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by Megan Rose, Robert Faturechi, and T. Christian Miller

Just before sunset on Jan. 12, 2016, 10 American sailors strayed into Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, a navigation error with potentially grave consequences. On their way to a spying mission, the Americans had set sail from Kuwait to Bahrain. It was a long-distance trek that some senior commanders in the Navy’s 5th Fleet had warned they were neither equipped nor trained to execute.

Surrounded by four boats operated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the U.S. sailors, in two small gunboats, surrendered rather than opening fire. The officer in charge of the mission later said he understood that had a firefight erupted, it could well have provoked a wider conflict and scuttled the controversial nuclear deal the two countries were poised to implement in mere days.

The Navy dialed up an elaborate rescue mission to free the sailors from tiny Farsi Island involving fighter jets and a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group. But the return of the sailors was ultimately secured peacefully. The nuclear deal went forward with the U.S. providing sanctions relief and unfreezing billions in Iranian assets in exchange for Tehran’s promise to curb its nuclear ambitions.

President Donald Trump explicitly invoked the 2016 incident last week as he weighed actions against Iran amid rising tensions. Trump told Time magazine that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had mishandled the high-stakes confrontation, a mistake he would not make. “The only reason the sailors were let go is that we started making massive payments to them the following day,” Trump said. “Otherwise the sailors would still be there.”

But a ProPublica investigation makes clear that Trump’s repeated claims about the captured sailors – Obama’s weakness; that the money was improper – obscure the more troubling realities exposed by the Navy’s 2016 debacle in the Persian Gulf. The Farsi Island mission was a gross failure, involving issues that have plagued the Navy in recent years: inadequate training, poor leadership, and a disinclination to heed the warnings of its men and women about the true extent of its vulnerabilities.

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T. Christian Miller, Robert Faturechi and Megan Rose are writing about their experience reporting on the Fitzgerald disaster and the Navy’s neglect of its ships and sailors at sea for ProPublica’s Disaster in the Pacific newsletter.

Now, the Navy, and the 5th Fleet based in the Persian Gulf, are staring at the possibility of a military conflict, standing ready for a commander in chief who lacks a permanent secretary of defense and is thus more dependent on uniformed military leaders.

In the wake of the Farsi Island incident, the outlines of the Navy’s fumbles were widely reported. But ProPublica reconstructed the failed mission, and the Navy’s response to it, using hundreds of pages of previously unreported confidential Navy documents, including the accounts of sailors and officers up and down the chain of command. Those documents reveal that the 10 captured sailors were forced out on dangerous missions they were not prepared for. Their commanders repeatedly dismissed worries about deficiencies in manpower and expertise.

Prior to the mission, the sailors had received little training on their weapons, and the crew of one boat forgot to load the limited number of guns at their disposal during the transit. One sailor prepared to record the potentially hostile encounter with the helmet camera she’d been issued but couldn’t get it to work. So she filmed it on her personal iPhone 4. And when they were captured, a rescue seemed unlikely given that no one back at shore had yet realized they were off course.

The Farsi Island episode is consistent with ProPublica’s findings in its ongoing examination of the Navy’s state of combat readiness. ProPublica’s detailed review of the Navy’s two accidents in the Pacific in 2017, which killed 17 sailors from the 7th Fleet, shows that the most senior uniformed and civilian leaders mishandled years of warnings about degraded ships, undertrained and overworked crews, and the potentially fatal costs of tasking vulnerable sailors with an unceasing number of sometimes ill-conceived missions.

Immediately after the release of the Farsi Island sailors in early 2016, Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan launched an investigation that would divide the highest levels of the Navy over the question of who was to blame for the embarrassing incident. The findings of that investigation, completed in February 2016, did not spare the commanders and crew of the two riverine combat boats, or RCBs. They had violated fundamental Navy doctrines regarding navigation and leadership, the report found. Senior 5th Fleet commanders were also faulted and two were relieved of their commands.

Donegan’s investigators, though, dug deeper. They concluded that the riverine unit had not been properly manned or trained before being dispatched to the Persian Gulf. Riverine sailors had had to train themselves. The sailors had done most of their exercises on smaller patrol boats instead of the RCBs used in the Gulf. They had received a minimum amount of training on the latest navigation system. They had never conducted a lengthy training voyage in the open sea, something they would be asked to do routinely in the Gulf.

President Donald Trump holds up a memorandum that reinstates sanctions on Iran after he announced his decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal on May 8, 2018. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The investigation’s files included the personal plea of one of the enlisted men taken captive on Farsi Island, Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Diebold.

“I cannot, nor am I in a position to, determine the exact reasons why my crews were captured,” Diebold wrote. “This is something that should be discussed frankly and openly.”

The seeds of the mishap, Diebold wrote, did not “materialize on the 11th of January, nor do they end, neatly, on the morning of the 13th. It is my hope that the current investigation and the team’s findings are used not to punish 10 sailors, but educate and refocus a critical, if neglected force, if not our Navy as a total warfighting organization.”

The Navy ignored the sailor’s request. In internal Navy memos, commanders criticized parts of the investigation for being “deficient,” “incomplete” and “unsubstantiated” amid disputes over how much training has actually taken place. To address the differing views, the Navy ordered a second investigation and embraced its findings that pre-deployment training and manning for the RCB unit, in fact, had been adequate.

“Pre-deployment training and manning were not contributing factors to this incident,” the second investigation, which was released to the public, concluded.

The Navy’s top commander, John Richardson, signed off on the more reassuring set of findings.

“I’m not prepared to say that there’s a larger problem,” Richardson told reporters in 2016.

Over the weekend, the details of Iran’s downing of an unmanned American drone that further escalated the confrontation remained unclear, but it seemed possible the Navy had again mistakenly entered Iran’s territory. Iran insists the plane had penetrated its airspace; the United States says it was in international territory. Last week, The New York Times quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying Trump had pulled back in part because of emerging evidence that the Global Hawk drone or a second, manned U.S. spy plane may have indeed breached Iranian territory. Trump cited the high number of possible Iranian casualties.

In a written response to questions, the Navy said it had implemented reforms to improve the coastal riverine units. U.S. trainers now keep careful track of the instruction gunboats and their crews receive while deployed. New maintenance teams are ready to fly into deployed areas to make repairs. The RCB boats have been replaced by a newer gunboat known as the Mark VI.

Rear Adm. Charlie Brown, the Navy’s spokesman, said that many of the changes were still being implemented, but that the Navy’s most senior leaders were confident that “the Coastal Riverine Force is ready to carry out all missions assigned in any numbered fleet area of operations."

Brown also said the Navy’s investigation was “conducted in an independent manner.”

“There were no instances of facts or opinions being silenced,” Brown wrote.

Brown also offered a broader defense of the Navy’s preparedness.

“No naval forces are deployed without ensuring full readiness,” he said. “There should be no doubt — U.S. Navy Forces deployed globally are ready in all respects.”

In an interview with ProPublica on Friday, Donegan, who stepped down as commander of the 5th Fleet in September 2017, said the margin for error is small in such extraordinary circumstances. Training matters. Mistakes can prove dire.

“My biggest concern is about miscalculation,” said Donegan, who now works as a security consultant. “When you have heightened tensions, no direct communications between the two sides and forces in close proximity, an event that one side thinks is low-level might compel the other side to respond in a way that leads to expanded conflict.”

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps released this photo on Jan. 13, 2016, showing the detained Navy sailors. (Sepahnews via AP) Chapter 1. “What Are We Doing Here?”

To some at the Navy’s outpost in Kuwait, the last-minute mission for which they were briefed on Jan. 11, 2016, seemed preposterous.

The RCBs would have to travel from Kuwait to Bahrain — a 260-mile trip, two times longer than any they’d ever done — carefully avoiding nearby territorial waters. Once there, the National Security Agency, as part of its intelligence operations, would load up their small boats with listening equipment and have them float along the Persian Gulf’s coastline. The mission was given a name: “Radio Creep.” It was unclear who they’d be spying on, but several officers took the order as urgent, and, given worsening weather conditions, one decided the sailors would have to launch within 24 hours.

The crew raised what seemed to be an essential problem: Only one of the three RCBs was currently operational.

They might be able to fix one of the two disabled boats, Gunner’s Mate Isaac Escobedo guessed, but it would be a rush job, he later told investigators.

The boats had been run 3,000 hours beyond the cut off for required overhauls.

More From This Investigation Years of Warnings, Then Death and Disaster How the Navy failed its sailors

Lt. Kenneth Rogers, the officer in charge of the RCB unit, also had concerns. The boats were needed for another mission; to make it to Bahrain, they’d have to refuel at sea, something they’d only done once before — while they were close enough to base to make it home if it didn’t go well; and the crew, if it scrambled to get at least one more boat ready, would be exhausted when it set out, Rogers argued.

Cmdr. Greg Meyer, Rogers’ boss, was sympathetic to Rogers’ concerns, records show, and took the case up the chain of command.

Kyle Moses, the commodore with ultimate authority over the RCB unit, didn’t want to hear any of it. He thought the worried officers were being “overly cautious.” Moses said he didn’t know why so many of his officers were concerned about the riverine command boats making this kind of trip, since “the RCB is a boat and boats float.”

“Navigation is navigation,” Moses, an explosives expert, later told investigators.

The Navy’s 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain and is responsible for about 2.5 million square miles of water and some 20 countries. The vast expanse includes three critical chokepoints at the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal and the Strait of Bab al Mandab at the southern tip of Yemen. The 5th Fleet has been a vital nerve center for American action and interests in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 5th Fleet, though, doesn’t have warships of its own and instead relies on vessels and aircraft rotated in from the enormous 7th Fleet in the Pacific as well as stateside fleets.

Riverine boats, if a modest segment of the Navy’s full arsenal of ships and aircraft, have nonetheless been a staple of operations for decades, typically deployed to patrol rivers and marshes, whether they be in Vietnam or Iraq. The RCBs were then the most recent incarnation of the gunboat: 53 feet long, holding crews of eight and loaded with heavy machine guns and high-tech navigation gear.

In the Persian Gulf, the RCBs for years mostly performed escort missions for destroyers and other ships, assignments that kept them in fairly shallow waters for fairly short durations. But in late 2015, the RCBs were pressed into different and more debatable roles. The Navy, overstretched, had just removed a carrier strike group from the region, leaving the Persian Gulf without a U.S. aircraft carrier for the first time in years. The carriers — three football fields long, stocked with dozens of fighter jets and accompanied by other warships — had been a mighty show of force against regional foes like Iran.

Now, to help fill the void, the Navy was going to use three riverine boats. It took barely a month for the 15 sailors in the RCB unit in Kuwait to be confounded — and angry. The idea that their presence served as a show of military might seemed absurd. Sailing flat-bottomed boats designed for rivers in 8-foot waves felt reckless.

The unit had just one sailor and one private contractor available for repairs. Getting parts with which to make the repairs was a constant challenge. A delivery of needed parts took 89 days to be shipped. At one point, the sailors were so desperate for basic materials that they bartered Monster energy drinks with the Army unit on base in exchange for paint.

The men spent hours sailing in open waters in the Persian Gulf, launching a reconnaissance drone and filming nothing but empty ocean day after day, week after week.

“What are we doing here?” Escobedo, the gunner’s mate, asked at one meeting with senior leaders. “What is the mission?”

Escobedo’s despair was not isolated. A routine “command climate” survey of Moses’ officers meant to assess morale produced withering results.

“Across the board, the officers hated the command and their jobs,” said Lt. Cmdr. John Pucillo, the director of the Maritime Operations Center.

Moses, the commodore, was incensed by the results, Pucillo told investigators. He summoned all officers to a conference room and went through each complaint individually, demanding answers. The comments were supposed to have been anonymous.

“It felt like it was a witch hunt,” Pucillo said.

On Jan. 11, those who had been pushing back against the mission to Bahrain did what they could to follow orders. Late that night, Escobedo and others stripped parts from one boat to fix a broken water pump to get a second boat ready to sail. The next morning, crews struggled to get the communications gear to work, ultimately succeeding, just before the mission would have been scrapped.

Meyer, the unit’s commander, spoke to the officer who would lead the boats. Lt. David Nartker thought it was futile to argue more.

“My sailors and I can accomplish it,” Nartker told Meyer.

Riverine command boats participate in an exercise with Kuwait’s naval forces in the Persian Gulf on Nov. 3, 2015. (Sipa via AP Images) Chapter 2. “I Figured That Someone Would Be Keeping Track of Us.”

At 12:40 p.m. on Jan. 12, Nartker ordered his boats toward the open sea. The repairs had put them hours behind schedule, in danger of being late for the planned refueling with a Coast Guard ship. Nartker decided to take a more direct route to Bahrain than had been planned.

“We were worried about darkness,” Collin Foley, a machinist’s mate fireman, told investigators. “If we can’t find them for whatever reason, we’re out there running on fumes. We’ll run out of gas and be stranded.”

Things didn’t get better.

Nartker had forgotten to order the crew on his boat to load the weapons with ammunition. It was as if the crew had suddenly become blind to the fact that it was traveling in one of the world’s most contested waterways.

Then, the Coast Guard changed the location for the planned refueling. Nartker sought a shortcut. His boat had a computerized mapping program called COGENT as its primary navigation system. He had only received about two hours of formal training on the system back in the United States.

He had one of his men pinpoint the new refueling location on the map. Nartker used the program to draw a straight line to the new spot. The more direct route, he figured, would reach the Coast Guard ship, the USCGC Monomoy, with about 25 minutes to spare before nightfall. Looking at his navigation screen with the view zoomed out to see his entire track rather than a more detailed picture, he saw nothing along the way that was cause for alarm.

Nartker did not tell anyone in his chain of command that he was abandoning his intended course. It was an astonishing lapse of navigational protocol.

“I figured that someone would be keeping track of us,” he told investigators.

The 5th Fleet maintains a series of operations centers to monitor and control Navy activity throughout the Persian Gulf. Smaller stations feed information up the chain of command to larger ones, so that anybody, from a lieutenant in Kuwait to an admiral in 5th Fleet headquarters, has some level of awareness of Navy traffic in the Gulf.

But when it came to tracking the safe transit of the 10 sailors in the riverine boats, that system broke down.

Every 30 minutes, the boats radioed their position to their local operations center in Bahrain. But the sailors there did not plot the coordinates on a map, nor did they always pass them on. The next station up, based in the United Arab Emirates, showed the boats’ course on a computerized map. But the officers using the map had not set it to display the boundaries of sensitive territorial waters around Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Read More In Navy Disasters, Neglect, Mistakes, and 17 Lost Sailors Snapshots of the sailors who perished in a pair of collisions in the Pacific in 2017.

One more oversight: During the hectic initial planning, Meyer, the commander of the riverine task force, believed that a Navy ship or plane would be assigned to keep a close eye on the boats in case anything went wrong. His superiors, however, never made such an assignment.

Almost four hours into the trip, several crew members noticed what they told investigators looked like “a bunch of random rocks” off the ship’s bow. Some men thought they were seeing an oil platform.

“I asked what it was,” Foley said. “No one knew. We asked [Nartker]. He had no idea what it was.”

Petty Officer 3rd Class Randall Price, an electronics technician, was passing the time below deck when he got word from other sailors of the unidentified island. He put down the book he packed for the long transit and climbed up to the pilot deck.

Like the other sailors, he couldn’t work the boat’s navigation system for an answer. The screen showed a small purple dot. No name. But Price pulled up a navigational app he’d downloaded on his phone.

He zoomed in on their location. He found the island. He told investigators he saw “a long Arabic name.”

“My curiosity was satisfied,” he said. “I went back down to continue reading.”

At 3:42 p.m., a crew member on the refueling ship, the Monomoy, plotted the boats’ location and realized that Nartker was drastically off course from his original route, the first time that anybody higher in the chain of command noticed the deviation.

The crew member on the Coast Guard ship realized the speck of land about the size of Grand Central Terminal was Farsi Island. It was Iranian territory, and it served as a naval outpost for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite force of the Iranian military that Trump recently declared a terrorist organization.

The Monomoy immediately called the base in Bahrain on a secure channel to alert it that the boats were headed into Iranian waters.

A sailor in Bahrain noted the Monomoy’s warning in a log. But there is no sign the information was passed any further up the chain of command, or to the sailors on the RCBs.

This image from a Jan. 12, 2016, video by the Iranian state-run IRIB News Agency shows the detention of Navy sailors by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Persian Gulf. (IRIB News Agency via AP) Chapter 3. “They Got Weapons”

What unfolded over the next 12 hours transformed a bumbling operation into a historic fiasco.

First, one of the boats broke down when the water pump that had worried the crew back in Kuwait fell from the engine block. The sailors decided to stop to make repairs. The gunboats were dead in the water.

“I fucking told everybody this would happen,” Escobedo shouted while he scrambled to repair the damage and his boat bobbed in the waves, powerless.

The sailors then spotted two small boats headed their way. There were only two men on the first boat and just one on the second. They were wearing track suits and sandals. The boats were tiny, roughly 15 feet long.

Then a sailor screamed: “They got weapons!”

The Americans could make out rocket tubes mounted on the pilothouse of one boat. Heavy machine guns were fixed on the bows of both.

Diebold asked for his rifle, which he kept stowed by the boat captain’s seat. There weren’t enough rifles for everyone.

“Each craft was only issued four — I emphasize four — rifles,” Diebold told investigators. “I specifically requested one rifle per crew member, with a minimum of six magazines per sailor. I do not know the reason why I was given less.”

Foley spotted a blue flag atop one of the boats. He pulled out a Navy reference manual. The flag belonged to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Foley shouted that the men were Iranians.

Nartker was holding up a wrench and pointing at his engine to indicate to the Iranians that his boat was in need of repair.

Inside the engine room, Escobedo made quick work of the repairs on the water pump and then started up the engines. With each movement, the more maneuverable Iranian boats blocked him and the men aboard them racked their weapons. He could see them squeezing their triggers.

“Stop boat!” they yelled. “Stop boat!”

Nartker decided to ignore the shouting men.

"Go!" he yelled at Escobedo.

Escobedo believed that if he followed the order, the Iranians would begin firing. He thought the rounds would cut clean through their boat. Someone was going to get killed. Rather than gunning the boat, Escobedo simply looked at Nartker: “Sir.”

Nartker later told Navy investigators that he had considered grabbing his M4 assault rifle and trying to shoot his way out. But he thought that if he began shooting he could start a war. He had never received a briefing on the region from the Navy, but he had been reading The Economist magazine. He knew about the looming nuclear accord.

