato de menores y adultos bajo su custodia. Inclusive sus líderes se han visto en crisis, como la renuncia de su director suplente, John Sander, hace una semana.ProPublica recibió imágenes de varias de las conversaciones recientes del chat del grupo 10-15 de Facebook y pudo vincular a los participantes de estas conversaciones en línea con perfiles aparentemente legítimos de agentes de la Patrulla Fronteriza, incluido el de un supervisor basado en El Paso Texas y el de un agente en Eagle Pass, Texas. ProPublica aún no ha logrado comunicarse con los miembros del grupo que subieron lo publicado.ProPublica contactó a tres voceros de CBP en relación con el grupo de Facebook y les proporcionó nombres de tres agentes que parecen haber participado en las conversaciones en línea. La agencia aún no ha contestado.“Estos comentarios y memes son extremadamente preocupantes”, dijo Daniel Martínez, sociólogo de la Universidad de Arizona en Tucson dedicado a estudiar la frontera. “Son claramente xenofóbicos y sexistas”.Según Martínez, las publicaciones reflejan lo que “aparenta ser una cultura generalizada de crueldad en la CBP dirigida hacia los inmigrantes. No se trata de unos cuantos agentes malandrines, o ‘descarrilados’”. Captura de pantalla con el título del grupo de Facebook y su descripción: “Acerca de Donde la Patrulla Vieja se reúne con la Patrulla Nueva. Suban sus fotos y contenido relacionado con AMO. Cosas chistosas, serias y relacionadas con el trabajo. Antes que todo, somos familia. Aquí comienza la Línea Verde, con nosotros. Comienza una charla o discusión, o usa la página como tablero de mensajes o sesión de preguntas y respuestas. Estamos aquí para respaldarnos entre todos. Recuerda que en esta familia nunca estás solo.” El grupo en Facebook de la Patrulla Fronteriza es uno de los ejemplos más recientes de la mala conducta que muestran ciertos funcionarios del orden público en espacios digitales, tanto públicos como privados. Una investigación de Reveal News descubrió cientos de oficiales del orden público en servicio activo y jubilados que se mueven en círculos extremistas en Facebook, los cuales incluyen grupos de supremacía de la raza blanca y de anti gobierno. Un grupo de investigadores que se nombran Plain View Project, emitió recientemente una extensa base de datos con publicaciones ofensivas hechas en Facebook por funcionarios del orden público actuales y anteriores.Y, a principios de 2018, los investigadores federales que registraron el teléfono de Matthew Bowen, agente acusado de haber atropellado a un inmigrante guatemalteco con una camioneta Ford F150, encontraron una larga serie de mensajes de texto perturbadores y racistas, intercambiados por agentes de la Patrulla Fronteriza del sur de Arizona. Los textos, posteriormente divulgados a través de documentos que fueron presentados en un juzgado federal de Tucson, describían a migrantes como “guats”, “wild ass shitbags” (salvajes, sacos de mierda), “beaners” (frijoleros), y “subhuman” (subhumanos). Los mensajes incluyeron varias charlas que mencionaban quemar a los migrantes. Captura de pantalla de una de las publicaciones en el grupo de Facebook. Captura de pantalla de una de las publicaciones en el grupo de Facebook. El titular dice: “Escobar, Ocasio-Cortéz acompañarán otros miembros del Congreso en gira a las instalaciones de la Patrulla Fronteriza en Clint.” Una persona comenta: “Manden fotos.” Otra persona comenta: “Empecemos una recaudación en *go fund me* para el agente de CTX valiente que le aviente un burrito de 10-15 a una de estas perras. El que lo haga se gana el $$$ de la recaudación.” Varias de las publicaciones revisadas por ProPublica mencionan la visita planeada por el Caucus Hispano del Congreso a un polémico centro de detención en las afueras de El Paso, en la cual participarían las Representantes Ocasio-Cortéz y Verónica Escobar. Los agentes en las instalaciones de Clint, Texas han sido acusados de mantener a los menores detenidos allí, en condiciones de maltrato e inhumanas.La gira no entusiasmó mucho a los miembros del grupo de la Patrulla Fronteriza en Facebook, donde se hizo notar que Ocasio-Cortéz, Demócrata de Queens, había comparado las instalaciones de la Patrulla Fronteriza con los campos de concentración nazi. Escobar es Demócrata y representante de El Paso.Uno de los miembros animó a los demás lanzarles “burritos a esas perras”. Otro, aparentemente supervisor de la Patrulla, escribió: “Fuck the hoes” (Que se jodan esas malparidas). Un tercero puso: “There should be no photo ops for these scum buckets” (Estas escorias no deberían tener una oportunidad para fotografía).Las publicaciones quizás más perturbadoras se enfocan en Ocasio-Cortéz. Una incluye una ilustración fotográfica con su rostro participando en sexo oral en el entorno de un centro de detención. El texto que va con la imagen dice: “Lucky Illegal Immigrant Glory Hole Special Starring AOC” (Especial de agujero glorioso para ilegal suertudo con AOC como protagonista).Otro es una ilustración fotográfica de un Presidente Trump sonriente forzándole el rostro a Ocasio-Cortéz hacia la entrepierna. El agente que publicó la imagen comentó: “Eso es perras. El pueblo ha hablado y hoy ganó la democracia”.Una persona del equipo de Escobar dijo que lo publicado acerca de ella y de Ocasio-Cortez era “vil y sexista”. “Además, los comentarios de los agentes de la Patrulla Fronteriza dirigidos hacia inmigrantes, sobre todo los que han perdido la vida, son repugnantes y muestran una desconsideración total por la vida y la dignidad de los seres humanos”. Captura de pantalla del grupo de Facebook. La publicación dice: “Bueno, voy a preguntar. ¿Han visto ustedes flotadores así de limpios? No quiero ser un imbécil, pero YO NUNCA HE VISTO FLOTADORES COMO ESTOS. ¿podría ser otra foto editada? Todos hemos visto que los demócratas y los partidos liberales hacen cosas bastante asquerosas.…” Joaquín Castro, director del Caucus Hispano del Congreso, se enfureció al revisar las conversaciones de Facebook del grupo. “Esto confirma las peores críticas acerca de la agencia de Aduanas y Protección Fronteriza”, señaló el Representante Demócrata de San Antonio. “Se trata claramente de agentes tan desensibilizados que están llegando al punto de ser peligrosos tanto para los inmigrantes, como para sus compañeros de trabajo”. Castro añadió que los agentes que hicieron comentarios vulgares “no merecen llevar ningún uniforme que represente a los Estados Unidos de América”.Vicki Gaubeca, directora de la Coalición de Comunidades de la Frontera Sur (Southern Border Communities Coalition), dijo que las publicaciones son evidencia adicional del sexismo y la misoginia que han plagado a la Patrulla Fronteriza durante mucho tiempo. “Por eso son los peores para reclutar mujeres”, agregó Gaubeca, cuyo grupo trabaja para reformar la agencia. “Tienen el [porcentaje más bajo de agentes o funcionarias mujeres]{.underline} de cualquier agencia federal del orden público”.En otro hilo, un miembro del grupo publicó la foto del padre que murió ahogado junto con su hija de casi dos años en el Río Bravo, cuando ambos trataron de cruzar el río para entrar a los Estados Unidos. La imagen ha circulado en un sinfín de medios en línea durante estos últimos días y generado protestas.El miembro del grupo de Facebook de la Patrulla que público la imagen, se preguntó si la foto podría haber sido falsificada debido a que los cuerpos se veían tan “limpios”. (La fotografía fue tomada por un fotógrafo de Associated Press y no hay indicios de que haya sido posada o manipulada). “NUNCA HE VISTO FLOTADORES COMO ESTOS”, comentó la persona y añadió, “¿podría ser otra foto editada? Todos hemos visto que los demócratas y los partidos liberales hacen cosas bastante asquerosas…”
