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by Justin Elliott ] ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. The Washington, D.C., attorney general’s office sued Arise Virtual Solutions, the work-at-home customer service company, on Wednesday, alleging the company stole wages from workers and deprived them of minimum wage, overtime pay and paid sick leave. Large companies like Airbnb and Disney hire Florida-based Arise, which in turn recruits workers to answer customer service calls from their homes for its corporate clients. The attorney general’s civil suit, filed in D.C. Superior Court, alleges that Arise illegally classifies those workers as independent contractors rather than regular employees. That deprives the workers of a range of wage and other protections that the law provides only to employees. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. The suit also names as a defendant Comcast, one of the many blue-chip companies that have obtained customer service workers via Arise. “Arise has been elaborately constructed to avoid paying workers the minimum wage, overtime, and paid sick leave as required by District law,” D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine said in a statement. “Comcast, and other large companies, partnered with Arise and profited from that company’s theft of workers’ wages and benefits.” The attorney general’s office opened its probe following a ProPublica investigation of Arise in 2020. Interviews and documents showed how Arise required workers to pay for the company’s training and their own equipment. The company made workers pay Arise monthly fees to take customer service calls on its “platform.” A CEO of the firm pitched corporate clients by saying the company could “squeeze wastage out of a typical workday.” Customer service reps told ProPublica that Arise and the large corporations for whom they answered calls maintained a high level of control over their jobs, even as they were classified for legal purposes as independent contractors. Those are labor law violations, the lawsuit alleges. “The economic reality of Arise’s relationship with its agents demonstrates the existence of an employer-employee relationship,” the lawsuit says. “Arise has the power to hire and fire agents, exercises extensive supervision and control over their conditions of employment, and determines their rate of pay.” The D.C. suit seeks to recover back wages and paid sick leave, plus additional penalties, for at least 180 affected workers in Washington. That’s a small fraction of the tens of thousands of agents Arise has claimed to have around the country. The suit doesn’t say how much money the attorney general is seeking. An Arise spokesperson declined to comment on the suit. The company has denied wrongdoing when its labor practices were called into question in the past. Arise is owned by private equity giant Warburg Pincus, which also declined to comment on the lawsuit. The lawsuit alleges that Comcast is liable for wage law violations against its agents because the company had “substantial control over their conditions of work from hiring, to performance, and through termination.” A Comcast spokesperson said in a statement that the company is “absolutely committed to lawful pay practices. This particular case involves individuals retained by and paid by Arise, not Comcast. We are reviewing the complaint and cannot comment further at this time.” The lawsuit alleges that Arise targets women, especially women of color, for recruitment as customer service contractors. One Arise marketing site tells prospective workers they can “Become A Work From Home Mom” while another included in the complaint features photos of women of color smiling broadly alongside headlines like “Finally I had a chance to work again but I would be my own boss.” That echoes ProPublica’s previous reporting that Arise’s workforce is heavily female, with one ad showing a woman being literally showered with cash. Separately, a private class-action case filed against Arise in federal court last year is still pending. That followed a federal Department of Labor investigation more than a decade ago that concluded the company was violating the law and owed workers $14.2 million. But Arise pushed back against the government and ultimately paid nothing. Ariana Tobin and Ken Armstrong contributed reporting.
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by Daniel Golden and Jeff Kao ] 阅读简体中文版。 ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. This article was co-published with The Chronicle of Higher Education. On Sept. 9, 1999, David Letterman entertained millions of television viewers by riffing on a scientific breakthrough that had made an obscure Princeton assistant professor famous overnight. The late-night host’s top-10 list of “Term Paper Topics Written by Genius Mice” — including “A Sociological Study of Why Cats Suck” and “Outsmarting The Mousetrap: Just Take The Cheese Off Really, Really Fast” — saluted Joe Z. Tsien’s achievement in genetically engineering a mouse to learn faster and adapt better to changing conditions. As the years passed, Tsien’s fame faded. Then, like hundreds of other scientists at U.S. universities, he found himself in the crosshairs of a federal crackdown on China’s theft of American research and expertise. His employer, the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, and one of his main funders, the National Institutes of Health, accused him of failing to disclose positions and funding in China, as well as his participation in China’s lucrative — and controversial — Thousand Talents recruitment program. The university removed his endowed chair, reassigned him to a smaller lab, and blocked him from sending his genetically modified mice to a professor in Shanghai who wanted to study them. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. A naturalized U.S. citizen, the 59-year-old Tsien hasn’t been charged with any crime. But when he went to China to visit his ailing father in October 2019, FBI and Department of Homeland Security agents seized his laptop and two cellphones at Atlanta’s airport. Augusta University regarded Tsien as being absent from work without leave and stopped paying his salary. Tsien resigned the next month and sued the university for employment discrimination. He hasn’t returned to the U.S. for fear of being arrested. The federal purge has spurred criticism for ensnaring researchers who didn’t stray outside accepted practices and whose universities were or should have been aware of their foreign moonlighting. Tsien portrayed himself as one such casualty, and he emphatically denied allegations that he misled his university and federal authorities. Although the Georgia university system said that it disciplined him for “legitimate, nondiscriminatory and nonretaliatory reasons,” he complained that he was singled out because he was Chinese. His treatment by federal agents and the medical college, he wrote, “makes me appreciate much better what Jewish people had suffered and felt under Hitler’s Nazi rule.” Tsien has attracted prominent sympathizers. “He is a terrific scientist, extremely well trained and really creative,” said Thomas Sudhof, a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist at Stanford who has known Tsien for 20 years. “I believe he is 100% honest. Sometimes he is a bit overenthusiastic, and that may have gotten him into trouble occasionally. But he would be unlikely to commit any kind of infraction of the standard practices of science.” Augusta University records, Chinese media reports and obscure filings tucked away in Chinese and American courts, plus conversations with Tsien and his friends and colleagues in both countries, tell a more complicated story. They show that Tsien is far less a victim than he asserts, and that he concealed key aspects of his dealings, including efforts to seek and commercialize Chinese patents for American-funded research. The documents and Tsien’s associates depict him as an ambitious outsider in both his native and adopted countries, part schemer and part dreamer. There was no indication that he was aiming to help China or its government at the expense of the U.S. His goals appeared to be personal: to advance himself and his family. Tsien’s career spanned the arc of American higher education’s relationship with China. He flourished in an era when U.S. universities were eager to attract Chinese students and partner with Chinese institutions. The American schools looked to professors educated in China, like Tsien, to guide them. But as the U.S. perceived China as a growing economic threat, what American academia had once celebrated as fruitful collaborations came to be condemned as “conflicts of commitment,” and Tsien’s penchant for skirting the rules and undermining his own prospects caught up with him. Even before his downfall, his career was one of the more turbulent in the annals of neuroscience. Brilliant and charming, but quick to take offense and indifferent to other people’s opinions of his ideas, he tended to alienate powerful scientists and administrators whom he needed to cultivate. In the end, Tsien proved more adept at dealing with mice than men. People who know Tsien say his difficulty in reading social signals may stem from a disrupted childhood. The Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong’s brutal campaign to impose ideological purity, was the central event of Tsien’s youth. His family — his father was a clerk, his mother an accountant — was relocated from the city of Changzhou to a small village. “Those of us who come from the Cultural Revolution, we don’t have political skill,” said one longtime friend, who requested anonymity. “Not only him, me too. There’s a lack of skill in dealing with complex human relationships.” Still, Tsien made the best of his new surroundings. Roaming the countryside, “I became fascinated by how dragonflies can fly and suddenly stop in midair, or how ants navigate and search for food and then find their way home.” His high school, run by a fabric factory primarily for employees’ children, was less than stellar, but he supplemented it with after-school classes in math and physics, and he passed the national college entrance exam. As a sophomore biology major at East China Normal University in Shanghai, he helped out in a neurophysiology lab. The “pop” of pigeons’ neurons firing in electrical pulses, converted to sound by an oscilloscope, “made me hooked to the mystery of the brain.” After graduating in 1984, he became a research assistant on a beer fermentation project. “My daily duty was to inoculate yeasts in the evening and taste beers in the morning.” He took advantage of the nap time allotted for hangover recovery to study English and apply to U.S. graduate schools. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1990, followed by postdoctoral study at Columbia under Eric Kandel, who would go on to win a Nobel Prize, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under Susumu Tonegawa, who had already won one. He married another China-born researcher in 1987, and they had two sons before divorcing in 2011. At Columbia and MIT, Tsien studied memory and learning by manipulating genes in rodents’ brains. His first breakthrough came when he developed a method to delete a particular gene in a region of the brain that was vital to memory. Mice without the gene proved more forgetful. Moving to Princeton in 1997, Tsien took a different approach — zeroing in on a gene called NR2B that was believed to be related to memory and injecting it into mice. The result surpassed his expectations. In August 1999, he announced he had created a smarter mouse, which he nicknamed “Doogie,” after Doogie Howser, the precocious hero of a television medical drama. His research made the cover of Time. The New York Times, ABC News, the BBC and other media hailed his achievement, and the journal Science chose it as one of the top 10 breakthroughs of 1999. Joe Z. Tsien in 1999 with a mouse he genetically engineered at Princeton University. His achievement was hailed in the media. (Laura Pedrick) People in China noticed too. Tsien’s alma mater, East China Normal, awarded him $300,000 in 2001 for his “imaginative research on learning and memory” and for “promoting academic exchange and collaboration between ECNU and Princeton neurobiologists.” Tsien then collaborated on research at East China Normal, which reimbursed his travel expenses. In 2002, it supplied him with a 1,200-square-foot apartment in Shanghai, according to filings in his divorce case. He stayed there when he was in Shanghai, and his parents lived there. He also brought some of East China Normal’s faculty and students to Princeton as visiting scholars. Shirley Tilghman, then Princeton’s president, congratulated him on “this major recognition from your own university” and praised his work in a commencement address. Given Tilghman’s tributes and his high-profile publications in prestigious journals, he seemed like a shoo-in when he came up for tenure in 2004. Instead, the confidential proceedings became contentious, according to faculty members who requested anonymity. Many colleagues in the molecular biology department backed Tsien, but some complained that he oversold his research findings or didn’t care enough about teaching. Tsien said he received favorable evaluations from students. Tsien believes that his mentors Kandel and Tonegawa, whom Princeton would likely have consulted, weighed in against him. Tonegawa had been upset that Tsien, who had begun genetically modifying mice at MIT, did not list him as a co-author on the “smart mouse” article. Also, against Tonegawa’s wishes, Tsien had taken transgenic mice from MIT to Princeton to launch his own lab. “This project started while he was here,” Tonegawa told the Newark Star-Ledger in 1999. “MIT has at least partial ownership. What is made in the lab usually belongs in the lab. … I couldn’t say [Tsien] is one of the most collegial or cooperative persons.” When contacted by ProPublica, Tonegawa declined to comment. “Since Joe Tsien left my lab years ago we have not been in touch at all,” he wrote. Tsien said that Tonegawa didn’t deserve credit and was jealous of his acclaim. Kandel did not respond to requests for comment. Two Princeton faculty members said they had heard that Kandel and Tonegawa opposed Tsien. “Joe seems to have a pattern of exceptionally good relationships with important people, and then having them end up feeling betrayed by him in some way,” one said. Ultimately, Tsien was denied tenure. It was a devastating blow. “I have learned what it meant to be the victim of your own success,” he said. Years later in Georgia, nostalgic for the scene of his greatest triumph, he would tie Princeton Tigers balloons to the cages of his genetically altered mice. The same accomplishments that had seemed to assure Tsien’s future at Princeton made him a coveted free agent. David Farb, chairman of pharmacology at Boston University’s medical school, lured him there with a professorship at a “very high” salary, a newly renovated lab and at least $750,000 in research funding that had once been ticketed for Farb’s own work. “I was in my glory,” Farb recalled. “Everyone said, ‘I can’t believe you recruited someone like Joe Tsien from Princeton.’” Tsien demonstrated a new device for measuring brain signals in mice in 2006 to future Nobel laureates Edvard Moser, second from left, May-Britt Moser and John O’Keefe. (Courtesy of Dr. Longnian Lin) Opinions shifted when Tsien began quarreling with medical school administrators over how much of the cost of housing his mice should be borne by BU and how much by his NIH grants. Tsien heightened the tensions by accusing BU officials of discriminating against him because of his race, a claim that Farb didn’t believe. “I thought it was a cheap shot.” The animal experimentation committee criticized Tsien for leaving mice too long in the lab rather than returning them to the vivarium. “He was a big shot,” Farb said. “He felt like, ‘Why are they bothering me with this trivia?’” Farb advised Tsien to be more vigilant, and the pharmacology chair appointed a compliance officer to monitor Tsien’s lab and expenditures. “I felt very badly” about these conflicts, Farb said. “I thought he was a good faculty member. For myself personally, I was being demonized as this department chair who brought in somebody who was spending all this money. People who had been strong supporters of the recruitment turned against it.” Tsien said that his disagreements with the BU administration were “minor,” and he didn’t recall the details. Regarding the mice, he said they had to be kept undisturbed in the neural recording rooms for days to measure their long-term memory. The committee disrupted the experiments for several weeks, he said. “The event left a bad taste.” Tsien’s frequent travels to Shanghai likely magnified the resentment. Many researchers in his lab came from China and were funded by its government. Farb wondered about the relationship, but he decided that on the whole it benefited the school. “I’d see the papers published and try to figure out, ‘Is this a pharmacology department publication?’” Farb said. “Is it the Shanghai institute” at East China Normal where Tsien helped train faculty? “I didn’t know. Are they the same mice? Nobody was really asking at the time. Maybe they were totally separate. It was a Wild West. I was looking at it as a good thing. Joe is giving us a bridge to a big lab in China. Talented people are coming to the department on their own money. Who was I to raise questions? What am I going to say but, ‘Congratulations, Joe, you’re a great hire, you have four big NIH grants.’ I liked him. Some people didn’t.” Founded in 1828, the Medical College of Georgia is part of the state university system and one of the nation’s oldest and largest medical schools. It capitalized on Tsien’s discontent, recruiting him to Augusta in 2007. Tsien received a $250,000 salary, a $2.5 million startup fund for his research and up to $300,000 a year to cover the cost of 1,100-1,200 mouse cages. The key draw was a $10 million commitment from the Georgia Research Alliance, a nonprofit created by state leaders to boost the economy through scientific discovery. It paid for a $3.6 million lab designed to monitor brain activity in mice, including eight recording rooms. Tsien in 2018 at the Department of Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University. The school recruited him in 2007. (Phil Jones/Courtesy of Augusta University) Tsien was named one of the research alliance’s Eminent Scholars and appointed co-director of a new Brain and Behavior Discovery Institute at the Medical College of Georgia. He was given funding to hire three junior and three senior faculty members. His office adjoining the lab was cluttered with books, awards and mementoes, including a cage containing a battery-powered, furry mouse with blinking red eyes — an allusion to the discovery that made him famous. The Georgia Research Alliance’s support also included $1 million to develop a colony of transgenic rhesus monkeys in China. Tsien planned to replicate his experiments on intelligence and memory with monkeys, which are closer to humans in evolutionary terms than mice are. But it was hard to obtain approval in the U.S. to genetically alter primates, and monkeys were cheaper in China. So he planned to inject genes into monkeys at the Banna Primate Model Animal Center in the Xishuangbanna prefecture of Yunnan province in southwest China. He would then ship half of the monkeys to Georgia, where the alliance had allotted $500,000 for a second colony, for more experiments. He described the Banna center as an important research institute with roots going back to the early 1980s. The medical college backed the international project. “We believe that his efforts in China will prove to be mutually beneficial,” then-Dean Douglas Miller wrote to the Chinese Natural Science Foundation in 2010. “Therefore we endorse, with great enthusiasm, Dr. Tsien’s collaborative research projects” at Banna. Tsien’s China connections aided other professors at the medical college. Two colleagues had shown that curcumin, a yellow substance in curry powder, could help in treating cerebral hemorrhages. But there was a practical barrier; curcumin wasn’t easily absorbed in the stomach. “You have to eat a lot of curry to get the benefit,” one of the scientists said. Tsien put them in touch with researchers at East China Normal, who manufactured more soluble curcumin compounds. East China Normal and Augusta jointly patented the discovery. The university’s then-president, Ricardo Azziz, valued Tsien’s network in China. Like many presidents at the time, Azziz was eager to increase his university’s visibility and attract international students by gaining a foothold there. He approached Tsien, described the goal of building a globally competitive university and urged him to help. Tsien began reaching out to colleagues in China, paving the way for Azziz to meet them. In the next few years, Tsien accompanied Azziz on three trips to China. He gave “very clear advice about what would benefit our institution,” Azziz recalls. “He kept the interests of our university as his focus.” Tsien acted as interpreter and cultural guide, making sure that the president didn’t commit any faux pas. At his suggestion, Azziz brought gifts for their hosts, such as coffee mugs or hats with the university’s logo — but not clocks, which in China are considered bad luck. Since Azziz found the expensive chopsticks supplied at formal dinners too slippery, Tsien began carrying a pair of cheap disposable chopsticks in his pocket. When he thought no one was looking, he would swap them in for Azziz. The chopsticks diplomacy paid off. A partnership with the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine led to the 2014 opening of a Confucius Institute on the Augusta campus. Partly funded and staffed by China, the institute not only taught acupuncture and other techniques, but it also offered instruction in martial arts and Chinese music, and sponsored events for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Concentrating on his brain research, and without expertise in Chinese medicine, Tsien had no desire to be the institute’s founding director. But Azziz couldn’t find anyone else, and Tsien reluctantly accepted the position. His second wife, whom he had met while she was a grants coordinator at East China Normal, became the institute’s global affairs coordinator. In addition, Augusta and East China Normal signed a five-year “friendship and cooperation” agreement in 2016, envisioning student and teacher exchanges, joint conferences and cultural events. Tsien’s talents also impressed the U.S. Army. John Parmentola, U.S. Army director for research and laboratory management from 2001 to 2009, was seeking to expand its neuroscience research. After reading Tsien’s 2007 Scientific American cover article, “The Memory Code,” Parmentola invited him to speak at its science conference. Tsien then appeared in a video funded by Parmentola’s office, “The Science of Victory,” about the importance of research to the military. The relationship led to the Pentagon funding research by Tsien about how blast injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder affect the brain. “He’s clearly a gifted and talented individual, and that should really be the focus of who he is and why his work is so important,” Parmentola said. In his Georgia office, Tsien proudly displayed a coin Parmentola had given him, which commemorated his speech at the Army conference. Even on his visits to China, Tsien couldn’t hide his affection for his adopted country. To the apparent dismay of Chinese officials, he rhapsodized about American freedoms, especially the rights to vote and to own a gun. Tsien had collected a dozen guns — handguns, pistols, shotguns and an antique Soviet rifle — and he liked to shoot at a range on weekends. “You don’t ever have to worry about the government coming after you,” Tsien would tell the Chinese administrators. The Chinese “were getting uptight,” said Shawn Vincent, a former vice president for partnerships at the university’s affiliated health system, with whom Tsien also went to China. “You could see the government people look at each other. … Their eyes all got big. I just thought he couldn’t necessarily read the room.” When Vincent warned him to be careful, Tsien laughed it off. Despite his contributions as a China liaison, Tsien’s status at the medical college depended on his research. Unfortunately, one of his big projects — the monkey colonies — was misfiring, both in China and in the U.S. Several Banna researchers, who he had trained, left for a neuroscience institute in Shanghai. The Georgia facility needed more funding, but the economic downturn and increasing animal rights protests against monkey research doomed it. At the same time, his scientific curiosity was leading him deeper into the mysteries of the mind. His attention shifted from the genetic experiments that had made his reputation to the basic design underlying intelligence and memory. His recordings of electrical impulses in mouse brains stimulated by various traumatic events showed patterns of activity among groups of neurons, which he called “cliques.” One day in 2014, he had an epiphany: A simple mathematical equation could describe how the cliques organized themselves into the building blocks of brain computation — and ultimately explain how the brain generates abstract concepts and knowledge. The implications of what he called the “Theory of Connectivity” bowled him over. Staking his career on this sweeping theory, though, was a considerable risk. It was outside his specialty and hard to prove. Sure enough, top journals such as Nature, Science and Cell rejected his manuscripts, although they were ultimately published in other respected peer-reviewed journals. His pivot from practice to theory affected his research funding, much to the university’s consternation. His grants dropped from $1,657,981 in 2009 to $536,350 in 2017, according to the university. “Joe had a lot of grant dollars at one point,” Vincent said. “Some of those were starting to go away. I do remember … whispers” and words of caution from colleagues. “If you want to be safe, you stay within the guardrails.” Tsien was vulnerable for another reason. Although he stepped down as soon as a successor was found, his brief time running the Confucius Institute on campus was unlikely to endear him to the U.S. government. The institutes were starting to draw criticism as outlets for Chinese government propaganda or potential listening posts for spies. Augusta’s institute sparked immediate pushback from officials at nearby Fort Gordon, which was becoming a nerve center for U.S. intelligence. The National Security Agency had a major operation there, and in December 2013, the U.S. Army Cyber Command announced Fort Gordon as its new headquarters. “We got pressure from friends at Fort Gordon who were concerned about our growing ties with China,” recalls Azziz, who resigned in 2015. “I explained this was a cultural thing.” The university couldn’t afford to alienate Fort Gordon officials. Its 9,600 students include about 285 veterans and active-duty service members whose tuition is subsidized by the U.S. government, and its Military & Veteran Services office helps them adjust to college. Its fast-growing master’s program in intelligence and security studies benefits from its proximity to NSA and Cyber Command. Fort Gordon’s dismay was echoed nationwide as attitudes toward China shifted. The number of Confucius Institutes nationwide has plummeted from more than 100 in 2017 to 24, according to the National Association of Scholars. Augusta’s shut down in 2019. As for the friendship agreement with East China Normal, nothing came of it, and it was not renewed. As the relationship between Beijing and Washington grew increasingly tense, federal agencies that funded research began scrutinizing applicants with ties to China. NIH, which had long encouraged collaborations with China, learned from the FBI in 2016 that an Asian faculty member at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston had broken the rules by showing federal grant proposals he was reviewing to other researchers. The NIH examined grant applications and found that some researchers it funded weren’t disclosing dual appointments at Chinese universities. In August 2018, NIH director Francis Collins wrote to universities and academic medical centers, cautioning them that grant applicants and awardees “must disclose support coming from foreign governments or other foreign entities.” Augusta University, which relied on the NIH for 60% of its research funding from 2016 through 2021, had to pay attention. In March 2018, the dean of the medical college, David Hess, told Tsien that the Department of Homeland Security had been asking about his frequent travel to China. Hess officially eliminated Tsien’s brain research institute, which the university had stopped funding in 2013, and laid off his administrative assistant. The following February, Tsien was called into Hess’ office. The dean read aloud a letter to Tsien from the university’s vice president of human resources. “Recently it has come to our attention that you appear to currently hold two employment positions in China that create the potential for conflicts of interest,” the letter stated. The university was launching an “immediate investigation.” While it was undertaken, the university banned him from business travel and working off-campus. Hess also instructed Tsien to fill out the university’s required annual conflict-of-interest form. In his more than a decade at the medical college, Tsien had never completed the form, which asked about outside income, activities and business ownership. And, apparently, no supervisor had reminded him to. Hess said that oversight of the forms was divided between several offices, and that most faculty members filled them out. “If I go 80 mph on the highway and no one catches me, I’m still breaking the law,” Hess said. Tsien said that he didn’t receive the conflict-of-interest forms. Numerous articles in Chinese media about him cited affiliations that — if accurate — should likely have been disclosed on university forms. One said he was a Thousand Talents Program expert and a funded professor at East China Normal University, and that a team led by Tsien had developed a drug screening device that was recognized by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security and displayed at the Interpol General Assembly held in Beijing in September 2017. In 2018, Tsien was described as a director of a neuroscience research center in Xi’an. As the university’s investigation of Tsien’s connections to China ramped up, other scientists’ careers were also being derailed. Since November 2018, when then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “China Initiative” to combat economic espionage, the Department of Justice has criminally charged at least 25 researchers who were not employed by industry. Most of them worked at universities and allegedly committed fraud or made false statements in connection with unreported income or affiliations in China. Some of these cases have fallen apart, spurring criticism that they amounted to racial profiling. In July, the Biden administration dropped charges against five visiting researchers who had been accused of hiding ties to China’s military. After the trial of Anming Hu, a former University of Tennessee at Knoxville nanotechnology professor accused of hiding his part-time teaching position in Beijing from NASA, ended in a hung jury, the Department of Justice sought a retrial. In September, a federal district court judge acquitted him. Judge Thomas Varlan ruled that Hu did not intend to deceive NASA, which is restricted by Congress from funding collaborations with China, and that there was “no evidence that NASA did not receive exactly the type of research that it bargained for.” The university then offered to rehire him. In another setback for the China Initiative, it was reported last week that federal prosecutors are expected to drop charges against Gang Chen, an engineering professor at MIT who had been accused of concealing ties to the Chinese government and its talent recruitment programs. The Justice Department did achieve a notable triumph in December when a federal jury convicted Charles Lieber, former chair of Harvard’s chemistry department, of lying about his participation in the Thousand Talents Program. Lieber’s lawyers have said he plans to appeal. While the criminal cases have attracted the bulk of media attention, actions by federal agencies that fund academic research, and by universities themselves, have affected far more professors. In April 2021, Michael Lauer, NIH deputy director for extramural research, told Congress that more than 100 scientists had been removed from the “NIH ecosystem.” By November, NIH had expressed concern to institutions about 228 scientists with possible problems related to foreign interference. Of these, 191, or 84%, were found to be linked to a “serious violation.” More than 60%, a total of 141, were excluded from receiving NIH grants, including 90 who were fired or quit their jobs. Only 11, or 5%, were cleared. More than three-fourths of the 228 scientists identified themselves as Asian, and China was the “country of concern” in 210 cases, or 92%. Almost half of the cases originated with NIH; universities self-disclosed nearly 30%; and the rest were referred by the Department of Justice or FBI. Lauer told ProPublica that NIH does not discriminate against researchers of Chinese descent. Most of NIH’s cases involve scientists born in China, he said, because China’s aggressive brain-gain programs such as Thousand Talents offer expatriates generous stipends, cutting-edge labs and other incentives for full-time or part-time work at Chinese universities. Thousand Talents contracts give the Chinese university “at least some rights” to inventions developed in the U.S., and they may also require participating scientists to keep their work in China secret, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Of the 228 scientists identified by NIH, 124, or 54%, allegedly did not disclose funding from talent programs. Despite pushback from Asian American rights groups and some universities, Lauer expects the focus on China-related conflicts of interest to continue. “There was no change going from Obama to Trump, and we aren’t seeing any change from Trump to Biden,” he said. Both parties in Congress, he said, have encouraged NIH to be aggressive. Proposed legislation would restrict federal grant recipients from participating in Chinese talent recruitment programs. Lauer declined to discuss specific professors. Still, he acknowledged that many of them came to NIH’s attention because, far from concealing their Chinese backing, they credited it in their published articles. “It’s actually in their scientific papers, but their [U.S.] universities didn’t notice it,” he said. Lauer insisted that NIH still encourages international partnerships. “There’s a difference between collaboration and deception,” he said. Some China-born professors don’t trust NIH to recognize that difference. One morning last October in the halls of the Medical College of Georgia, a scientist from China lamented the crackdown. “Nothing we can do,” she sighed. “Nothing we can do. I’m a very conservative person. I follow the rules. I do not have any collaboration in China.” She said she still had Chinese researchers in her lab — for now. “Everyone is scared. The U.S. is no longer welcoming them.” If they go elsewhere, she said, American science would suffer. “Most Chinese students work very hard. No matter how good your ideas are, you need good people.” Faculty opinion was divided about Tsien. “What happened to Joe was awful, and it speaks to the climate here,” one said. “If they can squeeze someone of his stature out, what would they do to me?” Another said that Tsien doomed himself by denouncing the investigation and “throwing bombs” at administrators. Tsien wasn’t the only neuroscientist at the medical college with ties to China. Professor Darrell Brann agreed to participate in a Chinese recruitment program, the Hebei Foreign Experts Hundred Talents Plan, as a visiting professor at North China Science and Technology University, for about $70,000, according to Chinese media reports. Brann reported receiving $36,500 from North China in 2017 and 2018 on his Augusta conflict-of-interest form. Tsien’s lawsuit cited the university’s failure to investigate Brann, who is white, for joining the talents program as evidence of anti-Asian discrimination against Tsien. “Dr. Brann was not the subject of a conflict of interest investigation because such investigation was not warranted,” the university responded in a filing. Brann declined to comment, but a person close to him described what had happened. A post-doctoral researcher in Brann’s lab at Augusta had connected Brann with a former mentor at North China. Brann then became associated with North China, which eventually asked him to run a major lab. Uncomfortable with this larger role, Brann ended the relationship before receiving the entire $70,000. Oil paintings of the deans of the medical college dating back to the long-bearded Lewis Ford, who later served as a surgeon in the Confederate Army, lined the hallway to Hess’ office. Hess, a defendant in Tsien’s lawsuit, declined to talk about him or the case. Still, he supported Brann. “I’m sure he followed the rules,” the dean said. Hess acknowledged that NIH’s attitude toward collaborations with China has changed, and that the college’s success is tied to NIH funding: “If those grants are taken away … we have to make it up.” But that very reliance, he said, ensures that the college doesn’t discriminate against researchers of Chinese descent because they bring in one-third of the school’s NIH money. “There’s no discrimination against our Chinese American scientists, I assure you,” Hess said. “We’d be crazy to. They’re super productive.” As the allegations against him accumulated, Tsien swatted them away, denying that he had taken any undisclosed income from China. The affiliations uncovered by university investigators, he insisted, were unpaid, were speculation by Chinese media or were partnerships under his international Brain Decoding Project — another of his big ideas. As for Thousand Talents membership, he acknowledged the title but not the money. “I did not take personal financial support or talent research funding from it,” he told Augusta. A university in Yunnan, he said, applied to Thousand Talents on his behalf around 2011, offering him a three-month visiting professorship. He declined the position and arranged for the funds to go to the Banna institute. These defenses were effective. In its final report on his case in December 2019, a month after Tsien resigned, Augusta conceded that it couldn’t substantiate that he had accepted money from China. And while it contended that his frequent travel to China — 12 trips totaling 228 days from July 1, 2016, to Jan. 31, 2019 — had affected his research funding and productivity, it acknowledged that the medical college had approved his absences. The case against him came down to six patents in China on which Tsien was listed as an inventor under his Chinese name, Zhuo Qian. The patent applications were filed without Augusta’s approval between 2011 and 2015. Reviews by the university’s Office of Innovation Commercialization and by an outside patent attorney it consulted found that these patents were “identical