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“OK, what's the commander's intent here, the highest commander's intent?” he remembered thinking. “The commander in chief would not want me to start a war over a mistake, over a misunderstanding.”

“English, English, English,” Nartker called to the Iranians. If he could explain through a translator that they were sorry, that they were there by accident, that they were just passing through on the way to Bahrain, maybe the Iranians would just scold them and let them go.

A third boat arrived with five more Iranians with Kalashnikovs. Then a fourth boat with 10 more armed Iranian sailors. None was there to translate.

The Americans felt outmatched. The Iranians ordered the Americans to move away from their guns and take off their body armor. The sailors looked to Nartker. They had been trained to fight. Surrendering felt unnatural. Nartker told his sailors to comply.

Diebold asked one of his men to bring him a photo he kept inside the pilothouse of his wife and son. He was the last sailor to remove his body armor. He was wearing a belt that held his sidearm. It was the last weapon available to the Americans. He pulled off the belt and laid it on the deck.

At 4:32 p.m., the tactical operations center in Bahrain had received the first report from the RCBs about contact with the Iranians. Thirteen minutes later, the boats again reached the operations center by radio with word of the encounter.

The Bahrain center passed word up the chain of command.

“RCBs reporting 2 Iranian vessels are attempting to push RCBs to an unknown island. Iranian vessels had weapons in condition 1 trained on them.”

The battle watch captain in Bahrain couldn't figure out what island the RCBs were talking about. He measured the distance to the nearest island and it was 25 nautical miles to the southwest. But the officer was plotting the position of the boats on the wrong territorial waters map.

The officer did not relay news of the encounter to higher-ups.

The Iranians soon tore down the American flag flying over the lead boat. They raised the blue flag of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in its place.

The sailors had all been herded onto their lead boat and forced to their knees. Rifles were still trained on them. The Iranians had ripped up one of their own flags into strips to tie the wrists of the Americans.

The weary sailors were soon sitting bootless inside a prayer room on Farsi Island. They leaned on small tufted pillows, staring at their armed captors sitting across from them. A tall Iranian in a maroon sweater vest with coiffed hair and decent English was questioning them. He assumed the small boats, clearly unsuited to the Gulf, couldn’t possibly be alone and must have come from a nearby Navy ship. He directed his questions to Nartker, the only officer.

“Captain David, where is your mothership,” the Iranian asked again and again.

Nartker’s answer that they were simply traveling the 12 hours from Kuwait to Bahrain unescorted was repeatedly dismissed.

“Not possible,” the Iranian said.

The sailors laughed.

“Yeah,” Escobedo said. “I wish you can tell my people that, because we told them these boats can't do that.”

Nartker was taken alone to the Iranian command center to radio a nearby American ship and relay that they had food, water, blankets and access to toilets.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif with Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva on Jan. 14, 2015. (RICK WILKING/AFP/Getty Images) Chapter 4. “Get Our Guys Back”

Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan took a seat in the 5th Fleet combat center. As a young aviator, he had participated in the bombing of Libya in 1986. Later, he spent years directing the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. His ascension to command of the 5th Fleet, central to that shadowy battle, was a natural extension of stints at the Pentagon and Central Command.

Minutes after learning of the sailors’ detention, Donegan jumped on a secure line with the head of Central Command, Gen. Lloyd Austin.

Donegan reviewed his plans with Austin and discussed potential options to communicate with Iran. He wanted Iran to know that his intentions were to locate and retrieve the sailors.

More than two hours had passed since the Coast Guard cutter Monomoy had first informed the operations center in Bahrain that Nartker and Diebold were headed for Iranian waters. It had taken an hour and 18 minutes for word to pass up to Kyle Moses that Iranian sailors were pointing loaded weapons at the RCB sailors and attempting to force them to Farsi Island. It had taken an additional 45 minutes for Moses to place the call to Donegan that sent him scrambling toward the battle watch center at about 6 p.m.

Donegan declared a search and rescue operation with the nearby aircraft carrier USS Harry Truman. The designation gave him wide latitude under international law to take actions necessary to rescue the sailors — including entering Iran’s territorial waters. By 6:15 p.m., the USS Anzio, a cruiser, and the Monomoy were sailing toward Farsi Island. Aircraft hurled off the deck of the Truman, located about 40 miles south of the island. F/A-18 fighter jets, an E-2 airborne command center and P-3 surveillance planes raced toward Farsi Island. An Air Force B-1 bomber and F-15 attack jets streaked overhead.

The E-2, which was flying over Farsi Island to coordinate air traffic, made contact with an unknown Iranian official who threatened “tactical action” unless planes left the area. The E-2 pilot did not depart. An official with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps contacted the Anzio, ordering it to “depart territorial waters and proceed to international waters without hostile actions in order to preserve peace and security in the region.” The Anzio kept sailing.

Back in Washington, news of the standoff reached the highest levels of the Obama administration at around noon. John Kerry, the secretary of state, was scheduled to talk about the close-at-hand nuclear deal with Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, in 45 minutes. Now, the conversation would be completely different.

Kerry told Zarif that the incident was an accident — the result of a mechanical failure. The first priority, he said, was that the sailors be released unharmed as quickly as possible. If that happened, Kerry told Zarif, “We can make this into what will be a good story for both of us.”

Zarif asked that the American military pull back from the island. If that didn’t happen, he told Kerry, it “could trigger a reaction that could be bad for all of us,” according to a senior State Department official with knowledge of the conversation.

Over the next several hours, the men spoke repeatedly. During each call, Zarif expressed increasing confidence that the situation could be quickly resolved. At last, around 3 p.m. Washington time, Zarif promised that the sailors would be released the next morning. It was too dangerous, he told Kerry, to attempt to transfer the men back to U.S. custody in the dark.

On Farsi Island, the Iranians told the sailors, “We’re releasing you.”

One sailor started weeping, and the Iranians swung a camera in his direction to capture his tears for the news.

An Iranian officer then sat down in front of Nartker for one last propaganda coup. He wanted the boat captain to admit they were wrong and apologize on camera. Nartker tried several times to deflect.

In the end, he gave the statement.

Trump, a presidential candidate at the time, speaks at a rally organized by the Tea Party Patriots against the Iran nuclear deal in Washington on Sept. 9, 2015. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images) Chapter 5. “Set Up for Failure”

Trump had yet to secure the Republican nomination for president at the time of the Farsi Island incident. He quickly jumped on the issue.

“Iran humiliated the United States with the capture of our 10 sailors. Horrible pictures & images. We are weak. I will NOT forget!” he tweeted the day after the incident.

Trump continued to use the incident as a political tool to attack people opposed to his stance on Iran.

Donegan, the commander of the 5th Fleet in 2016, assigned three investigators with nearly two dozen support staff to figure out fault and uncover root causes. They produced a 170-page report based on documents and interviews with every crew member.

Nartker, the report found, had exercised poor judgement in deviating from his initial plan and not properly arming the boat for the possibility of a hostile encounter. Moses, the senior commander, was cited for ignoring warnings, and for having fostered what the report called a “can’t say no” leadership climate. Meyer was faulted for allowing his sailors to develop lackadaisical military practices.

But the report’s findings went beyond the assigning of individual blame. The problems, it found, were more systemic.

At least as far back as 2010, the Navy’s high command had been put on notice about its troubled state of readiness. Retired three-star Adm. Phillip Balisle had issued a scathing assessment: ships were coming apart; the Navy was short thousands of sailors; poorly trained officers were being promoted, making for a generation of unprepared leaders.

Now, Donegan noted similar problems regarding the Navy’s riverine fleet.

“Ineffective pre-deployment training set the stage for the 12 January 2016 incident off Farsi Island,” Donegan wrote in a review that accompanied the report.

After Donegan’s review, the report traveled up the chain of command for several months, receiving commentary at each step.

When it reached Adm. Philip Davidson, responsible for manning and training across the entire Navy, he rejected the findings on manning and pre-deployment training. He instead blamed 5th Fleet commanders for not keeping up standards and training while deployed overseas. Culpability for the Farsi Island episode, Davidson wrote, fell squarely on poor decisions by low-level commanders and the sailors on the captured boats.

A year later, the wider problems of training and manpower in the riverine forces were confirmed in a report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

“We examined the Navy’s effort to address manning, training and equipping problems,” said John Pendleton, who oversees readiness issues for the agency. “The overall readiness of the riverine force was concerning. We made recommendations to address the challenges.”

The Navy insisted on designating some parts of the GAO report secret and other parts sensitive -- meaning its details remained confidential. Congress ordered the Navy to make reforms and report back by January 2018. On Friday, the Navy said it could not determine whether the Secretary of the Navy had delivered such a report.

But Pendelton said the Navy has not yet fixed all the problems identified.

“The Navy has yet to address many of the persistent problems, especially manning,” Pendleton said.

Navy Adm. Philip Davidson before testifying at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington on April 17, 2018. (Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)

Davidson, Moses and Meyer either did not respond to requests to comment or declined to comment for this article.

Some Navy officials wondered if Davidson’s conclusion was a missed opportunity to look at the bigger picture.

In 2017, the year following the Farsi Island incident, there were four major collisions in the western Pacific. The worst involved the USS Fitzgerald and the USS McCain, which each collided with cargo ships, leaving 17 sailors dead.

Davidson, still in charge of manning and training, was tapped to help assess the significance of the collisions. He found that manning shortages and poor training factored in both. Admirals, officers and sailors were held to account.

Davidson, though, was soon promoted and now holds one of the most coveted positions in the American military as head of the Indo-Pacific Command, in charge of all military branches in the region.

In recent months, the Navy has come under fire over whether it has made good on its promises to fix its readiness problems, criticism that has taken on new urgency given the escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf.

During testimony several months ago, Davidson told Congress the reforms had all been completed, only to be publicly corrected by other Navy officials, who admitted they had not been. Challenged by the Senate Armed Services Committee to account for the pace of reform, Davidson provoked derision by noting that the vast majority of the Navy’s ships had not crashed in the summer of 2017.

“I want real numbers. I don’t want general ‘We’re working on staffing’ or ‘We’re working on more training,’” Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, told Davidson.

The Navy brought charges against several sailors involved in the Farsi Island surrender, including four officers and two enlisted men. The Navy dropped charges against one officer. The rest of the men took guilty pleas that resulted in no jail time but ended their chances of career advancement.

With punishments resolved, the Navy recommended kicking four officers out of the service. But the four panels of officers charged with reviewing the cases, known as boards of inquiry, ruled that the men’s conduct was not severe enough to merit expulsion.

Rogers, the aviation officer in charge of the Kuwait naval outpost, received a favorable ruling allowing him to stay in the service.

“I reported significant problems to my chain of command and I was ignored,” Rogers wrote in his appeal.

Nartker also appeared before a Navy panel to make his case for remaining in the service. The panelists, all superior officers, found some fault with his conduct. But they also concluded that he should remain in the Navy.

The officer in charge of the panel, Capt. Steven Fuselier, was especially opposed to the Navy’s decision to pursue Nartker’s ouster. In an unusual move, he asked for a dismissal of all findings against the young lieutenant.

Nartker’s superior officers had ignored protests. They had assigned him a mission beyond the capabilities of the gunboats. And they ordered him to proceed, even knowing about the shoddy equipment and the late start.

It was wrong to punish him, when so many others shared responsibility. Nartker, Fuselier wrote, “was set up for failure.”

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[l] at 6/24/19 9:13am

by Renee Dudley

ProPublica recently reported that two U.S. firms, which professed to use their own data recovery methods to help ransomware victims regain access to infected files, instead paid the hackers.

Now there’s new evidence that a U.K. firm takes a similar approach. Fabian Wosar, a cyber security researcher, told ProPublica this month that, in a sting operation he conducted in April, Scotland-based Red Mosquito Data Recovery said it was “running tests” to unlock files while actually negotiating a ransom payment. Wosar, the head of research at anti-virus provider Emsisoft, said he posed as both hacker and victim so he could review the company’s communications to both sides.

Red Mosquito Data Recovery “made no effort to not pay the ransom” and instead went “straight to the ransomware author literally within minutes,” Wosar said. “Behavior like this is what keeps ransomware running.”

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Since 2016, more than 4,000 ransomware attacks have taken place daily, or about 1.5 million per year, according to statistics posted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Law enforcement has failed to stem ransomware’s spread, and culprits are rarely caught. If files encrypted by attackers are not backed up, and a free public decryption tool is unavailable, usually the only way to clear them is paying the ransom, said Michael Gillespie, a software analyst in Illinois whom the FBI has honored with a community leadership award for his help on ransomware. But clients who don’t want to give in to extortion are susceptible to firms that claim to have their own methods of decrypting files. Often, victims are willing to pay more than the ransom amount to regain access to their files if they believe the money is going to a data recovery firm rather than a hacker, Wosar said.

On its website, Red Mosquito Data Recovery calls itself a “one-stop data recovery and consultancy service” and says it has dealt with hundreds of ransomware cases worldwide in the past year. It advertised last week that its “international service” offers “experts who can offer honest, free advice.” It said it offers a “professional alternative” to paying a ransom, but cautioned that “paying the ransom may be the only viable option for getting your files decrypted.”

It does “not recommend negotiating directly with criminals since this can further compromise security,” it added.

Red Mosquito Data Recovery did not respond to emailed questions, and hung up when we called the number listed on its website. After being contacted by ProPublica, the company removed the statement from its website that it provides an alternative to paying hackers. It also changed “honest, free advice” to “simple free advice,” and the “hundreds” of ransomware cases it has handled to “many.”

Besides Red Mosquito Data Recovery’s website, a company called Red Mosquito has its own website. A person answering the phone at the Red Mosquito site said they are “sister” companies and that RMDR, as it is known, specializes in helping ransomware victims. The Red Mosquito site markets a wider array of cyber-services.

The two U.S. firms, Proven Data Recovery of Elmsford, New York, and Hollywood, Florida-based MonsterCloud, both promised to use their own technology to help ransomware victims unlock their data, but instead typically obtained decryption tools from cyberattackers by paying ransoms, ProPublica found.

We also traced ransom payments from Proven Data to Iranian hackers who allegedly developed a strain known as SamSam that paralyzed computer networks across North America and the U.K. The U.S. government later indicted two Iranian men on fraud charges for allegedly orchestrating the extortion, and banned payments to two digital currency destinations associated with them. Proven Data chief executive Victor Congionti told ProPublica in May it paid the SamSam attackers at the direction of clients, and didn’t know they were affiliated with Iran until the U.S. government’s actions. Congionti said that Proven Data’s policy on disclosing ransom payments to clients has “evolved over time” and it is now “completely transparent.”

MonsterCloud chief executive Zohar Pinhasi said in May that its data recovery methods are a trade secret and it doesn’t mislead clients. A spokesperson said Friday that Pinhasi stands by his earlier statements.

For his Red Mosquito Data Recovery experiment, Wosar said he created a fake ransomware, which he named “GOTCHA.” He also drafted a ransom note — laden with typos such as “immidiately” for authenticity, since many attackers aren’t native English speakers — with instructions for contacting the hacker, according to a copy of the note that he provided to ProPublica. Like many actual ransom notes, Wosar’s included a unique ID sequence, and instructed the victim to use it in any reply, the copy shows. Such a sequence helps real hackers know which victim is paying them. Wosar said he inserted it so that he could confirm it was Red Mosquito Data Recovery contacting him at the “hacker” email address, even if the firm didn’t identify itself. The ID sequence was an encrypted version of the company’s own name, he said.

On April 17, posing as prospective client “Joe Mess,” Wosar sought RMDR’s help, according to emails he provided to ProPublica. Attaching the ransom note and sample files, he wrote in an email, “Two days ago I found my home server to be hacked by someone and all my pictures, documents, videos, and other files have been renamed to .gotcha files and encrypted... I don’t have any backups but I do not want to pay those assholes.”

“I am very confident we will be able to recover your files,” someone identifying himself as Conor Lairg replied later that day from a Red Mosquito email address, copies of the correspondence show. “We are now running tests and I will be in touch as soon as possible with an update.”

Two minutes later, Wosar’s hacker email account lit up with a response from “tony7877@protonmail.com.” The subject line contained the unique ID he had assigned to the victim, which meant the message could only come from Red Mosquito Data Recovery or someone that the company shared it with.

“How much for decrypt?” the respondent asked.

Meanwhile, “Joe Mess” pressed Lairg for confirmation that Red Mosquito wouldn’t pay the ransom: “So you think you may be able to help without me having to pay the ransom?”

“We are still investigating and will get back to you as soon as possible,” Lairg responded.

Less than an hour later, Wosar, posing as the hacker, began negotiating with “tony7877@protonmail.com,” the correspondence shows.

“$1200 in Bitcoin,” he wrote. “You pay, we provide key and decriptor (sic) to recover data.”

The respondent sought a better deal. “Can you do for 500 USD,” it replied.

Wosar’s hacker alter ego agreed to lower the price. “$900. Take it or kiss data bye bye,” he wrote. “We don’t run chairity (sic) here.”

The contact told him it would try to obtain the Bitcoin needed.

The next day, documents show, Lairg wrote to Wosar’s victim email address, saying he was “pleased to confirm that we can recover your encrypted files” for $3,950 — four times as much as the agreed-upon ransom. Lairg said the firm would recover the files within an estimated three business days. Payment would be required before recovery began, but the money would be returned if they couldn’t recover any of the files, he wrote.

Posing as the victim, Wosar asked: “How did you do it?” Lairg did not answer, instead providing details of how to handle payment and outlining steps to prepare for the recovery, such as disabling anti-virus software that could interfere with decryption, according to the documents. Wosar said he stopped communications after that.

No one named Conor Lairg is listed on the contact pages of either Red Mosquito website or on LinkedIn. Calls to both Red Mosquito companies did not reach him.

In its investigation, ProPublica found that both MonsterCloud and Proven Data used aliases in dealing with customers.

Using the same ruse, Wosar said, he also contacted MonsterCloud, Proven Data and a company outside the U.S. with which his experiment is still in progress. He said MonsterCloud, which currently serves businesses hit by ransomware rather than home users, did not respond. Proven Data was “very open about paying ransoms so no point to following up after that,” Wosar said.

This is the second time that Wosar has targeted Red Mosquito, he said. In 2016, he said this year, he and another researcher created a variant of ransomware and used it to infect one of their own computers. Then they emailed Red Mosquito, as well as MonsterCloud and Proven Data, posing as a victim who didn’t want to pay a ransom, he said.