Meet the Congressman Defending Questionable Tax Breaks for a Company Connected to His Rich Brother
by Susan Schmidt, special to ProPublica WASHINGTON — When New Jersey Rep. Donald W. Norcross appeared at a 2015 groundbreaking for a company building its new international headquarters on Camden’s waterfront, he called it the “perfect partner” to help the poverty-stricken city return to its midcentury prosperity.That same month, the Democratic congressman went to the House floor to praise Holtec International and its chairman, Kris Singh, a campaign contributor who was seeking federal approvals and funding for nuclear cleanup initiatives around the country. The company had promised to bring hundreds of new manufacturing jobs to South Jersey, including highly paid engineers to advance its nuclear technologies.Singh, the congressman said, had been looking for a place to manufacture advanced small modular nuclear reactors, known as SMRs, an innovation that could transform the global nuclear industry.“Dr. Singh is going to start out with 400 new employees and go to 1,000 after a few years, creating these new SMRs,” Norcross said. “He literally could have gone anywhere in the world, where many of his products currently go. He is coming to Camden, New Jersey, here in America.”Four years later, few besides Norcross have heaped such praise on Holtec. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. The company’s transparency has been called into question in recent weeks based on a false answer it provided about its federal contracting history to a New Jersey state agency that granted it $260 million in tax breaks, as WNYC-ProPublica first reported. Since then, Holtec’s past representations in two other states have been called into question. Meanwhile, Holtec’s promises to employ a significant number of Camden residents look increasingly unlikely, despite tax incentives the company gained through the state bill Norcross and his brothers helped create.Last week, Norcross released a statement praising the company headed by one of his biggest political backers. “I am proud of the progress happening in Camden City — we’re seeing more family-sustaining jobs and an unprecedented turnaround in public safety and educational opportunities, all of which are improving the lives of our residents.” Holtec “is providing the community with careers in manufacturing, so I hope they continue to grow jobs in South Jersey.”Holtec, a privately held company, is engaged in developing new reactors, decommissioning old ones and disposing of radioactive materials, including at the Chernobyl site in Ukraine. Its ambitious efforts to buy up shuttered plants and fast-track their cleanup has sparked new controversies about its business practices in communities around the U.S.The admiration between Norcross and Singh appears to go both ways. Singh has been an enthusiastic supporters of Norcross, who was a state senator and an official of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers before he ran for Congress. Singh contributed more than $10,000, the legal maximum, to help Norcross win his first federal election in 2014.The congressman has been featured at Holtec events. He was on hand for the groundbreaking of the new plant as well as to welcome federal Energy Secretary Rick Perry for a tour upon its completion.Norcross is the brother of George E. Norcross III, the Democratic Party boss in South Jersey. George Norcross serves on Holtec’s board of directors and was Singh’s business partner in a brief ownership takeover of The Philadelphia Inquirer, a longtime critic of New Jersey’s Democratic Party machine.Businesses connected to George Norcross and another brother, Philip, a prominent New Jersey lawyer-lobbyist, captured about $1.1 billion in tax breaks from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. Last week, the state opened a new inquiry into six tax breaks, five of which were connected to Norcross. Holtec is one of them.As a state senator, Donald Norcross co-sponsored the law that created the state economic incentive program. Philip Norcross has said he helped draft the legislation and his name is on the application as the company’s representative. Holtec was among the tax break beneficiaries, as was an insurance brokerage firm owned by George Norcross, which built new offices in Camden. Holtec’s award was the second-largest tax break ever given to a company in New Jersey.Donald Norcross had been largely silent as the tax break controversy escalated, and a lawyer for the Norcross brothers tried to downplay his role in pushing the tax break legislation.Holtec opened its Camden headquarters with fanfare in 2017, but its hiring record has been a continuing sore point for Camden residents and their local congressman.To qualify for tax breaks, Singh promised to create 235 new jobs in Camden and retain 160 other employees that it might otherwise have moved out of state.But the hiring process quickly took on racial overtones when Singh criticized the quality of the talent pool in Camden, which is largely black, Latino and Asian. Donald Norcross made a flat-footed response that he had to scramble to modify.“There is no tradition of work in families,” Singh said in a 2018 interview with ROI-NJ.com, a business media outlet. In Camden, he said, “If we hire 10, we keep two. The other eight weed themselves out.”Donald Norcross seemed to agree that many potential workers in Camden, which has one of the state’s highest unemployment rates, had grown up with a “lack of structure.” But he quickly retreated amid the furor and defended the work ethic of his constituents.Holtec has given various estimates of the number of people it ultimately expects to employ, and it remains unclear how many jobs the company has given to Camden residents. A recent newspaper account said it had 450 people working at its plant.Holtec has applied for temporary H-1B visas and green cards for some of the most skilled jobs. U.S. Labor Department figures show Holtec has been approved for 78 such positions since 2016, though companies typically apply for more positions than they fill. The company did not respond to requests for comment.Holtec’s work in Camden is only one aspect of its far flung international business. Its work in Ukraine includes preparing to manufacture small reactors and building a spent fuel storage facility for the cleanup of the Chernobyl site. The connections with Ukraine are so extensive that Holtec played the Ukrainian national anthem along with the American one at its Camden opening ceremony.Holtec is building global interest in its small modular reactors, a more efficient form of producing nuclear energy. It is seeking federal approvals to decommission a half-dozen nuclear plants in the U.S. as well as permission to create in New Mexico an interim disposal site for high-level radioactive material. A New Mexico official last week asserted that the company had misrepresented its mineral rights at the site in communications with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. With