to or derivative from” Tsien’s research at Augusta and that it was likely that he had “participated in the filing of the Chinese patents and provided the information necessary.” And since Augusta, as his employer, owned or co-owned the research, and the university had not been told about the Chinese patents, his actions allegedly constituted theft of intellectual property. If he had not quit, the report concluded, he would have been fired. The patents related to a technique of measuring and imaging changes in heart and respiration rates remotely, without attaching sensors. Meng Li and Fang Zhao, two researchers in Tsien’s lab, developed the technique under his guidance, with funding from the Georgia Research Alliance, as part of his effort to determine how long mice remember traumatic events such as falling or being shaken in a jar. The technique was patented in the U.S., with Tsien, Meng Li, Fang Zhao and Yi Qian, the director of the Banna Biomedical Research Institute, listed as inventors. Augusta University and the Banna institute co-own that patent. The Chinese patents did not mention the medical college. All six were co-owned by the Banna Dadu Yunhai Intelligent Technology Development Co. The Banna Biomedical Research Institute shared five. So did the Shanghai Institute of Criminal Science and Technology, which took an interest in the research because technology that can identify variability in physiological rates could be useful for improving lie detectors. Like Tsien, Fang Zhao was listed as an inventor on all six Chinese patents. Her husband, Meng Li, was listed on five. By 2019, when the university was investigating Tsien, they had left his lab and were working at Harvard University. One day, two FBI agents knocked on the door of their apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and interviewed them for 45 minutes, mostly about Tsien. The agents politely asked about his travel to China, focusing on the patents. Did he apply for them? Had he commercialized them? Was Zhuo Qian his Chinese name? “We answered all the questions we know,” Fang wrote in an email. “However, this incident made us feel uncomfortable.” The U.S. Department of Justice declined comment on Tsien, saying that it does not discuss active investigations, or confirm or deny whether there is an investigation. Tsien said that he wasn’t involved in seeking the China patents. In a carefully phrased response to Augusta, he wrote that the Chinese institutions had sought the patents “based on their own work and resources. ... I was not officially approached for any written consent or given an opportunity to read their applications before they filed the patents.” His co-inventors had done most of the research in China or on their own time, he wrote, and his contribution had been limited to “some non-essential, generic comments to them.” If he had participated in filing the patents, he said, he would never have used his Chinese name, which was legally invalid because he had changed it to Joseph Z. Tsien when he became a U.S. citizen. He suggested that the other inventors included him on the patents out of gratitude for “getting them acquainted with each other at social gatherings in China,” or because of his luster as a scientist. He also showed ProPublica a “declaration letter” from the law firm in China that handled the patent applications, attesting that, “We received no document signed by Joseph Tsien or Qian Zhuo.” In recent years, more than twice as many patent applications have been filed in China as in the U.S. From the local level up, the government in China has often rewarded applicants with subsidies or job promotions. It seemed possible that such incentives had prompted Banna or the co-inventors to apply without Tsien’s knowledge. But an obscure paragraph in Tsien’s own answers to the university undermined his defense. He wrote that one of the other inventors, Yi Qian, was his sister, and that she, his mother and his mother-in-law were all partners in Dadu, along with Meng Li and Fang Zhao. The company, Tsien wrote, “manages organic tea farms and offers tea, traditional Chinese medicine products, health/wellness and cosmetic products,” raising the question of why it would co-own patents related to research on heart rates. Tsien had told ProPublica that he had a sister. But he hadn’t mentioned that they worked together or shared a patent. “My sister mostly lives with my parents in Yunnan province where weather is … more suitable for elderly, and she also manages her organic tea farm there,” he had written months before. Now he added that she was trained in mechanical engineering and “helped us to expand the remote measurements” beyond mice to fish, pigs, elephants and newborn Chinese babies. (Qian did not respond to a request for comment.) The ethics board at Banna Biomedical Research Institute approved the measurements on infants, which were taken by video camera. Tsien’s disclosure that his sister and mother had stakes in a company that co-owned his Chinese patents appeared to be at odds with another response he had given to the university. Its conflict-of-interest form, which Hess had ordered Tsien to fill out in 2019, asked whether any immediate family member was a full or partial owner of a business related to his “Institutional Responsibilities.” Tsien checked “no.” One of Tsien’s co-inventors contradicted his account. Fang Zhao told ProPublica in response to emailed questions that Tsien not only knew about the patent applications but also initiated them. He “asked me to prepare the technique reports for him when I worked in his lab,” she wrote. She said that Tsien asked his sister to apply for the Chinese patents. As for Tsien’s Chinese name on the patents, Fang Zhao said that he always uses it in China. She and Meng Li “have no idea that he has not reported these Chinese patents to Augusta University,” Fang Zhao wrote. “Joe told us this is normal academic cooperation activity which is allowed by Augusta University.” Fang Zhao also described the Banna institute as a private organization run by Tsien, his sister and his mother. This raised questions about Tsien’s relationship to the Thousand Talents Program. Tsien had said that he declined the Thousand Talents funding and arranged for it to go to Banna instead. But if Banna was controlled by his family, it seemed possible that he or his family had benefited directly or indirectly from the money. Chinese records and media coverage showed that the three Banna organizations were all established around the same time and were all connected to Tsien and his family. Dadu started in 2010 with about $700,000 in seed money. There was also the Banna Primate Model Animal Center, which opened in 2008 with about $1.5 million in capital, contrary to Tsien’s description of it as a 40-year-old organization. The primate center, which owned a 20% stake in Dadu, appeared to be a precursor to the Biomedical Research Institute, which started in 2010 with more than $2 million. A lawsuit in China alleged that the Banna entities were tightly intertwined — and linked to Tsien. A construction company sued Dadu, the biomedical institute, Tsien (by his Chinese name, notably) and his sister for nonpayment of roughly $800,000 of a $2.2 million contract. According to the lawsuit, the personnel and finances of Dadu and the institute were commingled and Tsien was the “actual controller and investor.” Citing a lack of funds, the defendants had requested more time to settle their account, but they had still not paid in full. The case’s status or outcome was unclear because in 2019 a local judge moved it to another court, whose records were unavailable. Tsien’s efforts to profit from the patents went beyond Banna. In December 2018, he and his sister proposed establishing a “Brain Science and Artificial Intelligence Research Center” in Yuxi, a city of 2.6 million people in Yunnan, about five hours’ drive from Xishuangbanna. The center’s products would include a remote drug screening device covered by one of the six Chinese patents. Notes from the meeting on the Yuxi government’s website identified Tsien, again by his Chinese name, as dean of the Banna Biomedical Research Institute and his sister as its vice president. The Yuxi government agreed to embark on the project, with Tsien’s sister as a deputy team leader. Tsien, second from right, at the signing ceremony for the Shaanxi Brain Science Center on July 18, 2018; the backdrop displays his Chinese name. The accompanying article describes him as the center’s director and his sister, Yi Qian, as deputy general manager of a related company. Highlights added by ProPublica. (Screenshot from The Paper, July 19, 2018. Original photo from the Xi’an Publicity Department.) Tsien spun these new revelations as best he could. While acknowledging that he had not always told the full story, he continued to distance himself from the Banna companies and the Chinese patents that they co-owned. For example, he said that Dadu “was established by a few of my relatives” but that he did not “provide the money.” His sister, he said, had worked for China Resources Group, a state-owned conglomerate, and then as an entrepreneur before managing the tea farm, and she had gotten rich enough to help found Dadu. “My family was poor when I was in high school or college,” he said. “Now everybody seems to be much better.” The primate center’s origins did trace back to the early 1980s, he said, but the state government had planned to close it and develop the real estate. “There was this very chaotic moment. I wanted to continue the primate research.” The center was reborn with his Georgia Research Alliance grant and local government money. The government then expanded it into the biomedical institute, which he described as a nonprofit organization with both public and private funding. He had donated the Thousand Talents stipend for construction of new buildings, such as a conference hall and a cafeteria, and didn’t personally profit, he said. He denied the construction company’s contention that Dadu and the institute commingled funds and that he controlled both entities. “They put my name in because they think I’m American, I have money.” The company hadn’t been fully paid because it had “jacked up the price,” but the court rejected the exorbitant sum, and the case was close to being settled. Tsien acknowledged that the lawsuit and other documents in China, like the patents, referred to him by his Chinese name. “Everybody in China uses my Chinese name,” he said. “I stopped trying to correct them.” He said he was aware that Meng Li and Fang Zhao wanted to apply for the patents. He had cautioned them that they had to abide by Augusta’s policies and that the work couldn’t be done in his lab, he said. “I told them, ‘You need to draw a line here.’” They followed his advice, he said. Once the Chinese patents came under scrutiny, Zhao and Li, as partners in Dadu, “may have unfortunately tried to shift blame,” Tsien said. Zhao did not respond to a request for comment. Tsien maintained that he had no desire to commercialize the patents. Asked about the proposed Yuxi research center that would develop the drug screening invention, he sighed. “If that qualifies as my effort to commercialize, then yes, OK, I did try to commercialize,” he said. Although Yuxi was “a natural” location because drug addiction was rampant there, the center has not materialized, he said. Tsien lives with his younger son and his sister’s children in a tree-lined Shanghai neighborhood in the apartment that East China Normal provided for him almost 20 years ago. His younger son works at a product design company, and his niece works at a media production company. His nephew goes to a better middle school than those available in Yunnan, where Tsien’s sister, Yi Qian, lives. The apartment’s other occupants are two German shepherds named Max and Duke. He hasn’t seen his wife or their young daughter for more than two years. Because he had only expected to be gone a month — he had bought a round-trip ticket — they stayed behind in Georgia. He said he talks with them daily by WeChat. “Sometimes, I play silly with my daughter, such as posing as an elephant wearing a cowboy hat.” He speaks a couple of times a week with his older son, a graduate student in computer science in the U.S. His reluctance to come back jeopardized his lawsuit in federal district court in Augusta. The university contended that it should be able to take his deposition in person, though remote depositions have become more common in the COVID-19 era. A magistrate judge ruled on Nov. 12 that “evading arrest is not a legitimate basis for seeking relief” and that Tsien had to appear in person to be deposed. Marooned in China, Tsien has had time to reflect on his rise and fall in the U.S. “America is like a treasured rainforest in which reside all sorts of creatures,” he said. “One just needs to deal with a few mosquitoes and possibly snakes along the way to enjoy and appreciate its majestic beauty.” Surprisingly, despite his many past affiliations with Chinese universities and institutes, Tsien is no longer working in higher education. “I did get many invitations to give seminars but tend to decline most because I prefer to draw a line between my previous academic life and current one, which gives a strange feeling that one may live twice,” he said. Instead, he’s chief scientist at an artificial intelligence startup in Shanghai, where he’s building a self-driving car operated by an algorithm and hardware inspired by brain computation. By creating a smarter car, as he created a smarter mouse, he hopes to vindicate his Theory of Connectivity about the basis of human intelligence. His departure from academia, though, may not be entirely by choice. One close friend said that Tsien, when he was riding high at Princeton, lorded his renown over Chinese researchers of lesser stature. Now the scientists who resented his condescension are in power at Chinese universities, and they have no desire to resuscitate Tsien’s career. “He burned bridges in both countries,” his friend said. “To me, it’s a tragedy.” Do You Have a Tip for ProPublica? Help Us Do Journalism.
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[l] at 1/19/22 11:00am
by Maryam Jameel ] ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. This story was co-published with The Texas Tribune. On a cloudy day in November 2019, family and friends gathered in Austin, Texas, to mourn the passing of Lovey Jean Carter. Carter, who had heart trouble and other ailments, had died at 67. After the burial, many of the mourners returned to Rising Star Baptist Church to share a meal. The brisket was home cooked, but everything else — rotisserie chicken, potato salad and fried chicken — was bought ready to eat from local grocery stores. One of Carter’s brothers, James Monroe, had picked up 15 rotisserie chickens ordered from the Sam’s Club on the south end of Austin. It was all simple. And it was all supposed to be safe. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. But that night dozens of the attendees were stricken by illness, overcome by nausea, cramping, vomiting and diarrhea, according to an investigation by Austin Public Health, which found that at least 61 people reported symptoms of food poisoning after the reception. “Seemed like a dream that everyone was calling saying, ‘I’m sick, I’m sick, I’m going to the hospital,’” Joyce McDowell, one of Carter’s younger sisters, recalled. Hundreds of people die every year in the United States after eating food tainted with salmonella, listeria and other dangerous pathogens. As wrenching as those deaths are, though, they are only the tip of the toll that food poisoning takes on the United States, where millions more people are sickened each year. Salmonella is a leading culprit, with an estimated 1.35 million infections a year, resulting in thousands of hospitalizations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For many of those victims, the effects can be life-altering. There can be kidney or gastrointestinal troubles that persist for years. There can be staggering hospital bills that for some patients, especially those without health insurance, seem to never let up. And long after the worst of the illness has passed, anxiety about eating and the frustrating, often futile, search for answers can linger. The rate of illnesses caused by salmonella hasn’t lessened in 25 years in the U.S., which continues to lag many countries in curbing the spread of the pathogen. A ProPublica investigation of the U.S. food safety system found that federal regulators don’t have the power to stop meat and poultry contaminated with risky strains of salmonella from being sold to consumers. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees meat and poultry, detects the pathogen, the agency can’t issue recalls or halt plant operations. It can only act if it is able to tie a case or cluster of cases of foodborne illness to a particular product. Inhibiting oversight further, a total of 15 federal agencies have a hand in food safety, with much of the responsibility split between the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, a fragmented structure that critics say has impeded progress. Nationally, the price tag in costs of treatment, lost work hours and premature deaths is estimated at $4.1 billion a year, according to the USDA. “Salmonella is a very expensive pathogen, partially because it causes a lot of illnesses and partially because it can cause pretty severe disease as well,” said Sandra Hoffmann, a senior economist at the USDA. “You think, ‘Oh, foodborne illness is just a bellyache,’ but it is quite costly.” The experience of Carter’s loved ones would end up a testament to the toll salmonella can take and to the obstacles to holding anyone accountable when illness strikes. Austin Public Health opened an investigation into the outbreak shortly after it began, but investigators couldn’t pinpoint the source of the illness — a fate that befalls most such inquiries. McDowell, now 68, hoped to fight through her illness at home. But the next day, she still felt sick. And that night, her watch sounded off with warnings that her heart rate had reached 130 beats per minute. “I never felt so weak like that in my life,” she said. By the time she arrived at Dell Seton Medical Center in Austin, others from the funeral were already at area hospitals. Before long, doctors had identified the source of the spate of illnesses as salmonella. “You hear it advertised on the TV that so many people die a year of salmonella,” McDowell said, “but you never think that it’ll hit home. But it did.” After the result of lab tests came back, Austin Public Health was notified on Nov. 5, three days after Carter’s funeral. The health agency would eventually identify 84 people who attended the funeral reception. At least 26 of them were hospitalized, some for more than a week. The youngest person hospitalized was 1, the oldest 92. Servers who tasted the food also ended up sick. The health agency interviewed 67 of 84 funeral attendees, asking each of them to recall what they had eaten, when they started feeling ill and what the symptoms were. The agency found that the rotisserie chicken was eaten by more of the sick people than any of the other foods served. But as clear as the cause might have seemed to the victims, determining that the chicken was in fact the source of the salmonella outbreak still wasn’t going to be easy. One reason was that so many of the mourners fell ill. Only two of the people who were identified as having eaten at the funeral didn’t get sick, which left investigators unable to effectively distinguish between what the sick people ate and what the healthy people ate. “It’s plausible that the chicken was the cause of the illness,” Jen Samp, a spokesperson for Austin Public Health, said in an email, “however, we did not have statistical evidence to prove which food was the culprit.” A spokesperson for Sam’s Club, Erin Hulliberger, told ProPublica in an email that the company is “committed to providing high-quality products” and noted that the Austin investigators had said they were unable to determine the source of the illness. The possibility of cross-contamination presented another investigative challenge. The brisket and chicken had been served with the same utensils, so if salmonella was originally present on one but not the other, the bacteria could have spread between them. Monroe, who had picked up the rotisserie chickens and cut them up before the reception, was among those who ended up sick. He and his son sampled a few bites while prepping the food, and by the time the service was over, he was in such pain that he went home instead of going to the reception. It wasn’t until that night, as he heard of others who had become ill, that he realized that the rotisserie chicken might be the cause of all the sickness. A little over a week later, after he had recovered, Monroe gave the health agency what seemed like a valuable clue: a whole rotisserie chicken that was one of the 15 purchased for the funeral reception but had been sitting, unopened, in Monroe’s refrigerator. For investigators, an unopened package of a suspect food can be a vital, if rare, piece of evidence. Usually, the food suspected of causing illness has already been eaten, opened or discarded by the time illness emerges and an investigation is launched. The health agency picked up the chicken from Monroe’s home, placed it on ice inside a double layer of biohazard bags and took it to a state laboratory in Austin for testing, according to Samp, who said the agency followed state protocols. The state lab, however, determined the chicken wasn’t suitable for testing. A spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services told ProPublica that Austin Public Health had collected two leftover rotisserie chickens from Monroe’s house — one in the unopened package and one in an opened package — and transported them in the same bag, creating the potential for cross-contamination. “We have very strict protocols that must be followed to ensure the integrity of the samples collected for testing,” the spokesperson, Lara Anton, said. So what could have been the key to determining what made everyone sick ended up unexamined, underlining one of the challenges inherent in investigating foodborne illnesses. “That’s the nature of the beast,” said Jack Guzewich, who for 11 years led the FDA’s foodborne disease surveillance and response program. “There’s so many other things that can go wrong that you end up inconclusive.” Guzewich, who left the FDA in 2011 and worked as a consultant on foodborne disease investigations before retiring, said that had the leftover chicken been tested, it might have shown whether the chicken from Sam’s Club was carrying the same strain of salmonella that made everyone sick. “If the chicken sampling had been done correctly, they might have had the smoking gun and met the gold standard,” he said. Based on samples from 26 of the victims, investigators determined that the funeral goers had been infected by a form of salmonella known as Saintpaul. It’s one of a relatively small number of salmonella types that account for most of the salmonella infections documented by the CDC. In 2008, Saintpaul, named for the Minnesota city where a scientist first isolated the strain, caused an outbreak that led to more than 1,400 infections nationwide. In the years since, the CDC has documented about 200 cases a year, about a fifth of them leading to hospitalization. (The CDC estimates that for every confirmed salmonella infection, almost an additional 30 go unreported.) Even as the Austin health agency was investigating, some of the victims were pressing for answers on other fronts, contacting Sam’s Club and enlisting a personal injury lawyer. Two days after the funeral, one relative reported the outbreak to Sam’s Club through a contact form on the company’s website. About a week later, another reported the outbreak to Sam’s Club by phone. In an email to one of the relatives and a voicemail to the other, representatives of Sam’s Club said the company had opened an “investigation.” Patrick Monroe, the relative who filed a complaint online, said a Sam’s Club representative called him several weeks later and said because government investigators hadn’t tested the chicken, there was “nothing” the store could do. Keith Carter, the relative who had reported the incident by phone, said he didn’t hear anything back from Sam’s Club. “I kept calling them, and they never returned my calls,” Carter said. Hulliberger, the spokesperson for Sam’s Club, said the company takes safety seriously. “We have policies in place to comply with strict food safety controls, which help ensure the food we provide is safe,” she said. She pointed out that the investigation had not determined what food caused many of the mourners to become ill. “Based on its investigation, Austin Public Health reported it was statistically impossible to implicate any of the food items from the funeral reception in 2019 as the source of illness that ProPublica is attempting to link to Sam’s Club,” she said. In its report on the outbreak investigation, the health agency said it visited the store where the rotisserie chickens were purchased. It inspected its “kitchen and process” and did not note any violations. A few of the relatives had found a firm willing to represent them in filing a lawsuit. It wouldn’t be quick or easy, but it might give them some answers and perhaps some compensation for the harm endured by so many of the mourners. But two months later, the firm, now known as Pastrana & Garcia, backed out. After the health department said it was not going to be able to pinpoint the source of the food poisoning, the lawyer who had agreed to represent the victims, Raul Steven Pastrana, told them the case was all but unwinnable. “Without the health department’s willingness to identify one source of the poisoning, there are too many possible sources to meet the ‘more likely than not’ standard,” he wrote in a letter to the relatives. In an email to ProPublica, Pastrana’s firm declined to comment. In Dale, a community about 30 miles south of Austin where many members of Lovey Jean Carter’s family live, some in houses right across from one another, memories of the salmonella outbreak are still fresh. Intense pain, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting overtook every household in the family in the hours after the funeral reception. The youngest member of the family, a 1-year-old, was vomiting through the night while her grandfather anxiously looked after her. Several family members were taken to hospitals in ambulances. It felt as if death was stalking them, Carter’s mother, Lola Monroe, 94, said. “I think about that so often. My daughter’s funeral, and right after the funeral everybody got sick.” Hattie Tibbs, 74, a family friend who was taken to a hospital in Kyle, said the illness brought her to tears. “Oh my, the pain,” she said, “I wouldn’t wish that on nobody.” Getting out of the hospital and over their symptoms wouldn’t be the end. After the hospital stays and doctor’s visits, bills began to arrive. For some, insurance covered nearly everything. Others still owe money to this day. Keith Monroe, who stayed in the hospital for one week and didn’t have health insurance at the time, was billed about $49,000, which he still owes. On top of his medical bills, Monroe, a handyman, lost work in the four months he was recovering. Keith and Russell Carter, who are brothers and nephews of Lovey Jean’s, held out for three days after the funeral, trying their best to avoid seeking care. “We really didn’t want the hospital bills. I knew if we went in, it’d be no telling how much it’d be,” Keith Carter, 55, said. “We just tried to tough it out, and the more we tried to tough it out, the worse it got.” Carter was vomiting, nauseated and completely dehydrated. His pain level, he said, reached a 10. After about eight hours in the emergency room, his charges came to about $15,000, of which he was responsible for $1,700. Carter has five daughters and works as an equipment manager for the state’s health and human services agency by day and as an airline baggage handler at night. He had to take time off from both jobs when he got sick. “When you got five girls and you got other bills — you got car payments, house payments — it’s money that you’re spending that you really don’t have,” Carter said. Having to pay for being sickened by the funeral food made the hospital charges all the more frustrating. “I really didn’t want to pay anything, especially when you’re not at fault,” he said. Today, Carter still suffers from abdominal pain. Tibbs had to change her diet because her stomach can no longer tolerate some of the foods it used to. And Keith Monroe has to use the restroom much more frequently because of lingering kidney problems. Patrick Monroe said he is troubled that his relatives never got answers about what made them so sick. “I just don’t know how something like this got passed over.” He is still paying off medical bills for himself and his two children. He doesn’t eat rotisserie chicken anymore. And he gets anxious at doctors’ offices, which bring back memories of all the illness the family endured. “I felt like I was going to die.” Michael Grabell, Mollie Simon and Bernice Yeung contributed reporting. Lexi Churchill contributed research.
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[l] at 1/18/22 1:25pm
by Alexis Marshall and Meribah Knight, Nashville Public Radio, and Ken Armstrong, ProPublica ] This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with Nashville Public Radio. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published. Update, Jan. 18, 2022: This story was updated to reflect that Judge Donna Scott Davenport will step down this year rather than seek reelection. Donna Scott Davenport, the juvenile court judge at the center of a controversy over the arrest and detention of children in Rutherford County, Tennessee, has announced that she will step down this year rather than run for reelection. Earlier on Tuesday, ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio published a story about a move by some Tennessee lawmakers to remove Davenport from her post. About an hour after that story was published on ProPublica’s website, Davenport, in an email sent by the county’s spokesperson, announced that she will not be running for reelection this year. Instead, she plans to retire when her current eight-year term expires this summer. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Davenport, in announcing her retirement, said: “After prayerful thought and talking with my family, I have decided not to run for re-election after serving more than twenty-two years on the bench. I will always look back at my time as Judge as one of the greatest honors of my life and I am so proud of what this Court has accomplished in the last two decades and how it has positively affected the lives of young people and families in Rutherford County. I wish my successor the best and hope that this job provides them the same fulfillment it has provided me over the years.” A bill that was introduced in the Tennessee legislature sought to remove Davenport, following reporting from Nashville Public Radio and ProPublica detailing how the county’s justice system was illegally arresting and jailing children. Since 2000, Davenport has overseen the juvenile justice system in Rutherford County, where the county jailed kids in 48% of the cases referred to juvenile court — compared with the statewide average of 5%. State Sen. Heidi Campbell and state Rep. Gloria Johnson have said they are proposing legislation that could result in Davenport’s ouster. A bill starting the process was filed in the state Senate on Friday. In Tennessee, state lawmakers have placed narrow limits on when children can be locked up prior to a delinquency hearing. But from 2008 to 2017, Rutherford County’s juvenile jail instituted its own system, called a “filter system,” under which any child deemed a “TRUE threat” could be detained. The jail’s written procedures never defined what a “TRUE threat” was. Davenport appointed the jail’s director, who also reports to her. In 2017, a federal judge ordered the county to put a stop to the filter system’s use. “While judges are given judicial discretion to interpret laws, they are not allowed to make up their own laws,” Campbell said in a press conference on Monday. State Rep. Vincent Dixie said at the press conference: “This is a slap in the face to us as legislators, because she made a policy into a law. And if you can do that, if anybody can do that, then why are we even in office?” State Sen. Brenda Gilmore, former chair of Tennessee’s Black Caucus, highlighted the racial disparities among incarcerated children in Rutherford County during the press conference. Reporting from Nashville Public Radio and ProPublica found that Black children are not only jailed at a disproportionately high rate, but that the disparity is getting worse. Several Democratic lawmakers, including Gilmore, said they’re concerned that the issues in the county are systemic. “The people who are in charge have failed the children, and they’re still in charge,” Gilmore said. Johnson said Davenport exercised an “appalling abuse of power.” She added, “How can we keep a judge in place who sees herself as carrying out God’s mission, rather than carrying out the laws of this state?” The attempted ouster is considered an extreme measure. Under Tennessee’s constitution, a judge can be removed only upon a two-thirds vote of both legislative chambers. A state report and news clips turn up only two instances of that happening in the last half century — once for a judge convicted of sexual assault, and once for a judge convicted of perjury and obstructing justice. Campbell said if the resolution passes, a joint legislative committee would be formed with the power to subpoena witnesses. It would file a report to the state House and Senate, which would then vote separately on whether to remove the judge. Voters selected Davenport as Rutherford County’s juvenile court judge after the county established it as an elected position in 2000; she has been the only person to hold the job thus far. In her last reelection bid, in 2014, she ran as a Republican. Multiple Democratic lawmakers said Davenport’s removal isn’t a partisan issue. Campbell pointed to how Tennessee’s Republican governor has called for a review of Davenport. Eleven members of Congress, all Democrats, have also asked the U.S. Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation of the county’s juvenile justice system. In Tennessee, a similar measure to remove a judge was introduced last year by a Republican representative. The judge had ordered increased access to absentee ballots during the August primary elections. The effort to oust her failed, but the judge has since announced she will not seek reelection. Nashville Public Radio reached out to Davenport for comment about the legislative proposal to remove her but did not receive a response. She has previously declined to respond to questions from the news organizations.
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[l] at 1/18/22 1:25pm
by Alexis Marshall and Meribah Knight, Nashville Public Radio, and Ken Armstrong, ProPublica ] This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with Nashville Public Radio. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published. A new bill in the Tennessee state legislature seeks to remove Rutherford County’s juvenile court judge. That’s after reporting from Nashville Public Radio and ProPublica detailed how the county’s justice system was illegally arresting and jailing children. Since 2000, Judge Donna Scott Davenport has overseen the juvenile justice system in Rutherford County, where the county jailed kids in 48% of the cases referred to juvenile court — compared with the statewide average of 5%. Now, state Sen. Heidi Campbell and state Rep. Gloria Johnson have said they are proposing legislation that could result in Davenport’s ouster. A bill starting the process was filed in the state Senate Friday. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. In Tennessee, state lawmakers have placed narrow limits on when children can be locked up prior to a delinquency hearing. But from 2008 to 2017, Rutherford County’s juvenile jail instituted its own system, called a “filter system,” under which any child deemed a “TRUE threat” could be detained. The jail’s written procedures never defined what a “TRUE threat” was. Davenport appointed the jail’s director, who also reports to her. In 2017, a federal judge ordered the county to put a stop to the filter system’s use. “While judges are given judicial discretion to interpret laws, they are not allowed to make up their own laws,” Campbell said in a press conference on Monday. State Rep. Vincent Dixie said at the press conference: “This is a slap in the face to us as legislators, because she made a policy into a law. And if you can do that, if anybody can do that, then why are we even in office?” State Sen. Brenda Gilmore, former chair of Tennessee’s Black Caucus, highlighted the racial disparities among incarcerated children in Rutherford County during the press conference. Reporting from Nashville Public Radio and ProPublica found that Black children are not only jailed at a disproportionately high rate, but that the disparity is getting worse. Several Democratic lawmakers, including Gilmore, said they’re concerned that the issues in the county are systemic. “The people who are in charge have failed the children, and they’re still in charge,” Gilmore said. Johnson said Davenport exercised an “appalling abuse of power.” She added, “How can we keep a judge in place who sees herself as carrying out God’s mission, rather than carrying out the laws of this state?” The attempted ouster is considered an extreme measure. Under Tennessee’s constitution, a judge can be removed only upon a two-thirds vote of both legislative chambers. A state report and news clips turn up only two instances of that happening in the last half century — once for a judge convicted of sexual assault, and once for a judge convicted of perjury and obstructing justice. Campbell said if the resolution passes, a joint legislative committee would be formed with the power to subpoena witnesses. It would file a report to the state House and Senate, which would then vote separately on whether to remove the judge. Voters selected Davenport as Rutherford County’s juvenile court judge after the county established it as an elected position in 2000; she has been the only person to hold the job thus far. In her last reelection bid, in 2014, she ran as a Republican. Multiple Democratic lawmakers said Davenport’s removal isn’t a partisan issue. Campbell pointed to how Tennessee’s Republican governor has called for a review of Davenport. Eleven members of Congress, all Democrats, have also asked the U.S. Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation of the county’s juvenile justice system. In Tennessee, a similar measure to remove a judge was introduced in 2020 by a Republican representative. The judge had ordered increased access to absentee ballots during the August primary elections. The effort to oust her failed, but the judge has since announced she will not seek reelection. Davenport has said she does plan to run for reelection 2022. But for the first time in decades, she will face challengers. Nashville Public Radio reached out to Davenport for comment and has not received a response. She has previously declined to respond to questions from the news organizations.