The firms eagerly agreed to help, claiming the ability to decrypt ransomware strains that were not actually breakable — and they didn’t mention that they paid ransom, Wosar said. The email accounts that he’d set up for the imaginary attacker began receiving emails from anonymous addresses offering to pay the ransom, he said. He traced the requests to the data recovery firms. Wosar said he no longer has the email correspondence from the 2016 sting.

Congionti and Pinhasi both said they could not recall the particular case. Red Mosquito did not respond to an emailed question about it.

“Ransomware victims need to be aware that there’s no silver bullet when it comes to restoring their data,” Wosar said. “There is also no shame for a data recovery company in paying the ransom, as long as they are open and transparent about it.”

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[l] at 6/21/19 12:11pm

by Lisa Song

California legislators gave regulators at the state’s Air Resources Board approval to endorse a plan that could lead to the widespread use of forest preservation offsets, but not without committing to “vigorous and proactive monitoring,” a note of caution inspired, in part, by a recent ProPublica investigation that showed how these carbon credits have not provided the emissions cuts they promised.

In a letter from an ad-hoc workgroup to the board, four assembly members noted the scientific problems highlighted in the story, which make it hard to accurately quantify how much carbon is being offset by preserved forests.

The Tropical Forest Standard — a blueprint for how carbon offsets could be awarded for intercontinental programs — would raise the stakes for such projects, allowing them to be used to fulfill government mandates. Experts say other countries will adopt the standard if the California board votes to endorse it later this year.

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The board began creating the standard 10 years ago, and legislators have recently become more involved. Last summer, Assembly member Eduardo Garcia, an ex officio member of the board, visited Acre, Brazil, with the three other Democratic assembly members who signed the letter. The Brazillian state’s forest protection program is seen as a gold standard. The trip was organized and paid for by the Environmental Defense Fund, a supporter of the standard.

Then, after a contentious public hearing before the board last fall, Garcia took charge of a legislative process to review the standard. Some opponents expected public hearings. Instead, the legislators held three closed-door stakeholder meetings: one with opponents, one with supporters and a third with both sides present.

The most recent stakeholders meeting, in early June, occurred shortly after ProPublica’s story was published. “It did really reaffirm some of the concerns,” said Katie Valenzuela, Garcia’s capitol director.

The standard has split environmentalists, academics and human rights groups. Supporters say the sale of carbon credits could bring much-needed funds to protect tropical forests and help rural communities on the ground. Opponents say the inherent scientific uncertainties of quantifying carbon could give polluters a free pass to emit CO2 without cancelling out the corresponding amount.

“By endorsing the [Tropical Forest Standard], the Board is taking a position on an internationally-contested strategy, and as such must consciously and enthusiastically take on the responsibility of ensuring that our actions do not do further harm to our important, shared goals of preventing catastrophic climate change,” the legislators wrote, in a letter first obtained by Politico Pro and signed by assembly members Garcia, Richard Bloom, Ash Kalra and Eloise Reyes.

Read More An (Even More) Inconvenient Truth: Why Carbon Credits For Forest Preservation May Be Worse Than Nothing How the hunger for these offsets is blinding us to the mounting pile of evidence that they haven't — and won't — deliver the environmental benefit they promise

Kathleen McAfee, a professor of international relations at San Francisco State University, said she is glad the legislators recognize the plan is contentious. A longtime opponent of these types of offsets, McAfee said the letter puts the ultimate responsibility on the board for how governments around the world might use the standard to buy and sell forestry offsets.

Barbara Haya, a research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, said the legislators gave the board an “impossible task.” The board “in no way has the long-established feet on the ground all over the world to be able to have the knowledge needed to monitor these programs.”

In the letter, the legislators said, “We know that California holds no diplomatic role with other states or countries to allow for formal enforcement, but think that we have access to the data and technology necessary to monitor the implementation of the [standard] in a way that would enable us to ‘sound the alarm’ if implementation goes awry.”

Haya said the board could use satellites to confirm whether the protected forest areas remain intact. But there are other challenges, such as leakage, where protecting one area leads to increased deforestation in another state or country, that is much harder to track. “To say that you can monitor these programs with satellite images flies in the face of all that has gone wrong with international aid in the past,” she said.

The world’s largest carbon offset program, the Clean Development Mechanism, was riddled with problems, Haya said. A 2016 study found 85% of the offsets had a low likelihood of creating real emissions reductions. Monitoring tropical forestry offsets is even harder than tracking the types of projects used in the CDM, she said.

Valenzuela said California has a responsibility to try to protect tropical forests. The state has limited powers to affect international climate plans, but this is something it can do, “as long as we keep a close eye.”

Supporters of the standard welcomed the legislators’ letter. “We commend the assembly members, led by Assembly member Eduardo Garcia, for thoughtfully studying this issue and taking this truly significant step forward,” said a statement from Christina McCain, director for Latin America Climate at the Environmental Defense Fund. “The Standard will ensure forest carbon credits have high environmental integrity and robust social and environmental safeguards that are important for indigenous communities.”

Opponents want a public hearing at the legislature to discuss the issue.

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[l] at 6/20/19 3:28pm

by A.C. Thompson

Perhaps the most far-reaching idea was to reclassify the more than 40,000 Border Patrol agents and customs officers as “national security employees,” just as all FBI agents and employees at a number of other Homeland Security agencies currently are. Taking away their status as civil servants, the thinking went, would make it easier to fire corrupt and abusive employees.

It was, to be sure, an extreme measure. But the panel, a subcommittee of a larger Homeland Security advisory council, had been created late in President Barack Obama’s second term because U.S. Customs and Border Protection seemed in crisis, and the panel subsequently determined that the agency was plagued by a system that allowed bad actors to stay on the payroll for years after they’d engaged in egregious, even criminal, misconduct. Because of civil service protections, a Border Patrol agent who’d been disciplined for bad behavior could challenge his or her punishment through four rounds of escalating appeals before taking the case to an arbitrator or a federal hearing board.

And the panel — headed by William Bratton, who had run police departments in Boston, New York City and Los Angeles — was deeply concerned about the persistent strain of lawlessness among CBP employees. In a preliminary 2015 report, the panel had noted that “arrests for corruption of CBP personnel far exceed, on a per capita basis, such arrests at other federal law enforcement agencies.” CBP, the panel’s members concluded, was “vulnerable to corruption that threatens its effectiveness and national security.”

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The civil service idea, it turned out, was dead on arrival, one of any number of the panel’s recommendations that have failed to materialize. At least nine of the panel’s suggested reforms, first put forward more than three years ago, have been dropped or haven’t yet been fully put into practice, according to a CBP spokesperson. CBP officials rejected taking away civil service protections in part because it would anger the union representing Border Patrol agents.

“That was going to be a difficult one,” recalled R. Gil Kerlikowske, who served as CBP commissioner at the time of the panel’s reports on corruption and misconduct in 2015 and 2016.

The union did not respond to requests for comment.

CBP, and chiefly the Border Patrol, is again front and center as the nation confronts the volatile issue of illegal immigration. The administration of President Donald Trump has pledged to take the “handcuffs off” law enforcement agents as part of an aggressive push to stem the flow of migrants across the country’s southern border. The performance of Border Patrol agents was one element of the widespread outrage provoked by the administration’s decision to separate children from their parents at the border.

The agency, at least publicly, agreed with many of the advisory council’s recommendations when they were issued in 2016. And last year, Kevin McAleenan — then head of CBP and recently named by Trump to be the acting secretary for Homeland Security — told Congress that the agency had implemented 42 of the panel’s 53 recommendations.

A closer look, however, indicates that CBP has moved slowly on several central reform proposals. To cite one: The panel encouraged CBP to create a discipline czar, a high-level official who could track all the misconduct and corruption cases and keep the agency’s commissioner informed about them.

In a statement to ProPublica, CBP said the agency, more than three years later, was still “working on the best options to meet this recommendation.”

Perhaps most significant: The panel recommended that CBP hire 350 internal affairs investigators over a three-year period and task them with looking into misconduct and corruption. So far, the agency has brought on only about 50 investigators.

Some experts on immigration and border protection fear that the prospects for lengthy and lasting reforms of CBP have dimmed under the current administration.

“They’re dragging their feet,” said Vicki Gaubeca, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, an advocacy group focused on holding CBP accountable. “What’s the motivation behind this taking so long?”

Looking at his former agency, Kerlikowske said he was more optimistic about the progress CBP has made, noting that some key reform proposals had been enacted and are still in effect. “I think it’s trending in the right direction.”


CBP is a relatively new creation. It was formed in the aftermath of 9/11, in 2003, when federal officials took two distinct organizations — the U.S. Customs Service and the Border Patrol — and fused them into a single agency operating beneath the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security. (Several smaller agencies were also part of this reorganization.) It is now the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, a behemoth far larger, in both budgetary terms and personnel numbers, than either the FBI or the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Over the past 16 years, CBP employees have earned a reputation for both heroism and misconduct. Working under challenging conditions, they have disrupted dangerous smuggling rings and saved the lives of desperate migrants stranded in the scorching deserts of the American Southwest. But customs officers and Border Patrol agents have also run afoul of the law, often in extreme fashion. Every year, approximately 250 CBP employees are arrested, many on suspicion of serious felonies; dozens have been jailed in recent years on corruption charges, including weapons trafficking and collaborating with Mexican drug cartels.

During the Obama years, critics decried a series of incidents in which Border Patrol agents shot civilians, many of them Mexican nationals, often under questionable circumstances.

“It was a critical issue,” said Kerlikowske, who headed the agency at the time. “The Border Patrol was under a huge amount of scrutiny from the advocacy groups and the press.”

Kerlikowske and his deputies dramatically changed the agency’s policies around using firearms, bringing them in line with those of other law enforcement organizations. Shootings dropped precipitously.

But complaints of physical and verbal abuse by migrants taken into custody have not. According to a CBP document, each year the agency “receives and reviews hundreds of allegations” of excessive force. This year, CBP paid $125,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging that a Border Patrol agent groped the breasts and genitals of two teenage Guatemalan girls detained in Presidio, Texas. It’s unclear whether the agent at the center of the allegations has been disciplined or ousted from the patrol.

It was this sort of toxic behavior that Bratton and the other members of the advisory panel named by Obama were looking to address. Their assessment of CBP was stinging — the agency’s “discipline system is broken,” they wrote — and their recommendations were extensive, covering everything from the use of real-time GPS tracking to the deployment of body cameras.

Investigations into misconduct and criminality within the agency are handled by a host of different units with overlapping jurisdiction: local CBP supervisors; CBP’s nationwide internal affairs unit; the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general; the civil rights office at Homeland Security; and, in certain cases, the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice. The situation has led to bureaucratic turf battles and a general inefficiency, experts said.

The panel encouraged the two key players, CBP and the inspector general, to draft a formal memorandum of understanding laying out which cases would be investigated by the inspector general’s staff and which would be examined by CBP’s internal affairs investigators.

Three years later, the two sides have been unable to come to an agreement.

A CBP spokesperson blamed the impasse on the inspector general, who gets first crack at most misconduct investigations, saying the office “does not want to relinquish its first right of refusal.”

The inspector general’s office said it has a “productive working relationship” with CBP and its internal affairs unit. But the office believes that it, not CBP, should “investigate the most egregious allegations” of misconduct and that the inspector general’s staff should get the first look at those cases.

This week, the office issued a withering 69-page audit on disciplinary practices across the Department of Homeland Security, including CBP. According to the report, the department “does not have sufficient policies and procedures to address employee misconduct.”

CBP came in for particular scrutiny. Auditors surveyed more than 4,000 supervisors with the agency. Of those surveyed, 58% said they needed more training in responding to bad behavior by employees and taking disciplinary action. Thousands of lower-ranking employees who were surveyed expressed little faith in their bosses, with nearly a quarter saying that they feared retaliation for reporting misconduct by their colleagues, and more than 32% stating that they didn’t trust their supervisors to “take appropriate action to correct misconduct in the workplace.” Nearly 47% said they'd personally witnessed four or more acts of misconduct at CBP over the past three years.

The inspector general’s office has had its own embarrassments of late. This month, Acting Inspector General John V. Kelly resigned after the publication of damning media stories suggesting that he had improperly edited and revised the office’s reports on disaster relief efforts. Kelly insisted at the time that he had merely retired, although he said he had failed to set a tone of objectivity for his staff.

Few experts and advocates interviewed by ProPublica expressed faith in the CBP’s fragmented oversight system. They described it as a black hole, a vortex in which serious complaints are ignored or lost, simple investigations drag on for years, and victims are barred from learning whether the government employees who’ve harmed them have been sanctioned in any way.

“A multibillion-dollar federal agency shouldn’t work that way,” said Jeremy Slack, an assistant geography professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who studies migration patterns and law enforcement. The agency, he argued, has become secretive to a fault. “They’re not exactly open. A lot of the insight that I have comes from people who work at CBP and are afraid to go on the record.”

CBP said it is barred by federal privacy laws from disclosing the names of officers and agents sanctioned for misconduct. “However, to promote accountability and transparency, CBP does publish an annual discipline report containing aggregate discipline data,” said a spokesperson. The report tallies the number and types of misconduct investigations across the agency, but it does not detail the outcomes of individual cases.

Based in Nogales, Arizona, a small, dusty town in the Sonoran Desert, Joanna Williams works for the Kino Border Initiative, a Catholic group that aides migrants. She has frequent contact with federal officials.

In her experience, allegations of misconduct are frequently dealt with at the local level by supervisors, rather than professional investigators at any of the bodies tasked with overseeing CBP. In Williams’ estimation, the number of cases handled by local Border Patrol supervisors “far exceeds the number that are getting sent to the official investigators.”


Some of CBP’s reforms have clearly stalled, said Chris Rickerd, a senior policy counsel at the ACLU who tracks border issues, and Trump’s recurring rhetoric about getting tough at the border, Rickerd said, “sets precisely the wrong tone.”

Rickerd would like to see the agency get body cameras out into the field. While CBP has tested out cameras in two pilot programs, it still has not adopted the technology, which is common in many big city police departments. The cameras could help cut down on abusive behavior, Rickerd said.

In Kerlikowske’s view, Border Patrol agents would welcome body cameras. “The difficulty we had was finding a camera that could withstand the terrain,” he said of the harsh climate along the southern border. “The cameras we tested back then were pretty much gummed up by the dust or the dirt within about two months.” He also noted that at an agency the size of CBP, the costs of storing the vast amounts of footage accrued could be massive.

Bratton and his panel also encouraged CBP to revamp the penalties for employees who flout agency rules — and to create “mandatory consequences for the most serious offenses.” Today, the new penalty guidelines are still a work in progress. CBP said they are “currently under final review” but are not yet in effect.

Perhaps the most important recommendation made by Bratton and the other members of the advisory panel regarded staffing. In the view of the panel, CBP needed to add some 350 internal affairs investigators to keep up with the number of complaints streaming into the agency. The panel said CBP should hire them over the next three years.

Since then, the agency has added about 50 new investigators and said it has received funds to hire 30 more.

“They staffing component continues to be a concern. I’m glad they’re working on it. But they’re not there,” Williams said. “And, of course, I think there’s a role for Congress to make it a funding priority.”

Some wonder whether the union representing Border Patrol agents, the National Border Patrol Council, is working to stifle changes that would impact its members. The union has achieved a new level of prominence in the Trump era, with union head Brandon Judd appearing frequently on Fox News to champion the president’s hardline approach to immigration policy; Trump has often spoken and tweeted his support for Judd, a tough-talking veteran who has spent more than two decades with the Border Patrol.

The union did not respond to questions about its stance on various reform proposals.

“I think there’s a lot of resistance from the union,” said Slack, who is the author of “Deported to Death: How Drug Violence is Changing Migration on the U.S.-Mexico Border.” “The union is a very powerful voice for a much more radical vision of what border enforcement can be. They have a vision of the Border Patrol as a paramilitary force.”