manufacturing plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania, the company is currently a leading world manufacturer of huge “dry cask” containers for storage of spent nuclear fuel.Donald Norcross’ recent statement praised Holtec’s work. “Our country has struggled with developing a comprehensive plan to deal with spent nuclear fuel and there is great concern that leaving it scattered around the U.S. is not a sound, long-term solution.” Singh’s company used the tax breaks to build its new headquarters in Camden, 16 miles from its previous location in Marlton, New Jersey. WNYC-ProPublica reported last week that Holtec also told New Jersey state officials that the state of Ohio was vying for its new headquarters, neglecting to mention that Ohio had rescinded a previous Holtec tax break because the company had not created promised jobs.In the House, Donald Norcross has been involved in legislation of interest to Holtec. Holtec’s plans to open an interim nuclear waste disposal site in New Mexico may depend on Washington clearing the way for a permanent repository — such as the long-stalled Nevada site at Yucca Mountain. Norcross visited Yucca Mountain last summer as part of a congressional delegation.Donald Norcross co-sponsored a bill enacted into law last September that provides for greater information sharing and collaboration between government research labs and commercial firms in developing advanced nuclear designs.For Holtec, the tax scandal fallout reaches well beyond New Jersey. Citizen and nuclear watchdog groups have seized on Holtec’s recent troubles to question its trustworthiness and financial fitness in decommissioning reactors and taking over their spent fuel.Holtec has created limited liability subsidiaries to buy shuttered plants from utilities, and in partnership with a Canadian firm, SNC-Lavalin, it has spun off a subsidiary to decommission plants using trust funds set aside by utilities.Its Camden-based subsidiary, Comprehensive Decommissioning International, is seeking to decommission reactors in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Michigan — and three at New York’s Indian Point.Mary Lampert, director of Pilgrim Watch, a Massachusetts grassroots group that is pushing for safe cleanup of the Pilgrim nuclear site, said her organization is closely following Holtec and the New Jersey tax break scandal. “They have a hell of a lot on their plate, number one,” she said of Holtec. Activists there fear that Pilgrim’s cleanup trust fund of just over $1 billion will not cover all of the cleanup costs, she said. The Massachusetts attorney general has petitioned the NRC to be allowed to intervene to seek some financial safeguards from the selling utility or Holtec.At Indian Point, citizen groups also are monitoring Holtec, said Richard Webster, a lawyer with an environmental group. “We want to get some guarantees,” he said.Last month, the NRC refused to block the transfer of the Oyster Creek, New Jersey, plant license to a Holtec subsidiary. The Concerned Citizens of Lacey Township had asked the commission to delay while the state tax break investigation is underway.Holtec’s partner, Lavalin, had already been drawing objections. The global engineering firm is experienced in nuclear plant decommissioning, but the company and its former executives are facing trial in Canada for allegedly paying tens of millions of dollars in bribes to win contracts from Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, charges the company has denied. The case will be tried before a judge in September; the administration of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been drawn into the scandal through its failed efforts to get prosecutors to settle the case.Meanwhile, Lavalin is retrenching dramatically, shedding employees and top executives. Nevertheless, the NRC gave Holtec the go-ahead to take over Oyster Creek. It said Lavalin’s problems in Canada were immaterial.
Investigation of Secret Border Patrol Group Launched as New Degrading Facebook Posts Surface
by A.C. Thompson and Dara Lind The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has opened an investigation into vulgar and misogynistic social media posts made by members of a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents.On Monday, “U.S. Customs and Border Protection was made aware of disturbing social media activity hosted on a private Facebook group that may include a number of CBP employees,” said Matthew Klein, head of the agency’s internal affairs unit.Klein said CBP “immediately informed” the investigators with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General and initiated an inquiry. The office typically takes the first look at allegations of serious misconduct within the CBP. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. The investigation comes after a ProPublica report exposing the secret three-year-old Facebook group, which is called “I’m 10-15” and has some 9,500 members. Group members posted offensive graphics, including a photo illustration of Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being sexually assaulted by President Donald Trump; discussed plans to disrupt a congressional visit to a Border Patrol facility; and joked about the deaths of migrants.Recent posts shared with ProPublica include a meme using graphic language to mock CNN anchor Anderson Cooper’s sexual orientation and a comment that referred to soccer star Megan Rapinoe as a man. A separate thread made fun of a video of a migrant man trying to carry a child through a rushing river in a plastic bag.One poster wrote, “At least it’s already in a trash bag.”Another wrote, “Sous-vide? Lol,” referring to a method of cooking in a bag.Klein said CBP’s code of conduct bars employees from making hateful and abusive statements on social media.The group’s posts were also condemned by Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost. A screenshot of a post from the Facebook group, left, with comments. “These posts are completely inappropriate and contrary to the honor and integrity I see — and expect — from our agents day in and day out,” she said in a statement. “Any employees found to have violated our standards of conduct will be held accountable.”The disclosure of the group’s existence and the nature of the posts raise a number of questions that remain unanswered. It’s apparent from some of the comments that agents were aware that the posts were inappropriate, and potentially actionable, for serving government employees. But it’s unclear whether CPB’s senior leadership was aware of the group or if any complaints had been made to the agency.On Capitol Hill, the leader of a key oversight committee expressed outrage.“This Facebook group is beyond sexist and racist — it is truly abhorrent and shameful, and there is no excuse for this depraved behavior,” said Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, one of the committees with jurisdiction over CBP. “The agents found to be responsible for these vile comments should no longer have the privilege of representing the United States of America in uniform.”The story generated widespread revulsion on social media, with more than a dozen members of Congress expressing horror and disgust at the posts. Some called for an investigation into the group.One of the targets of the offensive posts, Ocasio-Cortez, responded several times on Twitter.