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[l] at 1/18/22 12:45pm
by Max Blau ] ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive our stories in your inbox every week. For the past several years, Georgia Power has gone to great lengths to skirt the federal rule requiring coal-fired power plants to safely dispose of massive amounts of toxic waste they produced. But previously unreported documents obtained by ProPublica show that the company’s efforts were more extensive than publicly known. Thousands of pages of internal government correspondence and corporate filings show how Georgia Power made an elaborate argument as to why it should be allowed to store waste produced before 2020 in a way that wouldn’t fully protect surrounding communities’ water supplies from contamination — and that would save the company potentially billions of dollars in cleanup costs. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. In a series of closed-door meetings with state environmental regulators, the powerful utility even went so far as to challenge the definition of the word “infiltration” in relation to how groundwater can seep into disposal sites holding underground coal ash, according to documents obtained through multiple open records requests. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Earlier this month, Georgia Power was on its way to getting final approval from the state to leave 48 million tons of coal ash buried in unlined ponds — despite evidence that contaminants were leaking out. Georgia is one of three states that regulate how power companies safely dispose of decades worth of coal ash, rather than leaving such oversight to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency itself. But last week, the EPA made clear that arguments like the ones Georgia Power has been making violate the intent of the coal ash rule, setting up a potential showdown among the federal agency, state regulators and the deep-pocketed power company. In a statement last week, the EPA said that waste disposal sites “cannot be closed with coal ash in contact with groundwater,” in order to ensure that “communities near these facilities have access to safe water for drinking and recreation.” The EPA’s action follows a joint investigation by Georgia Health News and ProPublica that found Georgia Power has known for decades that the way it disposed of coal ash could be dangerous to neighboring communities. “The coal ash rule was clear from the beginning, but industry had tried to inject uncertainty into plain language,” said Lisa Evans, an attorney who specializes in hazardous waste law for the environmental advocacy nonprofit Earthjustice. “The EPA has made it crystal clear what the plain language of the coal ash rule means.” Georgia’s environmental regulators said it’s too soon to determine exactly how the EPA’s actions will play out in the state. In a letter dated Jan. 11, the EPA asked the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to review whether coal ash permits it has issued to Georgia Power are “consistent” with the federal agency’s guidance. Georgia Environmental Protection Division spokesperson Kevin Chambers, who declined to answer questions about Georgia Power’s lobbying or make any regulators available for an interview, said that the state agency is “awaiting further clarification” from the EPA on how the announcement will impact future permits for Georgia Power’s ash ponds. The agencies are scheduled to meet about the issue later this month. John Kraft, a spokesperson for Georgia Power, said in a statement that the company intends to “comply with environmental regulations.” The utility has repeatedly denied that its coal ash ponds have contaminated residents’ drinking water or caused health problems in communities near its plants. He declined to answer ProPublica’s questions about the company’s lobbying efforts. “We are evaluating EPA’s position,” Kraft said. “We will continue to work with them, as well as Georgia EPD, to safely close our ash ponds.” Gloria Hammond at her home in Juliette, near Plant Scherer’s coal ash pond. (Rita Harper, special to ProPublica) For those living near coal ash ponds, the EPA’s decision couldn’t come soon enough. Gloria Hammond, a longtime resident of the tiny rural town of Juliette, Georgia, relied for decades on a private drinking well to pump water to her home from an underground aquifer. But two years ago, a sample of her well water taken by an environmental advocacy group revealed unsafe levels of contaminants often found in coal ash. Now, Hammond drives 10 minutes to a Baptist church to access a supply of clean drinking water. She and others suspect those contaminants leaked into Juliette’s groundwater from a nearby disposal site at Plant Scherer, the largest coal-fired plant in the Western Hemisphere. The disposal site, less than a mile from Hammond’s house, holds nearly 16 million tons worth of coal ash in an unlined pond. “They need to get the coal ash out of the drinking water,” Hammond said. In early 2019, Chuck Mueller, GEPD’s top waste official, was grappling with a pivotal question that would impact thousands of Georgians for decades to come: How much of Georgia Power’s coal ash could legally remain buried in a pond without a protective liner? The utility had proposed disposing of 48 million tons — roughly half of its existing coal ash — that way. Mueller asked employees of his branch to figure out the answer. After draining water from the ponds where ash is stored, Georgia Power is required to move the resulting dry ash into a landfill with a liner designed to prevent groundwater contamination — unless it can meet a set of requirements to leave the waste buried in an unlined disposal site. The federal rule, which was enacted in 2015, allows utilities to bury the waste in an unlined ash pond only if they “control, minimize, or eliminate” water from coming into contact with the buried waste “to the maximum extent feasible.” Stan Meiburg, a former EPA acting deputy administrator, says the rule is important because allowing water to mix with coal ash can lead to toxic heavy metals found in the waste migrating beyond the disposal site. State regulators tasked with answering Mueller’s question read through dense Georgia Power filings and concluded that ash ponds at Plant Scherer, along with those at four other sites — Plants Hammond, McDonough, Wansley and Yates — contained waste that is submerged in groundwater, which some experts and regulators believe violates the federal coal ash rule. Those findings were sent to one of Mueller’s top aides, William Cook, who oversees the state’s solid waste management program. Cook regularly met in private with Georgia Power representatives to get progress reports on the closure of the company’s ash ponds. That spring, Georgia Power representatives argued that state regulators could narrowly interpret the definition of a single word — “infiltration” — in the federal coal ash rule. The company believed this interpretation would allow millions of tons of waste to be left submerged in groundwater. Georgia Power hoped to store coal ash in a waythat only prevented water — such as rain falling from the sky — from seeping through a cover over the dry ash. They hoped regulators would disregard the presence of any groundwaterthat would soak the dry ash and potentially carry its heavy metals toward drinking wells. Georgia Power representatives “believe that EPA would have written it in” if they wanted specific kinds of infiltration removed, Cook scribbled in his legal pad. When Georgia Power representatives referenced an EPA document key to their understanding of “infiltration,” Cook asked his colleagues to review the document — which is 1,237 pages. They struggled to reconcile the case Georgia Power was making with the text of the regulation itself. John Sayer, head of environmental monitoring for the solid waste program, emailed his wife, an issues manager at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for advice on the meaning of the word “infiltration,” which he wrote had caused “contention” in this context. Eventually, Sayer emailed a colleague that he’d found a federal report that noted “groundwater would qualify as infiltration.” But Georgia Power kept pressing GEPD officials to narrow its definition of infiltration to only include rainwater falling from the sky. After months of research by Sayer and other state employees, Mueller was left to make the decision. Later that summer, Chris Bowers, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, sent Mueller a report that highlighted the flaws in Georgia Power’s plans. As part of the SELC report, a veteran hydrogeologist named Mark Hutson analyzed the plans for ash ponds at the five plants where waste was below the water table. Huston concluded those plans “will not control, minimize, or eliminate” water from coming into contact with the dry ash. At a subsequent meeting with GEPD, Bowers shared another state’s approach to the meaning of infiltration. Duke Energy Indiana had asked state regulators to let the company bury coal ash in an unlined pond in the southwest part of that state. When state regulators realized Duke Energy Indiana had not described how it would comply with federal guidelines to prevent groundwater from wetting the dry waste, regulators told the company they would only approve the plan if the company could stop infiltration “from any direction.” (Duke Energy Indiana later responded that removing the ash could cause a “very high safety risk” at the site. State regulators ultimately allowed some coal ash to remain buried there, so long as the company took steps to minimize groundwater from soaking the waste.) Environmental regulators in other states such as North Carolina have forced utilities to scrap plans that didn’t comply with this portion of the coal ash rule. But Georgia Power, as well another power company in Ohio, pushed ahead with their controversial plans. The financial stakes were high. At Plant Scherer alone, installing a liner could cost $1 billion, according to one state official. “Georgia Power wanted to rewrite the rule to say there’s a limitation it doesn’t have,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with SELC. “It’s a preposterous proposal.” One of Bowers’ clients, an environmental group called the Altamaha Riverkeeper, was grappling with this very issue in Juliette. The group soon discovered that water in the wells of Hammond and dozens of other Juliette residents contained concerning levels of contaminants found in coal ash. The group was worried that groundwater might be moving from the coal ash pond toward residents’ wells. Fletcher Sams of the Altamaha Riverkeeper samples water near Plant Scherer for contaminant testing. (Max Blau/ProPublica) After the test results were publicized, Fletcher Sams, head of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, attended a closed-door meeting in February 2020 with several Juliette residents, local officials, state lawmakers and Georgia Power lobbyists. (ProPublica and Georgia Health News described parts of the meeting in a story last year.) The environmental advocate told attendees that his samples had revealed concerning levels of boron, calcium and sulfate — all indicators of coal ash. There was also evidence of a contaminant researchers had linked to cancer, hexavalent chromium, which had previously been discovered in some California drinking wells by environmental advocate Erin Brockovich. Georgia Power has acknowledged the presence of boron, calcium and sulfate but said that the hexavalent chromium is “naturally occurring.” Sams, along with the Juliette residents, hoped Georgia Power would excavate Plant Scherer’s coal ash and put it in a lined landfill. But Aaron Mitchell, one of the utility’s top environmental lobbyists, insisted the company’s plan complied with environmental standards. However, after being peppered with questions by Sams, Mitchell acknowledged that the coal ash would still be submerged in groundwater if its plan to bury the waste was approved by state regulators. Hearing that, Sams turned to the lone state regulator in the room, Chuck Mueller. He asked Mueller if Georgia Power’s plans to let water come into contact with dry ash met the state’s environmental standards. “It’s allowed by the rules,” Mueller replied. Shortly after Joe Biden was elected president, he chose a new EPA administrator with deep knowledge about the perils of coal ash. Michael Regan was the head of the environmental agency in North Carolina, a state that had seen one of the nation’s worst coal ash disasters in 2014, when a ruptured pipe sent 39,000 tons of coal ash pouring into the Dan River. Six years later, Regan convinced the state’s largest utility to excavate coal ash from its unlined ponds, which was done in order to protect residents from possible groundwater contamination. Following Regan’s confirmation, environmental advocates urged federal officials to address the language in the coal ash rule that Georgia Power had tried to exploit. GEPD pushed ahead with the narrower definition of infiltration. In June 2021, three months after Georgia Health News and ProPublica’s investigation into Georgia Power’s coal ash handling practices in Juliette, EPA officials met with GEPD to discuss the issue of infiltration. According to records obtained by ProPublica, state regulators said that Georgia Power could leave waste below the water table because the company had placed monitoring wells around the edge of those ash ponds to detect if heavy metals were migrating toward nearby residents’ homes. The following month, GEPD began the process of issuing permits for unlined ponds where ash would remain submerged in groundwater. State regulators issued a draft permit for the first of these sites, one of Plant Hammond’s ash ponds, a step that then allowed the public to comment on the closure plan. Chambers, the GEPD spokesperson, said that the agency used “the commonly accepted meaning of ‘infiltration’” — and determined that Georgia Power’s proposal was “allowable under the rule.” Last week, the EPA rejected the premise that groundwater legally could remain in contact with the dry ash — a statement that will likely impact Georgia Power’s closure plans at Scherer and four other plant sites. In its letter to GEPD, the EPA urged the state regulators to review the reasons why the federal agency intended to deny a plan to bury waste at southeast Ohio’s General James M. Gavin Power Plant, one of the largest power stations in the country. In that proposed decision, the EPA noted that the plant operators had failed to demonstrate how their closure plan would prevent infiltration. The EPA’s filing notes that “infiltration” explicitly means “any liquid passing into or through” the coal ash pond “from any direction, including the top, sides, and bottom of the unit.” To Sams, the EPA’s announcement means that Georgia Power and GEPD cannot move forward with an “incorrect interpretation” of the country’s coal ash regulation. The EPA “restated in bold-crayon-block letters what we’ve been saying: You can’t store this waste full of toxic metals in groundwater,” Sams said. Meiburg, the former EPA deputy administrator, said utilities could still challenge the agency’s clarification on the concept of infiltration because it did not go through the full rule-making process. But if GEPD ultimately approves permits that are less protective than what the federal regulation requires, the EPA has the power to strip Georgia of its ability to issue permits, according to Evans, the Earthjustice attorney. Gloria Hammond, for her part, sees the EPA’s announcement as an important first step toward someday restoring the quality of Juliette’s groundwater. In the coming months, GEPD is expected to make a decision about Georgia Power’s permit at Plant Scherer. After feeling long ignored by environmental regulators, she hopes that GEPD requires Georgia Power to remove the ash from Juliette’s aquifer for good. “I’m praying Georgia will take that into consideration,” Hammond said. “I hope they follow the EPA.”
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[l] at 1/14/22 10:30am
by Lydia DePillis and Derek Willis ] ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. In May 2021, Terry Kilcrease thought he saw a lifeline. He was out of work, living in a hotel in Lewisville, Texas, when he ran across a promising ad on Facebook. People who worked for themselves, it said, could still get loans from the government’s then-13-month-old pandemic Paycheck Protection Program. Kilcrease had just started selling credit card processing systems to small businesses in early 2020 before the pandemic killed much of the need for cash registers. He hadn’t thought he was eligible for the $800 billion program. But the ad, posted by a company called Blueacorn, convinced him it was worth a try. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. “We’ve created a 60-second quiz that can tell you if you qualify and how much you can get,” one ad promised. So Kilcrease registered on the Blueacorn site and answered a few basic questions about his business. “With a few clicks of a mouse, I had applied,” Kilcrease said. It was so quick, he doesn’t recall many details. Blueacorn checked for all required documents before passing along Kilcrease’s approved application to a lender, Prestamos. Soon after, Kilcrease received loan documents from the Small Business Administration saying he'd been approved for a $4,790 forgivable loan, which he signed electronically and returned. The money would arrive in his bank account within ten business days, Blueacorn estimated. Kilcrease was relieved. “It was everything I needed to get going,” he said. “Just that little bitty bit.” But the money never made it to Kilcrease. And it never appeared for hundreds of thousands of other applicants, either. ProPublica has been tracking PPP loans since the government first posted millions of them in July 2020. We kept updating our interactive database as the SBA disclosed more loan information. When the last round of the PPP closed, in May 2021, we noticed something strange: The number of loans the government said it had made kept shrinking with every new release. By the time the SBA posted its latest update in late November, about 575,000 loans had disappeared, subtracted from an original total of 11.8 million. Most of them came through non-bank online lenders or banks that worked with web platforms such as Blueacorn, which solicited and processed huge volumes of applications for small-dollar loans in the final months of the program. When we checked with the SBA, they told us the total number of cancelled loans actually topped 1 million. A sizeable number of those were likely applied for by people who were attempting to defraud the program and didn’t make it through additional screening — it’s unclear how many, since the lenders we talked to declined to specify. But plenty of would-be borrowers were acting in good faith. Scores of them wrote in to our tip lines, perplexed that they had been listed as loan recipients, since they had applied but never received any money. Their situations sounded a lot like Kilcrease’s: a quick approval in spring 2021, followed by some kind of snafu, and then a monthslong runaround from companies like Blueacorn, eventually resulting in no money after the lender the companies worked with withdrew its initial approval. The phenomenon prompted the law firm Bailey Glasser to file a pair of lawsuits late last year against Prestamos and another Blueacorn client called Capital Plus Financial on behalf of people who had similar experiences. Prestamos has denied wrongdoing, and Capital Plus Financial declined to comment on pending litigation except to say that the plaintiff was ineligible for a loan. This game of pingpong was maddening for prospective borrowers who had been told money was on the way, whether they were eligible for the program or not. It was also a hassle for lenders, who never got paid for hundreds of thousands of loans they sent to the SBA (though they reaped billions for those that did get funded). And it likely could have been prevented if the SBA had required more screening on the front end, before approving loans in the first place. SBA spokesperson Christalyn Solomon said that the agency delegated that responsibility to lenders, which acted as “agents of the government to approve and disburse loans.” The SBA then assigned each loan a number, which confirmed that the government would guarantee it. “Loans were removed for the FOIA Public Data Set because they were canceled by the lender,” Solomon wrote in an email. Several hundred thousand loans were also approved and then canceled before the SBA started publishing data on loans worth less than $150,000 in December 2020. Blueacorn said it worked hard to reach as many self-employed people as possible, but wasn’t able to quickly obtain some information that would have been helpful in filtering out ineligible applicants. Prestamos, the lender to which Blueacorn submitted Kilcrease’s application, declined to comment on individual borrowers, citing confidentiality guidelines. But Prestamos said that a majority of its approximately 50,000 canceled loans resulted from borrowers not signing their loan documents. Kilcrease’s bank rejected his PPP loan deposit in early June, yet Blueacorn continued to assure him the money was coming. “Don’t worry, your funds are secure and you will be funded soon,” a Blueacorn support worker wrote in a July message. “Both management and engineering are working on a solution as we speak.” Kilcrease’s correspondence with Blueacorn after his bank rejected his PPP deposit. (Courtesy of Terry Kilcrease) For weeks, not much happened. In August, Kilcrease got through to someone at Prestamos, the lender Blueacorn was working for. She asked for his 2020 tax return, which documented $5,600 in gross income. Then, e-mails show, she told Kilcrease he had provided conflicting numbers to Blueacorn and to the IRS, and his application would be formally denied. Kilcrease said that he might have been confused about what information Blueacorn was initially asking for when he clicked a few buttons to apply back in May. But then why would they have approved him in the first place, and put him through months of hope, frustration and disappointment? “They saw a whole lot of profit in people like me, sole proprietors,” said Kilcrease, citing the fee that lenders received for successfully funding small PPP loans. “They were given a hope, and it was just dashed, with no remorse and no recourse for anybody.” The first round of the PPP, which kicked off in April 2020, mostly went to the largest small businesses. Clogged by applications from companies big enough to have bankers and accountants, the $349 billion fund was exhausted within weeks. Realizing the need among actual mom-and-pops, Congress authorized another $320 billion in June 2020. That round reached millions more main-street-type companies: coffee shops, hair salons, restaurants, real estate agents. By winter, the coronavirus recession was still hammering people who’d missed out on earlier rounds. Congress authorized the lending of unused funds and added more, while the incoming Biden administration tailored the rules to help sole proprietorships and independent contractors. That’s when financial technology companies — user-friendly websites with automated application platforms that often partner with lenders to supply loans — saw a big opportunity. In the earlier stages of the PPP, banks mostly served existing customers that already had documents on file, making it easy to process their government-backed loans. But as Congress pushed to include businesses on the fringes of the financial system, lenders had to deal with huge numbers of applicants they’d never assessed before. They often outsourced that task to websites — we’ll call them loan processors — that marketed PPP loans to the self-employed and other small businesses and performed the basic checks required by the SBA. The SBA paid a fee for each funded loan to the lender, which in turn gave a cut to the processor for finding and vetting a borrower. December’s stimulus package boosted fees up to $2,500 or 50% of small loans, whichever was less. Loan processors, which utilized aggressive social media outreach to people who had had any kind of self-employment income before Feb. 15, 2020, churned through millions of loan applications quickly. In an effort to keep barriers to entry low, the SBA required very little verification on the front end. Once an application was approved and assigned an SBA loan number, borrowers were forbidden from applying elsewhere. So loan processors had every reason to lock them in quickly, with few anti-fraud measures, said independent fintech analyst Jason Mikula — even if it meant dealing with verification questions later on. “At the end of the day, if they end up rejecting someone for being suspicious, they’re actually losing money,” said Mikula, noting that building automated fraud models takes time and money, even under normal circumstances. “There were no incentives in place to encourage these companies to be particularly careful about how they went about funding these things.” An arms race followed. Fintechs competed for the self-employed, advertising their easy routes to quick, forgivable cash; some said they employed rigorous verification tools following SBA approval. But Blueacorn was the one that got really lucky. By May 2021, the Biden administration had changed the rules again to prioritize loans made by community development financial institutions, which have access to special funding from the Treasury Department to support underserved populations. Blueacorn, which launched in Phoenix in 2020, happened to partner with two of them: Prestamos CDFI, an arm of the nonprofit service group Chicanos Por La Causa, and Capital Plus Financial, the CDFI subsidiary of a larger holding company called Crossroads Systems. Those relationships allowed Blueacorn to keep lending through the end of the PPP on May 31, while other lenders were locked out. By the end, the two CDFIs appeared to have processed more than $15 billion in loans to 955,000 small businesses, nearly all with Blueacorn. Blueacorn declined to detail its fee split arrangement with banks and other vendors. But Crossroads Systems said in an earnings report that it had made approximately $930 million on the program, $606 million of which went to its loan processors. (Crossroads also paid out a $40 per share special dividend as a result of what it called the “windfall” fee income, while keeping $120 million to reinvest in lower-income communities.) Fintechs have positioned themselves as champions of the little guy, reaching truck drivers and dog walkers, especially people of color, who’d been overlooked by the big banks. The companies’ promises to get money to thousands of independent workers from underserved communities is broadly true — but also somewhat overblown. In May, June, and July, about 285,000 loans disappeared from the SBA’s loan database. The companies that originally processed the loans told ProPublica there were a number of reasons why so many ended up canceled after having been approved by the SBA. Some appear to have been held up by borrower errors and second thoughts, but many cancellations were the result of the SBA’s loose requirements for pre-approval screening. One of the largest sources of canceled loans was Biz2Credit, an online lender founded in 2007, which withdrew about 115,000 loans after approving an original total of more than 300,000. A representative of the company, crisis communications consultant Michael Sitrick, said that the company employed “detailed underwriting protocols” after submitting the loans to the SBA. Canceled loans, he said, resulted from a combination of applications determined to be fraudulent after further checks, people who didn’t respond to additional requests for documentation and people who voluntarily withdrew their applications. “Lenders were required to stop fraud whenever they found it,” Sitrick wrote in an email. “Given the sophistication of widely available document forgeries and other enterprise fraud, it was virtually impossible to detect fraud only by reviewing select documents prior to submission to the SBA.” The pile of canceled loans also included about 30,000 made by Fountainhead Commercial Capital, a lender that prior to the pandemic had specialized in SBA-backed loans. Still, they had thousands of borrowers who didn’t sign their loan documents and inexplicable cancellations by the SBA itself after the agency had approved loans and banks had paid out the money. “On occasion it would say ‘duplicate tax ID discovered,’” said Fountainhead’s chief operating officer, Michael Bland, referring to the SBA. “OK, well, what was your screening on the front end for? You went through your process and approved it, we closed it, I don’t why that might be an issue now.” Last month, Blueacorn lending partner Crossroads Systems agreed to purchase Fountainhead for an undisclosed amount. When the SBA posted its most recent database update the day before Thanksgiving, it had dropped another 294,000 loans. About 140,000 of them belonged to the two CDFIs that had primarily worked with Blueacorn, Prestamos and Capital Plus, which accelerated their business in the three weeks after the program closed to regular lenders. In May alone, they approved at least 458,300 loans. At the peak of the program, Blueacorn said, it had 300 people in the Phoenix area reviewing a deluge of loan applications. A quick scan of each one would usually lead to a quick signoff by the SBA. But sometimes, between approval and funding, Blueacorn would find flags of fraudulent activity like an improbable concentration of applicants with very similar paperwork in a small geographic area — hairdressers making more than $100,000 a year on the south side of Chicago, for example. The processor would ask those borrowers for more documentation, and if they failed to provide it, cancel the loans. Blueacorn said that thousands of loans it had approved and attempted to fund, meanwhile, were rejected by banks where applicants had savings accounts. Some of the banks had run their own know-your-customer checks on the accounts and sent them back to the processor for additional verification. Others cut off fintech processors entirely if they seemed to be vectors for fraud, causing problems for those who were genuine. “Towards the end of the program, the willingness of recipient banks to work with PPP lenders got worse by the minute,” said Barry Calhoun, Blueacorn’s CEO. Eric Kinney is the senior vice president for risk at Oxygen, a banking platform for small businesses. He said he saw so many people attempting to move PPP money into offshore accounts or into cryptocurrency assets that he blocked loan proceeds from “four main PPP lenders.” “There are a couple lenders who we’ve said no to, we’re not going to accept any more payments,” Kinney said, declining to name the companies. “A referral channel that has a high fraud rate on it, it’s our job as a company to monitor that and block certain situations.” Loan processors would try to work with borrowers and their banks to provide the requested information. If that didn’t succeed, they had the option of putting the money on a debit card, but that required even more documentation from borrowers, resulting in an outpouring of angry posts on internet message boards like Trustpilot, the Better Business Bureau, Reddit and Facebook. Now, borrowers who were approved but never received their money are plaintiffs in two lawsuits filed against Prestamos CDFI and Capital Plus Financial last October and December, saying that the failure to fund the loans constitutes a breach of contract. In a motion to dismiss, Prestamos said that the loan document created no obligation to actually fund the loan, and a spokesperson declined to comment further on the case. Capital Plus Financial hasn’t yet filed any responses, but told ProPublica that the sole named plaintiff had provided an “illegible” tax return that wasn’t signed, which is why the company decided to revoke his loan. Blueacorn’s Calhoun said much of the hassle could have been avoided from the beginning had the SBA allowed lenders to access more documents that would ensure the borrower was legitimate. Creating a quick way for certified, regulated loan processors to pull an applicant’s tax records, for example, would have provided a hard check on who was eligible. “A few adjustments would’ve gotten rid of a lot of the lazy fraud,” said Calhoun. “Because there was so much ambiguity, it encouraged a lot of people.” This happened more smoothly in other countries where companies file federal taxes quarterly or even monthly, allowing the government to know their exact income without the need for lenders to request documentation that was sometimes difficult to verify. Instead, the SBA allowed applicants to file draft tax returns, which can easily be manipulated. The whole experience left Terry Kilcrease feeling cynical. “The big companies made out like fat cats, the lenders made out like fat cats, all these companies that already had plenty of money,” Kilcrease said. “The people like me who are struggling to get there were just completely forgotten about.” Did Your Company Get Bailout Money? Are the Employees Benefiting From It?
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[l] at 1/13/22 12:15pm
by Anjeanette Damon ] ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive our stories in your inbox every week. Representatives for a prominent casino developer this week defended his decision to raze nearly 600 housing units to redevelop part of Reno’s downtown into an entertainment district and floated his “vision” to contribute land for a publicly funded affordable housing project. Many of the several hundred people at a virtual town hall Monday welcomed the idea of better affordable housing in the area but met the proposal by Jacobs Entertainment with skepticism. The idea floated by Jeff Jacobs, who has demolished 15 motels that were used as last resort housing, includes 850 “affordable and workforce housing units” built above public parking garages that would ostensibly provide parking for his nearby planned entertainment venues. Jacobs wouldn’t build the housing; rather, he would contribute land for a project to be built and operated by the Reno Housing Authority. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Monday’s town hall followed a ProPublica investigation that found the city has failed to require that Jacobs replace the affordable housing he razed despite a critical shortage. The investigation also found the public has repeatedly been cut out of the decision-making process. Since 2016, Jacobs has bought more than 100 parcels in downtown Reno, clearing much of the land and leaving most of the lots vacant as he pitches ever-changing ideas for the area. Prior to the town hall, Jacobs held a briefing for reporters on his affordable housing idea but did not invite ProPublica and didn’t respond to the news organization’s request to attend. At that briefing, he criticized the town hall, organized at the urging of Reno City Council member Naomi Duerr, as a way for “a couple council people” to “let their supporters have a shot at us,” according to News 4-Fox 11. Duerr argued the public felt excluded from the process and deserved more participation. At the town hall, audience members grilled Jacobs’ representatives on the housing demolition and the lack of significant development so far on the land he has assembled. They also tried unsuccessfully to pin the developers down on their affordable housing proposal. In response to pointed questions from audience member Selena Kaffer, Jacobs’ lawyer Garrett Gordon said he could offer no timeline or other details for the housing concept because the company has yet to begin a “conversation” with public partners such as the city of Reno and the housing authority. “At this point it’s a vision, it’s a proposal,” Gordon said. “We have to work with numerous agencies to bring such a huge project to fruition. I don’t have a timetable for you tonight but certainly will in the coming months.” Kaffer countered: “So just to clarify where we are at, in the last five years 500 to 600 units have been demolished, and we don’t have a timeline for when 850 units of affordable housing will be rebuilt to replace those.” But Gordon said it’s wrong to think of the demolished motels as lost housing, given the state of disrepair of many of the units. “They really shouldn’t be considered housing units at all,” Gordon said. “It shouldn’t be slumlords who are providing our housing units for the most vulnerable in our community. It should be the Reno Housing Authority.” As of February, an estimated 2,550 people lived in Reno’s weekly motels, which have become de facto housing of last resort. While many are in poor condition, ProPublica found others that were well-managed and well-kept motels — some of which Jacobs has also tried to buy — that were a critical resource for those seeking shelter in the city’s difficult housing market. While Jacobs offered relocation assistance to people living in his motels, ProPublica found their lives were thrown into chaos and not everyone wound up in a better situation. Mayor Hillary Schieve and four council members attended the virtual town hall, but none sat on its panel to field questions or defend the lack of city policies to preserve affordable housing or deter housing demolition. According to the participant log, Schieve left the meeting after 21 minutes. Council members Neoma Jardon and Oscar Delgado did not log in, according to the document. Video of the meeting also streamed on YouTube and remains available online. Many in the audience clamored for more affordable housing as well as a stronger voice in what will eventually be built on the swath of Jacobs-owned land covering 15 square blocks of downtown. “This meeting should have happened before most of these places were demolished,” said Ilya Arbatman, who said he worked at a music store demolished by Jacobs. “A vision is something you have before you tear things down.” Jacobs has yet to detail a comprehensive plan for his land, some of which he intends to develop into event space, some of which he’s marketing to other developers for market-rate housing, hotels and other unspecified uses. “He’s moving forward strategically, methodically,” Gordon said during the meeting, noting potential plans for an amphitheater and zip line. ProPublica asked the Reno Housing Authority about the viability of Jacobs’ concept for 850 affordable housing units. The authority owns and manages nearly 1,300 affordable housing units and has developed several projects smaller than the one Jacobs would like to see. “With scarce availability of developable parcels, the RHA is interested any time a local developer would like to pursue housing in the Truckee Meadows, especially when they’re willing to offer land,” said RHA spokesperson April Conway. “Any increase in the numbers of rental units takes a little pressure off of the available housing apartments.” Conway said the authority couldn’t provide a time frame or a cost estimate for the idea. “Any costs associated with a housing project needs a feasibility study done first, and with rising costs everywhere, it wouldn’t be prudent to make even a ballpark guess at this point,” she said. The authority recently completed its first housing project in two decades, a 44-unit senior housing complex that cost $13 million. Even with a $1.5 million donation from Jacobs, the authority struggled to finance the project. “There would be many resources needed for a project like this,” Conway said of Jacobs’ idea. “But funding would be first and foremost.” If the idea did come to fruition, the number of units would dwarf the 326 units built in Reno in the past six years.