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[l] at 6/20/19 3:00am

by Melissa Sanchez and Duaa Eldeib

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. When his son was born in 2014, Jorge Matias held the infant in the hospital and sang him the lullabies he had learned as a child in Guatemala. He teased the boy’s mother that he would raise their son to speak Spanish, and one day the two of them would talk in secret around her. But the boy was born with heroin in his system and, when it cleared from his body, Illinois child welfare officials placed him in a foster home. To get his son back, Matias had to complete a long list of requirements, including ending his relationship with the boy’s mother, a heroin addict. Matias visited the boy at his caseworker’s office, changed diapers and learned to prepare a bottle. He documented his son’s growth with photos and videos on his cellphone. Shortly before the boy turned 1, at a visit with his father at a library, his foster mother sitting nearby, he spoke what was, for Matias, his child’s first word. Not in Spanish. Or in English. But in Slovak. Mamka. Mommy. In that moment, Matias realized his son was being raised speaking a language he did not understand. He feared what would happen if it took longer to get him back. Matias sought out the Eastern European men he worked with on carpentry jobs and learned to use language apps on his phone for useful words and phrases. Slowly, he picked up a handful of Slovak words: Blanket. Bottle. Up. Down. Tomatoes. Chicken. But he couldn’t keep up. By the time the boy turned 2, in the summer of 2016, Matias told a therapist during a required session that he was worried about his growing inability to communicate with his son. Six months later, his son began to scream when Matias picked him up for visits. He cried out for his foster father. “Ocko,” he called him, the Slovak word for daddy. A History of Falling Short For more than 40 years, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has been under a federal court order to place the children of Spanish-speaking, Latino parents in foster homes where that language is spoken. This order, known as the Burgos consent decree, has the power to benefit thousands of families in a state with one of the country’s largest Spanish-speaking populations. In fact, the consent decree often is cited as a national model, most recently in a study of how child welfare agencies across the U.S. serve immigrant families, an issue that’s only become more critical amid the heightened political climate around immigration. But a ProPublica Illinois investigation has found that DCFS has repeatedly failed in its obligations to help Spanish-speaking families. The agency continues to place children in homes where their parents’ language isn’t spoken and to assign caseworkers who don’t speak Spanish to parents who aren’t proficient in English. Hundreds of families across generations have been affected, beginning with the family for whom the consent decree is named and continuing to this day, with the story of Matias’ children, who were placed in a foster home where neither English nor Spanish was spoken. In some cases, the language gap has caused workers to miss key information in investigations of abuse and neglect, records show, contributing to the injuries and deaths of children in state care. The shortcomings extend to the private agencies that work with these families and those charged with overseeing enforcement of the court order. “You’re destroying families,” said Layla Suleiman Gonzalez, a former federal court monitor of the consent decree who now teaches at Loyola University Chicago. “Once you take away a child’s language, you’re taking his or her identity, his connection to the family and the community and the culture.” The agency’s records show nearly 300 possible Burgos violations since 2005. That number is almost certainly an undercount because basic information about a case, including race, ethnicity and language preferences, frequently has been unreliable and, in some instances, was deliberately falsified by staffers. DCFS cannot provide a consistent count of children of Spanish-speaking parents who are currently in foster homes where Spanish is not spoken. The agency initially provided data that showed more than 50 children in recent placements that could violate the consent decree. DCFS spokesman Jassen Strokosch later said there were only two violations. In May, he said the agency performed a case-by-case review and reported that the correct figure was fewer than 25. Finally, this week, Strokosch acknowledged “difficulties providing accurate numbers.” He added that now, “from top to bottom, we’re looking at better ways to do that reporting.” Some placements may appear to violate Burgos but don’t because the agency might have prioritized other factors, such as the medical needs of the child, above language, he said. Other placements may violate agency policy but not Burgos, because the consent decree covers families in the Chicago area but DCFS policy applies the order statewide. Still, Strokosch said, complying with Burgos and ensuring that Spanish-speaking families across Illinois receive services in their own language is a priority of DCFS acting director Marc Smith, who was appointed to the position in April by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Smith is the agency’s 13th leader in the last decade. “DCFS is committed to being fully responsive to the needs of the children and families we serve, providing care and services that accounts for differences in culture, language, and background,” Strokosch said. For an agency that has long struggled with high-profile child deaths and crushing caseloads, it’s easy to see how Burgos has been ignored, said Rubén Castillo, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois and the first federal court monitor on the consent decree. DCFS, he said, has been so overwhelmed by responding to crises that it has not prioritized issues specific to Latinos, who make up just 8% of the more than 16,000 children in state care. “I have yet to see any big push on the part of any of the directors of DCFS to either hire Hispanic workers or to seek to have more Hispanic foster families,” Castillo said. “I think there’s been too many transitions, too many new priorities, too many emergency cases, too many kids dying in bad situations.” For years, no organization outside DCFS has been able to examine if it complies with the court decree. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a national civil rights group that represents families in the Burgos litigation, said the state has repeatedly refused to provide information that would help it monitor the consent decree. MALDEF leaders, in interviews and in a written statement, said they are now considering their legal options but worry the protections granted to families under the consent decree could be eliminated if they take DCFS back to court. The preservation of families stands as a guiding principle in child welfare. But violating parents’ Burgos rights can delay reunification, a process that may already take years. Children who are cut off from their birth parents may end up with anglicized names, different religious practices or immersed in a foreign culture. In some cases, prolonged separations make it almost impossible to determine what’s best for these children: returning them to birth parents they may barely know or keeping them with foster parents who, perhaps, should never have had them for so long but who have watched them grow and loved them as their own. A Promise of Reform Leopoldo and Iris Burgos moved to Chicago from Puerto Rico in 1970 and spoke only Spanish. In March 1972, DCFS investigators took custody of two of their children, Olga and Henry. Nearly half a century later, the specific allegation against the parents is unclear. News reports from the late 1980s say the children were found filthy and pecked by chickens the family kept in their apartment. Caseworkers from a private agency contracted by DCFS placed Olga, who was around 3 at the time, and Henry, then around 6, in separate foster homes where only English was spoken. Four social workers would handle the case over the next three years. None spoke Spanish. The language barriers delayed even the simplest interactions. In a sworn affidavit, Iris Burgos said she didn’t see her daughter for seven months “because I could not communicate with anyone” from the agency. All notices sent to the family were in English. The Burgos’ oldest daughter, about 11 at the time, often served as an interpreter. It’s unclear why she or other siblings weren’t taken into custody. A bilingual caseworker wasn’t assigned until three years after the family entered the child welfare system. “For the first time,” Iris Burgos said in the affidavit, “we now know what is expected of us and how we can plan a program which will hopefully lead to the eventual return of our children.” What happened to the Burgos family was standard for the era. A DCFS study from 1974 found that 80% of children of Latino parents taken into state care were placed in non-Latino foster homes. Some 67% of cases involving Spanish-speaking parents were handled by caseworkers who didn’t speak the language. In November 1975, the nonprofit Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago filed a class-action civil rights lawsuit against DCFS and two of its vendors arguing systematic discrimination against Spanish-speaking Latino families. Less than two years later, with the lawsuit still pending, DCFS agreed to reforms. Chief among them was a mandate to place children of Spanish-speaking families in foster homes where their language would be preserved. If an appropriate home couldn’t be found within two months, the state needed to keep a record of every effort made to find one. The consent decree covered Spanish-speaking families in Chicago and its suburbs whose children were taken into DCFS custody. The agency later extended its policies statewide and to families that had been investigated for abuse or neglect but whose children hadn’t been removed from their home. DCFS also agreed to increase the number of Spanish-language foster homes, hire more bilingual staff and translate case documents. And it promised to maintain an accurate count of Latino families for whom Spanish was the primary language, information essential to track compliance. It was an ambitious goal, one that DCFS struggled to meet from the beginning. Waiving His Rights Jorge Matias left Guatemala in 2003, when relatives living in Chicago came to visit the small town where he had grown up with nine brothers and sisters. He was a teenager at the time who, after finishing high school, worked digging irrigation ditches on a banana plantation. His relatives’ return trek to the U.S. presented an opportunity to pursue a better life. As Matias and a relative crossed the border on foot near El Paso, they were apprehended by immigration agents. But they were quickly released with a warning to expect a notice in the mail to appear in immigration court. Matias, now 34, didn’t think much of the encounter as he made his way to Chicago. He moved into an apartment near Humboldt Park, on the city’s Near West Side, with his father, who had immigrated years earlier. Within a few years, Matias was earning as much as $40,000 a year. “I started all the way at the bottom,” he said, “but when I learned carpentry, I was able to make that money.” Every few weeks, he wired money back home to his mother. When his father returned to Guatemala, Matias stayed behind. He liked his life in Humboldt Park, where he could take walks through the neighborhood’s namesake park and hear people speaking Spanish. His routine included taking the bus to evening English classes on the city’s North Side. He would study English for years and come to comprehend it, though it would remain difficult for other people to understand him. One day in 2012, Matias was on the bus on the way to class when he noticed Heather Penar. He liked her smile and made small talk. She responded, friendly and open. “She was someone I could practice my English with,” Matias recalled. “She understood me.” And Penar, too, was drawn to him. In a recent interview, she said she’d never felt “so safe and warm and secure” with anybody before Matias. They dated casually at first, getting takeout from Thai and Mexican restaurants and heading to the park to talk. Matias asked her to move in with him after he learned she was pregnant. They talked about getting married and moving to suburban Oak Park. But her addiction to heroin and Xanax, she said, derailed their plans. Penar, who has been convicted of shoplifting and drug possession, said she hid her addiction from Matias until he found her passed out one day on the bathroom floor. He said he thought about leaving her but wanted to help her get clean. He took her to a clinic, where she was given methadone. Penar gave birth in the summer of 2013 to a boy who had been exposed to drugs. Matias said he visited the boy for weeks at the hospital until a paternity test showed he was not the father, and the boy was placed in a foster home. The following summer, Penar gave birth to another drug-exposed son. A DNA test confirming that Matias was the father wouldn’t be given until after the boy was placed with the Slovak foster parents, Jana and Peter Palenik. Children’s Home & Aid, the nonprofit child welfare organization that had the case on a contract with DCFS, has declined to comment for this story. The Paleniks declined repeated interview requests. DCFS said state law prohibits it from discussing individual cases. In April, a Cook County Juvenile Court judge issued an order prohibiting ProPublica Illinois from publishing the names or images of the children, citing privacy issues. A supervisor from Children’s Home & Aid later told DCFS that one reason the boy wasn’t placed in a home where Spanish was spoken was the delay in determining paternity, according to case notes. That delay, the supervisor said, was also a factor in why the Paleniks weren’t told what language to speak to the infant. After his son had been with the Paleniks for about six weeks, DCFS told Matias he could request a home where Spanish was spoken. Matias said he had relatives who would take his son, although he was happy with the care the Paleniks provided and didn’t see the need to move him, records show. Matias, who thought he would get his son back in a few months, said he couldn’t imagine this decision would have long-term effects. At the time, Matias thought the Paleniks spoke English at home. He didn’t know they were from Slovakia until months after his son had been placed there. The Paleniks later told DCFS they spoke only Slovak at home. The day after the meeting with DCFS, Matias told an aide that he didn’t “consider himself to be fluent in English,” according to the case file. Then his caseworker and a bilingual colleague asked Matias whether he wanted services in English or Spanish. If he chose Spanish, the caseworker told him, she would no longer be on the case. If he chose English, his caseworker said, “she would find Spanish services for the things he is required to do” to get custody. Matias chose English. By doing so, the supervisor from Children’s Home & Aid later told DCFS, Matias agreed to relinquish his Burgos rights. Later, Matias told DCFS workers he was told he could bring his son home faster by choosing English, according to the case file. A Lack of Oversight In the years after the Burgos consent decree was signed, lawyers and court-appointed monitors repeatedly found that DCFS had mishandled waivers or coerced parents into giving up their Burgos rights. In 1979, a little over two years after the decree went into effect, the Legal Assistance Foundation took DCFS back to court, in part because DCFS claimed 113 Spanish-speaking clients had waived their rights though it could provide copies of only 13 waivers. Some had been signed by children. The issue came up again in 1991. In his first report on DCFS compliance, Castillo, the first court-appointed monitor, described cases in which workers would “essentially coerce families to execute Burgos waivers” by telling them they wouldn’t be reunited with their children. He said the agency’s misuse of waivers could “swallow up the entire purpose” of the court order. As a result, DCFS agreed to stop using the waivers, though a language determination form has effectively replaced them. Today, parents whose primary language is Spanish waive their rights by saying they prefer to receive services in English on the forms. Strokosch said DCFS does not consider the forms waivers and said any attempt to “influence a parent’s selection of a preferred language with the promise of faster services would be totally unacceptable and immediately investigated.” Other problems periodically arose, including not translating records and using children as interpreters. In one case, described in a 2008 report from DCFS’ inspector general, a supervisor persuaded an immigrant mother to sign a document giving up guardianship of her baby. The document was in English, which she could not read. DCFS also continues to assign caseworkers who don’t speak Spanish to Latino families. Agency records of active cases involving Spanish-speaking families as of January 2019 showed more than 100 Spanish-speaking families were being served by caseworkers who cannot speak Spanish. It’s unclear whether they used interpreters. DCFS said it reviewed its records and found that many caseworkers were wrongly labeled as not speaking Spanish when, in fact, they do. Inaccurate coding and data collection has been a persistent problem at the agency. A 1985 outside study found DCFS did not properly identify whether families were Hispanic. A 1997 monitoring report found inaccurate or inconsistent data had led to a likely undercount of families who preferred services in Spanish. A 2017 agency video celebrating the consent decree’s 40th anniversary features DCFS’ in-house Burgos coordinator explaining how “today we still have an issue on coding the families correctly in terms of not only their ethnicity but the language that they use, if they need an interpreter, if it’s a Burgos-class family.” Matias’ son, for instance, is listed as white and English-speaking in the agency’s case file. DCFS records show that the agency has particularly struggled to track language preferences for families like his, where the father speaks Spanish and the mother English. Burgos requirements apply even if just one parent prefers Spanish. Caseworkers also have intentionally misclassified families. In a 2009 review, DCFS’ in-house Burgos coordinator, Lourdes Rodriguez, found that staff in a Chicago-area office labeled families as white and English-speaking to reduce caseload numbers and bilingual staffing requirements. “I do not have enough bilingual investigators and what am I to do, management knows that we are violating the Burgos Consent Decree, but I have to assign the cases anyway to whom I have available,” a case supervisor said at the time, according to the review. Strokosch said the agency is “making improvements to the way Burgos consent decree compliance is tracked at DCFS and aims to be fully transparent with stakeholders and the public as we move forward.” MALDEF took over the job of representing families in the Burgos litigation in 1996. In a recent interview, Nina Perales, MALDEF’s vice president of litigation, said that, from the start, it was a struggle to get information that would allow it to monitor compliance. She said MALDEF lawyers wrote a number of letters over several years asking the Illinois attorney general’s office, which represents DCFS in the Burgos litigation, for monitoring reports. But the information was either incomplete or not provided.Their last communication was in 2012; then, according to Perales, the attorney general’s office said it was not required to provide those reports and that MALDEF would have to discover Burgos violations on its own. “The agency shut the door,” she said. “They were not going to provide any more information. They were not going to cooperate with us on enforcement.” The attorney general’s office disagreed with Perales’ characterization and said the “consent decree directs the plaintiffs to work with DCFS to ensure the state is in compliance with the decree, and the Attorney General’s office will continue to be willing to meet with the plaintiffs to help facilitate that process.” Since 2012, MALDEF attorneys have met with community organizations and others in “a continuing investigation of Burgos compliance” and researched strategies to ensure Spanish-speaking families in Illinois are served, Perales said. But proving discrimination under federal civil rights law has become more difficult since the Burgos litigation was first filed; plaintiffs now have to show intent, not just the effects of discrimination. Returning to court, Perales said, could unravel the consent decree and undermine its protections. “The issue,” she said, “is as pressing if not more today than it was in the 1970s.” A New Generation of Burgos Violations A generation after the Burgos lawsuit was filed, another Spanish-speaking father went to court to fight for children who had been placed in a home where only English was spoken. DCFS took custody of Jose Zapata’s first daughter in 1997, when she was 6 months old, after police in west suburban Elgin said they observed the baby’s mother handling her roughly. At the time, Zapata and the mother were separated, though she was pregnant with their second daughter. Both daughters would eventually be placed in the foster home of an English-speaking couple. Zapata didn’t speak English or have a lawyer — he wouldn’t be appointed one for nearly a year — but he set about seeking custody of his daughters. From the start, language complicated his efforts. DCFS did not assign a bilingual caseworker for about a year. Interpreters weren’t always provided. A psychological assessment found Zapata lacked the intellectual capacity to care for the girls; the assessment was administered in English. When Zapata was tested again in Spanish, court records show, his scores improved. Zapata’s status as an undocumented immigrant also counted against him. At court hearings, a caseworker and an attorney hired by the foster parents said it showed his “disregard” for the law. As the case continued, Zapata married another woman and had a son. But he said he spent so much time driving to visits, therapy, parenting classes, drug counseling and other requirements that he couldn’t support his family. “They kept me busy all day for years,” said Zapata, who worked weekends and nights at an aunt’s grocery store. Relatives gave the family money for food, formula and diapers. His in-laws moved in to help pay the bills. All the while, the relationship between Zapata and the foster family deteriorated, court records show. The foster parents baptized his daughters in their Protestant church without his knowledge. If he arrived a few minutes late to his youngest daughter’s therapy, held two hours away at the foster parents’ home, they wouldn’t let him in. The foster parents said they doubted Zapata’s ability to care for the girls. “We could accept the return of the children to their father if objective evidence were provided that he could indeed parent these children,” they wrote. “After two years we have grown to love these children and just want to ensure that they will have the opportunity to grow up to become beautiful and productive members of our society.” The case took a turn in Zapata’s favor when, after two years, he reached out to the Mexican Consulate in Chicago. Salvador Cicero, an attorney there at the time, remembers the look of defeat on Zapata’s face when they met. “Everybody tells me I have to sign my children over,” he told Cicero. The consulate found him attorneys, got the attention of reporters on both sides of the border and developed a relationship with DCFS leadership. Agency officials eventually conducted their own investigation and found that Zapata’s Burgos rights had been violated. As a result of the case, DCFS and the Mexican Consulate signed an agreement in 2001 that requires the agency to inform Mexican parents that they can ask for their consulate to be notified if their children are taken into custody. Finally, in 2004, more than six years after his daughters were taken into custody, Zapata brought them home. But no one knew how the girls, who couldn’t speak Spanish, would adapt. Progress and Setbacks Several days a week, Matias left work early and arrived late, cutting into his pay, to make it to visits, therapy, classes and random drug tests in his quest to gain custody of his son. His caseworker reminded him that he would need to prove he was “financially capable” of meeting his son’s needs. He signed a lease on a two-bedroom apartment with the understanding that DCFS would help him cover the deposit, but he didn’t get the assistance because his son’s return home was not imminent. When Matias was approved for unsupervised visits, he was too embarrassed to have the visits take place in his sparsely furnished apartment. He got permission to meet his son in the home of an aunt and uncle who lived nearby. Children’s Home & Aid staff visited their apartment and spoke with his aunt in the fall of 2015, when the boy was 1, records show. But it’s unclear if she or any of Matias’ other relatives were considered as potential foster families; DCFS typically encourages placements with relatives before strangers. Agency records say no relatives “were able to care for him.” Matias said he suggested the aunt and uncle, in addition to another set of relatives. Both sets of relatives told ProPublica Illinois they would have been happy to take in their nephew’s son. Such an arrangement would have made it “easier to stay connected to my son,” Matias said. And they would have raised the boy speaking Spanish. Case notes indicate that, in late 2015, Matias’ caseworker told him it was time to begin overnight visits. When he expressed anxiety about having sole responsibility for his son overnight, the Paleniks invited him to spend the night at their home so he could learn his son’s routine. Then Matias’ caseworker discovered he had been seeing the boy’s mother. The progress he had made on getting back his son came to a halt. His caseworker worried about his ability to protect the boy from Penar’s substance abuse. When she relapsed, Penar would disappear for months at a time. Matias, who has never been accused of abuse or neglect, said he tried to cut ties with her. He changed his cellphone number and dated another woman. But he said it was hard to say no when Penar asked for money for methadone or for a ride to visit her two daughters from prior relationships who lived with relatives in the suburbs. Even now, after all that’s happened, Matias says he still loves her. Soon after it was discovered that Matias was still seeing Penar, he asked for a caseworker who spoke Spanish. The agency agreed. Matias said his original caseworker didn’t seem to understand his accented English and often asked him to repeat himself. Despite all the classes he’d taken, Matias could never express himself the way he wanted in English. And he said he didn’t think the caseworker took his concerns seriously. It’s unclear why Matias’ request didn’t trigger Burgos protections, or if Children’s Home & Aid or DCFS considered moving his son to a foster home where Spanish was spoken. As the months passed, the Paleniks grew attached to the boy. And he grew attached to them. The Paleniks live in a single-story, brick home on a tree-lined street in a southwest suburb. Some of the neighbors are, like them, Eastern European immigrants. Their children have grown up together, speaking Slovak and Polish. Two neighbors described the Paleniks as good parents and said they have watched them teach the boy to ride a bicycle and take him to a nearby park. The Paleniks, who are from the northern part of Slovakia near the border with Poland, took the boy there to see relatives, records show. Not long after the boy turned 2, DCFS approved overnight visits. But the boy cried when Matias came to pick him up. Matias called his new caseworker to say he didn’t think his son liked him. The Paleniks also complained of changes to the boy’s behavior. “We have to get up several times every night to calm and reassure him,” they wrote in a December 2016 email included in the case file. “It is steadily getting worse, and we are worried what may happen next.” The agency ended the overnight visits and Jana Palenik reported that the boy’s behavior improved. After that, Children’s Home & Aid sent Matias to child-parent psychotherapy designed to help him bond with his son. But Jana Palenik sat in on the sessions. She needed to be there, the therapist wrote, because the boy spoke mostly Slovak. There is no indication that anybody from Children’s Home & Aid or DCFS considered if the father and son’s inability to speak the same language contributed to their struggle to bond. Then, in September 2017, the case reached a tipping point. Penar gave birth to Matias’ second child. The baby girl, who also was born with heroin in her system, was placed with the Paleniks. They started asking about adoption, saying their trust in Matias was “completely broken due to him lying about his relationship with Heather,” according to case notes. By early 2018, the agency recommended terminating Matias’ parental rights and awarding guardianship to the Paleniks. Workers cited Matias’ continued contact with Penar and his inability, despite interventions, to bond with his son. Lives at Stake DCFS is charged with protecting children in its care. But the agency’s shortcomings serving Spanish-speaking families has contributed to failures to investigate cases in which children ended up being hurt and even killed, according to records. ProPublica Illinois reviewed annual reports since 2005 from the agency’s inspector general’s office, which examines child deaths and other major cases of abuse or neglect when the family has had contact with DCFS within the previous 12 months. The review found more than a half-dozen cases where language barriers contributed to a flawed investigation, including at least three that ended in a child’s death. One case involved a 6-month-old boy who died in a 2005 trailer fire in western Illinois. A DCFS investigator had previously visited the home with an interpreter and noted potentially hazardous space heaters. The investigator relied on the interpreter’s opinion that the space heaters were safe. Nobody warned the family about the risk, the father later told the Belleville News-Democrat. “If they would have told us it was bad,” he said, “we would have gotten rid of them.” In response, the inspector general recommended DCFS hire a Spanish-speaking worker for the region around Belleville. DCFS agreed, saying at the time that it actively pursues hiring Spanish-speaking staff for each region. In another case, a DCFS worker who did not speak Spanish relied on a number of interpreters, including relatives, while investigating the abuse of an 8-month-old boy in 2004 in Aurora, a heavily Latino suburb west of Chicago. DCFS closed its investigation of the case, but the baby died a few days later after being shaken. His father was convicted of murder. The inspector general’s office told DCFS it needed more bilingual workers in areas with growing Spanish-speaking populations. In yet another case, no Spanish-speaking hotline operators were available in 2010 to take a call reporting suspected abuse of a 1-year-old girl. By the time the caller finally got through two days later and then, later still, an investigator checked in on her, the bruises had faded. The girl died a few days later of suffocation and blunt force trauma. Her mother was later convicted of aggravated battery of a child. After the inspector general’s report on the death came out in 2012, Rodriguez, the agency’s Burgos in-house coordinator, began looking into staffing at the hotline call center. DCFS in 2016 opened a second call center staffed with more bilingual operators, including one Spanish speaker per shift. Rodriguez also asked to be notified of deaths of Latino children to determine if language barriers somehow contributed, according to a 2015 memo. The agency did not provide this notification. Strokosch, the DCFS spokesman, said Rodriguez could investigate those cases without any special notification. “Lourdes’ opinion that she needs to have that notification is her own opinion. Every child death is investigated, whether it’s Burgos or not,” he said. “If language was a barrier in those cases, we would expect to see that in the findings.” Thousands of DCFS investigations each year list Spanish as families’ preferred language, records show. Agency policy calls for such cases to be handled by a bilingual investigator, and only if one is not available should an interpreter be used. Relatives, who might be biased, should be avoided as interpreters, according to policy. But a February staffing report found the pace of hiring Latino and bilingual workers hasn’t kept up with the state’s growing Latino population and an increasing number of investigations requiring Spanish. In fact, DCFS last year reported fewer bilingual employees than it did a decade ago. The agency also falls short of a state law mandating more bilingual staff at agencies where public services are most used. The law requires 194 bilingual frontline workers at DCFS; last year the agency reported 156. The lack of bilingual workers also has jeopardized other investigations. In one case, cited in the inspector general’s 2011 report, three siblings denied they were abused by their mother when a maternal aunt was used as an interpreter. Only after a bilingual worker interviewed one of the children did he admit they had been physically and sexually abused. According to the inspector general’s report, he said he had been “unwilling to discuss the subject in the presence of his aunt.” The investigator also failed to translate documents from the family’s home country, including a doctor’s assessment that the children were “in danger of being seriously injured or killed if left in the mother’s custody.” DCFS suspended the investigator and supervisor on the case, according to the inspector general’s report. Many workers rely on an agency language line for interpretation. More than 2,000 calls were made to the language line requesting Spanish interpreters from June 2017 through May 2018, records show. The average call lasted 15 minutes. Dozens exceeded an hour. Rodriguez has documented significant problems with the language line. Workers, according to a 2012 memo, worried they “may be putting children at risk” and “their licenses in jeopardy” by using it. Interpreters sometimes provided a five-word summary of 10-minute conversations. Parents said they did not always understand the interpretations. DCFS did not seek changes in response to Rodriguez’s concerns. Strokosch said he cannot comment on the quality of translations in 2012, but he said the agency is confident in the language line today. An Arrest On Aug. 14, 2018, Matias woke up before dawn, nervous, excited and, for the first time in years, hopeful. He was scheduled to meet with a new caseworker, this time one who worked directly for DCFS. Five months earlier, his public defender had filed a complaint with the agency’s inspector general alleging that Children’s Home & Aid workers had bullied Matias, made disparaging comments about undocumented immigrants and refused to talk to him about the case in his attorney’s presence. The inspector general opened an investigation and, last July, issued an interim report that indicated serious bias against Matias and an unnecessary delay in finding a permanent home for his children. The inspector general recommended that DCFS conduct its own review and decide if Children’s Home & Aid should be removed from the case. DCFS took over the case and opened an internal investigation into whether Matias’ Burgos rights had been violated. That August day, as Matias drove toward the DCFS offices for his first meeting with the new caseworker, all he could think about was making a good impression. But just a few blocks from his apartment, Matias was pulled over by an unmarked car with flashing lights. It was U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. An agent ran his fingerprints and discovered a deportation order tied to Matias’ failure to appear at an immigration hearing scheduled after he had been caught crossing the border more than a decade earlier. An ICE spokeswoman said agents had been outside his apartment building looking for someone else; they didn’t target Matias, who had no criminal record. Unlike the political climate two decades ago, when authorities overlooked Zapata’s immigration status, under the Trump administration nearly everyone who is undocumented is a priority for deportation, regardless of criminal record or familial ties. In November, three months after his arrest, Matias was sent back to Guatemala. The Fundamental Dilemma In February, Acting DCFS Inspector General Meryl Paniak issued a report that found Matias’ parental rights were violated. His case, she wrote, was perhaps worse than that of the original Burgos family. The confidential report emphasized that the consent decree “is not a mere formality” but “an expression of the need to respect ties to families of origin, to facilitate return home.” Paniak wrote that “placing any child in a home from birth where they are not taught any language by which they can communicate with their family of origin violates the basic precept of child welfare.” The way Children’s Home & Aid asked Matias whether he preferred services in English or Spanish encouraged him to waive his Burgos rights, the inspector general found. The report pointed out that Matias had initially asked for services in Spanish for the boy born in 2013, before learning he was not the father. “There was no reason to ask him again,” Paniak wrote. The report revealed that Children’s Home & Aid determined Matias was an unfit parent based on unsupported assumptions, including describing him as “mentally ill or impaired” because he didn’t make enough progress toward getting his children back. The inspector general also found that Children’s Home & Aid conducted excessive drug testing without cause. Matias had not been suspected of using drugs and, records show, never tested positive. The inspector general recommended that Children’s Home & Aid reimburse DCFS for the costs of the drug testing and present a plan to address the “pattern of biased decision-making that pervaded in this case.” DCFS said it has agreed to the recommendations. A Children’s Home & Aid official said the organization responded to the report and submitted a proposed plan but wouldn’t comment further. In her report, the inspector general highlights the dilemma in deciding what’s best for Matias’ children: “It is not clear whether, after four years with one foster family and after [his daughter] was also placed with the Paleniks, what the best interests of the children are at this point in time,” she wrote. “It would be difficult to remove [his son] from the only home he has known since birth, and there is also an interest in keeping the siblings together.” History provides dramatically different versions of what could happen. Olga and Henry Burgos were unable to bond with their parents after they were reunited, the family later said. For Olga Burgos, the years living with her parents after they regained custody were like “being in a foreign country,” she said in a recent series of text messages. She relied on her older siblings to interpret. “It was very very hard because I had to have someone at the house to tell me what my parents were telling me and my siblings were not always around,” she said. Her parents sent her to Puerto Rico for several years to live with her grandmother and learn Spanish. She was held back in school in Puerto Rico, placed in a third-grade classroom though she had been in fifth grade in Chicago. “Imagine an 11 year old in [third] grade,” she wrote. “I was one lost girl.” After high school, she returned to Chicago and worked as a housekeeper. She often thought about her foster parents and, years later, moved to Arizona to be with them, according to a 2007 article in the Chicago Tribune. Henry, according to an earlier Tribune article, had run away repeatedly and never learned Spanish. By comparison, Zapata still relives the joy of having his daughters back. Now 21 and 22, they live at home. One works as a dental assistant; the other pitches in at the family’s grocery store while taking a break from community college. Through their father, they declined to be interviewed. Zapata wept as he described the months after he won custody. The girls refused to be apart and slept in the same bed. They had nightmares. For the first year, Zapata would check on them two or three times a night. “My girls had some worries. They asked, ‘How did this happen?’” Zapata recalled. He had learned enough English to communicate with his daughters when they came home, but he wanted them to learn Spanish. For several months, he took them to Spanish lessons on Saturday mornings. They were baptized again, this time in the Catholic Church. They had their first communions and celebrated their 15th birthdays with traditional quinceañera parties. Each summer, his daughters visit their grandparents in Mexico. With pride in his voice, Zapata said they “speak like Mexicans.” Still, the pain of reliving what happened has kept Zapata from sitting down with them to discuss the case. He said he plans to have that conversation one day. He has kept a box of records for when that day comes. Love, From a Distance In February, Penar gave birth to Matias’ third child, another girl. Again, DCFS took custody. In interviews in February and March, Penar said she hadn’t used drugs for several months. She blames herself for what has happened to her family. “I always trusted I’d eventually get it together and be the mother I wanted to be,” she said. Matias remains in Guatemala, living in the two-story house built with the remittances he sent over the years. He picks up jobs in construction and as a driver but can’t find a steady income. He misses his old life, his old neighborhood, even snow. More than anything, he misses his children. He said he has thought about returning to the U.S. illegally but won’t do it. He could end up in prison. And he still wonders if somebody involved in his children’s case reported him to immigration authorities last August; if that happened once, it could happen again. A Cook County Juvenile Court judge is expected to rule soon on where his children will live. Matias wants them with him in Guatemala. If his children can’t be with him, Matias said he’d like them to live with his relatives in Chicago, not with the Paleniks. “Maybe they were victims, too,” he said of the Paleniks. “But now they want to keep my children.” He fears that if they remain with the Paleniks, they will have an identity crisis later in life. “I want them to know their roots and their relatives,” he said. For now, the two oldest children remain with them. After Matias’ arrest, DCFS encouraged the couple to expose the children to cartoons and music in Spanish. In September, the boy started attending preschool. A neighbor from Poland whose daughter has grown up alongside Matias’ son said the boy “speaks Slovak, some Polish, and he’s learning English.” The Paleniks have told her they want to adopt the children. “They love them like their own,” she said. “They would do anything for them.” In February, Jana Palenik started an online fundraiser for legal fees related to the case. “Being a foster mom comes with everything that motherhood provides; plus extra worry for the kids’ future,” she wrote on a GoFundMe page she has since taken down. “After 5 years as foster parents, my husband and I have come to a point where seeking professional legal services is necessary in order to assure that all further court decisions are being done in the children’s best interests. While asking for donations to fund the legal costs, I’m also asking for prayers for our kiddos to have [a] happy and safe future.” Matias’ youngest child is with his aunt and uncle, Gloria Arellano and Freddy Perez, who have embraced life with a newborn. Arellano quit her job and spends her days taking the baby to doctor’s appointments, meetings with DCFS and on walks in her stroller. The girl, who has her father’s wide eyes, is getting her first teeth and learning to smile. Outside court hearings, lawyers, caseworkers and Jana Palenik often take turns holding the baby and trying to make her laugh. Arellano and Perez are Matias’ connection to the daughter he has never met. Nearly every morning, he messages them on Facebook to ask about his “princesa.” Arellano sends him photos and videos of the girl, usually dressed in pink with a flowered bow on her head. They are conflicted about what’s best for their nephew’s children. They think siblings should grow up together and are remodeling the second floor of their home in case the others join them. At the boy’s fifth birthday party at the Paleniks’ home this month, they watched him hug the baby and call her his sister. At her own home, Arellano often pulls up videos on her phone of the older children to show the baby her siblings. “Deep in my heart, I know that what happened here was wrong. Jorge’s rights were violated,” Arellano said. “And now DCFS wants to do its job. But they showed up too late.” She and her husband have seen how close the older children to their foster parents. Recently, they saw the Paleniks and the children by chance at Walmart. From a few aisles away, they watched them shop. Jana Palenik beamed as she fussed over the girl, almost 2 now, in her arms. Her husband lifted the boy in the air then set him down. He smiled as he walked alongside his foster parents. They looked like a family.
Have you encountered problems getting services you need in Spanish from Illinois state agencies? Tell us your experience.
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[l] at 6/19/19 2:00am