Millionaire CEO of Nonprofit Hospital That Sues the Poor Promises Review of Policies
by Wendi C. Thomas, MLK50 As criticism mounts about the aggressive debt collection practices of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis, Tennessee, the nonprofit hospital system’s chief executive officer promised to reevaluate its financial assistance policies in the coming weeks.“Over the next 30 days we will be reviewing our policies and procedures to ensure we are doing everything possible to provide every Memphian with the care and assistance they need,” said Dr. Michael Ugwueke, Methodist’s CEO and president, in a guest column published online Sunday in The Commercial Appeal.An investigation published last week by MLK50 and ProPublica found that Methodist uses the courts as a hammer against low-wage patients who can’t afford their hospital bills. From 2014 through 2018, the hospital system affiliated with the United Methodist Church filed more than 8,300 lawsuits, according to an MLK50-ProPublica analysis of Shelby County General Sessions Court records. That’s more than all but one creditor during that five-year period. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. One story chronicled the struggle of Carrie Barrett, who makes $9.05 an hour at Kroger, to pay her 2007 hospital bill for $12,019. The bill has ballooned to more than $33,000 due to interest and attorney’s fees. Another detailed how Methodist sues its own employees, some of whom make less than $13 an hour, for unpaid bills related to care delivered at its hospitals. Its health plan doesn’t allow workers to seek care at hospitals with more generous financial assistance policies.Ugwueke, meanwhile, earned $1.6 million in total compensation in 2017, the most recent year for which such data is available. That same year, Gary Shorb, the hospital’s CEO from 2001 to 2016, earned more than $1.2 million for serving as Ugwueke’s adviser. In 2018, the hospital brought in $86 million more than it spent, according to an end-of-year revenue bond disclosure statement.Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer and State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, both Democrats, promised to try to persuade Methodist officials to offer more assistance to patients, including forgiving debts outright.“I was sad and very disappointed because for me, it automatically called to mind what we already know, which is that poor people in Memphis are being preyed upon,” said Sawyer, who is running for Memphis mayor.“I can’t make Methodist change its policies, but what I can do is work with the courts to see what we can do about getting advocates for people who don’t understand the process.”Hardaway said he wondered if nonprofit hospitals should be asked to provide more specifics to the state about their charity and collection practices.“Do they need to make periodic reports … that tell us not just what the charity care is, but that have more detailed analysis on how many folks they’re suing?” Methodist has repeatedly refused to make its executives available for interviews and did not respond to a request for this story. In Ugwueke’s column, he did not disclose any details of the 30-day review.Instead, Methodist has released statements defending itself, noting how it is the only health care system that has hospitals in all four quadrants of Shelby County and that it provides more than $226 million in community benefit. It has not addressed why its financial assistance policy is inferior to its peers or why it garnishes wages in a higher percentage of cases than other hospitals.Methodist’s aggressive collection practices stand out in a city where nearly 1 in 4 residents live below the poverty line. And its financial assistance policy, unlike many of its peers around the country, all but ignores patients with any form of health insurance, no matter their out-of-pocket costs.Methodist is not the only hospital whose business practices have drawn such scrutiny. Last week, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and related media reports exposed similar tactics at Mary Washington Healthcare in Virginia. Two days later, the hospital announced that it was halting the practice of suing patients.“We have decided it is in our community’s best interest to suspend the practice of pursuing legal action for unpaid bills,” the hospital said on its website.Active Methodists and other Christians lamented the actions of the Memphis hospital.“I’m just heartbroken for these people. I don’t think they will ever see light at the end of the tunnel unless something drastic happens, like their debt is forgiven,” said Phyllis Gay, a lifelong Methodist and member of St. Luke’s Methodist Church.Wesley Sanders used to be a Methodist minister in Georgia and now works for a nonprofit health care organization in Dalton, Georgia. He worries that Methodist’s actions are a betrayal of the denomination’s founder, John Wesley.“Wesley thought the Church of England had become a church of the ruling class and there wasn’t a place for the poor in the church,” Sanders said. “Health care for the poor has been, from the earliest days of Methodism, something that was important to him.” In his guest column, Ugwueke wrote that the Methodist system had more than 857,000 patient encounters last year, more than 87,000 of which were with uninsured patients.“Of the hundreds of thousands of patients we saw last year, we only went to court to collect debt from uninsured patients for less than one tenth of one percent of all the uninsured patients we saw,” he said.Peter Gathje, co-director of Manna House, a hospitality ministry for people experiencing homelessness, said the MLK50-ProPublica reports clashed with his experience.He recalled a woman who stayed in intensive care for more than a month. “Her quality of care was just superior and I know she wasn’t billed. She didn’t have insurance and she was homeless.”But he took objection to Ugwueke’s description of the situation.“They’re trying to say this is a minuscule amount of cases but if you’re the person being affected, it’s not minuscule,” Gathje said. “And if it is a minuscule amount of cases, that seems to make the argument that you could come up with a policy that isn’t so punishing of people,” he said.Shelby County Commissioner Reginald Milton said he had talked to Ugwueke, who told him that the system is doing everything it can for patients who are uninsured.A nonprofit hospital has “to balance itself between its humanitarian purposes and its reality as a business, and that line can easily be crossed one way or another,” said Milton, chair of the commission’s hospitals and health committee.“I think Methodist has been an outstanding ally and has been a very good neighbor to the community,” he said.“I do appreciate the fact that when an institution bears a cross on the outside of its building, and garners tax exemption, there is a higher calling and responsibility to look at finding every possible way to care for those in need.”In a note to faculty and staff, Dr. Steve Schwab, chancellor of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, which is affiliated with Methodist, said it “is committed to the health and well-being of all citizens of Tennessee regardless of their financial status. … UTHSC believes it is essential that we and our core teaching hospitals review our billing and collection practices frequently to make certain we maintain fairness for all who seek our health care services.”