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[l] at 1/13/22 7:00am
by Justin Elliott and Jeff Ernsthausen ] ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. The chair of the Senate Finance Committee is demanding information from several billionaire developers to determine whether they are abusing a Trump tax break that was supposed to benefit poor communities. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Citing ProPublica’s reporting on the program, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., sent letters today to Jorge Perez of Related Group, Kushner Companies and several other developers asking for details on how they are taking advantage of what’s known as the opportunity zone program. The program, created in President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax overhaul, provides a series of tax breaks for making investments in swaths of specially designated land around the country. The program’s bipartisan advocates contended the program would funnel money into disadvantaged neighborhoods that were otherwise starved for investment. Under the program, investors receive tax advantages. Chief among them is that any gains on projects in the zones are tax-free after a number of years. But ProPublica and other news outlets found that investments often went to develop projects that benefit the affluent. In a series of stories in 2019, ProPublica reported that developers around the country had successfully lobbied to get favored tracts included in the opportunity zone program, at the expense of poorer areas. Several of those tracts were in well-off areas or were sites of long-planned projects that predated the tax break, suggesting that public subsidies could flow to projects that were going to happen regardless. Now Wyden is scrutinizing the tax benefit. “I have long been concerned that the Opportunity Zone program may permit wealthy investors another opportunity to avoid billions of dollars in taxes without meaningfully benefitting the distressed communities the program was intended to help,” Wyden wrote in the letter. Wyden’s letter zeroed in on one of the projects highlighted by ProPublica: an opportunity zone in West Palm Beach, Florida, that contains a superyacht marina owned by a major Republican political donor. “It appears that the Opportunity Zone program is already helping subsidize luxury real estate development by wealthy developers, and in many cases will allow these investors to realize the gains on their investments completely tax-free,” Wyden wrote. “Among the investments that have reportedly qualified for these generous tax breaks, are projects that include luxury apartment buildings and hotels, high-end office towers, self-storage facilities and a ‘superyacht marina.’” In his letter to Perez, head of a company developing the luxury condo project in the West Palm Beach zone, Wyden requested information on when the project was conceived; details of any lobbying of public officials on the opportunity zone issue; and numbers on job creation and tax benefits associated with the project. Asked for a response back in 2019, the West Palm Beach developers said they were not motivated to seek the tax break for their own benefit and hoped to spur additional economic development for the surrounding area. Wyden’s letters are designed to fill in details about how the program is unfolding. While some have called for its outright abolition, even supporters of the opportunity zone program have decried the lack of any reporting requirements that might allow experts to measure whether the tax breaks are achieving their stated goals. In 2019, Wyden introduced legislation that would increase reporting requirements for opportunity zone investors and curtail the kinds of projects that would qualify for tax breaks under the program. The legislation would also remove areas that were originally designated as opportunity zones that weren’t actually poor, including well-off areas of Detroit and Baltimore that ProPublica reported on that year.
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[l] at 1/12/22 4:00am
by Isaac Arnsdorf and Robert Faturechi ] ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. Federal and state authorities are still actively investigating billionaire T. Denny Sanford for possession of child pornography, according to new court records. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. In 2020, ProPublica first reported that South Dakota authorities had started investigating the state’s richest man and had referred the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice. But it was not clear what the DOJ did with the referral or whether state investigators were still pursuing the case. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Now, in a new affidavit, the special agent in charge of the case for South Dakota’s Division of Criminal Investigation, Jeff Kollars, said that the probe remains open and that it included briefings as recently as Dec. 16 with “at least one jurisdiction.” Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. The affidavit does not specify the other jurisdiction. But in a separate filing on Monday, South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg confirmed that both state and federal probes are active. “The investigation by state and federal authorities is ongoing,” Ravnsborg said in the court filing. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Sanford’s attorney did not respond to a request seeking comment. A spokesperson for the DOJ declined to comment. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. The investigation of Sanford started because of a tip from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, the court records show. The center is a private nonprofit that operates a tip line for people and companies to report images of suspected child sex trafficking and abuse. The organization’s staff reviews the tips and refers them to law enforcement. A spokesperson for the organization declined to comment. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Investigators obtained five search warrants in 2019 and 2020 for Sanford’s email, phone and internet data. The documents do not specify what, if anything, investigators found in the searches. ProPublica won access to the search warrants after more than a year of litigation that reached the state’s highest court. Sanford unsuccessfully asked the courts to conceal the search warrants, which are supposed to be publicly accessible under state law, and to block ProPublica’s reporting. The warrants name Sanford “in the matter of possession and distribution of child pornography” and indicate that investigators and a judge concluded there was probable cause to believe that the data would contain evidence of a crime. The affidavits describing the basis for probable cause were not disclosed. The new court records were filed in response to ProPublica’s request to unseal the affidavits. Sanford’s attorney, Marty Jackley, has previously declined to address Sanford’s conduct except to say the billionaire hasn’t been charged. In his latest filing, though, Jackley offered a new explanation: that Sanford’s email account was hacked and being used by someone else. The filing included examples of messages typical of email scams asking contacts to send money overseas, spanning 2016 to 2019. The filing described the emails as “exonerating evidence.” Jackley was the state’s previous attorney general and is currently running for the office again. Jackley did not comment on how he would handle the case if he were to win the election for attorney general. Sanford, 86, made his fortune from First Premier Bank and Premier Bankcard, a major issuer of high-interest credit cards for high-risk borrowers. He is one of the country’s biggest philanthropists, focusing on children’s organizations. After ProPublica reported the existence of the child pornography investigation in 2020, some beneficiaries of Sanford’s charity initally distanced themselves. Others did not. South Dakota’s major hospital system still bears his name and accepted more than $650 million from him in 2021. The state’s governor, Kristi Noem, also accepted $100 million in scholarship funds from Sanford and his companies in 2021. Do you have information about the Denny Sanford case that should be public? Contact Isaac Arnsdorf at isaac@propublica.org or 203-464-1409.
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[l] at 1/12/22 3:00am
by Anna Clark, ProPublica, and David Jesse, Detroit Free Press ] ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive our stories in your inbox every week. This article was co-published with the Detroit Free Press. Baker College sells itself as a place where students thrive and lives are transformed: “a haven for those who dream big.” Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. From humble beginnings as a small business school in Flint, Baker rose to become the largest private college in Michigan, forging a presence in online learning and in Michigan towns where many students thought a college degree was beyond their grasp. For decades, the school’s marketing touted low costs and employment rates of nearly 100% for job-seeking graduates — making the dream seem both affordable and achievable. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. But for many the Baker reality is neither, an investigation by the Detroit Free Press and ProPublica found. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. What the college’s ads don’t say is that less than one-quarter of its students graduate — far below the national average for private four-year schools, according to federal data. Baker has the third-lowest graduation rate among 26 private four-year schools in Michigan. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. The ads also don’t point out that 70% of Baker students who took out federal student loans have problems making payments two years after leaving college. An exceptionally large number of former Baker students with loans have filed claims with the federal government that they were defrauded or misled by the college. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Nor is there mention of the Baker students who find themselves struggling long-term after leaving the school. Ten years after enrolling, according to federal data, fewer than half of former Baker students made more than $28,000 a year, the lowest rate among schools of its kind in the state. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. All this has occurred under the watch of a college oversight structure with unusually close ties to Baker’s leadership, the Free Press and ProPublica found. The joint investigation relied on public records, internal reports and more than 50 interviews, including with current and former students, faculty and employees. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. The president of the college, records show, serves on its Board of Trustees, which is supposed to provide a check on the decisions of the school administration. And a retired Baker president served as chair of that board until very recently — at the same time being paid more than a million dollars from the college for five years of part-time work. Education experts caution nonprofits against compensating board members, saying it can lead to decisions that are not in the best interest of students or the college. “I’ve never seen the president of an institution become the chairman of the board after he retires,” said James Finkelstein, a professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason University who has studied higher education finances for decades. “It certainly is not doing best practices by any stretch of the imagination.” The new board chair is another longtime Baker executive who previously served as the institution’s top academic officer and a campus president. Some former students have no regrets about their time at Baker; they’re grateful for a teacher or adviser who came through for them when they needed it. “I think it is a great place for adult learners to engage,” said Jules Tarrant, who earned degrees from both Baker’s Flint campus and its online program. Thanks to a scholarship, the school helped her transition from a tumultuous home life. She now lives in Northern Virginia and manages a grocery store. “My friends and family can’t believe how successful I’ve been,” she said. But others express frustration after seeing what was supposed to be a life-enhancing experience become a lifelong financial burden. They describe confusion about shifting academic requirements and a lack of career counseling. Or dismay about not getting their degrees. Sometimes, it’s pure anger. After graduating from high school in 2013, Daniel Church pursued an ambitious bachelor’s/master’s degree program in computer technology at Baker but said the department began to lose faculty and fell into disarray. Intent on sticking it out, he took out loans to stay in school and navigated unexpected graduation requirements. Then, after six years, he gave up in defeat. Today, Church drives a truck cross-country, with the hope that someday he can erase more than $30,000 he said he borrowed for a degree he never received. “I will never get that time in my life back,” he said. Former Baker College student Daniel Church in Lapeer, Michigan (Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press) Baker officials, in response to questions, traced the school’s low graduation rate to its open enrollment policy of accepting virtually any applicant with a high school degree or GED. They also said the college is not allowed to restrict student borrowing. In a statement to reporters, Baker emphasized a continuing commitment to improving student outcomes and reducing student loan debt, though it did not provide specifics. It did not comment for this story on the students or the experiences they described. Bart Daig, Baker’s president and chief executive, talked to reporters last summer before declining additional interviews. He said he believes Baker’s marketing efforts — costing $9.7 million in the 2019-20 school year, more than the college spent on financial aid — are necessary because its breadth of educational opportunities are not well-known. “We’ve been extremely modest over the years,” he said. Baker Spends More on Marketing Than Student Aid In the 2019-20 school year, Baker College’s marketing spending outstripped what it devoted to financial aid. Source: Audited financial statements. (Note: Table includes all private nonprofit four-year Michigan colleges and universities, excluding seminaries and specialty schools such as business or art-only programs. Data for some schools was not available.) In 2019, Chief Operating Officer Jacqui Spicer gave a rare response to critiques of Baker when residents in Ferndale, outside Detroit, pushed back against the college’s plan to move its main campus there. Some complained at public meetings about Baker’s academic reputation and called the school predatory. “Being predatory, I don’t think that’s the way in which we operate,” Spicer told a reporter at the time, adding: “We always put our students first, and I think it’s just disappointing people think that we’re predatory, because we really do have the students — they’re top of mind for us.” Baker began as a for-profit school in 1911 but became a nonprofit in 1977, then entered a period of rapid growth. Since the recession, however, enrollment has been in a tailspin. Competition in the online education market contributed to the erosion, as did its own decisions to close campuses, including those in historically industrial communities like Flint and Allen Park, while eliminating most certificate and associate degree programs. It is now Michigan’s second-largest four-year private college by enrollment, after Davenport University. The school’s search for a new campus signaled a major pivot, with Baker trying to appeal to more traditional students, especially those seeking bachelor’s degrees right out of high school. After failing in Ferndale, Baker found a warmer welcome in Royal Oak, a well-off Detroit suburb, where it is building a $51 million flagship campus scheduled to open later this year. The marketing strikes a familiar theme of hope, tailored to a new audience. A YouTube ad highlights sophisticated labs and experienced instructors, along with disc golf, live music and sushi. “Your path to your dream career begins at Baker College,” the ad declares. Construction crews work on building a new Baker College building along South Lafayette Avenue in downtown Royal Oak, Michigan, on Nov. 1. (Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press) Student Debt Baker has long made affordability its selling point. Full-time undergraduate tuition is around $11,000 a year, cheaper than most of the state’s other private colleges. That makes Baker “quite attractive for students who are concerned over the cost of college,” Daig said. One glossy ad champions a “quality education minus the long-term financial sacrifice.” But most Baker students are low-income or the first in their families to attend college. They often turn to federal and private loans to pay a large chunk of their costs. “We can’t stop them from taking a federal loan, which — it is not within our authority,” Daig said. “We can strongly encourage them not to do it, and we can package them with that institutional aid so they don’t need it. But a lot of times, they took it.” Several students interviewed for this story portrayed their interactions with the school differently, saying Baker officials didn’t urge caution. Bart Bechtel said he took out more than $40,000 in student loans while pursuing an online associate degree, with encouragement from Baker — even though the amount surpassed what he needed for tuition. Financial aid officers, he recalled, told him he was eligible, so he might as well take advantage of the full amount. He said they talked about how he might need money for family expenses, his son and Christmas presents. “We were going through a lot at the time with our son getting diagnosed as autistic, and Baker was very quick to suggest more and more financial aid to pay for things,” Bechtel said, referring to student loans. “So we became sort of dependent on them for that. “It was not a good time or situation, and I feel like they took advantage of that.” Bart Bechtel (Mary F. Calvert, special to ProPublica) Dan Nowaczyk, who graduated from Baker’s Flint campus in 2016, recalled students talking about the extra spending money they could get from loans. Once, he said, some students were talking about aid disbursement and one asked the others: “How much money did you guys get back?” Nowaczyk recalled saying that he took out only enough money for classes and books. When the student said he came away with more than $10,000 beyond that, Nowaczyk said he felt obligated to tell him these were loans that had to be paid back — because the student didn’t seem to know. “The financial aid department was not very good at explaining student loans,” he said. Nowaczyk finished with a bachelor’s degree in information system security and $60,000 in debt, “less than I was expecting, so I’m not too upset,” he said. He now works at Kettering University in Flint as head coach of esports. Jacqueline Tessmer, who taught digital media at Baker’s Auburn Hills campus for 14 years, saw the Baker experience backfire for low-income students who weren’t prepared for college. (Tessmer’s relationship with the school ended with a settlement after she filed a lawsuit for breach of contract and retaliation; in a countersuit, Baker disputed her claims.) “Anybody got in,” she said. “If they could get financial aid, and they had a pulse, you could become a Baker student.” But getting in was no guarantee of success, she said, and retention was a constant problem in her program. Students, she said, “were promised a better life but ended up with debt and no degree and no job in their chosen field.” She added: “Baker College has ruined a lot of people’s lives.” Low Earnings for Baker College Students A decade after enrolling, fewer than half of Baker College students make more than $28,000 a year. Source: U.S. Department of Education data, updated August 2021. (Note: Table includes all private nonprofit four-year Michigan colleges and universities, excluding seminaries and specialty schools such as business or art-only programs. Data for Hillsdale College was not available.) In its response to questions from the Free Press/ProPublica, Baker said financial aid award letters and loan request forms list each student’s maximum eligibility for federal loans, as regulations require, as well as “the reduced amount recommended to cover their institutional charges. This was done to reduce over-borrowing.” The college also provides students with aggregate loan totals and estimated monthly payments. Baker also noted that if students took out private loans, these were disbursed without the college’s “awareness or involvement.” If students don’t repay federal loans after leaving Baker, the government can garnish their wages, tax refunds and Social Security benefits. It can also hire collection agencies and file lawsuits to pursue payment. Unlike other forms of debt, federal student loans are extremely difficult to discharge in bankruptcy. For Baker, the loans pose no risk or obligation. In fact, they provide a steady source of government-guaranteed revenue. About 51% of Baker’s tuition revenue comes from federal student loans. Add in Pell Grants given to low-income students, which don’t have to be paid back, and about 72% of Baker’s tuition is backed by taxpayers. By comparison, in the years before it shut down following federal penalties for predatory practices, ITT Technical Institute, a for-profit college system, relied on federal funds for about 76% of its revenue. Studies by several researchers have concluded that having a large percentage of tuition money coming from federal funds can be an indicator of a predatory for-profit school. Davenport University, which Baker officials say is similar to their school, isn’t as reliant on public coffers. Only about 37% of Davenport’s tuition comes from federal loans. Including Pell Grants, about 49% of its tuition comes from the federal government. Most nonprofit schools fundraise, seeking donations from successful alumni and others to reduce dependence on student debt. Not Baker. Its website states that “tuition is our sole source of income” — it doesn’t solicit donations. Student reliance on loans can also be reduced through generous financial aid, often supported by college endowments. And Baker, in fact, has a sizable one. The Jewell Educational Fund, a nonprofit affiliated with Baker to help with financial aid and capital projects, has nearly $300 million in net assets. That gives Baker a wealthier endowment than Kalamazoo College in western Michigan, Seton Hall University or Gonzaga University. But it hasn’t lessened the need for Baker students to go into debt, because Baker hasn’t aggressively spent the money on scholarships. Baker spends about 3% of the Jewell endowment earnings annually. Davenport, with an endowment of about $28 million, has a policy to spend 5% of its earnings each year. In search of relief, former students can file claims with the U.S. Department of Education, saying they were misled when they borrowed the money. As of December 2020, according to data published by Yahoo Finance, of the 266 institutions with more than 100 “borrower defense” claims of deception, only five were nonprofits. The rest are for-profits and “covert for-profits,” where the moneymaking mission is clearer. “Covert for-profits” is a term that has been applied to colleges that very recently changed from for-profit to nonprofit, with little difference in how they actually operate. Among the five nonprofits that had a high number of claims, three are shuttered colleges, and one recently regained accreditation 20 years after losing it. The other is Baker. Claims are not proof of wrongdoing, and Baker’s written response to reporters said the college has never been alerted to a successful application for borrower relief. Students file the claims under penalty of perjury. The Department of Education declined to answer questions about the claims against Baker, but it recently revived a borrower defense enforcement unit that had been dormant during the Trump administration. Robert Niles, a former student with more than $83,000 in debt incurred while getting two associate degrees at Baker’s Cadillac campus, is preparing a borrower defense claim against the school. He said he is citing Baker’s claims of 99% employment in the job market, which persuaded him to enroll because he believed it would give him his “best chance” at a better life. He will contend the training he received was insufficient for more than changing oil on cars. For about three decades, Baker ads cited a “graduate employment rate” of nearly 100%. Its website, too, promoted this; it still claims “one of the highest available graduate employment rates in the country.” When asked about the source for these numbers, Daig cited the National Association of Colleges and Employers. However, NACE said it does not evaluate individual institutions. It collects information that colleges self-report, often based on surveys. It would not comment on Baker’s claims. Baker’s public disclosure forms for certain programs say it calculates the employment rate using responses to a survey sent by the school to graduates. It uses the same survey to estimate that its 2020 graduates with bachelor’s degrees make about $52,000 a year. Niles first studied computer-aided drafting and design but said he couldn’t find a job in the field. Hoping to enhance his earning potential, he returned to Baker for training in automotive services. He graduated cum laude for both associate degrees. But even with those credentials, he said, he earned just pennies more than what he had made previously as an auto mechanic intern. After graduating, he had to study on his own to obtain certifications for the skills he needed to make more. “It has nothing to do with any of those degrees,” Niles said. One lesson from his time at Baker, he said, is this: “It’s just a business, you know. I mean, all Baker is is a business.” Baker College’s campus in Owosso (Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press) College Structure College presidents sit at the top of a management flowchart, but they do not typically operate without oversight. Independent boards of trustees serve as a check on decision-making and a judge of performance. On Saturday, for example, the University of Michigan Board of Regents fired President Mark Schlissel following an investigation they said showed an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate. Previously, the board questioned how Schlissel handled the pandemic and sexual misconduct scandals. At Baker, Daig, the president, is actually a trustee, too. And the chair of the board through August was Daig’s predecessor as president, F. James Cummins. Having ex-presidents as members of the board is a red flag, higher education experts said, because they are too closely tied to the operations of the college and their former colleagues. “Essentially, this would make them their successor’s boss,” said Finkelstein, the higher education expert. “Regardless of whether they are being paid as a board chair, a university employee or just serving as a volunteer, this seems to be a unique situation and runs against virtually any principles of good governance.” Baker did not answer repeated questions about whether Daig voted as a trustee. In its statements to reporters, Baker described its board as knowledgeable and involved, citing “constructive discourse and feedback.” Meanwhile, the role of former president can be lucrative at Baker. In every tax filing by the college since Cummins retired in 2016 and joined the board, he has been one of the school’s most highly compensated individuals. Cummins’ compensation for 2019-20 was $202,000 for a reported 22 hours of work a week. The tax filing said he played multiple roles, serving on the systemwide Board of Trustees and the Board of Regents, which provided guidance for branch campuses. Some state and federal filings also list him in a “secretary” position. Ed Kurtz was 26 years old and Baker was still a for-profit school when it hired him as president in 1968. He led the school until 2002 and went on to serve about 13 years on Baker’s Board of Trustees, holding various titles, including chairman and vice-chairman. During Kurtz’s time on the board — which overlapped with his two controversial stints as the state-appointed emergency financial manager of Flint — the college paid him more than $2.2 million for a reported 1 to 40 hours of work a week, for an average of about $170,000 a year. Baker bylaws examined by reporters say that “no stated salary shall be paid to trustees, as such, for their services.” The bylaws do permit payment to a trustee who works for Baker College itself. Former presidents have served as board chair since at least 1986, according to Cummins in a 2006 Flint Journal story. Their leadership roles can stretch for decades. Robert Jewell, now 91, is a past president who owned Baker when it was a for-profit college. On documents, he was listed as a member of the Board of Regents of the Muskegon campus as recently as 2019. That year, the college paid him $10,450. Jewell could not be reached for comment.Baker said in its written responses that “Ed Kurtz and Jim Cummins received deferred compensation which was paid while serving on the board. Also, the Board Chair is an employee of Baker College.” Demetri Morgan, assistant professor of higher education at Loyola University Chicago, said this type of arrangement is problematic. “Board members are supposed to be free of any real or apparent conflicts of interests,” said Morgan, who studies how colleges are run. “Being a paid employee of Baker potentially impedes a board member from carrying out their fiduciary roles because the threat (perceived or real) of employment termination is more than enough to circumscribe one’s actions.” Kurtz could not be reached for comment; Cummins declined to comment for this story. Baker told ProPublica and the Free Press that as of Aug. 31 — three weeks after reporters asked questions about a possible conflict of interest — Cummins’ board tenure came to an end. The new board chair is Denise Bannan, who retired in 2020 after 35 years as a top Baker executive. She has been provost, vice president for academics, president of the Owosso campus and Baker’s liaison to its accreditors. She made more than $300,000 in 2019-20, her last full year as an administrator, records show. As for the other trustees, Baker doesn’t list them anywhere on its website or its student handbook — a potential problem for a student or anybody else who wants to contact the board with concerns about the way the college is run. When reporters asked who the current board members were, Baker declined to provide a list and instead recommended looking in the organization’s tax filings, which provide information for 2020 but nothing more recent. Experts in higher education governance who reviewed Baker’s bylaws questioned whether any real checks and balances exist at Baker. “This is very atypical,” said Morgan. So much so that when the Free Press/ProPublica asked Morgan to review Baker’s governance documents, he texted fellow researchers to see if they could think of any institution that was similar. They couldn’t. Baker’s nonprofit status gives the college tax advantages, wider access to gifts and government aid and the ability to promote itself as having a public service mission. But, George Mason’s Finkelstein said, “this looks more like a legacy structure for a for-profit enterprise. I have never seen a nonprofit college set up this way.” Baker said its governance documents “have been and continue to be reviewed by accreditors, attorneys, accounting firms, etc. The articles of incorporations, bylaws, and governance structure are the result of professional advice designed to enable Baker College to fulfill its mission.” The Higher Learning Commission, a private accreditation agency, found no flaws in oversight when it gave its most recent stamp of approval to Baker in 2020. “The Board operates independently,” it declared in its review. The commission, which declined to comment for this story, based its conclusion on interviews and written documents, including the school’s bylaws. It also cited the minutes of trustee meetings, which describe the proceedings tersely. The meetings reviewed by the commission occurred during a time of some of the most significant changes in Baker’s 111-year history, including the decision to close and sell campuses and build a new one. Votes on all matters were unanimous. Baker’s Many Incarnations Baker prides itself on a long history of pivoting quickly and changing with the times. As it grew, it began issuing not only certificates, but associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. It expanded by buying business schools and Bible colleges across the state, while also making inroads in new communities and then broadening further through online education. In recent years, it bought a California-based online law school that it’s bringing under the Baker brand. In 1999, Forbes applauded the college’s online efforts and revenue gains. “Such growth is impressive given that it has been achieved despite a complete absence of state or federal funding — even any fund-raising,” the magazine wrote. John Matonich, a former member of the Board of Regents for Baker’s Flint campus, said one thing he always admired was the school’s nimble approach. “They recognized things pretty quickly, and they made changes when they needed to,” said Matonich, a retired CEO of Rowe Professional Services, a civil engineering consulting company. Driven in large part by a massive online program, Baker grew from just shy of 4,000 students in 2000 to about 26,000 in 2015, dwarfing other Michigan private colleges. Then, as more schools entered the online marketplace and demographic shifts meant fewer high school graduates, enrollment dropped. It slid to about 6,000 students in 2020, according to federal data. Enrollment for 2021 has not yet been reported. Fewer students means less money. The school brought in $96 million in tuition for the 2017-18 academic year, according to audited financial statements. Two years later, it was $55 million. This coincided with dramatic changes. Baker shut down its campuses in Flint, Allen Park and Clinton Township in 2020, and will soon close one in Auburn Hills. The Port Huron campus slashed operations two years earlier, while leaving open its culinary program there. Many campuses had received millions of dollars in recent renovations. Baker also closed extension campuses in rural communities. A 2020 report delivered to accreditors affirmed that the school wanted to target “a more traditional student market that is academically prepared to succeed at the college level.” Spicer told the Free Press in 2019: “We recognized that our business model wasn’t sustainable, and that’s one of the reasons that we’re making this shift.” She also said the school had “a lot of students who were at-risk,” which went “hand-in-hand with how our campuses have historically operated.” The change in strategy at Baker doesn’t sit right with everyone. Cleamon Moorer Jr., a former administrator and faculty member, observed with dismay as Baker shut down campuses and sought to attract different kinds of students. “I think it’s insulting. I do,” said Moorer Jr., who served about three years as Baker’s first dean of a consolidated school of business. “Because now it’s almost as if you’re blaming the students for your institutional failures.” Cleamon Moorer, Jr., a former administrator and faculty member at Baker College, in his office at American Advantage Home Care, Inc. in Dearborn, Michigan (Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press) Students Lost in the Shuffle Baker’s dismal graduation rate almost certainly has something to do with the “at-risk” students Spicer mentioned — people who may come from low-income backgrounds, who didn’t excel in high school or who are balancing school, parenting and a full-time job.“ Open enrollment institutions generally do not have high graduation rates,” Baker officials noted to reporters in a written statement. But for many students, the biggest hurdles placed in their way came from Baker itself. Baker often starts programs, then changes them, moves them or shuts them down before students finish. It opened a campus in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 2016 that closed nine months later. A common criticism among students is the lack of guidance once they begin school about everything from internships to graduation requirements. Students said they were on their own to find required internships. Baker once promoted “free lifetime placement service,” but recent graduates said they were simply referred to Handshake, an online platform. “Baker College does have a Career Services department that continues to offer both current students and alumni assistance with social media profiles, resume writing, and career search and placement services,” Baker said in its response. The department has four full-time and two part-time staffers. Davenport, which has roughly the same student population as Baker, employs 12 people full-time. It also makes use of Handshake and offers lifetime services. Bechtel, the student who took on $40,000 in loans, earned an associate degree in web design but found his experience disappointing. Required courses, he said, taught computing languages he considered obsolete. When he reached out to student services — tutoring, tech support, career counseling — “they never returned my phone calls,” he said. A year in, Bechtel said, Baker changed the requirements for his web design program without exempting current students. He’d taken required courses that no longer counted toward his degree. It bothered him, but he decided it wasn’t worth a fight. More changes to the requirements came a year later, and then again the year after that. “I raised a whole lot of hell,” he said, until Baker waved him through with his existing credits. Bechtel graduated in 2011. Neither the coursework nor the degree proved useful, he said. At home, he taught himself the programming language SQL, which got him jobs. He and his wife make decent salaries, he said, but his student debt — now up to $58,750 — has them living “paycheck to paycheck.” “I’m not going to be able to retire because I’ll be paying these off,” Bechtel said. Bart Bechtel’s diploma (Mary F. Calvert, special to ProPublica) Daniel Church, who enrolled out of high school as a full-time student in Flint, ran into trouble when Baker switched from quarters to semesters in 2017 to better align with other college calendars. In a booklet, Baker pledged the change would be cost-neutral and would “not disrupt your academic progress or increase your time to graduation.” But for Church, it did. Church said he needed more time and money to finish getting bachelor’s and master's degrees in Baker’s tech program. So he quit to work as a long-haul trucker, driving cross-country and saving paychecks. He “didn’t go home,” he said, and “didn’t see anyone in my family. I worked my arse off.” Church put aside thousands of dollars to pay for school. But when he got back to Flint, he learned he’d have to effectively repeat some of his quarter-based classes in the new semester system and complete an internship, costing him more than he had saved. Baker gave him a list of leads, he said, but the companies he contacted weren’t taking interns. He decided it was time to give up on Baker. “At that point, I just threw my hands up and laughed, because it was just so unbelievable,” said Church, who is now 27 and said he has more than $30,000 in loans. “How could any institution that expects itself to be taken seriously do this to people?” After living in his parents’ house during the pandemic, he’s back to driving the truck. Do You Have a Tip for ProPublica? Help Us Do Journalism. Mariam Elba contributed research. Agnel Philip of ProPublica and Kristi Tanner of the Detroit Free Press contributed to the data analysis. David Jesse was named the Education Writers Association’s best education beat reporter in 2018 and was a 2020-21 Spencer Fellow in Education Reporting at Columbia University. Contact him: djesse@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterdavidj. Subscribe to the Detroit Free Press. Update, Jan. 15, 2022: This story was updated to reflect that the University of Michigan Board of Regents fired President Mark Schlissel. Correction Jan. 15, 2022: This story originally misstated what happened with Baker College's Port Huron campus. Baker slashed operations there but left open a culinary program; it did not cease operations entirely.