by Jeff Ernsthausen and Justin Elliott

Under a six-lane span of freeway leading into downtown Baltimore sit what may be the most valuable parking spaces in America.

Lying near a development project controlled by Under Armour’s billionaire CEO Kevin Plank, one of Maryland’s richest men, and Goldman Sachs, the little sliver of land will allow Plank and the other investors to claim what could amount to millions in tax breaks for the project, known as Port Covington.

They have President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax overhaul law to thank. The new law has a provision meant to spur investment into underdeveloped areas, called “opportunity zones.” The idea is to grant lucrative tax breaks to encourage new investment in poor areas around the country, carefully selected by each state’s governor.

But Port Covington, an ambitious development geared to millennials to feature offices, a hotel, apartments, and shopping, is not in a census tract that is poor. It’s not a new investment. And the census tract only became eligible to be an opportunity zone thanks to a mapping error.

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As the selection process was underway, a deputy chief of staff to Maryland’s governor wrote in an email that “Port Covington does not qualify” as an opportunity zone.

Maryland’s governor chose the area for the program anyway — after his aides met with the lobbyists for Plank, who owns about 40% of the zone.

“This is a classic example of a windfall benefit,” said Robert Stoker, a George Washington University professor who has studied economic development in Baltimore for decades. “A major investment was already planned and now is in a zone where they are going to qualify for all kinds of beneficial tax treatment.”

In selecting Port Covington, the governor had to exclude another Maryland community from the opportunity zone program. In Baltimore, for example, the governor dropped part of a neighborhood that city officials recommended for the program — Brooklyn — with a median family income one-fifth that of Port Covington. Brooklyn sits just across the Patapsco river from Port Covington, in an area that suffers from one of the highest drug and alcohol death rates in Baltimore, which in turn has one of the highest drug fatality rates nationwide.

In a statement, Marc Weller, a developer who is Plank’s partner in the project, defended the opportunity zone designation. “Port Covington being part of an Opportunity Zone will attract more investors, foster more economic growth in a neglected area of the City, and directly benefit all of the surrounding communities for decades to come,” Weller said. Supporters say the Port Covington development could help several nearby struggling south Baltimore neighborhoods.

Developers say Port Covington will be a “city within a city” geared to millennials and featuring offices, residences and a hotel. (Matt Roth for ProPublica)

An official in the administration of Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, said, “The success of that project is really going to go a long way to providing benefits for the whole city of Baltimore.” The official added: “The governor is a huge supporter of the development.”

A spokesperson for the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, which was involved in the selection process, said that “due to the time limits of the federal tax incentive, the state of Maryland did purposefully select census tracts where projects were beginning to increase the odds of attracting additional private sector investment to Maryland’s opportunity zones in the near term.”

The Birth of a New Tax Break

In December 2017, Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, his signature legislative achievement. Much criticized as a giveaway to the rich, the law includes one headline provision that backers promised would help the poor: opportunity zones. (Listen to the “Trump, Inc.” episode where we travel to an opportunity zone where the Kushner Companies owns large tracts of property.)

Supporters of the program argued it would unleash economic development in otherwise overlooked communities. “Our goal is to rebuild homes, schools, businesses and communities that need it the most,“ Trump declared at a recent event, adding, “To revitalize these areas, we’ve lowered the capital gains tax for long-term investment in opportunity zones all the way down to a very big, fat, beautiful number of zero.”

The provision has bipartisan support. “These cities are gold mines,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a 2020 presidential hopeful and main Democratic architect of the program, told real estate investors in October. “They’re domestic emerging markets that are more exciting than anything you’ll see overseas.”

Here’s how the program works. Say you’re a hedge fund manager, you purchased Google stock years ago, and are sitting on $1 billion in gains. If you sell, you’d send the IRS about $240 million, a lot less than ordinary income tax but still annoying. To avoid paying that much, you can sell the shares and put the $1 billion into an opportunity zone. That comes with three generous breaks. The first is that you defer that $240 million in capital gains tax, allowing you to invest more money up front. But if that’s not enough for you, you can hold the investment for several years and you’ll get a significant reduction in those taxes. What’s more, any additional gains from the new investment are tax-free after 10 years.