Inside the Secret Border Patrol Facebook Group Where Agents Joke About Migrant Deaths and Post Sexist Memes
by A.C. Thompson Members of a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents joked about the deaths of migrants, discussed throwing burritos at Latino members of Congress visiting a detention facility in Texas on Monday and posted a vulgar illustration depicting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez engaged in oral sex with a detained migrant, according to screenshots of their postings. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. In one exchange, group members responded with indifference and wisecracks to the post of a news story about a 16-year-old Guatemalan migrant who died in May while in custody at a Border Patrol station in Weslaco, Texas. One member posted a GIF of Elmo with the quote, “Oh well.” Another responded with an image and the words “If he dies, he dies.”Created in August 2016, the Facebook group is called “I’m 10-15” and boasts roughly 9,500 members from across the country. (10-15 is Border Patrol code for “aliens in custody.”) The group described itself, in an online introduction, as a forum for “funny” and “serious” discussion about work with the patrol. “Remember you are never alone in this family,” the introduction said. Responsible for policing the nation’s southern and northern boundaries, the Border Patrol has come under intense scrutiny as the Trump administration takes new, more aggressive measures to halt the influx of undocumented migrants across the United States-Mexico border. The patrol’s approximately 20,000 agents serve under the broader U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which has been faulted for allegedly mistreating children and adults in its custody. The agency’s leadership has been in turmoil, with its most recent acting chief, John Sanders, resigning last week.ProPublica received images of several recent discussions in the 10-15 Facebook group and was able to link the participants in those online conversations to apparently legitimate Facebook profiles belonging to Border Patrol agents, including a supervisor based in El Paso, Texas, and an agent in Eagle Pass, Texas. ProPublica has so far been unable to reach the group members who made the postings.ProPublica contacted three spokespeople for CBP in regard to the Facebook group and provided the names of three agents who appear to have participated in the online chats. CBP hasn’t yet responded.“These comments and memes are extremely troubling,” said Daniel Martinez, a sociologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson who studies the border. “They’re clearly xenophobic and sexist.”The postings, in his view, reflect what “seems to be a pervasive culture of cruelty aimed at immigrants within CBP. This isn’t just a few rogue agents or ‘bad apples.’” A screenshot showing the title of the Facebook group, left, and the description. The Border Patrol Facebook group is the most recent example of some law enforcement personnel behaving badly in public and private digital spaces. An investigation by Reveal uncovered hundreds of active-duty and retired law enforcement officers who moved in extremist Facebook circles, including white supremacist and anti-government groups. A team of researchers calling themselves the Plain View Project recently released a hefty database of offensive Facebook posts made by current and ex-law enforcement officers.And in early 2018, federal investigators found a raft of disturbing and racist text messages sent by Border Patrol agents in southern Arizona after searching the phone of Matthew Bowen, an agent charged with running down a Guatemalan migrant with a Ford F-150 pickup truck. The texts, which were revealed in a court filing in federal court in Tucson, described migrants as “guats,” “wild ass shitbags,” “beaners” and “subhuman.” The messages included repeated discussions about burning the migrants up. A screenshot of one of the posts in the Facebook group. Several of the postings reviewed by ProPublica refer to the planned visit by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, including Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Veronica Escobar, to a troubled Border Patrol facility outside of El Paso. Agents at the compound in Clint, Texas, have been accused of holding children in neglectful, inhumane conditions.Members of the Border Patrol Facebook group were not enthused about the tour, noting that Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from Queens, had compared Border Patrol facilities to Nazi concentration camps. Escobar is a freshman Democrat representing El Paso.One member encouraged Border Patrol agents to hurl a “burrito at these bitches.” Another, apparently a patrol supervisor, wrote, “Fuck the hoes.” “There should be no photo ops for these scum buckets,” posted a third member.Perhaps the most disturbing posts target Ocasio-Cortez. One includes a photo illustration of her engaged in oral sex at an immigrant detention center. Text accompanying the image reads, “Lucky Illegal Immigrant Glory Hole Special Starring AOC.”Another is a photo illustration of a smiling President Donald Trump forcing Ocasio-Cortez’s head toward his crotch. The agent who posted the image commented: “That’s right bitches. The masses have spoken and today democracy won.” A screenshot from the Facebook group. The posts about Escobar and Ocasio-Cortez are “vile and sexist,” said a staffer for Escobar. “Furthermore, the comments made by Border Patrol agents towards immigrants, especially those that have lost their lives, are disgusting and show a complete disregard for human life and dignity.”The head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Joaquin Castro, reviewed the Facebook discussions and was incensed. “It confirms some of the worst criticisms of Customs and Border Protection,” said Castro, a Democrat who represents San Antonio. “These are clearly agents who are desensitized to the point of being dangerous to migrants and their co-workers.” He added that the agents who made the vulgar comments “don’t deserve to wear any uniform representing the United States of America.” Vicki Gaubeca, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, said the postings are more evidence of the sexism and misogyny that has long plagued the Border Patrol. “That’s why they’re the worst at recruiting women,” said Gaubeca, whose group works to reform the agency. “They have the lowest percentage of female agents or officers of any federal law enforcement agency.”In another thread, a group member posted a photo of father and his 23-month-old daughter lying face down in the Rio Grande. The pair drowned while trying to ford the river and cross into the U.S.; pictures of the two have circulated widely online in recent days, generating an outcry.The member asked if the photo could have been faked because the bodies were so “clean.” (The picture was taken by an Associated Press photographer, and there is no indication that it was staged or manipulated.) “I HAVE NEVER SEEN FLOATERS LIKE THIS,” the person wrote, adding, “could this be another edited photo. We’ve all seen the dems and liberal parties do some pretty sick things…”
Have You Been Sued by a Hospital, Doctor or Other Memphis Institution? Tell Us About It.