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by Emily Hopkins and Melissa Sanchez ] ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive our stories in your inbox every week. When then-Mayor Richard M. Daley ushered in Chicago’s red-light cameras nearly two decades ago, he said they would help the city curb dangerous driving. “This is all about safety, safety of pedestrians, safety of other drivers, passengers, everyone,” he said. His successors echoed those sentiments as they expanded camera enforcement. “My goal is only one thing, the safety of our kids,” Rahm Emanuel said in 2011, as he lobbied for the introduction of speed cameras. And in 2020, Lori Lightfoot assured residents her expansion of the program was “about making sure that we keep communities safe.” Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. But for all of their safety benefits, the hundreds of cameras that dot the city — and generate tens of millions of dollars a year for City Hall — have come at a steep cost for motorists from the city’s Black and Latino neighborhoods. A ProPublica analysis of millions of citations found that households in majority Black and Hispanic ZIP codes received tickets at around twice the rate of those in white areas between 2015 and 2019. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. The consequences have been especially punishing in Black neighborhoods, which have been hit with more than half a billion dollars in penalties over the last 15 years, contributing to thousands of vehicle impoundments, driver’s license suspensions and bankruptcies, according to ProPublica’s analysis. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. “We felt the brunt of it the way white people didn’t,” said Olatunji Oboi Reed, a longtime activist for racial equity in transportation in Chicago who has received a handful of camera tickets over the years. “Fortunately, I’ve always been in a situation where I can survive financially, unlike many Black and brown people in the city; one ticket is throwing their whole finances in a hurricane.” The coronavirus pandemic widened the ticketing disparities. Black and Latino workers have been far less likely than others to have jobs that allow them to work remotely, forcing them into their vehicles more often. In 2020, ProPublica found, the ticketing rate for households in majority-Black ZIP codes jumped to more than three times that of households in majority-white areas. For households in majority-Hispanic ZIP codes, there was an increase, but it was much smaller. Similar racial and income disparities in camera ticketing have been documented elsewhere. In Rochester, New York, officials eliminated the city’s red-light camera program in 2016 in part because motorists from low-income neighborhoods received the most tickets and the financial harm outweighed any safety benefits. Miami ended its program in 2017 amid complaints from low-income residents who felt unfairly burdened by the fines. And in Washington, D.C., racial justice advocates are researching the city’s camera-ticketing program after a local think tank in 2018 and The Washington Post last year found that cameras in Black neighborhoods issued a disproportionate share of tickets there. Although some cities have eliminated their camera programs, automated enforcement has been gaining support elsewhere in the aftermath of the nation’s racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd in 2020 at the hands of police. From California to Virginia, citizens groups, safety organizations, elected officials and others are pointing to cameras as a “race-neutral” alternative to potentially biased — and, for many Black men, fatal — police traffic stops. And more funding for cameras may be coming: The federal infrastructure bill passed last fall allows states to spend federal dollars on traffic cameras in work and school zones. In Chicago, officials have known of disparities since at least April 2020, when a pair of professors at the University of Illinois Chicago shared initial research showing that cameras send the most tickets to predominantly Black ZIP codes. The city then hired them to study the issue further. Six months later, Lightfoot — who campaigned in part on ending what she called the city’s “addiction” to fines and fees — proposed that Chicago expand camera ticketing by lowering the speeds at which cameras will issue citations. Lightfoot called it a public safety measure, especially in light of a spike in traffic fatalities during the pandemic, but many observers called it a money grab. The City Council approved the measure as part of the 2021 annual budget. After the change went into effect last March, racial disparities persisted, ProPublica found. When asked why the city expanded the program despite knowing of the racial disparities, Dan Lurie, Lightfoot’s policy chief, said the administration saw that traffic fatalities were “at epidemic levels” and that was a “deep concern” to the mayor. “We feel strongly,” he said, “that cameras are a tool in the toolkit to help alleviate that.” An automated speed camera monitors traffic on West Ogden Avenue near Douglass Park in Chicago. (Anjali Pinto for ProPublica) The city is not considering eliminating the cameras or shrinking the program, though Lurie said the administration would “evaluate” cameras at locations where there’s evidence they do not reduce crashes. A summary of the UIC research provided to ProPublica last week confirmed the racial disparities in red-light and speed-camera ticketing and found that most of the speed cameras improve safety. City officials said they are trying to mitigate the financial harm caused by camera tickets. They pointed to a pilot program that halves the costs of fines and allows for some debt forgiveness for low-income residents. That initiative, which was announced last year with no mention of the racial inequities baked into the camera program, is scheduled to start by the end of March. Lurie said the administration has been grappling with the “twin challenges” of improving traffic safety while “very intentionally ensuring that the burdens of fines and fees as a result of those kinds of efforts do not fall disproportionately on Black and brown residents.” The irony is that some of the factors that contribute to ticketing disparities, such as wider streets and lack of sidewalks in low-income communities of color, also make those neighborhoods more dangerous for pedestrians, cyclists and even motorists. According to a 2017 city report, Black Chicagoans are killed in traffic crashes at twice the rate of white residents. The city’s latest transportation plan, which has a focus on racial equity, lays out a number of projects, such as improving crosswalks and building more bike lanes. City officials also said they plan to install more flashing signs that show drivers how fast they’re going — devices known to help reduce speeds. Lurie acknowledged that the best way to reduce traffic fatalities is to fix the underlying road infrastructure that contributes to unsafe driving. That way, he said, “Pedestrians are safer, you’re safer and no one’s getting a fine. That’s the ideal outcome here. We are dealing with, in many ways, after-the-fact consequences of streets that need to be rethought and redesigned.” Chicago’s automated camera program began in 2003, after a 30-day “experiment” on opposite ends of Western Avenue recorded some 4,500 red-light violations. Over the next decade, the Daley administration installed cameras at dozens of intersections around the city. Emanuel expanded the program further in 2013 to include speed cameras. The Lightfoot-era expansion happened, fundamentally, through lowering the speed limit threshold for tickets, not by adding more cameras. Today, motorists are monitored by cameras at close to 300 locations around the city, making Chicago’s automated traffic enforcement program one of the largest in the country. Both red-light and speed cameras are distributed roughly evenly among the city’s Black, Latino and white neighborhoods. The cameras capture images of a vehicle’s license plate as well as video of the alleged infraction, which is reviewed by a third-party vendor before a ticket is sent to the vehicle owner. Each year the city issues approximately 1 million camera tickets, about evenly split between the two types of infractions. In all, cameras have generated more than $1.3 billion in revenue since the first one was installed nearly two decades ago. In general, research has found that the cameras help reduce serious accidents by changing driver behavior. Northwestern University researchers found in 2017 that the number of T-bone crashes — where one vehicle drives into the side of another — fell after red-light cameras were installed, as fewer people ran red lights. According to the executive summary of the latest research by UIC associate professors Stacey Sutton and Nebiyou Tilahun, speed cameras reduced the expected number of fatal crashes and those leading to severe injury by 15%. Still, a wide array of observers has criticized the program as a revenue generator more than a public safety solution. Tickets for running a red light or going 11 or more miles per hour over the limit cost $100; with late penalties that figure can grow to $244. Citations for driving between 6 and 10 mph over the limit cost $35, an amount that increases to $85 when late. Almost half of the tickets received by low-income residents end up incurring additional penalties, according to the research by Sutton and Tilahun, both of whom are in UIC’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs. For upper-income residents, 17% of tickets end up with additional fees. Over the years, many residents have protested that the camera tickets hurt poor people who struggle to pay the fines in time to avoid hefty late penalties and collections fees. The issue became a priority for Reed, who leads the nonprofit Equiticity, an advocacy and research organization focused on transportation equity, when he saw how much the city relied on enforcement as a strategy to help eliminate traffic fatalities in the Vision Zero Chicago plan published in June 2017. Olatunji Oboi Reed leads the nonprofit Equiticity, an advocacy and research organization focused on transportation equity. “We felt the brunt of it the way white people didn’t,” he said of camera ticketing. (Anjali Pinto for ProPublica) He has for years called on the city to stop ticketing cyclists in Black and Latino neighborhoods for riding on sidewalks and to instead improve infrastructure in those areas. He is keenly aware that people of color are disproportionately killed in traffic accidents in Chicago and across the country. But he says he doesn’t think the city can ticket its way to safer streets. At a September 2017 meeting, Reed and others asked city transportation officials to identify and eliminate any racial or geographic disparities in camera ticketing, emails show. The city never committed, Reed said. “We didn’t subscribe to this notion that the answer to improved traffic safety is a punitive approach,” he said. “The root cause of traffic violence in our society that is disproportionately impacting Black and brown people is structural racism.” The following February, ProPublica reported on how debt from parking and camera tickets disproportionately piled up in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods, sending tens of thousands of people into bankruptcy. The reporting has prompted significant reforms across the state. This is the first time ProPublica has examined the disparities in camera ticketing itself, not just the financial consequences. The analysis relies on information obtained through public records requests from the city’s ticket database, including the ZIP code associated with the vehicle registration for every camera ticket issued since the program’s birth in 2003 through mid-2021. ProPublica’s main analysis relies on ticketing from 2015 through 2019 to correspond with the most recent five-year census survey data. Ticketing rates were calculated based on the number of households in each ZIP code, as there is no available and reliable measure of motorists or vehicles by ZIP codes that covers that period. The data shows how motorists from Black and Latino areas of the city have consistently received a higher share of camera tickets. The disparity persists when you include motorists who live anywhere in Cook County but drive in the city or if you include speed warnings to first-time violators. ProPublica excluded warnings from its main analysis because they carry no financial penalties. Between 2015 and 2019, some 3.1 million camera tickets went to Chicago residents. The highest share, or about 38%, of those tickets went to motorists from majority-Black ZIP codes. By comparison, those ZIP codes account for 27% of households. The disparity is less severe in majority-Hispanic ZIP codes, which account for 19% of tickets and 16% of households. Households in the city’s majority Black ZIP codes received about four citations per household over that time period. That’s more than twice the rate for households in majority-white ZIP codes, which received fewer than two tickets. Households in Hispanic ZIP codes received more than three tickets per household during the same time period. For their study, which relies on census-tract level ticket data, Sutton and Tilahun looked at a shorter time period, 2016 through 2019, and arrived at a similar conclusion. Rodney Perry has been caught in the cycle of ticketing. The 28-year-old entrepreneur quit his job at a logistics firm last spring to build a digital marketing and production company. The work leads him to drive past the city’s cameras more than he did in his previous job. Last year, Perry received three tickets for running red lights and eight for speeding. Of the speeding tickets, five were for going just 6 or 7 mph over the limit — speeds that would not have triggered a ticket before Lightfoot lowered the threshold for tickets. Rodney Perry received nearly a dozen automated camera tickets in 2021. (Anjali Pinto for ProPublica) He paid some off, but the penalties eventually added up to more than $700, money he said he did not have. He tried to get on a city payment plan but said he couldn’t figure out how to do that online. Because of the unpaid tickets, the city in November immobilized his 2018 Jeep Cherokee with a yellow Denver boot clamped over one of the front wheels outside his apartment. Perry had to borrow money from his older sister in Tennessee to get on a payment plan and get the boot removed, a process that came with yet more fines. “Family doesn’t ever want to see you have any moment of struggle,” said Perry, who took on an extra job at a restaurant to help pay off the tickets and make ends meet. “It’s a financial impact, but mentally it’s where I was affected the most. Mentally and emotionally.” Perry said he takes responsibility for getting tickets. But he can’t help but notice something every time he drives through majority-Black neighborhoods: There are fewer pedestrians and more vacant lots and industrial areas. “It’s almost like you feel like there is nothing there. Nothing to slow you down,” he said. When Perry enters more densely populated Latino neighborhoods, he sees bustling commerce and more pedestrians. And in majority white neighborhoods, there are even more pedestrians and “a stop light every few blocks. A stop sign between those. Crosswalks,” he said. “There’s a million reasons to stop once you pass downtown on the North Side.” It all makes him wonder: Does the way a neighborhood looks affect whether a driver will get a ticket? Consider the speed camera on West 127th Street, a few blocks east of South Halsted Street in West Pullman, a majority-Black neighborhood on the city’s Far South Side. The camera sits next to a fenced-in steel plant, overlooking a busy, four-lane stretch of road where the speed limit is 30 mph. What allowed the city to place a camera there — as speed cameras are only allowed near parks or schools — is a bike trail that cuts across the street a little west of the device. It’s not a frequently used path; on a bright October morning, not one cyclist passed through in the half hour or so a pair of reporters observed the trail. No pedestrians walked along that stretch of West 127th Street, either; only one side of the street even has a sidewalk. Meanwhile, dozens of semitrucks and passenger vehicles roared past. About 20 miles north, another camera stands along a two-lane stretch of West Montrose Avenue that borders Horner Park in the whiter, more affluent Irving Park neighborhood. Here, the speed limit is also 30 mph. Drivers have to slow down to maneuver around a concrete pedestrian island and over bright green and white crosswalks that lead into the park. That same October morning, reporters encountered more than a dozen pedestrians, cyclists, dog walkers and others near the camera in about a half hour. In 2020, the camera on West 127th Street issued 22,389 tickets to motorists caught driving 11 mph or more over the speed limit, each costing $100. The one on West Montrose Avenue? Five. Drivers intuitively slow down when confronted with narrowed streets, speed bumps or other traffic, said Jesus Barajas, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California Davis, who has studied transportation and infrastructure in Chicago. Wide roads without what are often called calming measures, like the ones on West Montrose Avenue, encourage speeding. “If it feels like a highway, you’re going to go 50,” Barajas said. ProPublica found that all 10 locations with the speed cameras that issued the most tickets for going 11 mph or more over the limit from 2015 through 2019 are on four-lane roads. Six of those locations are in majority Black census tracts. Meanwhile, eight of the 10 locations where the fewest tickets were issued are on two-lane streets. And just two of the 10 are in majority Black census tracts. (The analysis focused on cameras near parks, because those devices operate for more hours and days than those by schools, leading them to issue the vast majority of tickets.) Residential density is another factor. Denser neighborhoods have more cars, more traffic and more pedestrians, all factors that cause motorists to intuitively slow down, experts said. And in Chicago, which has seen an exodus of Black residents in recent decades, Black neighborhoods are far less dense than their white counterparts. ProPublica found that the 10 locations with speed cameras that issued the most tickets were in census tracts with about 6,400 people per square mile, on average. By comparison, the 10 locations with speed cameras that issued the fewest tickets were in tracts that, on average, were more than twice as dense. The way a road is designed can influence how people will drive on it, including how fast they will go. A four-lane road like this one allows higher traffic volumes and speeds. That’s different from a two-lane road like this one, where a tighter street will cause the driver to slow down. The population density matters, too. Roads in less dense neighborhoods, or along industrial areas, have fewer pedestrians and less traffic, which encourages speeding. More residential density often means more pedestrian and vehicle traffic, which discourages speeding. On some wide, multilane stretches of road, drivers encounter fewer “calming measures,” such as pedestrian islands or concrete medians. On the other hand, roads that include pedestrian islands, concrete medians, marked crosswalks and bicycle infrastructure force drivers to slow down. Another factor in ticketing: proximity to expressways, which decades ago were built over Black communities in Chicago and across the nation. Seven of the 10 intersections with red-light cameras that issued the most tickets are within a block of an expressway entrance. Six of the 10 are in majority Black census tracts. None of the 10 intersections where red-light cameras issued the fewest tickets are near expressways, and just one is in a majority Black tract. Sutton and Tilahun also found that ticketing levels are highest among red-light cameras located within 350 feet of freeways, and that Black neighborhoods account for a disproportionate share of all cameras near freeways, according to the executive summary of their paper. The UIC researchers also found that red-light cameras in areas where there were high rates of violent crime issued more tickets. “Perhaps people drive differently in those areas,” Tilahun said. “They might rush through intersections because they feel unsafe.” Census estimates show that Black residents are about as likely to drive to work as white residents, though they face longer commutes no matter how they get to work, according to a study by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, which works on planning issues in northeastern Illinois. Low-income Black neighborhoods often lack basic amenities such as grocery stores, pharmacies and hospitals, forcing drivers into their cars for longer periods of time, said Alejo Alvarado, a transportation planner who has written about how replacing traffic stops with speed cameras could disproportionately hurt low-income and minority drivers in Oakland, California. “There’s usually not retail investment or housing investment, so a lot of these communities, they’re food deserts. They don’t have the amenities they need,” Alvarado said. “I can’t just walk down the street to get my groceries; I’ve got to drive somewhere else.” When Lightfoot was running for office in 2019, she promised to reform the city’s system of ticketing and debt collection. “We cannot accept a system that has such a devastating impact on low-income people and people of color,” she said. The mayor has made good on her promise. The city ended a long-standing practice of seeking driver’s license suspensions for unpaid parking tickets, and state lawmakers ended suspensions for any kind of ticket debt, including for unpaid camera tickets. The city has also made ticket payment plans more accessible; it used to be cheaper for motorists with a lot of ticket debt to file for bankruptcy than to get on a payment plan with the city. So when Lightfoot proposed an expansion of the city’s speed-camera program in October 2020, potentially sending tens of thousands of new tickets to the same populations already overburdened by fines and fees, it was widely seen as hypocritical. She was even criticized by some of the transportation safety advocates who support camera enforcement, including the influential Active Transportation Alliance. Perry looks up a speed warning issued to him in March 2021 on the city of Chicago’s website, which allows users to see paid and outstanding ticket fines. (Anjali Pinto for ProPublica, redacted by ProPublica) Though the mayor made an argument for traffic safety, alliance spokesperson Kyle Whitehead said his group suspected the proposal was more about revenue given it was made in the context of the city budget. What’s more, he said, the change would be “exposing more people to tickets without really understanding the racial equity impact of that change.” But Chicago officials did understand. When Lightfoot proposed the expansion, the city already had Sutton and Tilahun’s preliminary findings. Sutton was dismayed to learn of the expansion. “There’s a disconnect between the data and the politics, the evidence and politics,” Sutton said of the change. “It doesn’t align with the huge burdens that we see in the data.” Lurie defended the mayor’s decision to expand the program even though the city had evidence of its disparate impact on communities of color. Lightfoot, he said, was particularly motivated after a decade-high spike in traffic fatalities in 2020. “If someone is a reckless driver, that is a fundamental concern to the mayor,” Lurie said. “That fine and fee, we believe, can help change behavior. That fine and fee should not put someone in a place where they are unable to pay it, where they are making choices about whether they could put food on the table instead of paying that fine or fee.” The impact of lowering the speed limit threshold was huge. In 2021, the city issued more than 1.4 million tickets to motorists going 6 to 10 mph over the limit, more citations of that kind than it had issued in the combined previous eight years of the program’s existence. The tickets, if paid, had the potential to bring in some $50 million in revenue. But not everybody can pay their tickets, and the debt can upend lives. Late payments can lead to a boot being placed on a car, which might mean days away from work, making it harder to catch up with the debt. While unpaid tickets may no longer result in a license suspension, it’s easy for Chicagoans to get caught in the cycle. “We end up fixing something and creating a different kind of harm,” said Priya Sarathy Jones, the national policy and campaigns director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center, which sees cameras playing a larger role in cities’ efforts to prevent traffic fatalities. “It removes police from having contact with predominantly Black men and Black people, but you’re also creating an entirely parallel universe of harm.” Sutton, who has long studied the impact of “race neutral” policies on communities of color, said Chicago’s experience should be a cautionary tale for cities considering camera programs. “It’s the same cycle, right, in terms of their interaction with the state and with the justice system,” Sutton said. “But the way you enter that is not through a police officer, but through this supposedly unbiased technology. … I don’t think there’s a technological fix to an unjust system.” ProPublica data reporter Haru Coryne reviewed the code and analysis. Road illustrations by Laila Milevski/ProPublica.
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[l] at 1/10/22 11:30am
by ProPublica’s Visuals Team ] We at ProPublica often tell stories about vulnerable people who have been failed by powerful individuals and institutions. Through our visual journalism, we aim to help our readers connect with and contextualize these stories. Over the last year, we’ve investigated racial disparities in policing and health care, the mishandling of sexual assault cases, regulatory failures with deadly consequences, a broken food safety system, tech companies prioritizing profits over people’s privacy and the ways in which our tax code contributes to extreme wealth inequality, among other subjects. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. This work has been done in the second year of a pandemic, so it has been of paramount importance to conceive visual storytelling approaches that ensured our subjects, staff members and freelance journalists both were and felt safe. The circumstances of our reporting were central in shaping the eventual visual expression. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. We hope in these images you see not only abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust but also the resilience and resolve of the people who have shared their stories with us. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Dominic Bodden for “They Were the Pandemic’s Perfect Victims” Watch video ➜ Andrew White for “The Climate Crisis Is Worse Than You Can Imagine. Here’s What Happens If You Try.” Kathleen Flynn for “Entergy Resisted Upgrading New Orleans’ Power Grid. When Ida Hit, Residents Paid the Price.” Jon Han for “The Climate Solution Actually Adding Millions of Tons of CO2 Into the Atmosphere” ProPublica staff for “What Parler Saw During the Attack on the Capitol” Watch video ➜ Anuj Shrestha for “The Celebrity-Backed Green ‘Fintech’ Company That Isn’t as Green as It Seems” Nicolas Ortega for “How Facebook Undermines Privacy Protections for Its 2 Billion WhatsApp Users” Rashod Taylor for “Conservationists See Rare Nature Sanctuaries. Black Farmers See a Legacy Bought Out From Under Them.” Rashod Taylor for “Conservationists See Rare Nature Sanctuaries. Black Farmers See a Legacy Bought Out From Under Them.” Alex Bandoni for “McKinsey Never Told the FDA It Was Working for Opioid Makers While Also Working for the Agency” “‘If Everybody’s White, There Can’t Be Any Racial Bias’: The Disappearance of Hispanic Drivers From Traffic Records” Christopher Gregory-Rivera for “Immigration Prosecutors Were Told Not to Push for Deportation in Cases Like His. He Was Ordered Deported the Next Day.” Vanessa Saba for “The Murder Chicago Didn’t Want to Solve” Mike McQuade for “The Great Inheritors: How Three Families Shielded Their Fortunes From Taxes for Generations” Alex Garcia for “A Crisis of Undiagnosed Cancers Is Emerging in the Pandemic’s Second Year” Watch video ➜ Laila Milevski for “False Barriers: These Things Should Not Prevent You From Getting a COVID Vaccine” Bethany Mollenkof for “In a California Desert, Sheriff’s Deputies Settle Schoolyard Disputes. Black Teens Bear the Brunt.” Dominic Bodden for “‘God’s Will Is Being Thwarted.’ Even in Solid Republican Counties, Hard-Liners Seek More Partisan Control of Elections.” Mauricio Rodríguez Pons for “Postcard From Thermal: Surviving the Climate Gap in Eastern Coachella Valley” Watch video ➜ Rose Wong for “A Banking App Has Been Suddenly Closing Accounts, Sometimes Not Returning Customers’ Money” Jack Taylor for “The Government Gave Free PPP Money to Public Companies Despite Warning Them Not to Apply” Lisa Larson-Walker for “The Secret IRS Files” Lisa Larson-Walker for “The Secret IRS Files” Agnes Chang for “Lord of the Roths: How Tech Mogul Peter Thiel Turned a Retirement Account for the Middle Class Into a $5 Billion Tax-Free Piggy Bank” Watch video ➜ Ash Ngu for “Black Snow” Watch video ➜ Lynsey Weatherspoon for “Thousands of Patients Were Implanted With Heart Pumps That the FDA Knew Could Be Dangerous” Brian Adams for “Searching for Solutions to Alaska’s High Rate of Deadly Air Crashes” Ben Hickey for “The ProPublica Free Tax Guide” Cydni Elledge for “Held Back: Inside a Lost School Year” Daniel Fishel for “Why Opening Restaurants Is Exactly What the Coronavirus Wants Us to Do” “A Postal Worker Begged for Stronger COVID-19 Protections. She Ended Up Spending Six Weeks in the Hospital.” “A Tiny Number of People Will Be Hospitalized Despite Being Vaccinated. We Have to Learn Why.” Samantha Cabrera Friend for “‘In Those Pictures, You Can See the Community’” Glenn Harvey for “Facebook Grew Marketplace to 1 Billion Users. Now Scammers Are Using It to Target People Around the World.” Watch video ➜ Kendrick Brinson and David Walter Banks for “The Broken Front Line” Mark Pernice for “Thousands of Patients Were Implanted With Heart Pumps That the FDA Knew Could Be Dangerous” William Widmer for “Storm Drains Keep Swallowing People During Floods” Watch video ➜ Kathleen Flynn and Lucas Waldron for “Poison in the Air” Watch video ➜ Al Shaw and Lylla Younes for “The Most Detailed Map of Cancer-Causing Industrial Air Pollution in the U.S.” Laila Milevski for “Can Air Pollution Cause Cancer? What You Need to Know About the Risks.” Celeste Sloman for “The Lost Year: What the Pandemic Cost Teenagers” Celeste Sloman for “The Lost Year: What the Pandemic Cost Teenagers” Leland Foster for “Texas Enabled the Worst Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Catastrophe in Recent U.S. History” Watch video ➜ Haruka Sakaguchi for “Even on U.S. Campuses, China Cracks Down on Students Who Speak Out” Cath Virginia for “How Unemployment Insurance Fraud Exploded During the Pandemic” Mauricio Rodríguez Pons and Nadia Sussman for “Buy, Borrow, Die: How America's Ultrawealthy Stay That Way” Watch video ➜ Talia Herman for “Babies Are Dying of Syphilis. It’s 100% Preventable.” Charlotte Ager for “Birth Rights” Charlotte Ager for “Birth Rights” Brittany Greeson for “Get This Thing Out of My Chest” Ola Jasionowska for “New Records Show the NYPD’s Favored Punishment: Less Vacation Time” Matt Williams for “When Falling Behind on Rent Leads to Jail Time” Leland Foster for “St. Jude Hoards Billions While Many of Its Families Drain Their Savings” Watch video ➜ Adria Malcolm for “These Single Moms Are Forced to Choose: Reveal Their Sexual Histories or Forfeit Welfare” Richard A Chance for “Hundreds of PPP Loans Went to Fake Farms in Absurd Places” Juan Bernabeu for “America’s Drinking Water Is Surprisingly Easy to Poison” Hannah Price/Magnum Photos for “What Philadelphia Reveals About America’s Homicide Surge” Watch video ➜ Isabel Seliger for “‘Who Is This Monster?’” “‘You Save as Long as You Have To’” “‘This Is How You Get Your Power Back’” Kathleen Flynn for “He Was Filming on His Phone. Then a Deputy Attacked Him and Charged Him With Resisting Arrest.” Laila Milevski for “‘Half of the Family Just Disappeared Overnight’” Sarah Blesener for “‘The Liberty Way’: How Liberty University Discourages and Dismisses Students’ Reports of Sexual Assaults” Sarah Blesener for “‘The Liberty Way’: How Liberty University Discourages and Dismisses Students’ Reports of Sexual Assaults” Anonymous illustrator for “Operation Fox Hunt: How China Exports Repression Using a Network of Spies Hidden in Plain Sight” Watch video ➜ Greg Kahn for “St. Jude Hoards Billions While Many of Its Families Drain Their Savings” Alicia Tatone for “Eugene Clemons May Be Ineligible for the Death Penalty. A Rigid Clinton-Era Law Could Force Him to Be Executed Anyway.” Daniel Stolle for “Inspecting the NYPD ‘Puzzle Palace’” Kathleen Flynn for “‘They Saw Me and Thought the Worst’” Sam Alden for “Dying on the Waitlist” Stacy Kranitz for “Black Children Were Jailed for a Crime That Doesn’t Exist. Almost Nothing Happened to the Adults in Charge.” Stacy Kranitz for “Black Children Were Jailed for a Crime That Doesn’t Exist. Almost Nothing Happened to the Adults in Charge.” Anuj Shrestha for “Oath Keepers in the State House: How a Militia Movement Took Root in the Republican Mainstream” Justin Metz for “America’s Food Safety System Failed to Stop a Salmonella Epidemic. It’s Still Making People Sick.” Ash Ngu and Andrea Suozzo for “Chicken Checker” Mason Trinca for “America’s Food Safety System Failed to Stop a Salmonella Epidemic. It’s Still Making People Sick.” Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Each of these images represents many hours of careful collaboration between teams, and we want to especially thank our freelance visual journalists for helping us bring these stories to life. With gratitude, Visuals Team Lisa Larson-Walker, Art Director Jillian Kumagai, Visuals Editor Andrea Wise, Visuals Editor Alex Bandoni, Temporary Visuals Editor Laila Milevski, Scripps Howard Illustrator and Visual Journalism Fellow News Apps Team Ken Schwencke, Editor Al Shaw, Deputy Editor Lena Groeger, Deputy Editor Lylla Younes, News Apps Developer Ash Ngu, News Apps Developer Andrea Suozzo, News Apps Developer Ruth Talbot, News Apps Developer Lucas Waldron, Visual Investigations Producer Video Team Almudena Toral, Executive Producer Nadia Sussman, Video Journalist Katie Campbell, Video Journalist Mauricio Rodríguez Pons, Video Journalist Joseph Singer, Video Editor Design & Product Team David Sleight, Design Director Allen Tan, Editorial Experience Designer Rob Weychert, Editorial Experience Designer Mike Tigas, Editorial Systems Engineer Frank Sharpe, Senior Product Developer Jaya Subrahmanyan, Product Developer
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[l] at 1/7/22 11:30am
by ProPublica ] ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. Applications are now open for three spots in ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. We’re seeking local journalists who are interested in investigating wrongdoing and abuses of power in their communities. Our new partners will begin work on April 1, 2022, and continue for one year. This group of projects is made possible by a grant from Knight Foundation. The following categories of newsrooms are eligible to apply: Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Local nonprofit journalism outlets that are members of the Institute for Nonprofit News. News organizations (nonprofit or for-profit) in communities supported by Knight Foundation programs: Aberdeen, South Dakota; Akron, Ohio; Biloxi, Mississippi; Boulder, Colorado; Bradenton, Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; Columbia, South Carolina; Columbus, Georgia; Detroit; Duluth, Minnesota; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Gary, Indiana; Grand Forks, North Dakota; Lexington, Kentucky; Long Beach, California; Macon, Georgia; Miami; Milledgeville, Georgia; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Palm Beach County, Florida; Philadelphia; San Jose, California; St. Paul, Minnesota; State College, Pennsylvania; Tallahassee, Florida; and Wichita, Kansas. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. ProPublica will pay the salary (up to $75,000), plus an allowance for benefits, for each full-time reporter. Local reporters work from and report to their home newsrooms, while receiving extensive support and guidance for their work from ProPublica, including collaboration with a senior editor and access to ProPublica’s expertise with data, research, engagement, video and design. The work will be published or broadcast by your newsroom and simultaneously by ProPublica. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Applications are due Feb. 16, 2022, at 11:59 p.m. Pacific time. Here are the details for those interested in applying. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. ProPublica launched the Local Reporting Network at the beginning of 2018 to boost investigative journalism in local newsrooms. It has since worked with more than 50 news organizations. The network is part of ProPublica’s local initiative, which includes offices in the Midwest, South and Southwest, plus an investigative unit in partnership with the Texas Tribune. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. The Local Reporting Network has had a significant impact in the communities where it has partnered with newsrooms. The Anchorage Daily News, in a first-of-its-kind investigation, found that 1 in 3 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, then-U.S. Attorney General William Barr visited Alaska and later declared a state of emergency, releasing millions of dollars in federal funds to address the problem. The Anchorage Daily News was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for the series. MLK50, a nonprofit news organization in Memphis, Tennessee, reported on how the area’s largest hospital system sued and garnished the wages of thousands of poor patients, including its own employees, for unpaid medical debts. The hospital subsequently curtailed its lawsuits against patients, erased $11.9 million in unpaid medical debts, dramatically expanded its financial assistance policy for hospital care and raised the minimum wage it pays employees. The stories won the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting. Our partnership with the Miami Herald looked at the deeply troubled Florida program intended to provide services and a financial cushion for the families of children born with devastating brain injuries. The series found that the program protected doctors at the expense of suffering families and that it had amassed $1.5 billion in assets while families waited for help. The reporting pushed the state legislature to quickly enact long-needed reforms and spurred the program’s executive director to roll out further benefits for the families and subsequently resign. Applications to join the Local Reporting Network should be submitted by newsroom leaders proposing a particular project and a specific reporter. If you lead a newsroom and are interested in working with us, we’d like to hear from you about: An investigative project. The proposed coverage can take any number of forms: a few long stories, an ongoing series of shorter stories, text, audio, video or something else. Please tell us why this coverage will be crucial to your community, lay out any similar coverage that has been done before it, say why this project has particular urgency now and offer a plan for executing the work. Please also explain why your region and your newsroom are right to tell this particular story. The reporter whom you ideally envision spearheading the work and the market salary you would need to pay them from April 1, 2022, through March 31, 2023. This could be someone already on staff or someone else — for example, a freelancer with whom you hope to work. Please include a personal statement by the reporter explaining their interest, at least three clips and, of course, a resume. Freelancers are also welcome to apply, but must submit a joint application with an eligible news organization willing to publish their work. We will be holding a Q and A webinar about this opportunity on Jan. 20, 2022, at 3 p.m. Eastern time. Please sign up to receive an email invitation to join us over Zoom. Please submit your proposal using this form by Feb. 16, 2022, at 11:59 p.m. Pacific time. We have a detailed list of frequently asked questions available on our site. If you have questions that aren’t answered there, please email us at Local.Reporting@propublica.org. ProPublica reporters and editors are also available to give feedback on your application before you submit it. Please send your proposals to Local.Reporting@propublica.org no later than Jan. 31 and someone will get back to you within a few days. Entries will be judged principally by ProPublica editors. Selected proposals will be announced in March.