It’s impossible to predict how much the tax break will be worth to individual investors because it depends on several variables, not least whether the underlying project gains in value. But one investment pitch projected 10-year returns would jump to 91% from 29% on a hypothetical $1 million investment. That includes $284,000 in tax breaks — money the federal government would have collected from taxpayers with capital gains but for the program.

The tax code already favored real estate developers like Trump, and his overhaul made it even friendlier. Investors can put money into a range of projects in opportunity zones, but so far most of the publicly announced deals are in real estate. The tax break has led to a marketing boom, with Wall Street pitching investors to raise funds to invest in the zones. Critics argue that the program is flawed, pointing out that there’s no guarantee that the capital investment will help community residents, that the selection process was vulnerable to outside influence, and that it could be a giveaway for projects that were going to happen anyway. In a case in Chicago uncovered by the Real Deal, two tracts already slated for a major development project were selected by the governor as opportunity zones even though city officials hadn’t initially recommended them.

Under the new law, areas of the country deemed to be “low-income communities” would be eligible to be named opportunity zones. The Treasury Department determined which census tracts qualified. Then governors of each state could select one quarter of those tracts to get the tax benefit.

That governor prerogative turned out to be very useful to Kevin Plank.

Plank’s Dream

In 2012, Plank-connected entities quietly began buying up waterfront property on a largely vacant and isolated peninsula south of downtown Baltimore. Often using shell companies to shield the identity of the true buyer, they ultimately spent more than $100 million acquiring much of the peninsula. Plank’s privately held Sagamore Development now controls roughly 40% of the area that would later be named an opportunity zone.

In early 2015, more than two and a half years before Trump’s tax law passed, Plank revealed himself as the money behind the purchases. He planned a new development and headquarters for Under Armour, the sports apparel company he started after coming up with the idea as a University of Maryland football player. Today, Under Armour employs 15,000 people. Plank has a net worth of around $2 billion.

Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank owns a whiskey distillery in the development next to the offices of his company. (Matt Roth for ProPublica)

Though the Port Covington area was cut off from downtown by I-95, Plank said he likes the location because of the visibility. “When people drive through Baltimore [on I-95] I literally want them to drive through and go, ’There’s Baltimore on the right. There’s Under Armour on the left,’” he told The Baltimore Sun.

A year later, Plank’s firm took his vision to the general public, running TV and print ads touting the new project. One of the ads, reminiscent of the Democratic presidential primary spots airing at that time, was filled with a diverse cast sharing their dreams for a new city within a city.

“We will build it. Together,” the ad begins, before running through a glittering digital rendering of contemporary urban design features. Office towers, shops, transit, parks, jobs — all of it to be anchored by a new world headquarters of the city’s most visible brand name, Under Armour. Sagamore would spearhead the project and sell land to others who would build businesses and housing.

Via Port Covington on YouTube

Even before qualifying for the opportunity zone break, taxpayers were going to subsidize the development. Days after the ads touting togetherness, Plank proposed that the city float $660 million in bonds to help build what the company has said would be a $5.5 billion development. Opponents contended Plank’s proposal amounted to corporate welfare that would exacerbate the city’s stark economic and racial divides. But the company agreed to provide millions of dollars to the city and a group of nearby low-income neighborhoods to gain support for the project, and the City Council passed the measure that fall.

As Under Armour’s stock plummeted in 2017 amid slowing sales growth and progress on the Port Covington project lagged. That September, Goldman Sachs stepped in to commit $233 million from its Urban Investment Group. Hogan, himself a real estate developer, personally spoke with the then-CEO of Goldman, Lloyd Blankfein, about the deal.

Meeting With the Governor’s Office

In the weeks after the 2017 federal tax overhaul passed, Plank’s team spotted an opportunity.

Nick Manis, a veteran Annapolis lobbyist who has also represented the Baltimore Ravens, reached out to Hogan’s chief of staff about Port Covington, according to emails obtained by ProPublica through a public records request. The developers and their lobbyists had given at least $24,000 to Hogan’s campaigns in recent years.

But the developers had a problem.

The Friday before the meeting, a deputy chief of staff to the governor wrote in an email that “Port Covington does not qualify” for the coveted tax breaks.

The Port Covington tract, which includes a gentrified corner of South Baltimore north of the largely empty peninsula, was too wealthy to be an opportunity zone. There is a second provision of the law for wealthier tracts: A tract can qualify if it is adjacent to a low-income area. But Port Covington failed that test, too. Its median family income — nearly 160% of Maryland’s — exceeded the income cap even for that provision.

Port Covington was out — unless the tract could somehow be considered low-income in its own right.

On Feb. 5, the Port Covington development team arrived at the second floor of the statehouse in the opulent governor’s reception room to meet with top Hogan aides. The agenda for the meeting included opportunity zones, as well as transit and infrastructure issues. The developer’s team requested that the Port Covington tract be made an opportunity zone. The state officials “acknowledged their interest in receiving that designation,” a Hogan administration official said.

Bank Error in Your Favor

Three days after that meeting, Plank and the Port Covington developers got bad news. The Treasury Department released a list of census tracts across the country that were sufficiently poor to be included in the program. Port Covington was not included in that list.

Three weeks later, however, things turned around. The Treasury Department issued a revised list. The agency said it had left out some tracts in error. The revised list included 168 new areas across the country defined by the agency as “low-income communities.”

This time, Port Covington made the cut.

It couldn’t have qualified because its residents were poor. It couldn’t qualify because it was next to some place that was poor. But the tract could qualify under yet another provision of the law. Some tracts could make the cut if they had fewer than 2,000 people and if they were “within” what’s known as an empowerment zone. That was a Clinton-era redevelopment initiative also aimed at low-income areas.

Port Covington wasn’t actually within an empowerment zone, but it is next to one. So how did it qualify? The area met the definition of “within” because the digital map files the Treasury Department used showed that Port Covington overlapped with a neighboring tract that was designated an empowerment zone, Treasury officials told ProPublica.

That overlap: the sliver of parking lot beneath I-395. That piece of the lot is about one one-thousandth of a square mile.

There are no regulations or guidance on how to interpret the tax law’s use of “within,” said a spokesman for the Treasury Department’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, which compiled the maps. The agency made what it called a “technical decision” that any partial overlap with an Empowerment Zone would count as being “within” that zone — no matter how small the area, or if anyone lived there.

Or, if the overlap was even real.

Turns out, no part of Port Covington actually overlapped with the empowerment zone.

Treasury’s decision ignored a well-known problem in geographic analysis known as misalignment, mapping experts said.

Misalignment happens when the lines on digital maps made by two sources differ slightly about where things like roads and buildings lie, according to Henry Luan, a professor of geography at the University of Oregon.

For example, if a tract ends at a highway, one file might show the border on the near side of the highway while another — when zoomed all the way in — might show it a few feet away on the far side. When laid on top of each other, the two files end up with minuscule differences that don’t mean anything in the real world.

Except in this case, it had big real world consequences for Port Covington. The mapping error allowed the entire tract to qualify as an opportunity zone.

“That area of overlap is a complete artifact of” the map files Treasury used, said David Van Riper, director of spatial analysis at the Minnesota Population Center. “It’s not an actual overlap.”

A mapping error by the Treasury Department centering on this lot allowed Port Covington to qualify as an opportunity zone. (Matt Roth for ProPublica)

Sometime in the mid-2000s, the Census Bureau used GPS devices to make its map files more accurately represent the country’s roads. One of the maps used by Treasury appeared to be based on the older, less accurate Census maps, Van Riper said.

Even accepting Treasury’s misaligned maps, the entire Port Covington tract receives tax benefits, even though less than 0.3% of it overlaps with the neighboring tract.

“Only a minimal overlap, but you make the whole Census tract benefit from the policy?” Luan said. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”

Port Covington is one of just a handful of tracts in the country that ProPublica identified that qualified through similar flaws in Treasury’s process.

Taking the Break

Nothing indicates the Port Covington developers had any influence on the Treasury’s decision.

But the lobbying of the governor before the Treasury change appears to have paid off.

As they were lobbying, Baltimore officials were working out which parts of the city would benefit most from being opportunity zones. They petitioned the governor to pick 41 low-income city neighborhoods to get the tax break, all of them well below the program’s maximum income requirements.

The city’s list remained largely intact when the governor made his selections in April. Hogan made just four changes, three of which qualified under the main criteria without the benefit of the mapping error. But the fourth didn’t: Port Covington.

Plank’s team cheered the revision. The very thing that made Port Covington a poor candidate to be an opportunity zone — that it wasn’t a low-income area — could make it exceptionally attractive to investors. In January, they convened an opportunity zone conference at their Port Covington incubator called City Garage featuring state officials and executives from Goldman, Deloitte and other firms.

“Port Covington kind of fits all the needs,” said Marc Weller, Plank’s partner, at the conference. “It has all the entitlements, and it has a financial partner in place as well. It’s probably the most premier piece of land in the United States that’s in an opportunity zone.”

The opportunity zone program has restrictions intended to prevent already-planned developments from benefitting. But the Port Covington developers told Bloomberg that the firm will be able to reap the benefits of the tax break because it has found new investors. Among the potential new investors who might take advantage of the tax break are Plank’s own family, one of the developers told the Baltimore Business Journal. A Port Covington spokesman denied that Plank’s family members are potential investors.

To get the maximum benefit, investments need to be made in 2019, though investments made through 2026 can take advantage of growth tax-free. Only a portion of the Port Covington project is expected to be underway by then.

Developers broke ground on the project in May. They say they have found new investors to take advantage of the opportunity zone tax break. (Matt Roth for ProPublica)

A Goldman spokesman said it is “likely” that the firm will take advantage of the opportunity zone benefits in Port Covington, adding that it has “made no firm decisions about how each component will be financed.”

Margaret Anadu, the head of Goldman’s Urban Investment Group and the lead on the Port Covington investment, recently said of the opportunity zone program: “These are the same neighborhoods that have been suffering since redline started decades and decades ago, pretty much eliminating private investment. … And so we simply have to reverse that. And the only way to reverse that is to start to bring that private capital back into these neighborhoods.”

The Port Covington tract is just 4% black. For it to be included in the program, another community somewhere in Maryland had to be excluded. The ones that the city suggested that were excluded by the governor, for example, are 68% black and have a poverty rate three times higher than Port Covington’s.

There is some evidence suggesting being named an opportunity zone has already been a boon for property owners. An analysis by Zillow found that sale price gains in opportunity zones significantly outpaced gains in eligible tracts that weren’t selected. Real Capital Analytics found that sales of developable sites in the zones rose 24% in the year after the law passed.

Under Armour has said it’s still committed to building its new headquarters on the peninsula, but it’s not clear when that will happen.

Still, other aspects of the once-stalled project finally started moving forward in recent months. After presenting plans for the first section inside the opportunity zone this winter, the project finally got underway on a rainy day in early May of this year.

“The project is real,” Weller said at the kickoff event, which included Anadu, the Goldman Sachs executive, and city and state officials. “The project is starting. We’re open for business.”

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[l] at 6/18/19 11:00am

by ProPublica

The Radio Television Digital News Association has named ProPublica the winner of two Edward R. Murrow Awards. The national competition, among the most prestigious in journalism, recognizes outstanding achievement in broadcast and digital news.

ProPublica’s “Zero Tolerance” audio won in the Excellence in Sound category for Small Digital News Organizations. Published one year ago today, the secret recording from inside an immigrant detention center captured the unmistakable sounds of children sobbing and begging for their parents after being separated from their families at the Mexican border. The tape immediately broke through the partisan din and led to a massive public outcry. Within 48 hours, the president signed an executive order to reverse his policy of separating families and a federal judge in California ordered that parents and children be reunited within 30 days.

Unprotected,” ProPublica’s first full-length feature film, was named best News Documentary in the Small Digital News Organization division. The project explored how the American charity More Than Me pledged to save some of Liberia’s most vulnerable girls from sexual exploitation — gaining international plaudits and millions of dollars in donations in the process. But from the beginning, girls as young as 10 were being raped by one of the nonprofit’s key leaders. The charity then misled donors and the public about what happened and failed to safeguard all the perpetrator’s possible victims even once they knew he had AIDS when he died.

The film, distributed for free online, was key to bringing this story to the right audiences in Liberia, where literacy rates are low, and led to swift, meaningful impact on the ground. After publication, the charity apologized to the victims, for the first time, conceding it had failed them. More Than Me announced schoolwide HIV testing; several board members resigned, including the charity’s founder, Katie Meyler; and the Liberian government announced a multi-agency inquiry.

You can see a full list of Murrow Awards winners on the RTDNA site.

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[l] at 6/18/19 6:30am

by Jeff Pillets and Nancy Solomon , WNYC

A task force investigating New Jersey’s controversial tax break program released a report Monday concluding that fraud and mismanagement tainted the $11 billion effort to bring new jobs and businesses to the state.

The report included new evidence of the influence of Democratic Party boss George E. Norcross III in steering tax breaks to favored businesses and nonprofits located along the Camden waterfront. The task force was formed by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy in January to investigate the program.

It said that a Camden hospital system for which Norcross served as board chairman sought to mislead the state in its application for $39.9 million in tax breaks.

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In a November 2014 email included in the report, a Cooper Health executive acknowledged that the hospital did not intend to leave New Jersey but was “quietly” seeking a lease quote for office space in Philadelphia to satisfy the tax break program’s legal requirements.

The email from Cooper vice president Andrew Bush to a realty firm in the Philadelphia area suggested that the hospital had decided to move its administrative offices to Camden but needed a quote on a cheaper space across the river to qualify for the breaks.

“I need a credible location that is LESS expensive than [Camden],” Bush wrote. “I need a full service number of $24 per square foot or less to make the numbers work.’’ He added: “Quietly? No probability of us moving” to Philadelphia.

The preliminary task force report found that Cooper Health’s questionable claim that it might leave New Jersey added leverage to its proposal. State officials increased its tax break to $39.9 million.

Thomas Rubino, a spokesman for Cooper, said he had not yet read the report and declined to answer questions.

The report was released just minutes after Mercer County Judge Mary Jacobson rebuffed an effort by Norcross to block its release. Norcross and some of his business partners contend in a lawsuit that the task force is a political tool created by Murphy to gain leverage inside the state’s fractious Democratic Party.

In an hourlong oration from the bench, the judge cited audits, going back to 2017 that found the tax break program was mismanaged and susceptible to fraud.

“The public interest is that the task force be allowed to report,’’ Jacobson concluded.

Dan Fee, a spokesman for Norcross, said in a statement: “Today’s decision by Judge Jacobson is disappointing but does not represent the end of this process. We will continue this litigation in an aggressive manner to protect our rights.”

In its report, the task force found that special interests helped craft the 2013 tax break law to benefit a select group of companies, and that the state was ill-equipped to vet and monitor tax break applicants.

The law “was structured to favor certain parties while disfavoring others,’’ according to the 79-page report. The tax break law also gave unique advantage to Camden applicants, the report found.

The task force has made several criminal referrals to unspecified law enforcement agencies, and a state grand jury is looking into the program, which is administered by the state Economic Development Authority.

In May, the task force focused a hearing on tax breaks for Cooper Health and other Camden firms connected to Norcross. An insurance firm owned by Norcross received an $86 million tax break in 2017 to play a part in building a luxury office tower.

The report said that Norcross’ insurance company and his two business partners publicly announced that they would move to Camden a year before they applied for the breaks, offering lease proposals for competing locations out of state.

“This meant that their certifications in their applications that jobs were ‘at risk’ of leaving New Jersey were, at best, dubious,” the report said.

The report also said that the $86 million tax break for Norcross’ insurance company, Conner Strong & Buckelew, would have been much smaller without language added to the tax law by Parker McCay, the South Jersey law firm headed by his brother Philip Norcross.

“An award of that size would have likely been impossible if not for statutory

amendments that Parker McCay played a pivotal role in incorporating into the legislative design,’’ according to the report.

Parker McCay helped write the 2013 tax break law, suggesting specific language that was embraced by state officials.

Since the program came under scrutiny, every company receiving a New Jersey tax break has been asked to go through recertification, and some companies have volunteered to terminate their awards. Other recipients, according to the report, have been referred to either the Treasury Department, the EDA or law enforcement.

The state is reviewing a large award to Holtec International, a Camden nuclear firm, after WNYC-ProPublica discovered a misleading sworn statement in its application form. The company said the mistake was inadvertent.

So far, more than $500 million worth of tax breaks have been terminated, either voluntarily or through legal action.

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[l] at 6/18/19 3:00am

by Annie Waldman

When the Walton Family Foundation announced in 2013 that it was donating $20 million to Teach For America to recruit and train nearly 4,000 teachers for low-income schools, its press release did not reveal the unusual terms for the grant.

Documents obtained by ProPublica show that the foundation, a staunch supporter of school choice and Teach For America’s largest private funder, was paying $4,000 for every teacher placed in a traditional public school — and $6,000 for every one placed in a charter school. The two-year grant was directed at nine cities where charter schools were sprouting up, including New Orleans; Memphis, Tennessee; and Los Angeles.

The gift’s purpose was far removed from Teach For America’s original mission of alleviating teacher shortages in traditional public schools. It was intended to “generate a longer-term leadership pipeline that advances the education movement, providing a source of talent for policy, advocacy and politics, as well as quality schools and new entrepreneurial ventures,” according to internal grant documents.

The incentives corresponded to a shift in Teach For America’s direction. Although only 7% of students go to charter schools, Teach For America sent almost 40% of its 6,736 teachers to them in 2018 — up from 34% in 2015 and 13% in 2008. In some large cities, charter schools employ the majority of TFA teachers: 54% in Houston, 58% in San Antonio and at least 70% in Los Angeles.

Established nearly 30 years ago to tap idealistic graduates of elite universities to teach at traditional public schools in high-poverty areas, Teach For America has evolved into an informal but vital ally of the charter school movement. Not only does it place a disproportionate number of its teachers in charter schools, but the organization and its affiliated groups also have become reliant on the support of the Walton Foundation and other school choice advocates, including a daughter of billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor. As board members of Teach For America’s offshoot leadership organization, which gives to the political campaigns of former TFA teachers, Emma Bloomberg and a Walton family member have supplemented the organization’s contributions to charter school proponents with their own donations.