by Beena Raghavendran, ProPublica, and Wendi C. Thomas, MLK50 This year, ProPublica and MLK50 are investigating institutions that profit at the expense of people who can’t afford to pay. Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, a nonprofit health care system, makes millions and relentlessly sues the poor in Memphis — a city where nearly 1 in 4 residents live below the poverty line. It has filed more than 8,300 lawsuits for unpaid medical bills in just five years, according to our analysis.Methodist isn’t alone in using aggressive debt collection tactics. We know that other hospitals in Memphis — and other institutions across the city — are suing their patients and customers. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. We’ve reported on the way debt from unpaid medical bills can balloon over time, with additions like mounting interest, wage garnishments from paychecks, and attorney’s and court fees. We want to learn more. Since we published our first pieces on the city’s debt machine, we’ve been flooded with responses.Hearing your experiences can help us do more reporting to hold these institutions accountable. Please fill out this questionnaire if any of the following apply to you:
“Dire” Law Enforcement Crisis in Rural Alaska Prompts Emergency Declaration, New Federal Funding
by Alex Demarban, Anchorage Daily News U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr declared an emergency for public safety in rural Alaska on Friday and announced more than $10 million in funds as part of a sweeping plan to support law enforcement in Alaska Native villages.The U.S. Department of Justice will immediately provide $6 million to the state to hire, equip and train rural police, and for mobile holding cells. An additional $4.5 million will support 20 officer positions and be provided to Alaska Native organizations by the end of July.The announcement follows an investigation by the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica, which found that one in three communities in Alaska, about 70 altogether and nearly all of them Alaska Native, had no local law enforcement at some point this year. Many are in regions with the highest rates of poverty, sexual assault and suicide in the United States. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. In some hub communities that do have police, survivors of sexual assault say rapists go unpunished. Mothers of Alaska Native women who were found dead under suspicious circumstances say cases go unsolved.Barr visited Alaska in May to hear concerns from Alaska Natives and rural residents about a lack of police in rural communities and high rates of sexual assault and family violence. During a trip to a Western Alaska village, Barr called the situation an “emergency” and vowed to do everything he could to help.“In May, when I visited Alaska, I witnessed firsthand the complex, unique, and dire law enforcement challenges the State of Alaska and its remote Alaska Native communities are facing,” Barr said in a statement Friday. “With this emergency declaration, I am directing resources where they are needed most and needed immediately, to support the local law enforcement response in Alaska Native communities, whose people are dealing with extremely high rates of violence.”The state’s largest Native organization praised the decision.“We appreciate that U.S. Attorney General William Barr clearly understands the urgency of the public safety situation in rural Alaska,” said Julie Kitka, longtime president of the Alaska Federation of Natives. In blue, U.S. Attorney General William Barr walks the Napaskiak boardwalk with tribal administrator Sharon Williams, right, and others on Friday, May 31, 2019. Barr visited Bethel and Napaskiak to learn about law enforcement and public safety challenges in the region. (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News) Kitka views Barr’s declaration and the scope of his plans as unprecedented, according to AFN spokesman Jeffry Silverman.Alaska’s hard-to-reach villages — some accessible to investigators only by boat or plane, contributing at times to lengthy delays into criminal investigations — factored into Barr’s decision. The Department of Justice statement said the law enforcement problems were “not seen anywhere else in our nation.”Barr said he was directing agencies within the Department of Justice to submit plans within 30 days on how they will provide more support for public safety efforts in rural Alaska. The goals must include providing better services to crime victims, stamping out illegal drugs, improving detention facilities and getting more police and legal resources to rural Alaska.On top of the funds promised on Friday, two other agencies within the Department of Justice have identified $14 million that is available for child advocacy centers in Alaska and in the Lower 48.“Lives depend on it, and we are committed to seeing a change in this unacceptable, daily reality for Alaska Native people,” Barr said.Barr said he would work closely with Native leaders and congressional and state representatives to ensure the programs are delivered effectively.“I want to be sure that the support this department offers to Alaska Native communities will support solutions identified by the communities themselves,” he said. “The only way for us to provide effective support is to work in partnership with others. This is true in Alaska and throughout Indian country.”Alaska’s congressional delegation applauded Barr’s quick response.“I appreciate the urgency that the Attorney General is placing on Alaska and our public safety situation,” said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican. “I look forward to working with him to further identify and implement lasting, systemic solutions to rural public safety and wellness in coordination with the Department of Justice.”The declaration and funding is “welcome news not only for the families that have been victims of crime, but also for the children of Alaska who deserve to grow up in neighborhoods that are safe and secure,” said U.S. Rep. Don Young, a Republican.