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[l] at 1/7/22 3:00am
by Neil Bedi ] ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. In 2014, when the Food and Drug Administration found serious problems with a life-sustaining heart pump, its warning letter to the manufacturer threatened to notify other federal health agencies about the inspection’s findings. But for years, no such alert ever went out. Instead, the agency added the warning letter to an online database alongside thousands of others, following its typical procedures, an FDA spokesperson said. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Agencies such as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs went on paying to implant the HeartWare Ventricular Assist Device, or HVAD, in new patients even though federal inspectors had found problems with the device linked to patient deaths and injuries. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Taxpayer dollars continued to flow to the original device maker, HeartWare, and then to the company that acquired it in 2016, Medtronic, for seven years while the issues raised in the warning letter remained unresolved. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. If crucial safety information in FDA warning letters doesn’t make it to other arms of the government responsible for deciding which medical devices to pay for, experts said patients are the ones put at risk. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. “It’s clearly a breakdown of communication,” said Dr. Rita Redberg, a cardiologist at the University of California San Francisco who researches medical device safety and regulation. “It’s not just the money, obviously. It’s people’s lives.” Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. The FDA acknowledged that it doesn’t directly notify other agencies when it issues warning letters, pointing instead to its online database, which is accessible to both government officials and the public. “The FDA’s decisions are intended to be patient-centric with the health and safety of device users as our highest priority,” the agency spokesperson said in an email. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. The HeartWare letter was removed from the public database about two years ago, even though the problems remained unresolved and patients were still receiving implants. The database clears out letters that are more than five years old. CMS, which oversees the Medicare and Medicaid programs, would not say why it continued paying for a device that didn’t meet government standards. It directed questions about the HeartWare warning letter to the FDA. “CMS does not have oversight of the manufacturing and related safety assessments of a medical device manufacturer,” a spokesperson said in an email. The spokesperson noted that CMS requires heart pump patients to have specialized medical teams managing their care, which should monitor FDA communications regarding safety of devices. CMS doesn’t track data on devices by manufacturer, so it’s essentially impossible to calculate its total spending on HVADs. One 2018 medical journal study found that Medicare and Medicaid paid for more than half the cost of all heart pump implants from 2009 to 2014. If that rate of spending continued, CMS may have spent more than $400 million on implanting HVADs since 2014. A spokesperson for the VA said his agency was never notified about the HeartWare warning letter. The VA paid HeartWare and Medtronic more than $3 million after the FDA issued the letter in 2014. It offered this explanation for why: “It’s important to note that FDA Warning Letters are notifications issued to manufacturers found to be in significant violation of federal regulations. They are not product recalls.” In the case of the HVAD, the FDA’s failure to make sure its warning reached beyond the manufacturer may have had life-and-death consequences. In August, ProPublica reported that federal inspectors continued finding problems at the HVAD’s manufacturing plant for years. Meanwhile, the FDA received thousands of reports of suspicious deaths and injuries and more than a dozen high-risk safety alerts from the manufacturer. The documents detailed one horrifying device failure after another. A father of four died after his device suddenly failed and his teenage daughter couldn’t resuscitate him. Another patient’s heart tissue was charred after a pump short-circuited and overheated. A teenager died after vomiting blood as his mother struggled to restart a defective pump. In June, Medtronic ended sales and implants of the device, citing new data that showed patients with HVADs had a higher rate of deaths and strokes than those with a competing heart pump. Medtronic declined to comment for this story. It has previously said it believed that after the 2014 warning letter the benefits of the HVAD still outweighed the risks for patients with severe heart failure. Experts said the lack of communication between federal agencies when serious device problems are found is baffling but not surprising. It fits a broader trend of device regulators focusing more on evaluating new products than monitoring the ones already on the market. “The priority is to get more medical devices out there, paid for and getting used,” said Dr. Joseph Ross, a professor of medicine and public health at Yale University who studies medical device regulation. Other U.S. health care regulators move more forcefully when providers and suppliers don’t meet the government’s minimum safety requirements for an extended period, putting patients at risk. Take hospitals. When inspectors find a facility is not meeting safety standards, CMS can issue an immediate jeopardy citation and, if problems aren’t fixed, move to withhold federal payments, which make up substantial portions of most hospitals’ revenues. In the rare cases when hospitals don’t take sufficient action, CMS follows through and revokes funding. Redberg, the UCSF cardiologist, said the lack of similar action for medical devices offers a clear “opportunity for improvement.” At minimum, the FDA could establish processes to directly inform other agencies when it issues warning letters and finds serious problems with devices being sold in the United States. “If the agency’s mission is to protect public health, they would want to do these things and move quickly,” she said. Tell Us About Your Experience With Life-Sustaining Medical Devices
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[l] at 1/6/22 3:00am
by Caroline Chen ] ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. As I walked off the jet bridge into Hong Kong International Airport, I stepped into another world. I was home for Christmas, to see my parents for the first time in two years. But first, I had to get through a gantlet of COVID-19 precautions that envelop the city like a protective bubble. Incoming travelers were greeted by gowned, gloved and masked workers, who directed us through the terminal. As I followed the passengers ahead of me, I was unnerved by the shuttered stores. Every other time I’ve flown in and out of Hong Kong, the airport hums with thousands of travelers, children scampering across the polished floors, announcements intoned in English, Cantonese and Mandarin. The terminal was now eerily still. My feet made too much noise as I trudged along the path marked by guardrails. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. A PPE-covered worker sent me to a series of stations. First, I pulled my mask down for a nurse to swab my nose and throat for a PCR test. Then I presented my documents — preflight negative COVID-19 test, proof of hotel booking, Hong Kong resident ID and vaccination card — to an officer who scrutinized them before declaring me up to par. The worker at the next station checked for a functioning phone, test-dialing my U.S. number. Then I was presented with a sandwich and water bottle and directed to a waiting area with chairs and desks placed in a grid as though ready for an exam. I checked my lanyard to find my seat: G205. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. As I waited for my COVID-19 test results, I could see the sky through the arched windows turning bright, revealing a beautiful, cloudless December morning. I texted my parents: “Landed!” They responded with clapping emoji. I would see them in 21 days. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Sitting in the cavernous space, I suddenly felt so far from the previous day, when I checked on the chard and radishes growing in my California garden and took a walk with my friend and her new puppy. For all the caution I had taken to reduce exposure in the interminable months since March 2020, that all felt like child’s play compared with the Compulsory Quarantine Order in my hand, which reminded me that I, Chen Caroline Yi Ling, was required, with immediate effect, to be quarantined in my hotel room at the Crowne Plaza as ordered by Yau Yuet-ming Lannon, an authorized officer of the Regulation, until Dec. 20, 2021, at 11:59 p.m. I flipped through the booklet of instructions for the three weeks of hotel quarantine. On Page 4, bold letters declared: “Warning: Leaving the room will be treated as breaching of the quarantine order. Offenders will be referred to the police without prior warning. Breaching the quarantine order is a criminal offence and offenders are subject to a maximum fine of HK $25,000 and imprisonment for six months.” Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. It felt like a different planet. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Hong Kong’s quarantine procedures are among the strictest in the world. The city is committed to a “zero-COVID” policy, which means it will take every possible measure to prevent a single case. Its policies for travelers have become progressively stringent. In December 2020, concerned about the B.1.1.7 (alpha) variant, the government increased the quarantine period for travelers from the United Kingdom to 21 days “so as to ensure that no case would slip through the net even under very exceptional cases where the incubation period of the virus is longer than 14 days.” Concerned about the delta variant, 15 countries including the U.S. were added to the “high-risk” category in August of last year, even though local scientists said the additional week was unnecessary and extreme. As it turns out, I arrived just before another change: With the emergence of the omicron variant, travelers from the United States were required to spend four days in government quarantine facilities — spartan temporary housing in an isolated corner of one of Hong Kong’s islands — before being released to a hotel of their choice for the remaining 17 days. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. I was spared that fate, thankfully. Once my airport test registered negative, I was released to a shuttle that dropped me off at my hotel. A PPE-shrouded employee sent me up the service elevator to my room on the 21st floor. It would be my home for the next three weeks. A sign posted on the hotel room door warns guests not to leave the room. (Caroline Chen/ProPublica) “Are you still sane???” “How are you surviving??” my U.S. friends texted me. The honest answer was, “It’s fine!” The ability to work remotely filled my days, and large windows with a beautiful view helped to ward off claustrophobia. The meals that appeared at my door were sufficient if not inspiring. I came to appreciate YouTube exercise videos and little luxuries at the hotel, like the hot water kettle that I used to make endless cups of tea and the laundry line over the bathtub. Deliveries were allowed, and my parents dropped off a yoga mat and fresh fruit. One of my childhood best friends sent me home-baked goods. These gifts, each heralded by a doorbell ring, were doses of love that buoyed my spirits. I made my way through seven and a half books and refreshed my rusty Cantonese by watching local TV stations. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Watching the nightly news, I was struck by the detailed reports on every COVID-19 case: countries visited, timelines of infection, recountings of symptoms and sequencing details. This is only possible because there are so few cases. During the first week of my stay, the city, which has a population and land area similar to that of New York City, had an average of four daily cases, all of which were caught in travelers during the quarantine process. When the first omicron cases were detected, a case study dissected how one traveler managed to infect another residing across the hallway at the same hotel — even though they never had their doors open at the same time. The virus must have managed to linger in the hallway, transmitted while they were reaching out to grab their meals. The case study provided the world with an early hint as to just how transmissible the new variant could be. Every three days, I had my only human contact. The doorbell would ring, I’d open it to an HVAC tube like an enormous vacuum hose held in front of my face while a PPE-clad worker swabbed my nose and throat. In the course of the hotel stay, I was tested seven times, including two samples collected the day before departure, which were sent to separate laboratories, just in case one provided a false negative. Even the trash was tightly regulated: I was instructed to put garbage in a sealed bag outside my room at designated times — otherwise, a sign warned me, I could be referred to the police and sent to a quarantine center. I have never in my life been so attentive about handling garbage. The hotel put up instructions for handling garbage. (Caroline Chen/ProPublica) I can’t say Hong Kong’s approach to COVID-19 is better or worse than other countries’ policies. Twenty-one days of quarantine is excessive. Experts have said that the zero-infection policy is unsustainable, and it is fair to be concerned about the impact to the city’s reputation as an international commerce hub. Even local residents have pushed back at times, such as when 120 schoolchildren were sent to government quarantine facilities for three days after a parent tested positive. Arguably, improving the local vaccination rate (currently at 69% with two doses) could pave the way for easing some policies, but in an unexpected chicken-and-egg scenario, the lack of COVID-19 cases is one reason why many residents have put off getting their shots. Whether or not the strict measures are ideal, the result is undeniable: When I finally departed my hotel, there were zero cases of COVID-19 in the city. Life is remarkably different than in the U.S. I celebrated Christmas with my extended family: more than 20 of us together, from my grandmother and my cousin’s infant children, and we were spared fraught discussions of testing and exposure and risk reduction that so many U.S. families wrestled with this year. I walked through shopping malls and rode subway trains packed with people, knowing I didn’t have to worry about exposure. One of my best friends, currently pregnant, said she’s grateful to feel safe. Everyone wears a mask, both indoors and outdoors. Stores on every other street corner tout rainbow displays of surgical masks, with a dazzling variety of patterns. Christmas-themed masks were popular over the holidays. I made a game of trying to spot people not wearing masks and only managed to catch one person wearing their mask under their nose. Otherwise, compliance was universal. I debated the extensive masking with my mom: If there’s no local transmission, why would anyone need to wear a mask, particularly outdoors? Masking is a shared community responsibility, my mother replied. She observed that Hong Kong is an incredibly dense city and added that, when the omicron variant inevitably reached Hong Kong, universal masking would help to slow its spread. Sure enough, my mom was right. There are loopholes in Hong Kong’s COVID-19 containment policies. Local aircrew members were allowed to serve a weeklong quarantine at home, a concession to the grueling mental health effects and impracticality of losing staff to weeks of hotel quarantine every time they returned. Crew members could also leave their homes for essentials like grocery shopping and mandatory COVID-19 testing. The day before I left Hong Kong, my flight was abruptly canceled. A Cathay Pacific crew member had violated the rules. He left home quarantine early on Dec. 27 and ate at a restaurant in a shopping mall. When he tested positive a few days later, an intense contact tracing effort began. As of Jan. 3, health authorities had identified five other positive cases related to the restaurant. After nearly three months of zero cases within the city, Hong Kong had local transmission again. Health authorities have sent 200 diners and 22 restaurant employees to government quarantine facilities, using credit card transactions to track down the customers. A few days later, after discovering a positive case that was “untraceable” to other known cases, the government said it would stop flights from several countries for two weeks and imposed a curfew on restaurants, banning meals after 6 p.m. The immediate and overwhelming response to a handful of cases means that local transmission likely will not explode. But it comes at a cost. The government immediately tightened quarantine rules for aircrew members, requiring hotel stays for up to 14 days. Cathay, already struggling with staff quitting over increasingly strict measures, canceled numerous flights, unable to book enough hotel rooms to satisfy the new requirements. Over the past two years, much comparison has been made between different countries’ COVID-19 policies. I have heard so many times, “Why can’t the U.S. be like X country?” Having experienced a drastically different approach from the United States, I have more respect for the trade-offs inherent in every choice. Hong Kong has been incredibly successful in battling the virus, with about 12,700 cases and 213 deaths out of a population of 7.5 million to date (compare that with New York City’s 1.7 million cases and 35,500 deaths among 8.4 million residents.) The community-minded and prevention-oriented attitude of Hong Kong citizens is one that Americans could benefit from. Yet Hong Kong is losing talent and business due to its strict approach (coupled with recent political changes such as the sweeping national security law passed in June 2020). It’s unclear if a zero-infection policy can be sustained as Hong Kong moves to open its borders with mainland China, and I wonder how the city will adapt as the virus becomes endemic. But what I’d like to hold on to, after traveling between these two worlds, is the reminder not to take things for granted. The small things, like the ability to cook my own food and exercise outdoors. The bigger things, like being able to walk through a bustling crowd without anxiety. And the most important thing: being able to see my loved ones, with or without the hassle of quarantine. I was technically free to leave the hotel at midnight, but I suggested to my parents that I check out the next morning so they wouldn’t have to stay up. “We will be unable to sleep knowing that you can be at home that very moment,” my dad responded, insisting that they would be there at 12 a.m. So I sat in my hotel room, watching the clock and waiting for the knock on the door that meant I was free to go. Then I stepped out into the cool night and walked into my parents’ waiting arms. After being released from quarantine, I was finally reunited with my parents. (Caroline Chen/ProPublica)
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[l] at 1/5/22 3:00am
by Patrick Rucker, The Capitol Forum ] ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. This story was co-published with The Capitol Forum. Early in 2020, as the pandemic gripped the nation, JPMorgan Chase offered to help customers weather the crisis by taking a temporary pause on mortgage, auto and credit card payments. Chase’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, sounded sympathetic about a year later as he offered broader reflections on what was ailing the country. “Americans know that something has gone terribly wrong,” he wrote in a letter to shareholders. “Many of our citizens are unsettled, and the fault line for all this discord is a fraying American dream — the enormous wealth of our country is accruing to the very few. In other words, the fault line is inequality.” But even as those words were published, the bank had quietly begun to unleash a lawsuit blitz against many of its struggling customers. Starting in early 2020 and continuing to today, Chase has filed thousands of lawsuits against credit card customers who have fallen behind on their payments. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Chase had stopped pursuing credit card lawsuits in 2011, in the wake of the last major economic downturn, after regulators found that the company was filing tens of thousands of flimsy suits, sometimes overstating what customers owed. Rather than being backed by extensive billing records to document the debts, according to the regulators, the suits were typically filed with a short affidavit from one of a half-dozen Chase employees in one office in San Antonio who vouched for the accuracy of the bank’s information in thousands of suits. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Chase “filed lawsuits and obtained judgments against consumers using deceptive affidavits and other documents that were prepared without following required procedures,” the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau concluded in 2015. At times, Chase employees signed affidavits “without personal knowledge of the signer, a practice commonly referred to as ‘robo-signing.’” According to the CFPB’s findings, there were mistakes in about 10% of cases Chase won and the judgments “contained erroneous amounts that were greater than what the consumers legally owed.” Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Chase neither admitted nor denied the CFPB’s findings, but it agreed, as part of a consent order, to provide significant evidence to make its cases in the future. The company also agreed it would provide “relevant information and documentation maintained by [Chase] to support their claims” in cases — the vast majority of those it filed — in which customers did not respond to the lawsuit. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. But that provision expired on New Year’s Day 2020. And since then the bank has gone back to bringing lawsuits much as it did before 2011, according to lawyers who have defended Chase customers. “From what I can see, nothing has changed,” said Cliff Dorsen, a consumer-rights attorney in Georgia who represents Chase credit card customers. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Chase declined to make executives available for interviews. It said in a statement that the timing of the resumption of its credit card lawsuits was just a coincidence. “We have engaged with our regulators throughout this process,” said Tom Kelly, a bank spokesperson. “We continue to meet the requirements of the consent order.” (Kelly said Chase also filed some credit card lawsuits in 2019.) Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Kelly declined to say how many suits it has filed in its blitz of the past two years, but civil dockets from across the country give a hint of the scale — and its accelerating pace. Chase sued more than 800 credit card customers around Fort Lauderdale, Florida, last year after suing 70 in 2020 and none in 2019, according to a review of court records. In Westchester County, in New York’s suburbs, court records show that Chase has sued more than 400 customers over credit card debt since 2020; a year earlier, the equivalent figure was one. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. A similar surge is occurring in Texas, according to January Advisors, a data-science firm. Chase filed more than 1,000 consumer debt lawsuits around Houston last year after filing only seven in 2020, the analytics firm’s review of court records in Harris County shows. Chase instigated 141 consumer debt cases in Austin last year after filing only one such case in 2020, according to January Advisors, which is conducting research for a nationwide study of debt collection cases. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Today, just as it did before running afoul of the CFPB, Chase is mass-producing affidavits from the same San Antonio office where low-level employees generated hundreds of thousands of affidavits in the past, according to defense attorneys and court documents. Those affidavits are often the main piece of evidence that Chase uses to win its case while detailed customer records — and any errors they may contain — remain out of sight. “Our clients deserve to see everything that Chase has in its files,” Dorsen said. “Instead, Chase gives us these affidavits and says: ‘You can trust us about the rest.’” Before the robo-signing scandal a decade ago, Chase recovered about a billion dollars a year with its credit card collections business, according to the CFPB. Why would Chase stop suing customers for years, forgoing billions of dollars, only to ramp up its suits once key provisions of the CFPB settlement had expired? Craig Cowie thinks he has an answer. “Chase did not think it could make money if it had to sue customers and abide by the CFPB settlement,” said Cowie, who worked as an enforcement attorney at the CFPB during the Obama administration and now teaches at the University of Montana Law School. “That’s the only explanation that makes sense for why the bank would have held back.” Cowie, who did not work on the CFPB’s case against Chase, said he doesn’t know why the agency agreed to a time limit on some settlement provisions. He pointed out that such agreements are negotiated and the CFPB cannot just dictate the terms. The agency may have felt it had to let some provisions of the settlement expire to get Chase to agree to the deal, Cowie said. The CFPB declined to comment. For its part, Chase said it waited years to restart its lawsuits because it took that long to get the system working right. “We rebuilt the litigation program slowly and methodically to make sure we had the right controls in place,” said its spokesperson, Kelly. At the time, the CFPB had found numerous flaws in Chase’s suits. The agency concluded that Chase used “unfair” legal tactics when it promised that its credit card account information was reliable and mistake-free. It wasn’t simply a matter of errors in calculating how much was owed; in some cases the company even got the customer’s name wrong. Chase would sometimes pass accounts with errors — including instances where customers had been victims of credit card fraud, others who had tried to settle their debts and even some who had died — on to outside debt collectors, who might then take action based on that information. Once Chase won a victory in court, the bank could seek to garnish a customer’s wages or raid their bank accounts, and those customers would pay a further price: a stain on their credit report that could make it harder to “obtain credit, employment, housing, and insurance,” the CFPB wrote. Those sued by Chase, then and now, might spot errors if the company provided full records in its court filings, consumer advocates say. Instead, Chase typically submits copies of a few credit card statements along with a two-page affidavit attesting that the bank’s records were accurate and complete. Consumer advocates say they do not expect that the majority of Chase’s credit card records are tainted with errors. But if today’s error rate is the same 10% that the CFPB estimated in the past and the Chase lawsuit push continues, thousands of customers may be sued for money they don’t owe. And there is no easy way to check when Chase keeps so many of its records out of sight. Chase said that its current system for processing credit card lawsuits is sound and reliable. “We quality-check 100% of our affidavits today,” the company said in a statement. Credit card customers do not respond to collections lawsuits in roughly 70% of cases, according to research from The Pew Charitable Trusts. In those instances, the customer typically loses by default. In the small percentage of cases where a customer gets a lawyer or otherwise fights back, Chase still has the advantage because it can access all of the customer’s account records easily, according to consumer lawyers. (The bank typically closes accounts of customers who have failed to pay their debts, leaving them unable to access their records online.) Chase usually shares the complete credit card account file only after a legal fight, according to attorneys and pleadings from across the country. “Chase has all the evidence and we have to beg to get it,” said Jerry Jarzombek, a consumer-rights attorney in Fort Worth, Texas, who is defending several Chase customers. The result leaves many defendants in a bind: They don’t have enough information to know whether they should dispute the company’s claims. “Chase wants us to believe its records are reliable so we don’t need to see them,” Jarzombek said. “Well, I’m sorry. I’ve dealt with Chase for decades. I’d prefer to see what evidence they’ve actually got.” The robo-signing scandal exposed Chase’s affidavit-signing assembly line. Before the settlement, Chase had about a half-dozen employees churning through affidavits stacked a foot high or taller, according to the former Chase executive who brought the practices to light at the time. Kamala Harris, who was then California’s attorney general and is now vice president, likened the process to an affidavit mill. The current operation involves roughly a dozen “signing officers” working from the same San Antonio offices as before and performing many of the same tasks, according to Chase employees and outside lawyers who have represented the company. Chase used to prepare affidavits “in bulk using stock templates,” according to the 2015 CFPB findings. That is again happening today, according to two of Chase’s outside lawyers who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the process. The lawyers said they typically send their affidavit requests in batches. The requests already contain the basic details of the customer’s account when they arrive in Chase’s San Antonio office, they said. An affidavit request that is sent one day can typically be processed and returned the next business day, the lawyers said. Chase affidavits contain stock language that the “signing officer” has “personal knowledge of and access to [Chase’s] books and records.” That “personal knowledge” is limited, said one signing officer who declined to be named. Chase does not expect signing officers to perform a forensic review of an account but rather to follow computer prompts to complete the affidavit, said the employee. “We just work with what’s on the screen.” Chase declined to discuss its process for creating affidavits, but the bank said it satisfies the rules set by courts in the places where it operates. “Judges, clerks and other judiciary staff are well versed in the court rules and laws in their jurisdictions,” said the statement by the bank’s spokesperson, Kelly. “Through our counsel, we provide the information those parties require in matters before them.” Courts around the country have grown too accepting of what big banks and debt collectors say, according to consumer advocates. And the justice they dispense can feel as cursory and hurried as the suits that Chase files. In Texas a decade ago, lawmakers pushed most credit card cases into the state’s version of small claims courts, known as justice courts. The rules of evidence are more lax there and the judge might not even be a lawyer. A retired basketball player presides over one such courtroom in Houston. “One of these judges said to me: ‘What’s the point of seeing a bunch of evidence? We already know these people borrowed the money,’” said Jarzombek, the Fort Worth attorney. “I said: ‘Why even have a trial, then? Let the banks take whatever they want.’” In Houston, where Chase has more than 1,000 consumer credit suits on the docket, only one defendant in those cases has fought to a trial on her own, according to court records. That person’s experience is instructive. Like many, Melissa Razo struggled financially during the early pandemic. A former restaurant manager, the 42-year-old Razo had gone back to school, the University of Houston, to study psychology, and she supported herself by doing typing for an online transcription service. That work suddenly dried up when the pandemic hit, and Razo began missing credit card payments. Her debt escalated. Chase sued her in January 2021, claiming she owed a total of about $8,500 on two credit cards. Razo had a previous court experience stemming from an acrimonious divorce, where she had learned that a plaintiff needs facts and evidence to win. “Nothing I presented was good enough,” she recalled of the divorce case. Using what she’d learned, Razo prepared for her day in court against Chase. She could not access her account anymore, she said, because the bank had shut it down. So in late June, as her hearing date approached, Razo pulled together as many of her credit card statements as she could find. They told a story of grocery runs and shopping at Target and Goodwill, along with missed payments and penalties. Razo presumed Chase would have to back up its claims just as she had been expected to do in divorce court. She expected the company’s lawyers would have five years of statements and documents to show that she owed exactly what they said she owed. This was a trial, after all. The trial lasted perhaps a minute, according to Razo. It boiled down to two questions. Was Razo present? the judge asked over Zoom. When she announced herself, the judge asked if she had a Chase credit card. Yes, Razo said, that was true. Then, she said, the judge ruled in favor of Chase. Chase declined to comment on the case. The judge was not authorized to speak about the matter, according to a court clerk. And the justice courts do not transcribe their hearings, so ProPublica could not verify what was said. (The court’s docket did confirm that a judgment was entered in Chase’s favor after a judge trial.) Razo’s courtroom experience, though, sounds typical, according to Rich Tomlinson, a lawyer with Lone Star Legal Aid. “I can’t recall ever seeing a live witness in a debt case,” said Tomlinson, who has represented hundreds of debtors in his career. “These trials are not like Perry Mason. They’re not even Judge Judy.” Do You Have a Tip for ProPublica? Help Us Do Journalism.