“There’s no question that Teach For America as it evolved became joined at the hip to a large degree with the national education reform movement. I suspect that some of this was coordinated in part with funders who are active in the Teach For America funding and the charter and reform activities,” said Jeffrey Henig, a professor at the Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of a book about education research and charter school policy. “These billionaire school reformers and the foundations with which they are allied really have become much more sophisticated in the way they strategically use their funding.”

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Teach For America cautioned its public school teachers against participating in recent teacher strikes in Oakland, California, and Los Angeles. Ava Marinelli, one of just 35 Teach For America teachers in the Los Angeles traditional public schools, joined the picket line anyway.

“With the level of divisiveness between charter and public schools, Teach For America has aligned with the charter school agenda,” she said in a recent interview. “This shows with their donors and who their partners are.” Teach For America said that it took no stance on whether its teachers should strike, but that the terms of their AmeriCorps funding prohibited involvement with organized labor.

Teach For America CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard said that donors don’t sway its approach. “We don’t have any one funder that is more than 5% of our overall budget,” Beard said. “We are very focused on what are our objectives, what is our mission, what are our values and what are the needs of the community.” She said that current grants to Teach For America from the Walton Foundation and other organizations don’t favor charter schools over traditional public schools.

She said that the organization does not have a national placement strategy and that where corps members teach is determined by the needs of regional partners. “Every last strategy question is answered locally,” Beard said. “Our interest is just to make sure that we are working to ensure that we meet our partners’ needs, are serving the students who need us most and are able to advance the needle for opportunity for them.”

Both push and pull factors have fostered Teach For America’s shift in direction. Since 2016, school districts in San Francisco; Jacksonville, Florida; and Houston have decided to end their contracts with Teach For America, citing, among other reasons, its teachers’ relatively low retention rate. At the same time, Teach For America and the charter school movement share a similar goal: promoting innovation by streamlining bureaucracy. Teach For America’s alumni have started some of the nation’s largest charter networks, including KIPP, Rocketship Education, IDEA and YES Prep.

Whichever type of school they serve in, Teach For America’s teachers devote their intelligence and energy to helping low-income and minority students and closing the nation’s unrelenting achievement gap. But its metamorphosis reflects a broader trend: As nonunion charter schools have gained acceptance in the past 20 years, political support for traditional public schools and teacher unions has eroded.

While both the Obama and Trump administrations have backed charter schools, the appointment of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who once called the traditional public education system a “dead end,” fractured the political consensus. The issue divides candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. Bernie Sanders has called for a moratorium on federal funding of charters until a national review of their growth is conducted. Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren have criticized for-profit charter schools, with Sanders advocating an outright ban.

Other candidates, such as Cory Booker and Beto O’Rourke, are sympathetic to charters. As Newark’s mayor, Booker raised millions in private funds for education reforms, including the expansion of charter schools. O’Rourke, whose wife started a charter school, has called them a “good idea” for encouraging competition and innovation.


As a Princeton University senior in 1989, Wendy Kopp had a radical idea to curb the teacher shortages plaguing America’s least resourced public school classrooms: Send them the country’s brightest college graduates.

“We take all of these promising future leaders and have their first two years be teaching in low-income communities, instead of working in banks,” Kopp said. “I thought that would change everything. It would change the consciousness of the country.”

Within a year, Kopp’s idea became Teach For America, which recruits new graduates from top colleges, trains them for five weeks, places them in schools nationwide and mentors them during a two-year classroom commitment.

Fueled by Kopp’s prolific fundraising, the nonprofit grew quickly. In 2000, it raised $25 million from private donors, government grants and foundations, which supported about 1,600 new corps members a year. By 2016, its contributions and grants rose to $245 million with an endowment of about $208 million, enough for 3,500 new members a year. Today, Teach For America ranks among the 100 largest nonprofits in the country.

The charter school movement, which arose soon after Teach For America’s founding, was booming as well. Publicly funded but privately managed, and regarded by some proponents as a way to fix a failing education system weighed down by unions and bureaucracy, charter schools nearly tripled in enrollment from 2006 to 2016.

While Teach For America has received more than $40 million annually in government grants, according to the recent tax filings, some of its largest private donors also bankroll charter schools. Over the years, these backers — including Greg Penner, Walmart’s board chairman and a Walton family member by marriage; Arthur Rock, a retired Silicon Valley entrepreneur; and Eli Broad, a Los Angeles philanthropist — have cycled through Teach For America’s board. Together, the three tycoons and their family foundations have doled out at least $200 million to Teach For America.

“There are only so many donors and Teach For America is probably going after all of them, certainly whether they have a charter agenda or not, but many of them are very supportive of charters,” Kopp said.

Rock said in an email that he devotes almost all of his time and philanthropy to supporting K-12 education. “I support those organizations which have a proven record of helping children,” he said. Penner declined to comment, and Broad did not respond to questions related to his support of the organization.

Teach For America has long maintained that it does not prefer charter schools. “We believe in public education,” the organization states on a webpage devoted to combating criticism. “We’re not concerned about whether kids (or teachers) go to traditional district schools or public charter schools or innovative magnet schools, and TFA takes no institutional position on school governance.”

Marc Sternberg, a former corps member, now runs K-12 education for the Walton Family Foundation, which has given more than $100 million to Teach For America over the years. He said the foundation has a “bedrock partnership” with Teach For America. To Sternberg, the missions of the two organizations are intertwined: expanding educational opportunity, and options, for children.

“I was placed in a school that was pretty dysfunctional,” said Sternberg, reflecting on his Teach For America experience at a traditional public school in the South Bronx in the late 1990s. “It lacked a leadership thesis that is necessary for organizational success. The entrepreneur walks into that environment, and sees all the great things, and develops an understanding of the problem statement and then wants to do something about it.”

While Sternberg said that the Walton foundation is “agnostic” about the types of schools it funds, the foundation has been one of the most generous supporters of charter schools, having spent more than $385 million to help launch and sustain about a quarter of the nation’s charter schools since 1997. In 2016, the foundation announced that it would spend an additional $1 billion to support charter schools, expand school choice and develop “pipelines of talent.”

The foundation’s 2013-15 grant paid more for placing TFA teachers in charter schools, Sternberg said in an email, because “we wanted to ensure that the growing number of charter schools had access to high-quality educators given increased demand from communities.” Its current grants to TFA provide equal funding for teachers at charter and traditional public schools, he said.

Today, in most of the cities targeted by the 2013 grant, TFA partners with more charter schools than traditional public schools, according to AmeriCorps data. In Indianapolis and greater Los Angeles, about two-thirds of TFA’s partner schools are charters. In New Orleans, where nearly all of the schools are charters, all of TFA’s corps members are assigned to charter schools. In the past five years, the proportion of TFA teachers placed in charter schools has increased even as the raw numbers have gone down, reflecting an overall decrease in corps members.

Another major donor to both Teach For America and charter schools is the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund, created by the founders of The Gap. In 2009, the fund gave $10 million over five years “to continue Teach For America’s role as a pipeline of teachers and leaders in the charter school movement,” according to an internal agreement.

In 1994, two Teach For America alumni founded the Knowledge is Power Program, now one of the nation’s largest charter school networks. As chief executive of the KIPP Foundation, Kopp’s husband, Richard Barth, has overseen the network’s expansion.

“Leadership is critical, and so we have been very involved with Teach For America, which is an organization that has really given birth to KIPP and to many of the top charter school organizations around the country,” the Fishers’ son, John, said in a filmed 2012 interview. “The human pipeline — the pipeline of top talent — has really been accelerated through the success of Teach For America.”

As of 2012, a third of KIPP’s teachers were Teach For America corps members and alumni. KIPP did not provide more recent figures. “You look at the percentage of the principals and teachers at KIPP and it’s clear that it’s a pipeline,” Kopp said.


As school superintendents and state education directors, TFA alumni have pushed to expand charters. In 2011, former corps member John White became superintendent of the state-run Recovery School District, which oversaw most of New Orleans’ schools. He’s now the state superintendent of education. Over the same period, charter schools in the city and across the state have proliferated. The last traditional public schools in New Orleans are set to close or begin a transition to charter control by the end of the year, and by 2022, all of the city’s schools will be charters.

Cami Anderson, a Teach For America alum and former employee, was a key adviser to Cory Booker in his unsuccessful 2002 campaign for mayor of Newark, New Jersey. In 2011, when Booker was mayor, she became Newark’s superintendent of schools. She reorganized the district, which led to mass layoffs of public school teachers and an increase in charter enrollment.

Under Teach For America alum Kevin Huffman, who served as Tennessee commissioner of education from 2011 to 2015, the number of charter schools there doubled. The state’s current commissioner, Penny Schwinn, was also a TFA corps member. In Washington, D.C., two charter-friendly Teach For America alumni have led the district over the past decade: Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson.

Eric Guckian, a former Teach For America corps member, headed the organization’s North Carolina chapter, and he later pushed for more charter schools as a senior adviser for education to the state’s governor. He said propelling TFA alumni into positions of power was always the plan.

“The promise of Teach For America, when I was pitching it to potential donors, was that all these kids are going to turn into leaders and that has manifested itself,” Guckian said.

Not all of Teach For America’s alumni leaders favor charter school expansion. After teaching for more than two decades in traditional public schools in Compton and Los Angeles, Alex Caputo-Pearl was elected to lead the local union, United Teachers Los Angeles.

“There are a lot of very good people who are attracted to the program and do good work,” said Pearl, who joined Teach For America in 1990. “I was in a classroom because nobody would be there if I wasn’t there.”

But, he said, Teach For America’s agenda has shifted. In Los Angeles, where about a quarter of students are enrolled in charter schools, Teach For America has become the “main contributor to the characterization and privatization of public schools, rather than helping to address the teacher shortage in public district schools,” he said.


At ICEF Inglewood Middle Charter Academy, in a low-income and predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood in Los Angeles, five of the school’s eleven teachers are TFA members, including English teacher Joy McCreary. One morning in May, she peppered her seventh graders with questions about a passage they had read on the photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

“And what was Muybridge trying to find out by photographing a horse running?” she asked a student in the second row of her classroom, which was decorated with white lights strung against curtained windows, student projects and motivational messages promoting humility and determination.

“If a horse could fly,” the student responded. McCreary nodded.

McCreary grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs; both of her parents were teachers. In June 2018, she graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, with degrees in international development, political science and German studies, and joined Teach For America. Her five weeks of training included coursework and teaching at a summer school program. Unlike teachers at traditional public schools, who typically gain certification by completing a qualified prep program and passing a standardized test, charter school teachers and TFA corps members may not need traditional certification. Over the years, TFA has successfully lobbied state and federal legislators for a classroom fast track for its members.

“Teaching is very sink or swim,” McCreary said. “The best way to learn how to teach is just to teach.”

When McCreary joined Teach For America, she didn’t care what kind of school she ended up in. Now she’s glad it’s a charter school.

“Charter schools place a much higher focus on teacher development,” McCreary said. At traditional district schools in Los Angeles, she added, “You get these old, battle-ax teachers that have been there forever and are doing the same things every year and are not necessarily trying out new things or being challenged to try new things.”

Natalie Kieffer, the principal, also participated in Teach For America. After three years of teaching at a traditional public school in Los Angeles, Kieffer was laid off during the financial crisis and moved to a charter school. Within a decade, she rose from teacher to principal.

“There were opportunities for growth that I wouldn’t have been offered in [the Los Angeles Unified School District],” Kieffer said. “Being laid off was a blessing in disguise.”

The Inglewood school district recently revoked the academy’s charter due to low academic performance, forcing it to close at the end of the year. Kieffer, who did not respond to emailed questions about the closure, will become an assistant principal at a charter high school next year. McCreary will move to another Los Angeles charter chain, the Alliance College-Ready network.

Another Teach For America corps member in Los Angeles, Faisal Hirji, is equally loyal to his school — a traditional public high school. The veteran teachers whom McCreary perceives as battle-axes, Hirji praises for their hard-earned wisdom. Hirji, who teaches special education, said TFA’s five-week training, plus a handful of online modules that it provided on how to teach children with special needs, weren’t nearly enough.

“Our kids are being dramatically underserved compared to what an experienced teacher could do,” he said. (Teach For America said that students of its teachers were at least as likely to pass state assessments as their peers.)

Like Hirji, all of Teach For America’s corps members in Los Angeles public schools were assigned to special education classrooms. “We were thrown into the fire,” he said. Teach For America said that aside from the summer institute, it provides “coaching, collaboration with veteran teachers, and local professional development opportunities” throughout a corps member’s commitment, but Hirji said its support was not enough. Realizing that Hirji needed a mentor, the principal at his East Los Angeles school had him work alongside a veteran special education teacher for his first semester.

“I didn’t learn anything from Teach For America,” he said. “I learned it all from my school.”


Typically, public school districts or charter schools pay Teach For America an annual finder’s fee of $3,000 to $6,000 per teacher. From 2013 through 2017, Teach For America reaped more than $110 million in recruitment and placement fees, according to tax filings. The districts or charters also pay the teachers’ salaries and benefits.

Often, they’re ponying up for short-timers. According to Teach For America, about 30% of its corps members leave teaching at the end of their two-year terms, and research has shown that only one-fourth stay in the classroom for more than five years, compared with about half of all new teachers.

In 2016, the San Francisco Unified School District cut ties with Teach For America, citing concerns about retention rates. The following year, Duval County, Florida, which includes Jacksonville, ended its contract, which allowed for up to $600,000 a year to Teach For America for the annual recruitment of at least 100 teaching candidates. About a third of TFA corps members stayed beyond two years in the district and only a tenth stayed for five years, a study from Teachers College, Columbia University found. In comparison, 60% of new teachers who weren’t affiliated with Teach For America stayed more than two years, and 40% more than five years. Teach For America said that its retention rate in Duval County has since improved, and that almost 80% of those who started teaching in 2017 plan to stay for a third year.

“One of the biggest questions was the return on investment,” said school board chair Lori Hershey. “We could certainly recruit teachers at less expense and keep them longer than two years.”

In 2018, Houston’s district renewed its contract with Teach For America despite plans to lay off hundreds of teachers. Then, this May, its board discontinued the contract for the coming school year. Mika Rao, a managing director for regional communications and public affairs at Teach For America, called the decision “a great loss for [Houston’s] kids.”

School board trustee Elizabeth Santos, who has taught in Houston’s traditional public schools for over a decade, voted to end the contract, calling TFA “problematic.” It “deprofessionalizes teaching, increases turnover and undermines union organization,” she said at the board meeting.

Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, a former corps member who briefly worked as a program director for Teach For America, supported renewal. “We tend to have a teacher shortage every year and this just allows principals to be able to have the opportunity to hire with this route,” she said at a board meeting.

About a third of Teach For America corps members in Texas are still teaching there after five years, compared with over three-quarters of non-TFA teachers, according to a recent study by the American Institutes for Research. Rao said TFA’s retention rate in Texas school districts has improved 20% since 2010.

Many of those who stay in education after their two-year stint in a traditional public school eventually shift to charter schools. While a quarter of corps members were placed in charter schools, about 40% of alumni who stayed in education later worked in them, according to a review of survey data from Teach For America alumni in Texas. TFA said this disparity is misleading because their data shows that alums who continue as teachers, instead of going into administration, switch from traditional public schools to charters at a lower rate than the other way around. About two-fifths of its alums in Texas are currently employed in administration or leadership, mostly in charter schools, according to the survey.

Tiffany Cuellar Needham, the executive director of Teach For America in Houston, said many alumni shuttle between both types of schools. “We see our alums make very intentional decisions about, for example, starting in a traditional public school district and maybe going to a charter school to get a certain sort of professional development that they think they need and then going back to a traditional district,” she said.

Beard, TFA’s chief executive, said the rejections by major school districts don’t indicate a national trend. “Every community has different dynamics and politics and budgets, and there’s lots of nuance and complicated factors going in,” she said.

This year, TFA’s turnover prompted Cristina Garcia, a Democratic state assemblywoman in California and former math teacher, to propose requiring teachers from Teach For America and other trainee programs to stay in the classroom for at least five years. Because Teach For America only demands a two-year commitment, it would have to change its model to operate in the state.

Supported by the California NAACP and the California Federation of Teachers, and opposed by the charter school lobby, the bill would also ban the finders’ fees that Teach For America charges schools. “Allowing Teach For America to come in, learn on the job, to experiment and create reform advocates is not creating people that are going to stay in the classroom,” Garcia said. “Is it really about creating a void because we have a teacher shortage, or is it about creating education reform advocates?”

Republican state Assemblyman Kevin Kiley cast the only vote against the bill in the education committee. “It’s probably the most disgraceful piece of legislation I’ve seen,” he said. It passed the appropriations committee in May, but it has been delayed until next January.

Kiley himself contributed to Teach For America’s low retention rates. After graduating from Harvard in 2007, he joined Teach For America and taught at a traditional public school in Los Angeles, where he started a debate team. After his two-year stint, he attended Yale Law School and worked as a deputy California attorney general.

“Many [corps members] stay in the classroom, but others move on, and that’s by design,” he said.


When Kiley ran for State Assembly in 2016, Leadership for Educational Equity, a “dark money” group that does not disclose its donors in its tax filings, advised him on strategy in regular phone calls. “I was a first-time candidate, and I was seeking wisdom wherever I could find it,” he said.

LEE contributed $8,360 to his winning campaign, according to campaign finance filings. In addition, after he filled out an internal questionnaire that asked the charter school supporter about his views on education reform and other issues, his campaign received more than $33,000 from three LEE directors — Silicon Valley entrepreneur Arthur Rock, Emma Bloomberg and Steuart Walton — and some of their family members.

LEE “put me in touch with two or three donors, which is a small percentage of overall funding,” Kiley said. “You draw from all sources when you’re running.”

Kopp established LEE in 2006 to help Teach For America alumni gain power, including by giving to their political campaigns. Although the two organizations operate independently, they share office space, and Teach For America donates millions of dollars to LEE each year through an intermediary foundation. Only Teach For America alumni can be LEE “members,” entitling them to free training on leadership development, civic engagement and other topics.

LEE, which received $29 million in contributions and grants in 2017, helped more than 150 alumni run in local and state races in 2018, according to an internal presentation obtained by ProPublica. (Leadership for Educational Equity said the presentation’s figures were incomplete and unreliable.) Half of LEE members that ran for office were women, and almost half were people of color.