ProPublica’s Age Discrimination Series Wins Gerald Loeb Award
by ProPublica ProPublica’s Peter Gosselin and Ariana Tobin, in partnership with Vox’s Ranjani Chakraborty, have won a Gerald Loeb Award in beat reporting for their series investigating age discrimination in the workplace. The project explored, in new detail and specificity, how employers were shedding older workers, as well as the toll these tactics were taking on the lives of those in their 40s, 50s and beyond.Prompted by information submitted by thousands of people responding to their online callout, Gosselin and Tobin specifically focused on the practices of IBM and found that the company had eliminated more than 20,000 of its American employees, ages 40 and over, in the last five years. Among their key findings: IBM had created a point system that targeted later-career workers for layoffs, even when they had been top performers; it demanded that other longtime employees move to keep their jobs, knowing full well many would quit; and in some cases, workers forced out of full-time permanent positions were brought back as contractors at lower rates of pay. In response to their reporting, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal watchdog that administers and enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination, launched a nationwide investigation of age bias at IBM.Learn more about the Gerald Loeb Awards here.
The Sheriff Lost Reelection. Then the Spending Spree Began.
by Connor Sheets, AL.com A jumble of electrical cables dangles from a hole punched through the ceiling in Sheriff Blake Turman’s brightly lit office in rural Covington County, Alabama, near the Florida Panhandle.A year ago, Turman’s predecessor, Dennis Meeks, used sheriff’s office funds to buy and install a security camera system, financial records show. But the equipment is no longer there.“You see them wires hanging right there?” Turman asked during an interview in the office, which he took over in January, several months after beating Meeks in a runoff.“That’s where the closed-circuit camera system used to be. He spent $2,800 putting that in there — $2,800 out of discretionary funds, and it’s gone now.”Turman says he has thoroughly searched the sheriff’s office building for the equipment and has not been able to find it. Get Our Top Investigations Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Don’t miss out on ProPublica’s next investigation. Sign up and get the Big Story email whenever we break news. The missing video system is just one of a wide array of vagaries and shortfalls Turman says he has had to contend with since he replaced Meeks as sheriff on Jan. 14. Records were destroyed or removed, he said, while public accounts were depleted to buy a computer system that the office can’t use and ammunition for guns that sheriff’s deputies don’t carry. Turman also said tens of thousands of public dollars were missing from those same accounts and provided a reporter with internal sheriff’s office records that he says support his claims.Nine sheriffs who took office this year across the state have alleged that their predecessors destroyed public property, wasted taxpayer money or took other steps that abused the public trust and undermined their offices, as AL.com and ProPublica first reported this month. A handful have asked the state to audit their offices.The situation Turman describes is perhaps the most extreme. He has enlisted the help of state law enforcement to inventory military equipment supplied by the U.S. Department of Defense and is calling on state authorities to explore potential criminal or civil sanctions against his predecessor.Last month, Turman submitted a complaint to the Alabama Ethics Commission, reviewed by AL.com and ProPublica, that listed four “infractions” that he claims Meeks committed. Among them: More than $100,000 of military surplus equipment went missing while Meeks was in office, and Meeks used public money to pay monthly fees for his deputies to attend a gym that employs his daughter and is co-owned by her husband.Turman also alleged that his predecessor, in the final months of his term, purchased more than $6,000 of promotional items emblazoned with his name — Frisbees, coloring books, pencils — that have no use, which AL.com and ProPublica reported.Tom Albritton, executive director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, declined to comment or confirm whether he had received the complaint. Turman has filed a complaint with the Alabama Ethics Commission alleging that his predecessor wasted taxpayer funds and lost government property, contentions the former sheriff denies. (Art Meripol, special to ProPublica) Turman said he plans to meet with the Covington County District Attorney’s Office next week to discuss his allegations and the question of whether Meeks should be prosecuted.In a May phone interview, Meeks denied all of Turman’s allegations. He said that he did not know what happened to the surplus military equipment, that the payments to the gym owned by his son-in-law were legal and that he purchased promotional materials every year for the county fair.He also disputed the notion that he wasted office funds or personally profited from them, and he challenged Turman’s veracity.“He’s a liar,” Meeks said.Meeks insisted that the video recording system is still on sheriff’s office property.“It’s out in the storage bin behind the sheriff’s office,” he said. “I was told that they went and got it, that they know where it’s at. I didn’t take it with me.”Meeks did not return phone messages requesting additional comment this week.Turman said that he still doesn’t have the equipment and that the dispute goes beyond run-of-the-mill campaign fights.“I understand that maybe people’s feelings get hurt during an election,” Turman said. “I did everything I could to avoid that, but the people spoke. It’s just a shame that the prior administration did it the way they did.”Missing Military SurplusTurman said he knew he had a problem when he attended a training session in March on the federal program that transfers surplus military equipment from the Department of Defense to local law enforcement agencies.He then gathered the limited documentation the sheriff’s office kept of the surplus military equipment it had received during Meeks’ tenure. Turman said he found that Meeks’ recordkeeping practices were severely lacking, and that there seemed to be no information about the locations of many items.Since Meeks was first elected sheriff in 2007, the office acquired over 200 pieces of equipment.Utility trucks. Radios. Rifle scopes.In total, while Meeks was sheriff, his agency received hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of taxpayer-funded equipment from what is known as the 1033 program. More than $414,000 of the items are supposed to still be in the sheriff’s office’s possession, according to a spreadsheet prepared by state authorities.Over the ensuing weeks, Turman said he and his deputies scoured the sheriff’s office headquarters and other sheriff’s office properties, looking for the items or any records that might reveal what happened to them. He said they found that many of the items were missing.