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[l] at 1/4/22 6:00am
by Craig Silverman, ProPublica, Craig Timberg, The Washington Post, Jeff Kao, ProPublica, and Jeremy B. Merrill, The Washington Post ] ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. This story was co-published with The Washington Post. Facebook groups swelled with at least 650,000 posts attacking the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory between Election Day and the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol, with many calling for executions or other political violence, an investigation by ProPublica and The Washington Post has found. The barrage — averaging at least 10,000 posts a day, a scale not reported previously — turned the groups into incubators for the baseless claims supporters of then-President Donald Trump voiced as they stormed the Capitol, demanding he get a second term. Many posts portrayed Biden’s election as the result of widespread fraud that required extraordinary action — including the use of force — to prevent the nation from falling into the hands of traitors. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. “LOOKS LIKE CIVIL WAR is BECOMING INEVITABLE !!!” read a post a month before the Capitol assault. “WE CANNOT ALLOW FRAUDULENT ELECTIONS TO STAND ! SILENT NO MORE MAJORITY MUST RISE UP NOW AND DEMAND BATTLEGROUND STATES NOT TO CERTIFY FRAUDULENT ELECTIONS NOW !” Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Another post, made 10 days after the election, bore the avatar of a smiling woman with her arms raised in apparent triumph and read, “WE ARE AMERICANS!!! WE FOUGHT AND DIED TO START OUR COUNTRY! WE ARE GOING TO FIGHT...FIGHT LIKE HELL. WE WILL SAVE HER❤ THEN WERE GOING TO SHOOT THE TRAITORS!!!!!!!!!!!” Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. One post showed a Civil War-era picture of a gallows with more than two dozen nooses and hooded figures waiting to be hanged. Other posts called for arrests and executions of specific public figures — both Democrats and Republicans — depicted as betraying the nation by denying Trump a second term. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. “BILL BARR WE WILL BE COMING FOR YOU,” wrote a group member after Barr announced the Justice Department had found little evidence to support Trump’s claims of widespread vote rigging. “WE WILL HAVE CIVIL WAR IN THE STREETS BEFORE BIDEN WILL BE PRES.” Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Facebook executives have downplayed the company’s role in the Jan. 6 attack and have resisted calls, including from its own Oversight Board, for a comprehensive internal investigation. The company also has yet to turn over all the information requested by the congressional committee studying the Jan. 6 attack. Facebook said it is continuing to negotiate with the committee. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. The ProPublica/Post investigation, which analyzed millions of posts between Election Day and Jan. 6 and drew on internal company documents and interviews with former employees, provides the clearest evidence yet that Facebook played a critical role in the spread of false narratives that fomented the violence of Jan. 6. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Its efforts to police such content, the investigation also found, were ineffective and started too late to quell the surge of angry, hateful misinformation coursing through Facebook groups — some of it explicitly calling for violent confrontation with government officials, a theme that foreshadowed the storming of the Capitol that day amid clashes that left five people dead. (A re-creation of a Facebook post based on archival screenshots obtained by ProPublica and The Washington Post) Drew Pusateri, a spokesperson for Meta, Facebook’s newly renamed parent company, said that it was not responsible for the violence on Jan. 6. He pointed instead to Trump and others who voiced the lies that sparked the siege on the Capitol. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. “The notion that the January 6 insurrection would not have happened but for Facebook is absurd,” Pusateri said. “The former President of the United States pushed a narrative that the election was stolen, including in-person a short distance from the Capitol building that day. The responsibility for the violence that occurred on January 6 lies with those who attacked our Capitol and those who encouraged them.” Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. To determine the extent of posts attacking Biden’s victory, The Post and ProPublica obtained a unique dataset of 100,000 groups and their posts, along with metadata and images, compiled by CounterAction, a firm that studies online disinformation. The Post and ProPublica used machine learning to narrow that list to 27,000 public groups that showed clear markers of focusing on U.S. politics. Out of the more than 18 million posts in those groups between Election Day and Jan. 6, the analysis searched for words and phrases to identify attacks on the election’s integrity. The more than 650,000 posts attacking the election — and the 10,000-per-day average — is almost certainly an undercount. The ProPublica/Washington Post analysis only examined posts in a portion of all public groups, and did not include comments, posts in private groups or posts on individuals’ profiles. Only Facebook has access to all the data to calculate the true total — and it hasn’t done so publicly. Facebook has heavily promoted groups since CEO Mark Zuckerberg made them a strategic priority in 2017. But the ones focused on U.S. politics have become so toxic, say former Facebook employees, that the company established a task force, whose existence has not been previously reported, specifically to police them ahead of Election Day 2020. The task force removed hundreds of groups with violent or hateful content in the months before Nov. 3, according to the ProPublica/Post investigation. Yet shortly after the vote, Facebook dissolved the task force and rolled back other intensive enforcement measures. The results of that decision were clear in the data ProPublica and The Post examined: During the nine increasingly tense weeks that led up to Jan. 6, the groups were inundated with posts attacking the legitimacy of Biden’s election while the pace of removals noticeably slowed. Removals did not pick up again until the week of Jan. 6, but even then many of the groups and their posts remained on the site for months after, as Trump supporters continued to falsely claim election fraud and press for states to conduct audits of the vote or to impose new voting restrictions. Fewer Political Groups Were Removed From Facebook Between Election Day and Jan. 6 Removal dates for about 2,000 public U.S. political groups between August 2020 and March 2021 Note: Political Facebook groups were identified out of a sample of roughly 100,000. Removal dates for each group are estimates. Only groups with 10 or more posts are shown. Source: A ProPublica-Washington Post analysis of public Facebook group data collected by CounterAction. (Chris Alcantara and Kate Rabinowitz/The Washington Post) “Facebook took its eye off the ball in the interim time between Election Day and Jan. 6,” said a former integrity team employee who worked on the groups task force and, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters. “There was a lot of violating content that did appear on the platform that wouldn’t otherwise have.” Pusateri denied that the company had pulled back on efforts to combat violent and false postings about the election after the vote. He did not comment on the quantitative findings of the ProPublica/Post investigation. “The idea that we deprioritized our Civic Integrity work in any way is simply not true,” he said. “We integrated it into a larger Central Integrity team to allow us to apply the work that this team pioneered for elections to other challenges like health-related issues for example. Their work continues to this day.” The investigation also reveals a problem with the way Facebook polices its groups. Former employees say groups are essential to the company’s ability to keep a stagnant American user base as engaged as possible and boost its revenue, which reached nearly $86 billion in 2020. But they say as groups have grown more central to Meta’s bottom line, the company’s enforcement efforts have been weak, inconsistent and heavily reliant on the work of unpaid group administrators to do the labor-intensive work of reviewing posts and removing the ones that violate company policies. Many groups have hundreds of thousands or even millions of members, dramatically escalating the challenges of policing posts. With the administrators themselves steeped in conspiracy theories about the election or, for example, the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, reliable enforcement rarely takes place, say former employees. They say automated tools — which search for particular terms indicating policy violations — are ineffective and easily evaded by users simply misspelling key words. (A re-creation of a Facebook post based on archival screenshots obtained by ProPublica and The Washington Post) “Groups are a disaster,” said Frances Haugen, a former member of Facebook’s Civic Integrity team who filed a whistleblower complaint against the company and testified before Congress warning about the damaging effects of the company on democracy worldwide, as well as other problems. Many of the group posts identified in the analysis fell into what a March internal Facebook report, first published by Politico, defined as “harmful non-violating narratives.” This refers to content that does not break Facebook’s rules, but whose prevalence can cause people to “act in ways which are harmful to themselves, others, or society at large.” The report warned that such harmful narratives could have had “substantial negative impacts including contributing materially to the Capitol riot and potentially reducing collective civic engagement and social cohesion in the years to come.” Pusateri declined to comment on specific posts but said the company does not have a policy forbidding posts or comments that attack the legitimacy of the election. He said the company has a dedicated groups integrity team and an ongoing initiative to protect people who use groups from harm. Facebook officials have noted that more extreme content flowed through smaller social media platforms in the buildup to the Capitol attack, including detailed planning on bringing guns or building gallows that day. But Trump also used Facebook as a key platform for his lies about the election right up until he was banned on Jan. 6. And Facebook’s reliance on groups to drive engagement gave those lies unequaled reach. This combined with the sag in post-election enforcement to make Facebook a key vector for pushing the ideas that fueled violence on Jan. 6. Critics and former employees say this also underscores a recurring issue with the platform since its founding in Zuckerberg’s Harvard University dorm room in 2004: The company recognizes the need for enforcement only after a problem has caused serious damage, often in the form of real-world mayhem and violence. Facebook didn’t discover the campaign by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency to spread hyperpartisan content and disinformation during the 2016 presidential election until months after Americans had voted. The company’s actions were late as well when Myanmar’s military leaders used Facebook to foment rapes, murders and forced migrations of minority Rohingya people. Facebook has apologized for failings in both cases. The response to attacks on the legitimacy of the 2020 U.S. presidential election was similarly slow, as company officials debated among themselves whether and how to block the rapidly metastasizing lies about the election. The data shows they acted aggressively and comprehensively only after Trump supporters had battered their way into the Capitol, sending lawmakers fleeing for their lives. (A re-creation of a Facebook post based on archival screenshots obtained by ProPublica and The Washington Post) The ProPublica/Post investigation “is a new and very important illustration of the company's unfortunate tendency to deal with safety problems on its platform in a reactive way,” said Paul Barrett, the deputy director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University's Stern School of Business. “And that almost by definition means that the company will be less effective, because it will not be looking out into the future and preventing problems before they happen.” The Trouble With Policing Groups Facebook’s newly vigorous enforcement actions the week of Jan. 6 — which resulted in Trump himself being banned from the platform — marked such a stark contrast from the company’s previous approach that some Trump supporters took to Facebook to complain about the reversal. “Facebook is Getting Real Brave and Vicious Now,” Jerry Smith, a retired police officer from Missouri who created and ran a group called United Conservatives for America, wrote the day after the Capitol attack. “They Are Removing Tons of Posts From My Groups!” In a recent interview at his home, Smith said he could not remember writing that message or which deletions prompted his response. He said he opposed political violence and posts that called for it. But he acknowledged it was difficult for him to remove such content as United Conservatives for America’s membership swelled to more than 11,000, with the number of posts surpassing what one person could monitor. The typical group in the ProPublica/Post analysis had more than 1,000 members. Smith, who showed a reporter that his Facebook account had received 116 violations for breaking company rules, said he found some of Facebook’s policies reasonable but disagreed on how they should be enforced. He posted in United Conservatives for America and other groups at a frenetic pace long before Election Day. As early as the summer of 2020, he warned about alleged Democratic party plans to steal the election and also shared false information about the pandemic, including a video from a conspiracy theorist about the origins of the virus. “And DEMS Are Pushing For Vote By Mail. Another Way For Them To Steal The Election,” he wrote in August 2020. In the interview, Smith said he believes that American elections often are rigged and worries that COVID-19 vaccines may be tainted. He has used Facebook groups to share these beliefs with tens of thousands of people — and thinks Facebook’s enforcement of its policies is overly aggressive and a result of political bias against conservatives. “Are you going to do away with their free speech?” said Smith. “If someone thinks it’s not a fair election … why can’t they have their opinion on whether it’s a fair election or not?” Facebook Cracked Down Before the Election Facebook’s problems with groups had long been obvious to company employees, who gathered on a remote video conference in early September 2020 to figure out how to stop groups from spreading hate, violent threats and misinformation as Election Day approached, according to former employees. Known as the Group Task Force, the new unit they formed consisted of members of Facebook’s Civic Integrity team, the specialized unit charged with protecting elections on the platform, as well as employees from engineering and operations teams who help oversee the contract moderators who review posts flagged by users or by automated systems, former employees said. The goal of the task force was to identify political groups with large numbers of posts and comments that violated the social giant’s rules against hate speech and calls for violence. Former employees involved in the effort said they wanted to apply the platform’s rules while respecting political debate and dialogue. At the same time, Facebook’s Dangerous Individuals and Organizations team was identifying and removing QAnon groups ahead of the election. The results of the two teams’ actions were striking. All of the more than 300 QAnon groups identified by ProPublica and The Post had been removed by October 2020, when Facebook announced a total ban on the movement, the analysis found. Facebook Can Be Effective When It Chooses The number of U.S. QAnon groups on Facebook increased in 2020, before the company cracked down Note: QAnon-related Facebook groups were identified out of a sample of roughly 100,000. Only groups with 10 or more posts are shown. Source: A ProPublica-Washington Post analysis of public Facebook group data collected by CounterAction. (Chris Alcantara and Kate Rabinowitz/The Washington Post) In the end, the Group Task Force removed nearly 400 groups whose posts had been seen nearly 1 billion times before Election Day, according to a post on Workplace, Facebook’s internal discussion tool. The document later was included in the Facebook Papers disclosed by Haugen to Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Still, members of the task force told ProPublica and The Post that the existence of such a team was an indictment of Facebook’s failure to police groups as part of its normal operations. “The whole thing of the civic team needing to come in and do the takedowns was not a good state of affairs,” said one employee involved in the task force. “You could make a good argument that this should have already been done.” On Nov. 5, Facebook banned “Stop the Steal,” a hugely viral group created on Election Day itself that quickly attracted over 300,000 members around a message rooted in attacking the legitimacy of the election. The company cited the prevalence of posts calling for violence and using hate speech in banning the group and all other groups using a similar name. The next day, Nov. 6, the Group Task Force gathered virtually to celebrate its efforts, former employees said. Days later, a task force member published a Workplace post titled “Some Reflections on US2020” to bring attention to its work. “Along with heroic efforts from other teams across the company, I truly believe the Group Task Force made the election safer and prevented possible instances of real world violence,” said the post. But the focus on U.S. political groups and content undermining the election wouldn't last. A Noticeable Drop in Enforcement On Dec. 2, Facebook executives disbanded the Civic Integrity team and scattered its members to other parts of Facebook’s overall integrity team, reducing their influence. That resulted in the demise of the Group Task Force. The company also rolled back several emergency measures that had been put in place leading up to Election Day to control misbehavior in Facebook groups. The Post/ProPublica investigation reveals the result: During the lull in enforcement, hundreds of thousands of posts questioned the legitimacy of Biden’s victory, spread lies about voter fraud and at times called for violence. Meanwhile, the company’s pace of group removals slowed to a crawl, the data analysis shows. (A re-creation of a Facebook post based on archival screenshots obtained by ProPublica and The Washington Post) Among the content spreading in groups were videos in which former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn spread false claims of electoral fraud and called for martial law. (Through a spokesperson, Flynn declined to comment.) Another frequent post was a cartoon showing Trump chasing a masked Biden, who carried a bag labeled “election theft” with swing states depicted inside. It was posted more than 350 times in the political groups analyzed by ProPublica and the Post, attracting over 2,500 total likes. One meme featured a photo of former Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who rose to fame in right-wing circles by leading a congressional committee’s investigation into the deadly 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, accompanied by the text “If you are ok with rigging an election to win, I am ok with martial law to stop you…” That was posted in groups at least 97 times, garnering over 3,500 total likes. Gowdy has denied saying the phrase. Another meme showed a photo of Trump winking, with the text “Not Only Can Martial Law Guarantee a Trump Victory, It Also Allows Trump To Arrest Anyone He Wants!” It was posted at least 70 times, generating more than 2,400 total likes. The images and their spread in groups was identified using a CounterAction image analysis tool. “Everyone needs to make a show of FORCE in DC on the 6th and any congress who doesnt follow the constitution or who doesnt stand up for our president (Pence included) needs to be ’corrected’ by WE the PEOPLE - on the front steps of the state house - for all the world to see!!! THIS IS HOW THE US DEALS WITH HER TRAITORS!!!” read one post from Dec. 27, 2020. Ten days later, as rioters stormed the Capitol, the ProPublica/Post analysis shows, Facebook began taking down groups at a rate not seen since before the election. An internal Facebook spreadsheet from Jan. 6, which was included in Haugen’s disclosures, contains a section called “Action Items.” The top bullet point was a direction to conduct a “Sweep of Groups with V&I risk” — a term referring to violence and incitement. It had been 35 days since the Civic Integrity team, and with it the Group Task Force, had been disbanded. Groups Still Active Long After Jan. 6 Months after the Capitol was breached, Facebook still was working to remove hundreds of political groups that violated company policies. One of those was Smith’s United Conservatives for America, which continued to carry posts attacking the legitimacy of Biden’s election until Facebook removed it in May. When Smith met with a reporter in his home in early December, he’d just finished a 30-day posting ban on Facebook. In spite of his account’s history of violations, he was still managing at least one Facebook group — also called United Conservatives for America. Like its predecessor, the new United Conservatives for America group was racking up strikes for violations of Facebook’s rules, according to a post Smith made to the group in September. That post included a screenshot of an automated message from Facebook informing him that eight recent posts in the new United Conservatives for America group had been flagged by fact-checkers. As a result, the distribution of his group’s posts was being limited. Smith remained defiant. “I'm Not Blaming Our Members,” Smith wrote. “I’m Blaming FakeBook!” In late December, after being asked about Smith’s account and group, Facebook said it banned his profile and removed United Conservatives for America, citing unspecified violations of its community standards. Methodology Data analyzed for this article included posts and other public activity collected from over 100,000 public Facebook groups tracked between January 2020 and June 2021 by CounterAction, a firm that studies online disinformation. The data was obtained by ProPublica and The Washington Post. CounterAction marked Facebook groups for tracking if group members had posted links to U.S. political websites. Additional Facebook groups were then marked for monitoring if they had any members in common with groups already under observation. This process was repeated over the tracking period to identify newly created groups and add them to the dataset. Many of these groups disappeared from public view during the period of our analysis. To determine when groups focused on U.S. politics within our dataset went offline, we analyzed the more than 5,000 groups that had meaningful activity (more than 10 posts tracked) but that were no longer online as of Aug. 30, 2021. We hand labeled each group as political if its name and description showed that it was created to represent or support a U.S. political interest or group, to be a forum for U.S. political speech, or to represent or discuss a social or cultural movement with a strong connection to U.S. politics (whether national or local). We ultimately found more than 2,500 such groups, including those for and against various parties, candidates and issues across the political spectrum, groups for various kinds of political memes and discussions, and groups for movements such as the QAnon conspiracy theory, militia groups and Stop the Steal. We then estimated the time of disappearance for each of these 2,500+ offline U.S. political groups using the latest date seen on their posts and other group activity. Based on our reporting and the timing of spikes in group disappearances, which often coincided with Facebook’s announcements of group suspensions, we believe the majority of them were removed by Facebook. However, some may have been deleted or removed from public view by their own administrators. We shared the list of more than 2,500 groups with Facebook and asked them to clarify whether they were removed by the company or taken offline by their own administrators. Facebook did not respond to our questions about these groups or any other of our quantitative findings. We used these labeled offline groups to predict which of the still-online groups within our sample were also U.S. political groups. We used posts from the offline groups to train a text classification model to predict whether a post was from a U.S. political group and ran it against all the posts from each group in our dataset. We labeled a group as a likely U.S. political Facebook group when the mean prediction for its posts was over 0.5 (1.0 indicates that the model predicts with maximum probability that the post is from a U.S. political group). We used this labeling method to identify over 27,000 likely U.S. political groups with posts between Election Day and Jan. 6. We hand checked a sample of the groups to calculate an estimated proportion of groups that were actually U.S. political groups, and got a precision rate of about 79%. To count the number of posts that specifically sought to delegitimize the election results, we examined 18.7 million posts from Election Day through Jan. 6 within the likely U.S. political Facebook groups. We separated out posts from groups with “Stop the Steal” in their name and calculated which keywords and phrases were disproportionately common in posts from those groups using a text-analysis technique called TF-IDF. Then, we handpicked the terms and keywords that were meaningfully linked to election delegitimization theories (e.g., “stop the steal,” “steal the election,” “every legal vote”). We had about 60 terms that indicated delegitimization on their own, plus 86 more in two buckets that, if terms from both buckets were present, indicated delegitimization (e.g., a reference to absentee ballots on its own did not indicate delegitimization, but a reference to “absentee ballots” and “fraud” did). We identified around 1.03 million posts that likely referenced delegitimization. Finally, we hand-checked a sample of these posts to estimate the proportion that actually sought to delegitimize the election, and got a precision rate of about 64%. (False positives included mainstream news articles, debunks of fraud claims and references to other countries’ elections.) We arrived at our final estimate of delegitimizing posts by multiplying the two together, to get an estimate of a bit more than 655,000. Due to CounterAction’s sampling method, the groups we analyzed likely contain a greater proportion of right-wing groups than the platform as a whole. The activity of the right-wing groups we analyzed matches with the findings of our reporting, and group activity in our sample coincided with Facebook’s public announcements about group removals. However, we would need additional outside data to analyze whether groups in our sample are representative of the broader platform. We sampled and checked precision rates in our analysis based on a 5% margin of error and 95% confidence level. Do You Have a Tip for ProPublica? Help Us Do Journalism. Tom Hamburger of The Washington Post contributed reporting. Irfan Uraizee of The Washington Post re-created the archival Facebook posts.
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by ProPublica ] ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. This article was co-published with FRONTLINE. Nearly a year after an angry mob swept through the U.S. Capitol, ProPublica, Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program and FRONTLINE will air an updated edition of the documentary “American Insurrection” on Tuesday. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. The feature-length film, which follows right-wing extremists in the days leading up to the Jan. 6 assault, originally aired in the spring of 2021. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Now, with investigations into the attack still ongoing, the updated documentary draws on fresh interviews with law enforcement sources, congressional leaders and extremism experts to reassess the day’s events and to look to the future. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. The new reporting tracks the migration of fringe beliefs into the mainstream and the enduring power of conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. At rallies around the country, correspondent A.C. Thompson found a growing movement intent on overturning the 2020 vote and altering the course of future elections. Watch the Updated “American Insurrection” The updated film showcases recently released footage of FBI agents interviewing Daniel Rodriguez, a California man accused of shocking a police officer with a stun gun during the battle for the Capitol, among other charges. “We felt that they stole the election,” Rodriguez said under questioning. “We felt that they stole this country — it’s gone. It’s wiped out. America’s over. It’s destroyed now.” Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Rodriguez has pleaded not guilty. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. In a new interview, Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn said the men and women who stormed the building believed they were acting on the orders of then-President Donald Trump — and told police as much while the melee was unfolding. “They were there because Donald Trump sent them — according to them,” he said. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. “My No. 1 thought was just to survive,” Dunn recalled. “We were fighting for our lives, fighting for democracy.” Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. In another new scene, Thompson asks Mary McCord for a status update on the militant groups implicated in the attack on the Capitol — the Proud Boys and militia organizations like the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers. “Within days, literally days, they started finger-pointing. Some dissolved. Some reconstituted themselves,” said McCord, who serves as legal counsel to the congressional committee investigating Jan. 6 and previously held a top counterterrorism role at the Department of Justice. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. However, noted McCord, who also leads a legal clinic at Georgetown University’s law school, the movement that sought to reverse the 2020 vote is by no means dead. She pointed to recent polling indicating that tens of millions of Americans continue to believe that the 2020 election was plagued by widespread fraud as well as the vast amount of disinformation already circulating online about the next round of elections, in 2022. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. The updated “American Insurrection” premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. EST, 9 p.m. CST, on PBS stations (check your local listings) and will be available to stream on FRONTLINE’s website, YouTube and the PBS Video App. Join ProPublica for a live virtual event on the one-year anniversary of Jan. 6 to discuss what the attack on the capitol could mean for the 2022 election cycle.
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by Elizabeth Weil, ProPublica, photography by Meridith Kohut for The New York Times Magazine ] ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. This story was co-published with The New York Times Magazine and is not subject to our Creative Commons license. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Early in my two-writer marriage, my husband and I joked that we should add a silent third spouse who worked in venture capital or practiced corporate law. But really, we already had a bonus partner: California. The state was dramatic and a handful. But she was gorgeous, and she brought into our lives, through the natural world, all the treasure and magic we’d need. The beaches. The mountains. The clean waves at Malibu. The seal pups at Año Nuevo State Park. This was not just our relationship to California; this was everyone here. The implicit bargain was that California would protect and deliver to her residents the earth’s own splendor. In return, we’d spend a stupid amount of money on housing and tolerate a few hazards. We stowed an earthquake kit in the basement of our tiny house and, even prepandemic, cached boxes of N95 masks under the sink. Why live anywhere else? My human spouse hung photos of El Capitan in the entrance hall. We propped a bright red surfboard against the living-room wall. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. In hindsight, it’s clear that this romance between California and her citizens was fundamentally unstable, built on a lousy foundation and crumbling for years. But when you’re enmeshed, even the troublesome patterns are hard to see. All Californians tell their stories. Ours, courtesy of privilege (race, education, a house purchased in the 1990s), are mundane. Police escorted us over flaming hills as we tried to return home from backpacking trips. I woke up to texts from friends: HAVE YOU HEARD FROM YOUR PARENTS? ARE YOUR PARENTS OK? after their neighborhood in Napa burned. My parents — thank God — were already with me. Pacific Gas and Electric, California’s largest utility, started turning off power to millions of residents in an attempt not to ignite (more of) the state. We all knew these so-called public-safety power shut-offs were an appalling sign of a diseased empire. You couldn’t just abandon basic functions and duties, could you? But it turns out you can. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. The dominant story in California these days is that the orange, dystopian smoke-filled sky that blanketed the state on Sept. 9, 2020, was proof that our beloved was corrupted and had been for some time. We were in the midst of the worst wildfire season in the state’s history, and the evident wrongness traumatized us and shook us awake. Living in California now meant accepting that fire was no longer an episodic hazard, like earthquakes. Wildfire was a constant, with us everywhere, every day, all year long, like tinnitus or regret. The dry spring was bad; the dry summer, worse; the dry fall, unbearable. Even a wet winter (if we caught a break from the drought) offered little reprieve. All thoughts, all phenomena, existed relative to fire. Where we are now — January, the fresh and less fire-alarming time of year — should be the moment for us to relax and reassess what we’re doing in California and how to live here well. Yet the rains turn the burn scars into mudslides and allow the next season’s flora, what the foresters call fuel, to grow. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Billboards beckon us to Miami. Fantasy communes blossom in Maine. For those of us committed to sticking it out, our relationship task is making peace with smoke. (I should say this exercise is not for everyone. A recent study found that a month of medium-to-heavy wildfire smoke — what much of California experienced over the last few years — increases the risk of preterm birth by 20%. As one of the study’s authors told me, “Wildfire is literally making it unsafe to be pregnant in California.”) One afternoon in August I lay on the deck of my friend Kevin’s cabin not far from Mono Lake, in the eastern Sierra Nevada, and told myself that I could love, in some deeply-flawed-but-beautiful kintsugi way, the ash-paste air. Kevin’s cabin is perfect — was perfect. Out in the sagebrush, off a dirt road, next to an aspen-lined creek in the high desert, the cabin has everything and nothing: no electricity, no running water. Just one 10-foot-by-12-foot room with a sliding-glass door onto the epic mountain sky. Each summer — often several times a summer — my family drove over Tioga Pass, crossed the cattle guard up into Lundy Canyon, stripped on the rock beside the swimming hole, plunged into the snowmelt and emerged, elated and cleansed. The light shimmered off the aspen leaves like God’s own disco ball. We felt rich every time we arrived. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. This year, after I jumped in, I told myself I still felt renewed despite the smoke. That was a lie. The next day we hiked up into Twenty Lakes Basin, where you could cliff-dive and bathe in glacial melt. The world here, too, did not feel OK. The meadows looked dull green from drought and ash. This was not the California I first married, but to be honest, I’m not the same person, either. Time is a beast. Did choosing to stay here mean a life defined by worry, vigilance and loss? Ron Pemberton walks through thick smoke as a fast-moving fire burns toward his home in Madera County, California, on Sept. 19, 2021. As soon as he saw the fire, he ran with his shovel to start digging a fire break. Aching and eager to escape my own boring loop of depressive thoughts, I met with Alex Steffen, a climate futurist, on the back patio of a bar in Berkeley. Steffen, a 53-year-old mountain of a man with a crystal-ball-bald pate, hosts a podcast and publishes a newsletter called “The Snap Forward.” The idea behind both is that the climate crisis has caused us to get lost in time and space; we need to dig ourselves out of nostalgia and face the world as it exists. As he explained to me in his confident baritone, yes, California, and the world, are in bad shape. But the situation is not as devoid of hope as we believe. “We have this idea that the world is either normal and in continuity with what we’ve expected, or it’s the apocalypse, it’s the end of everything — and neither are true,” he said. That orange sky in 2020? “We’re all like, Wow, the sky is apocalyptic! But it’s not apocalyptic. If you can wake up and go to work in the morning, you’re not in an apocalypse, right?” Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. The more accurate assessment, according to Steffen, is that we’re “trans-apocalyptic.” We’re in the middle of an ongoing crisis, or really a linked series of crises, and we need to learn to be “native to now.” Our lives are going to become — or, really, they already are (the desire to keep talking about the present as the future is intense) — defined by “constant engagement with ecological realities,” floods, dry wells, fires. And there’s no opting out. What does that even mean? Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. We’re living through a discontinuity. This is Steffen’s core point. “Discontinuity is a moment where the experience and expertise you’ve built up over time cease to work,” he said. “It is extremely stressful, emotionally, to go through a process of understanding the world as we thought it was, is no longer there.” No kidding. “There’s real grief and loss. There’s the shock that comes with recognizing that you are unprepared for what has already happened.” Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. I found Steffen’s sweeping, dark pronouncements comforting. He at least had language and a functional metaphor to describe what was going on. Most of us have dragged our feet and deluded ourselves for too long about the state of the world. While we remain stuck, our world pulled away from our understanding of it. We’ve now fallen into a gap in our apprehension of reality. We need to acknowledge this, size up the rupture, then hurl ourselves over the breach. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. As we sat there, the bar’s concrete patio filled up with young, busy people and their laptops, their gatherings part of an endless stream of work meetings displaced by the pandemic, individuals trying to make the shapes of their lives as “normal” as possible — the whole premise of which, Steffen argued, was a mistake. The mind-set locks us into defining ourselves as the trapped inhabitants of someone else’s broken world. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Relinquishing the idea of normal will require strength, levelheadedness, optimism and bravery, the grit to keep clinging to some thin vine of hope as we swing out of the wreckage toward some solid ground that we cannot yet see. “We’re no longer dealing with a fire regime in the woods that responds to the kinds of mild prevention and mild responses, the sensible responses we have thought about, and that thought alone is a crisis,” Steffen said. “It means the lives we had we no longer have.” Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Thick smoke hangs over Madera County on Sept. 19, 2021. How did our fire problem get to this point? (Californians: To live here these days means either knowing all this or refusing to learn. So the primer below will either be a review or something you’ll have a strong urge to skip, but shouldn’t.) One, California has a Mediterranean climate. Much of its landscape evolved with fire as a natural part of the cycle. Which is to say, it needs to burn. Two, colonizers stole the land from Indigenous Californians, who knew how to live well with the ecology and burned vegetation at specific times of the year in part to maintain the health of the landscape and keep themselves safe. Then settlers, with government help, killed native Californians. Now very few people continue those Indigenous practices, and we have not returned land to the tribes. “I truly know almost everybody who has a cultural knowledge of fire, and I could probably count them, including myself, on my two hands,” Don Hankins, a Plains Miwok geography and planning professor at California State University, Chico, told me. This was the same conversation in which he noted that places near him that haven’t burned are just waiting. “In Butte County, we talk about the three remaining green ridges: the ridge I live on, the ridge to the north of me and the one just north of that. Those are the last three places where fire hasn’t been.” Three, the United States Forest Service grew up between World War I and World War II and has since engaged in a forever war with fire. The war analogy is not a stretch. In 1947, Smokey Bear started exhorting citizens, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” sounding remarkably like Uncle Sam recruiting YOU to fight for the United States Army. The USFS owns more than half of forested California. (The state owns about 3%.) For the last 116 years, the agency has practiced an exuberant form of fire suppression, in part because it’s mandated to protect the nation’s forests and rangelands for multiple, sometimes conflicting uses: recreation, watershed health, propping up rural economies. A result is that California’s forests are now stuffed like a hoarder’s garage, with 300 to 400 trees per acre. Pre-USFS, the number was 30 to 70. You can think of the excess biomass as a huge fire debt. That debt will be paid off, willingly or not. Those three factors lay the basic groundwork. The dangers continued compounding from there. We logged; and then, especially in far Northern California, we mostly stopped logging to protect the spotted owl and other endangered species. This meant that we removed the biggest, most valuable, most fire-resistant trees, old-growth nobles that take centuries to regrow, and left behind whole middle schools of plantation-style stands. These stands tend to burn hotter and send flames up into the canopy. Canopy fire is generally bad. Good fire creeps along the forest floor, clearing out fuel on the ground. At the same time, California’s population exploded: to 39.5 million in 2020 from 3.5 million in 1920. The state also created a gothic regulatory framework that made most urban and suburban housing outrageously expensive, difficult and slow to build. So, people moved deeper into the WUI, or wildland-urban interface — the areas where the human-built landscape bumps up against the natural world — often seeking affordable homes. Now Californians are out there, everywhere, nestled among the fuel. David Callnon surveys the remains of his family’s cabin in Twin Bridges, California, on Sept. 21, 2021, when officials allowed property owners to return to the area after the Caldor fire. The accelerant on this pyre: We’ve spewed, and keep spewing, carbon dioxide and methane into the sky, trapping heat on our planet, making California hotter and drier. The core problem is known as the “vapor-pressure deficit.” There’s not enough moisture in the air. Hot, dry air means hot, dry fuels; hot, dry fuels mean wildfire. Preventing ignitions now takes drastic measures. The culpability of PG&E is hard to fathom. As the planet warmed and the company paid bonuses to executives and dividends to shareholders, it allowed vital equipment to fall into disrepair. Power lines blew down in high winds, setting off fires through huge swaths of the state. This keeps happening. As of this writing, PG&E has pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter. It owes more than $24 billion in damages. The company, finally, has plans to put 10,000 miles of power lines underground — a nice start that will take years. Humans, meanwhile, continue to be careless and set the world aflame. Firecrackers, cars throwing sparks, a rancher hammering a metal stake into a wasps’ nest, expectant parents igniting pyrotechnic devices at gender-reveal parties. “Don’t smoke cigarettes on your hike in the dry grass hills!” one exasperated fire scientist told me. “That’s why we closed state parks.” A result of all this? More fires, with more severity. The acreage itself isn’t bad. We have a backlog that needs to burn; might as well get to it. But the critical dryness along with the pileup of fuels makes many wildfires grow too big, too hot, too fast. This wipes out huge tracts of trees, kills sequoias that are thousands of years old and makes many wildfires impossible to fight. The threat is not just in the woods. California is 33% forest, 7% grassland and 8% chaparral (bushes and shrubs). Those grasses and shrubs are “flashier,” meaning they burn easier and faster. This brings fire into communities, and once fire is in a community, the houses are the fuel. Worst of all (I’m only sort of kidding), plants grow back. This makes “fuels management” a maintenance problem, a Sisyphean chore. We can’t just balance the fire debt and call ourselves good. If we do, we’ll be right back in jeopardy soon. None of this is a surprise. Fire professionals have known for decades that every step of this 18-dimensional disaster was coming. In 2014, the quadrennial review by the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service laid out four scenarios for how the fire landscape might look in a decade or so. Two of the scenarios are “high impact” — bad. They sound far too familiar. Scenario No. 1 — Hot, Dry and Out of Control: Year-round, higher-intensity and more destructive fire spreading into communities that have not seen wildfire in 100 years. “Fire behavior is now so extreme that, because of safety concerns, the community is limited in terms of what fires it can suppress with ground forces alone.” Scenario No. 2 — Suppression-Centric: Forests are more flammable than ever. Thirty percent of the United States population is affected by smoke. This is “driving considerable disillusionment from air-quality concerns and lifestyle disruptions. ... The country is a tinderbox and conditions are continuing to deteriorate.” In 2015, the Forest Service’s “Futuring Fire Policy” memo sounded the same. We’re headed for more cataclysmic wildfires. Suppressing fire now just delays the catastrophe. When I called around to fire experts this fall for an update on the situation, the response was grim. People started talking to me about zombie towns in the Sierra Nevada foothills — towns almost guaranteed to incinerate. The darkest statements came from the most knowledgeable people. “I do think that we’re going to have significant community destruction,” one retired senior official told me. “We are going to be playing just a completely defensive game. I don’t know that we will ever get ahead of it until we have so much destruction that we kind of eliminated the problem.” Eliminated the problem. Whole towns burned off the map. I asked Zeke Lunder, the best wildfire analyst that I knew, who should be worried. He rejected the whole premise of the question. Worried? Ha. We’ve passed that stage. We exist in a world of knowing that not everywhere nor everyone will be spared. “We need to accept that there’s going to be a fire,” he said. “It’s going to burn the whole town down. When that happens, let’s have identified a pot of money to buy these 5,000 lots that are in the worst places and we know are never going to be safe. So, let’s buy them and rebuild in a footprint that’s defensible.” I asked if he knew of any towns doing that. He said no. Being a climate futurist is a strange gig. You’re not the practitioner; you’re the rhetorical wizard. Lord knows we need smart people like Steffen to inspire ideas that will help us escape our deadly status quo. But until the transcendent creative geniuses arrive, we also need to work with what exists, even if we know it’s not enough. That means addressing our wildfire problem with what’s dully and bureaucratically known as “forest management.” Forest management is a catchall phrase for a Swiss Army knife of large-format landscaping tools. Relevant to mitigating wildfire risk, those include prescribed fire (burning on purpose, when conditions are favorable, to pay down the fire debt); mechanical thinning (pruning at vast scale); and cutting fuel breaks (creating wide belts of land with few fuels, so fire can’t run across). Increasingly this means partnering with tribes, who have been fighting to reclaim their traditions, as well as their lands. Toward these ends, the state of California is now investing a lot of money in forest management — $1.5 billion for wildfire and forest resilience over the last two years. Nonprofits are funding community projects. Locals are burning and thinning around towns themselves. The federal Build Back Better package included $14 billion, to be spread across the country over the coming decade, with $10 billion specifically for the wildland-urban interface. We’re talking about a lot of trees here. Tens of millions of acres of California are overloaded with fuels. A recent state-federal agreement aims to treat a million acres per year. But we’re never going to clear out the tree hoard through human effort alone. Fire crews stand guard in Johnsondale, California, as the Windy fire blazes nearby in the Sequoia National Forest on Sept. 19, 2021. This brings us to one other forest-management tool in the knife: “managed wildfire.” This one, however, does not always pair well with the other overabundant species out there in California: people. Managed wildfire (perhaps a bit of lexicological wishful thinking) means allowing wildfires to burn for what foresters call “resource benefit,” i.e., the health of the forest. There’s no scientific dispute that this is necessary and good. We’ve got an overstock of trees; we need to work with nature, not against it. But managing, as opposed to suppressing, wildfire sounds terrible to many voters because it requires residents to trade short-term harms (fear, smoke, potential loss of property) for a long-term good (lower risk in the future). If you accept the full scope of the dilemma, the bargain pencils out. But if you don’t acknowledge how dire California’s wildfire situation is, forget it. Managed wildfire is a political nightmare. Tensions between scientists and politicians erupted early in the 2021 fire season, when the Forest Service didn’t bring its full suppression efforts to fight the Tamarack fire. (Several other fires posed more imminent threats, and the Forest Service did not have the resources to fight all of them equally.) In July, that fire got out of control, destroyed 23 buildings and spawned a fire tornado near Markleeville, a tiny unincorporated town. The Forest Service responded by shutting down managed wildfire not just in drought-ridden California but throughout the United States for the rest of the year. Forty-one scientists wrote a letter to the Forest Service’s chief, Randy Moore, arguing that this would only make the wildfire problem worse, which of course he knew. Many of the signatories believed he was caving to political pressure from a local congressman, Tom McClintock, and the state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, who was then facing a recall. Condoning houses burning for resource benefit plays poorly in rural districts. A few weeks later, I stood at the Minaret Vista overlook, in Mammoth Lakes, staring down at hundreds of square miles of forested ravines with Stacy Corless. She used to be the executive director of a nonprofit, but in 2015 she became a Mono County supervisor and last year, the chairwoman of the Rural County Representatives of California. She knows the topography of state fire politics all too well. The town of Mammoth Lakes is “surrounded by national forest,” Corless told me. “Completely surrounded.” The landscape below us was a hiker’s paradise and a wonderland for flames. “The accusation is that people like me have made this quote political, but come on. There’s nothing political about life and death and loss of property and trying to deal with evacuations,” she said. “If you’re a scientist, or if your constituents are the trees, or whatever, yeah, that’s one thing. That’s your job to think of that first. But if it’s your job to think of people. ...” Granted, there’s the baseline problem that our propensity for extractive conquest — our history of ruining anything and everything in exchange for gold, oil, water, land, lumber, you name it — created the need to manage our forests and their fires at all. But this is politics in a discontinuity. You’re governing for the world you and your constituents wish you still lived in, a place you may even believe you still inhabit. But it’s gone. Aurora Mullett, an insurance agent, looks on at a home destroyed by the Caldor fire in the Grizzly Flats community of El Dorado County, California, on Sept. 28, 2021. The false sense of long-term stability in these communities is also propped up by what economists call a moral hazard: a situation in which individuals tolerate excessive risk because they know they won’t bear the full cost. Fire protection in the West is a free public good, paid mostly by the federal government, some by the states. Take that benefit away and ask residents and developers to pay for the firefighting they use? Californians would stop deciding to move to the WUI because it’s cheap. Counties would stop approving new developments for the property taxes. Aurora Mullett, an insurance agent in El Dorado County, drove me around the Sierra foothills in the black Mustang convertible she usually shares with her dog. “This is the stupidest [expletive] I’ve ever seen,” she said, waving at a newish subdivision. “This place catches on fire two or three times a year.” Magical thinking serves no one well on the fire front. Close to the still-smoldering burn scar from the Caldor fire, all the houses remained pink from retardant drops. Already, Mullett told me, the El Dorado County supervisors had discussed waiving the ordinances requiring locals to spend the extra money to rebuild to the current wildfire code, just as supervisors in Butte County did after the Camp fire destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018. (The El Dorado supervisors later changed their minds.) Mullett raised her kids up here in these woods. She loves to hike and fish just over the knoll in the Desolation Wilderness. But she has seen too much. She knows nothing we do is enough. She might run for insurance commissioner. Hedging her bets, she also bought some property on a lake in Tennessee. This is the moment in the story where you and I would both like me to introduce a majestic, mood-changing solution, a Gladwellian big idea. This is the best I’ve got: We need to stop thinking a dashing rescuer in a red slicker or yellow fire-resistant shirt should come save us from wildfire. We don’t fight hurricanes. We don’t fight tornadoes. No one assumes there will be an armed defense from an earthquake or a flood. Instead, we bolt our houses to our foundations. We raise our homes on stilts. Now we, Californians of the Anthropocene, need to grow up, take responsibility and stop expecting to be saved. Kimiko Barrett, who studies wildfire at Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit that aims to make “complex data understandable” so others can make better decisions around land use, helped snap this into focus for me one afternoon. We have, she said, “a home-ignition problem, more than a wildland-fire problem.” So simple, yet such a profound shift. Until we accept this, we’re going to remain deluded and stuck. This is the unsexy part of the marriage that involves the endless trips to Lowe’s. In practical terms, what we’re talking about here is home hardening (the preferred jargon for fireproofing your home from the outside). The details are about as thrilling as moving a stack of firewood farther away from your house. Homes ignite in two different ways: from the fire front (direct flames and heat) and from embers (chunks of burning stuff that blow in the wind). Hardening against embers is relatively easy: Install a fireproof roof; place screens over eaves; clear a “defensible space” (a perimeter with nothing flammable). These measures are also cheap. California spent about $4 billion fighting fires this year. A recent white paper, “A New Strategy for Addressing the Wildfire Epidemic in California,” suggests appropriating $1 billion to retrofit 100,000 homes every year. (Ideally this would target homes built before 2008, when the state began mandating the use of ignition-resistant materials on all new construction in high-fire risk zones.) If all houses in California built before 1995 had been retrofitted to 2012 standards, another 2021 paper found, the state would have saved $11 billion in losses from the 2017 and 2018 fire seasons alone. A U.S. Forest Service building in Johnsondale was wrapped in an aluminized material to protect it from the heat and embers of the nearby Windy fire on Sept. 19, 2021. Alexander Maranghides is a fire-protection engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology who has spent the last four years studying the material landscape that allowed Paradise to be destroyed. He’s a details guy. With him, all the emotional clothes-rending and finger-wagging around the climate crisis is gone. In their place: the thrill of facts. He explained that fire exploits weakness, just as water does. If you harden your home 90% of the way, and you’re in the path of a high-intensity wildfire stoked by fierce winds, “there’s going to be millions of embers,” and your house is going to burn. “You can harden your home for embers. You put a shed next to your house. An ember lands on your shed, ignites and burns your house,” Maranghides said, walking me through a PowerPoint. “You can do the same with your car. You harden your home for embers. You park your car next to your house. The ember ignites the car. The car burns the house down.” Then your house burns your neighbor’s house down too. Maranghides’ employer is the agency that in 1973 published the America Burning report. That report led to fire-resistant pajamas, a new fire code and the creation of the U.S. Fire Administration. Structure fires in the United States dropped 54% between 1977 and 2015. His goal is to do the same for wildfire. “I’m not saying this lightly — it’s not accusatory,” Maranghides said. “It’s not about forest fires. Forest fires will happen, and forest fires will burn out. But whether a forest fire turns into a devastation like Paradise or not has to do with how we build and live.” A look at the California 2022 wildfire budget suggests we have a lot of cognitive work to do. Of the $1.5 billion total, only $25 million is for home hardening. Then there’s the far more radical, DIY, save-yourself-from-wildfire move: choosing to stay and defend your own home. There’s an impeccable logic in the idea that if you’re going to eat meat, you should be willing to kill the animal yourself. Does it follow that if you’re going to live in a high fire-risk zone, you should be willing to stick around and snuff out embers with your own shovel or rake (or, as one man in Mendocino County used, a gallon of milk)? The impulse to defend yourself embodies a certain Western frontier ethos. Is this the kind of bravery required of us now? The Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Calfire, are “already admitting that they can’t do this on their own,” Amanda Stasiewicz, a social scientist at Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center at San Jose State University, said. “The next question is, Well, then how are we going to do this together? Because as much as long-term partnerships around fuels reduction are fantastic — getting PG&E infrastructure underground, reducing emissions, all that stuff, fantastic — people right now want to know what their options are to keep their lives safe if we continue to demonstrate that we can’t keep up with the pace and scale of the work that needs to be done.” Branden Silva pumps water from the American River to fill jugs for his family and neighbors on Sept. 21, 2021, in Twin Bridges, California. During the Caldor blaze, he put out spot fires for days, saving his home and several of his neighbors’. Californians, especially deep in the WUI, have many questions: Would it be safe for a bunch of us to shelter on a golf course? There’s an old mining shaft on my property — should we shelter down there? But thinking you want to stay and standing before a fire are two different things, like practicing Lamaze and childbirth. Many of the 173 people who died in the 2009 Black Saturday bush fires in Australia remained at their properties but then panicked and tried to flee when they heard the fires racing toward them. Shortly after the Caldor fire burned over the Sierra crest in late August — the second fire in history to do so; the first was a few weeks before — I drove up to Hayfork, a former-logging-now-cannabis-growing town in far Northern California that, like Mammoth Lakes, is surrounded by national forest. The country was then at what the National Interagency Fire Center blandly calls Preparedness Level 5, meaning red alert, all the country’s wildfire resources maxed out. In California alone, the Dixie fire, which eventually grew to almost a million acres, was then burning, along with the McFarland fire, the Antelope fire, the River Complex fire and the McCash fire. Hayfork sat under smoke from the Monument fire. At the Northern Delights cafe, a science teacher turned pot farmer walked in staring at his phone. A friend had just texted him a photo: hot-pink retardant had dropped over the friend’s cannabis crop. For the last 20 years the former teacher and his family have lived out in the Hayfork woods, across the road from a chunk of Forest Service land, which he described with remarkable good cheer as “a frightening display of fuel management.” He and his wife have a deal: If they can see flames from the house, she leaves with the kids. He stays behind. Their relationship with fire is as intimate as it gets. Sometimes they turn out their lights to sleep and their bedroom glows. In early September, I drove to Tahoe. A veil of smoke from the Caldor fire still hung over the lake. People were water-skiing and paddle-boarding — a vision of a diminished world, neither destroyed nor preserved but decayed. For a few weeks at the end of August, the state had been consumed with fear that the vacation town of South Lake Tahoe, an emblem of the splashy, golden California we all married, would burn. Nobody could believe the fire had run down from the mountains into the lake basin, including all the people who always knew it would. South Lake had survived through a combination of luck (the wind shifted), good local fuels management and an epic firefighting effort, which one expert guessed cost $1 billion. Up on the granite cliffs above Emerald Bay, I kind of broke down. That spot is sublime: the huge blue lake, the huge blue sky, the Sierra crest — a dazzling, heart-stopping vision. But I could also see the scars that remained from the Angora fire, in 2007, and they are hard to comprehend. So many blackened trees standing: dead. These trees are an indictment, a museum of failure. They are not coming back. That night, in Tahoe, it rained. The next morning the sky opened up again as I crossed Donner Pass. At a gas station I read a Twitter thread by the novelist Michael Chabon, a Californian, about nihilism versus existentialism. He’d read a draft of his son’s college essay in which that son tried to imagine his own future. Chabon saw his child fighting “to swim against the rising floodwaters of nihilism all around.” Chabon understood why a person would feel that way about the world, and, in particular, about the world right now. Chabon had felt that way himself once, too. But he also knew, having lived here on Earth for a while, that nihilism is a dead end — no path out. The alternative need not be false hope, or even the belief that the world is not essentially broken and absurd. The alternative is to make your own purpose and meaning, whatever the situation. This is a hard, daily task for all of us, perhaps even a required practice if you’re a professional savior. This November, Thom Porter, the chief of Calfire, announced that he was stepping down after just three years on the job. Before he resigned, he told me that he worried that he had blown it. He had been a forester his entire adult life, defined his job as leaving a safer world for his “kids and grandkids, all of our kids and grandkids.” He thought that he had failed, that we all have failed. “Here’s a grim thought for you,” he said at the end of our call. “Forests, in California, are more resilient than humans are in California.” If we keep doing what we’re doing, the forests will die, then some will regrow. The humans will have to flee California for good. “They’ve done it before,” Porter said of the trees, “and they’ll do it again if we don’t get our act together and figure out how to make sure that California and the West are places where humans can continue to reside.” Forest ecologists climb sequoias on Sept. 25, 2021, to collect samples showing how the trees are affected by drought and prescribed fire. Across California — across the world — it’s easy, even comforting, to sit in despair. To stay depressed and mired in a state where not that much has truly changed. But nihilism is a failure of imagination, the bleak, easy way out. We need to face the lives before us. We need to name the discontinuity: See, there it is, the tear in the universe created by our fear and greed. What we believed was the present is actually the past. That was Steffen’s message to me in the Berkeley bar. We failed to keep pace with the future. And the longer we sat there, drinking our beers, the wider the gap became. We can’t fix California’s wildfire problem with a big idea. We can only settle into the trans-apocalypse and work for the best future, the best present. That starts with acknowledging that our political structures have failed us and keep failing us every day. The powerful have failed the vulnerable. The old have failed the young. The global north has failed the global south. We have failed one another. It’s a real, grown-up, look-mortality-in-the-eye moment we face. In Tahoe, after coming down from the cliffs at Emerald Bay, I took a walk in the woods with two forest ecologists. They moved to South Lake just before the pandemic began, knowing all the risks. But they love it here. They want to love their lives. For work, they climb and study giant sequoias to see the toll our world is having on them. First, they load a compound bow, then shoot an arrow trailing a fishing line over a tree branch. Next, haul a rope, ascend the trunk and survey a tree’s giant limbs for bark-beetle scars. When giant sequoias have enough water, they expel the beetles with sap. When they don’t, the majestic trees die from the top down. This summer, in Kings Canyon, as the wildfires approached, firefighters wrapped giant sequoias in aluminum foil. This included General Sherman — 2,200 years old and the largest single tree on Earth. This act was meager, and it was devotional. It’s what we’ve got now. The good news is, some of the moves we need to make are easier, more straightforward and more under our control than we imagined, if we’d just allow ourselves to get them done. The bad news is that there is just going to be loss. We’re not used to thinking about the world that way. We’re not used to paying for our mistakes. There is beauty in the sequoia scars, bleeding out sap. And there’s beauty in the sequoias when they have none.
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[l] at 12/30/21 4:00am
by Meribah Knight, Nashville Public Radio, and Ken Armstrong and Hannah Fresques, ProPublica ] This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with Nashville Public Radio. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published. Tennessee’s Rutherford County, which has been widely criticized for its juvenile justice system, has been jailing Black children at a disproportionately high rate, according to newly obtained data. And, in a departure from national trends, the county’s racial disparity is getting worse, not better. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. In an earlier story, ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio chronicled a case in Rutherford County in which 11 Black children were arrested for a crime that does not exist. Four of the children were booked into the county’s juvenile jail. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Since publishing that story, the two news organizations have received reports from the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. This data shows that while the county was locking up so many kids — often illegally — it was also jailing an exceptionally high percentage of Black children. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. From July 2010 to June 2021, children from Rutherford County were booked into the juvenile jail at least 6,350 times, according to the youth commission’s monthly monitoring reports. In 38% of those cases, the children were Black. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. That far eclipses the percentage of children in the county who are Black. That figure stayed between 14% and 16% from 2010 to 2019, according to census data. (Those percentages account for children who identify as Black, whether or not they are of Hispanic ethnicity. The booking data obtained from Tennessee did not indicate how a Black Hispanic child would be recorded.) Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. The disparity in Rutherford County is comparable to the racial gap for the country as a whole. A fact sheet published this year by The Sentencing Project showed that in 2019, 41% of the children incarcerated nationally were Black, even though Black children make up only 15% of the nation’s youth. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. But the newly obtained reports show that the county is an outlier compared to what’s been happening in recent years regarding racial disparities in juvenile justice. In most of the country, the racial disparity has been decreasing. Rutherford County, meanwhile, has gone the opposite direction. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. From 2010 through 2017, Black children accounted for 36% of the kids locked up by the county, according to ProPublica’s analysis of the data. From 2018 through mid-2021, they accounted for 58%. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Within Tennessee, Rutherford County stood out for years in terms of the percentage of kids of all races it locked up in cases referred to juvenile court. In 2014, for example, the county jailed children in 48% of those cases. The statewide average was 5%. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Many children in Rutherford County were placed in solitary confinement under conditions a federal judge called inhumane. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. After ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio wrote about Rutherford County’s juvenile justice system in October, state lawmakers called the system a “nightmare” and “unchecked barbarism.” The state’s governor called for a judicial review. Eleven members of Congress signed a letter asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the county’s juvenile justice system. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. The overwhelming majority of bookings for children of all races occurred from 2010 to 2017, when the annual average exceeded 800. The annual average since 2018 has been just under 100. In 2017, the booking numbers began a dramatic drop after a federal judge ordered the county to stop using its so-called filter system, in which jail staff detained any child considered to be a “TRUE threat,” a vague standard in the jail’s written procedures that wasn’t defined anywhere. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. Josh Rovner, a senior advocacy associate who researches juvenile justice issues for The Sentencing Project, found that in 2015, Black youth were five times as likely to be locked up as white youth nationally. In 2019, that figure was 4.4. “That’s still appalling,” he said, “but it does show progress.” So it’s particularly disheartening, he said, to see places, such as Rutherford County, where the gap is widening. Sandra Simkins, a Rutgers University law professor and national expert on juvenile justice, served as a monitor in Shelby County, Tennessee, where the DOJ exercised oversight until 2018 based on its findings that the county’s juvenile court discriminated against Black children. In an interview, Simkins said that while many states have taken steps to reduce racial disparities, Tennessee has “blocked every avenue to reform.” She cited, for example, a finding from our previous story on how Tennessee has stopped publishing an annual statistical report that helped identify outliers on various juvenile justice practices. “No one can get anywhere without data,” she said. “I think Tennessee tolerates bad actors,” Simkins said. “It is a greater tolerance than what I have ever seen. I have been across the country. I’ve seen a lot of bad pockets.” Donna Scott Davenport, the only juvenile court judge in Rutherford County’s history, has overseen the juvenile justice system since first winning election in 2000. She did not respond to an interview request for this story and declined to answer questions for our initial story. Davenport appointed and supervises Lynn Duke, the director of the county’s juvenile detention center. “I appreciate your interest in Rutherford County and its youth, but respectfully decline to respond at this time,” Duke replied by email to our most recent interview request. This year, the county agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging that it had illegally arrested and jailed children for years. At a hearing last week, a federal judge approved a final settlement in which the county will pay approximately $6 million, with hundreds of young people receiving payouts. In response to the controversy, Middle Tennessee State University cut ties with Davenport, who had for years been an adjunct instructor at the school. Davenport, meanwhile, is up for reelection next year, facing a challenger for the first time in more than 20 years. She has previously said that she intends to run again.

As of 1/20/22 3:09pm. Last new 1/20/22 12:50pm.

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