“We looked high and low, all over our county properties. We called deputies that quit, people that are no longer with us and everything, we rounded up everything we could, but everything else we can’t find,” Turman said. Turman looks at promotional items emblazoned with Meeks’ name that were purchased after Meeks lost his reelection bid. (Art Meripol, special to ProPublica) Turman asked state authorities to help him figure out what had happened. Responding to his request, employees of the surplus property division of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, which manages the 1033 program in the state, visited the sheriff’s office last month to conduct an inventory. They were unable to account for over 100 pieces of equipment the sheriff’s office was supposed to have in its possession, according to a spreadsheet the division compiled of the missing items and an interview with the division’s director, Shane Bailey.The spreadsheet, a copy of which was obtained by AL.com and ProPublica, shows that over $101,000 of the equipment was missing, including night-vision sniper scopes, ballistic eyewear, binoculars and infrared illuminators.Bailey said that while “there was some items missing” that were worth “a large amount of money,” they could all be purchased at a local surplus store. “It was no vehicles, no weapons, nothing like that, just your ordinary day-to-day items.”The equipment is provided with the understanding that it will be closely tracked, that it will be sold only under certain circumstances, and that it will otherwise be returned or destroyed if it’s no longer needed, according to the federal government’s description of the program.Turman said his office sought help from his predecessor’s administration to locate the items “and they really couldn’t care less.”Meeks said that he has not heard from Turman about the missing equipment.“I have no idea about that,” he said in May. “No, they have not called me about anything.”Turman said he expects that the federal government will suspend the sheriff’s office from the 1033 program for at least a couple of months. But he said he’s more upset that public money was wasted and that in his opinion the public trust was abused.“It shows a total lack of accountability, and we have found that throughout the whole time we’ve been here,” he said.“It’s nothing out of my pocket at the department level, but at the tax level, I pay my taxes like everyone else and it’s wrong, it’s just wrong.”High and DryTurman, who had a long career as a state trooper before becoming sheriff, said he came into office with hopes of quickly getting to work.That didn’t happen.The hard drive on his computer had been “wiped clean,” Turman said, and the office’s training and personnel records had either been destroyed or removed from the premises before he arrived.In the May interview, Meeks said he did delete files from the computer that he “kept on there for me while I was sheriff that would have had nothing to do with him.”Meeks also said that he may have taken personnel and training records, but they were only copies.But because he does not have personnel records, Turman said that in most cases he has no way of determining which of his employees have been disciplined. He said that presents a host of problems, including the prospect that there might be deputies with documented histories of overusing force who have been given a clean slate. While Meeks was sheriff, the Covington County Sheriff’s Office received hundreds of thousands of dollars of military surplus equipment — including these two Humvees — through a federal program. (Art Meripol, special to ProPublica) “Let’s say you have an employee that keeps showing up late for work every day and it’s been monitored and documented and put in their employee file. Well, his employee file’s thrown away. It’s gone,” Turman said. “And there’s more serious stuff, like use of forces.”Turman said he had “no help from the prior administration, no communication,” following the election, which left him blindsided by the state of the sheriff’s office.Meeks disputes that. “Whatever he’s saying, he’s full of shit,” he said.Spending SpreeBy the time Turman took office, he says there was only about $60,000 left in the discretionary accounts. That’s because, Turman believes, Meeks blew through many thousands of dollars purchasing unnecessary items.“There should have been another $110,000, $120,000 in there, had these frivolous things not been bought.”Meeks said that he left Turman $84,000 in discretionary funds, and that all expenditures made during his tenure were lawful.“Every bit of that money is in that account. … He don’t even know what he’s talking about,” Meeks said.During the final months of Meeks’ term, the sheriff’s office spent about $70,000 on an information system that was supposed to make it easier to look up warrants and other law enforcement data. Turman said, however, that the technology is “inadequate” and cannot be used because it is not compatible with the office’s communications provider.It “just ain’t worth a flip,” he said. The office also spent more than $1,500 in the final seven months of Meeks’ term to pay for deputies to be members of Andalusia Health & Fitness, a local gym that state records show is co-owned by his son-in-law, Michael Jackson. Meeks’ daughter Toka Jackson, has taught fitness classes at the gym in the past; does marketing appearances, social media promotion and other tasks for the company; and lists herself as a co-owner on her LinkedIn page.The sheriff’s office used discretionary funds to pay $25 a month for each of a number of Meeks’ deputies to be members of the gym for at least four years, according to the internal financial records.Asked why he paid for his deputies to be members of the gym, Meeks said that he made the payments for “probably six years,” and that he did not break the law by doing so.“According to the state auditors, I could pay for our deputies and our jail staff, our correction officers, to go to a gym, and it could be paid out of discretionary funds,” he said.Rachel Riddle, who as Alabama’s chief examiner oversees audits across the state, said that the question of whether Meeks’ gym spending was problematic depends on the circumstances, and that she does not have enough information about the payments to draw a conclusion about whether they were proper.“I can’t just tell you blanket whether a gym membership is an acceptable expenditure or not,” Riddle said. “It would depend on the facts of that gym membership within that sheriff’s office and whether it was being used for a legitimate law enforcement purpose.”Gone MissingMeeks also spent money toward the end of his term on supplies that Turman said he cannot find.Thousands of dollars of ammunition purchased in the months following Meeks’ electoral loss have gone missing, according to Turman.In August, the month after Meeks lost the runoff, the sheriff’s office spent over $7,400 on more than 41,000 rounds of ammunition, according to sheriff’s office invoices. That’s several times more than the sheriff’s office spent on ammunition in an average month in 2017, invoices show.“You can’t find those bullets,” Turman said. “I searched and you can’t find them.” Turman is one of nine sheriffs across Alabama who said that their predecessors took steps that wasted public resources or made it more difficult for them to do their jobs. (Art Meripol, special to ProPublica) Turman said that deputies likely used some of the ammunition at the gun range, where they each have to shoot about 150 rounds once a year to requalify to carry their pistols. But given that he estimates that only about 20 deputies were authorized to carry pistols last year, that means that about 3,000 rounds would have been shot during the annual requalification exercise. The sheriff’s office should still be in possession of almost all of the remaining ammunition, Turman said.Beyond that, an Aug. 15 invoice shows that 5,000 rounds of the ammunition the sheriff’s office purchased that month were for .380 caliber guns. Turman said that none of Meeks’ deputies were issued .380 pistols, but that the former sheriff was known to carry one himself.“There’s only one person that carried a .380. He sat here at this desk,” Turman said, referring to Meeks.Meeks said that all ammunition purchases made while he was in charge were made for law enforcement purposes, and that the county never spent general funds on ammunition.“Any ammo that was bought was either bought for a duty weapon or a backup weapon,” he said. “The county has never ever bought one bullet; all ammo had to be bought out of the discretionary money.”
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