The group gives to TFA alums regardless of their views on education. But if candidates indicate on the internal questionnaire that they support school choice or charters, directors Walton, Bloomberg and Rock often add their own individual donations, according to three former employees.

“The survey that the team uses is to really help the candidates to articulate” their positions and values, said Jason Llorenz, vice president of communication for LEE. “Certainly where we can help to connect to other people that can support them, whether that be about choice or about gun control or any number of other things, we certainly do.” Leadership for Educational Equity said it has contributed to several candidates who were supported by teacher unions.

Carl Zaragoza, LEE vice president of elected leadership, also said his team teaches candidates to network. “With money, the value added that we offer our folks is to how they will build relationships with folks that do have money who are aligned with their values,” he said. “That is part of the individual coaching we provide.”

Bloomberg, who is also on the KIPP board, said that Leadership for Educational Equity “supports a diverse set of leaders in communities across the country who believe deeply in the importance of high quality public education.” In the past, at her request, LEE has recommended candidates for whom her contributions could make the biggest difference, according to her communications adviser. It’s a coincidence that some of the candidates she funds favor education reform, because that’s not one of her criteria, the adviser said. Walton declined to comment on his donations or work with LEE, and Rock didn’t address questions about them.

Beard, TFA’s chief executive, is also on the LEE board. When asked about its work, she said it’s “a totally separate entity,” which Teach For America’s alumni choose to participate in. “We believe leadership development is core to what we do. We believe that we should be supporting our alumni in pursuing all of their interests and helping them ensure that they are accelerating their own leadership.”

Vilaseca, the Houston school board trustee who voted to renew Teach For America’s contract, was a founding teacher at a KIPP charter school. Walton family members and Rock gave a total of $20,000 to her 2017 campaign, in addition to $6,000 from LEE. Vilaseca did not respond to emailed questions.

Also in 2017, two Teach For America alumni ran against each other for the Los Angeles school board. Nick Melvoin, a charter school advocate, challenged board president Steve Zimmer, who taught at a traditional public school and was backed by the union. LEE contributed $2,200 to Melvoin, and $1,100 to Zimmer. (LEE said it gave another $1,100 to Zimmer, but his campaign treasurer said it was never received.) Rock and the Bloomberg family added $5,400 for Melvoin, but nothing for his opponent. Melvoin won and has become the most vocal charter supporter on the board.

“My north star is anything that will help improve outcomes for kids is good, and charter schools are doing that,” Melvoin said. This year, he was the only school board member to oppose a citywide moratorium on charters.


When Ava Marinelli heard last fall that her fellow teachers at Los Angeles Unified School District were planning a strike, she wanted in.

“I know where my values lie, and they lie with the union,” said the second-year Teach For America corps member, who graduated in 2017 from Boston University. “I’m not crossing a picket line.”

But her decision carried a financial risk. Through Teach For America, she and other corps members received scholarships from AmeriCorps, a federal program that prohibits assisting or promoting union organizing. The money helped pay for Marinelli’s coursework toward a master’s degree in education, a key teaching credential.

Teach For America cautioned Marinelli and other corps members not to strike, or else they would lose their Americorps funding. As a strike loomed, they asked Lida Jennings, executive director of Teach For America in Los Angeles, if they could give up their AmeriCorps money. Jennings agreed, but she told them that to retain even partial funding, they would have to cite extenuating circumstances for striking, such as harassment, pressure or bullying from other teachers, according to three corps members who spoke with her.

Jennings confirmed this position in an email to ProPublica. The teachers “had a difficult process to navigate due to the federal regulations they have to follow,” she wrote. “Those choosing to exit would have to demonstrate and detail extenuating circumstances, such as challenges at their placement school or other impact.”

Marinelli followed this advice. She told Jennings in an email that she faced “intimidation” at her school — a falsehood that still haunts her. “I lied to exercise my civil rights,” she said. “I was encouraging my colleagues to go on strike. No one intimidated me to do this.” Teach For America agreed to replace the striking teachers’ lost scholarship money with private funds. It has since arranged that, in the future, all teachers who choose to join a picket line will be suspended from AmeriCorps during the strike and then reinstated at the end, with no impact on their scholarships.

Alongside her students, their parents and her fellow teachers, and wearing a bright red scarf wrapped around her neck, Marinelli picketed outside of her school as well as the district’s headquarters, frequently leading chants with a megaphone, for all six school days until the strike was settled. The union extracted key concessions, including a board vote on whether to support a statewide cap on the number of charter schools.

“It felt so hypocritical to join Teach For America for the social justice lens and then not go on strike, compromising the values that brought me to Teach For America,” Marinelli said. “Even though they claim to be an apolitical organization, I really felt there was an agenda.”

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[l] at 6/17/19 1:48pm

by Lynn Arditi and Shane McKeon , The Public’s Radio

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Island lawmakers are moving forward on a spending plan that includes money to train all 911 call takers to respond to cardiac arrests and other medical emergencies.

The $220,000 earmarked in the budget for the 2020 fiscal year, which begins July 1, follows an investigation by The Public’s Radio and ProPublica that raised questions about whether the lack of training for the state’s 911 call takers is costing lives.

The funding would, among other things, pay to train all 911 call takers to provide guidance over the phone on how to perform CPR on a person whose heart has stopped. The House Finance Committee approved the full budget by a vote of 12 to 3 shortly before midnight Friday, and it will be taken up by the full House later this week.

“It’s gonna save peoples’ lives, without question,’’ said Dr. Joseph R. Lauro, an emergency physician and member of the Rhode Island chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians, which helped lead the push to improve training.

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Lauro’s group first sounded an alarm about the state’s low survival rate following cardiac arrests outside of a hospital nearly 1 1/2 years ago. (A study published in the May issue of the Rhode Island Medical Journal reported that the state’s survival rate for out-of-hospital cardiac arrests is well below the national average.)

“The bystanders will be able to start the life-saving process (of CPR) without us being there.’’

In every other New England state, as well as in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and some other states, 911 calls for cardiac arrests and other medical emergencies are handled by certified emergency medical dispatchers, or EMDs. Their training includes following carefully scripted instructions to talk a caller or bystander through performing CPR.

Lauro said the $220,000, a small fraction of the state’s $9.9-billion budget, would enable the Rhode Island State Police, which oversees the 911 center, to certify all of its 911 call takers in emergency medical dispatch and collect data to track their performance.

In March, The Public’s Radio and ProPublica reported on a 6-month-old baby in Warwick who died last year after a 911 call taker gave incorrect instructions to the family. And this month, the news organizations detailed the case of a 45-year-old woman who collapsed at a high school football game in Cumberland in August and died after four calls to 911. None of the 911 call takers recognized the woman was in cardiac arrest. And none of them instructed the callers to perform CPR.

Following the story about the death of the Warwick baby, Col. James M. Manni, Rhode Island State Police superintendent, recommended that all of the state’s 911 call takers be certified to provide emergency medical instructions over the phone before first responders arrive.

Manni could not be reached for comment Monday.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said Friday that the $220,000 for training 911 call takers represents the full amount requested by the state police. “We are very conscious about public safety and addressing those needs,” Mattiello said.

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[l] at 6/14/19 10:55am

by Lisa Song

The United Nations drew attention this week for an article published by its environment program that criticized carbon offsets, a strategy the UN has supported for two decades. The headline: “Carbon offsets are not our get-out-of-jail free card.”

It came three weeks after ProPublica published a widely discussed investigation into how offsets related to forest preservation have not provided the promised carbon savings and instead have given polluters a guilt-free pass to keep emitting CO₂.

“Scientists, activists and concerned citizens have started to voice their concerns over how carbon offsets have been used by polluters as a free pass for inaction,” the UN article said.

Niklas Hagelberg, a senior program officer at the Nairobi, Kenya-based UN Environment Programme, said ProPublica’s investigation contributed to the questions raised over offsets, capturing key challenges such as how to accurately monitor trees in protected areas and how to fund livelihoods for forest communities that don’t involve cutting down trees.

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The UN article addressed all types of offsets, including renewable energy, tree planting and energy efficiency. Hagelberg told ProPublica the main message is that offsets shouldn’t be used as an excuse not to act. Industries use offsets because they are usually cheaper than reducing emissions on site. However, companies should exhaust their own low-cost reductions before buying offsets from another sector, he said. For instance, it costs oil and gas companies very little to cut certain types of methane leaks, he said. “It’s almost like, fix your own house, clean your own room first.”

The UN Environment Programme, billed on its website as the “leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda,” says it has been “carbon neutral” since 2008 through a mix of net reductions and offsets such as wind and hydropower projects. The offsets come from the Clean Development Mechanism, implemented under a separate UN office that handles global climate talks.

Clean Development Mechanism credits have come under fire for environmental and human rights scandals. The ProPublica investigation noted a 2016 study that found 85% of the offsets had a “low likelihood” of creating real reductions.

In an emailed statement, the program’s communications office said it has reduced its reliance on these offsets over time, and these credits are “rigorously managed and controlled.” When selecting offsets, they “take into consideration those which may also have additional social and environmental benefits.”

Hagelberg said his agency has no plans to change the types of offsets it uses. “My main concern is that we actually reduce our emissions, our real emissions, instead of having to go to the offsets side,” he said. Offsets remain part of the climate solution for now, he said, though they will need to be reevaluated in the future.

The program stirred controversy this week after it took down a more pointed version of the article published Monday, which said: “The era of carbon offsets is drawing to a close. Buying carbon credits in exchange for a clean conscience while you carry on flying, buying diesel cars and powering your home with fossil fuels is no longer acceptable or widely accepted.”

Climate Home News, a London-based news site, reached out to the program with questions after the “unusually stark critique,” with a headline announcing, “UN Environment official attacks agency’s own carbon offsetting policy.” The next day, the language that offsets were “no longer acceptable or widely accepted” was edited to say they are “being challenged by people concerned about climate change.”

When asked why he’d revised the article, Hagelberg said it went through an editing process that “added a little more spice,” resulting in a version posted online that “went perhaps too far.” It was later revised “so there’s no ambiguity in the message,” he said.

Even the revised article is “further than I’ve seen any UN body go” in discussing offsets and their growing opposition, said Taylor Billings, media director for Corporate Accountability, an advocacy group that monitors the fossil fuel industry’s influence on global climate talks. Since the criticism is coming from a UN agency publication, it makes it harder for UN Climate Change — the office that created the Clean Development Mechanism — to ignore those flaws, Billings said. “It’s an indication that the tide is turning on this blind faith in offset programs to get us out” of the climate crisis, Billings said.

The UN has publicly struggled to reconcile its support for offsets with evidence that they are problematic. As Climate Home News reported, UN Climate Change released a video in August titled “keep calm and offset,” which “appeared to suggest that viewers could lead a carbon-heavy lifestyle as long as they offset their emissions. It was taken down after a backlash.”

Rules governing global carbon offsets remain contentious and are consistently debated at UN climate talks. They will be discussed at coming talks in Bonn, Germany, starting next week.

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[l] at 6/14/19 3:00am

by Logan Jaffe

Hello, again! How are you, Illinois? Let’s talk about tickets.

This week, a task force examining Chicago’s ticketing and debt collection practices released its recommendations for reform. The task force, officially called the Chicago Fines, Fees & Access Collaborative, is made up of aldermen, city department heads and community advocates. It was launched by City Clerk Anna Valencia in December 2018, sparked by our reporting with WBEZ Chicago that showed how the city’s ticketing and debt collection practices disproportionately affect low-income and black neighborhoods — an issue you should be fairly familiar with if you’ve been keeping up with these newsletters 😉.

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Overall, the task force “falls short of calling for immediate reforms or specific changes to some of the most controversial practices, including license suspensions over unpaid tickets, late penalties and ticketing disparities,” my colleagues, ProPublica Illinois reporter Melissa Sanchez and WBEZ data reporter Elliott Ramos, wrote in a story this week. Right now, it’s more like a road map for the City Council — should it choose to introduce legislation.

“Things of this magnitude took eons to get to this hot mess, so we can’t be unrealistic and change things tomorrow …”

— Rosazlia Grillier, a parent leader from the nonprofit Community Organizing and Family Issues who was on the task force.

Still, here are some of the recommendations we’ll be keeping an eye on:

  1. Rolling back the $200 fine for not having a required city sticker on your vehicle.

    In July of last year, we reported that the city’s 2011 decision to raise the cost of sticker tickets from $120 to $200 produced only modest revenue increases but led to hundreds of millions of dollars in debt for residents.

  2. Ending the automatic doubling of tickets when late and, instead, tying the cost of the ticket to a driver’s income.

    The $200 city sticker tickets can quickly rise to $488 with late penalties and fees. Our reporting shows how, for Chicago’s working poor, and particularly for African Americans, a single unpaid parking or automated traffic camera ticket can quickly spiral out of control and threaten their livelihoods.

  3. Allowing motorists who receive those tickets to pay a reduced rate of, say, $10 if they come into compliance by purchasing a vehicle sticker.

    Alderman Gilbert Villegas, of the Northwest Side’s 36th Ward, reintroduced legislation this week to reduce late penalties, give motorists more time to pay tickets and allow community service in place of some fines and penalties.

  4. Reforming the city’s payment plans by reducing down payments or basing them on motorists’ ability to pay.

    Reducing down payments for low-income motorists is also part of Villegas’ legislation. Right now, motorists with significant ticket debt must make a down payment of up to $1,000 to get on a payment plan, keep their vehicles from getting impounded or lift license suspensions.

  5. Examining Chicago’s massive vehicle impoundment program.

    A WBEZ Chicago investigation this year showed how Chicago sold tens of thousands of impounded vehicles to a private towing company for less than $200 each.

  6. Establishing a “Chicago Financial Justice Director Position: a position to coordinate efforts across City Departments and agencies, as well as serve as point person on issues pertaining to fines and fees reform.”

    In conversations we’ve had with people affected by this issue, many have expressed frustration with contesting tickets and navigating the various departments involved.

  7. Reviewing whether police should issue citations for non-moving violations.

    We analyzed more than 54 million parking, standing and vehicle compliance tickets issued since 1996. We found that police — rather than city parking enforcement aides or private contractors — issued most of these kinds of tickets in majority black wards. Search for ticket information about your ward in our app, The Ticket Trap.

    Also of note: Task force members said they couldn’t come to an agreement on what to do about license suspensions, one of the most controversial topics on this issue. As always, we’ll keep you posted on what we learn. And if you’re into this, please join our Facebook group, Driven Into Debt: Chicago Drivers Navigating Vehicle Ticket Troubles.

Until next week …

— Logan Jaffe

Engagement reporter, ProPublica Illinois

P.S. Did you know that Illinois is the opposite of Alabama? At least, that’s what one New York Times writer suggested in a piece this week examining America’s growing divisions, as most states are now under the control of a single political party. But maybe our states have more in common than it seems? Plenty of people agree that both Illinois and Alabama are among the most corrupt in the country … ha.

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[l] at 6/13/19 6:00am

by Jason Pohl , The Sacramento Bee, and Ryan Gabrielson, ProPublica

Deadly violence has surged in county jails across California since the state began sending thousands of inmates to local lockups instead of prisons, the result of a dramatic criminal justice transformation that left many sheriffs ill-equipped to handle a new and dangerous population.

Since 2011, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to overhaul its overcrowded prisons, inmate-on-inmate homicides have risen 46% in county jails statewide compared with the seven years before, a McClatchy and ProPublica analysis of California Department of Justice data and autopsy records shows.

Killings tripled and even quadrupled in several counties.

The increase in violent deaths in jails began soon after California officials approved sweeping reforms called “realignment” in response to the court ruling. The result has meant the conditions in many jails now mirror those in the once-overcrowded prisons, with inmates killing each other at an increasing rate.

Inmates have stabbed, bludgeoned or strangled their cellmates, moved bodies and wiped away blood before guards noticed, autopsy reports show. Staff at the jails have missed several of the crimes entirely, only finding the bodies hours later.

The state holds more than 70,000 inmates spread across 56 counties with jails. Many inmates now are serving multiyear sentences in jails originally designed to hold people no longer than a year. An increasing number of jail inmates suffer from serious mental illness or chronic medical conditions that those facilities have been unprepared to handle.

While inmate-on-inmate homicides are up significantly in jails overall, Los Angeles County, home to more than 10 million people, including 16,000 in its jails, has been an exception. That follows a federal court order placing the nation’s largest jail system under an outside monitor in 2014 to overhaul operations after guards were caught allowing fights among inmates and other abuses. Los Angeles County jails haven’t had an inmate homicide in more than three years.

The rest of California saw its inmate homicide count soar by 150%, from 12 killings in the seven years before realignment to at least 30 in the seven years after.

The surge in killings in county jails is particularly significant because the population there is vastly different than in prisons. The majority of people in jails statewide are accused of crimes, innocent under the law, whereas prisons only hold those who have been convicted of felonies. Jails mix both populations, and the result has been deadly for some.

Three-quarters of those killed in jails since 2011 were awaiting trial, according to state data.

Some of the victims were hours away from being released.

Diverting people from overcrowded state prisons to county jails brought organized criminal activity and other new burdens to local sheriffs, said Jonathan Caudill, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Colorado who studies realignment and incarceration in California. The increase in homicides suggests jail officials lack the resources to supervise, provide services and protect the jail population, he said.

“You have the importation of prison politics into the county jail in concert with people being there longer and having to handle their problems there,” Caudill said. “It’s like fire and gasoline.”

Kill, Clean, Report

Increased deadly violence soon followed in every major California region, from the Bay Area to the Central Valley and the Southern California coastline.

In the seven years before realignment, only one jail inmate was killed in Riverside County, east of Los Angeles. But five have died in homicides in the seven years since. In San Diego County, homicides jumped from two to five in that same period.

Legislation passed to enact realignment reclassified the way the state looked at about 500 crimes to effectively eliminate the possibility of prison time. The new rules applied to anyone convicted of a crime after Oct. 1, 2011, and changed the statutes throughout California law, from the penal to the motor vehicle codes.

Realignment didn’t release people from prison early out a back door — it closed one of the front doors and made it more difficult to end up there at all.

Critics predicted the changes would inevitably lead to a spike in violent street crime statewide. But that has not happened. Researchers have found the prison realignment effort since 2011 has had little to no effect on public safety.

“Statewide violent and property crime rates are roughly where they were when California began implementing these reforms,” a Public Policy Institute of California report stated this year.

Inside California’s jails, the same has not been true. Sentenced inmates make up a greater share of the jail population statewide, and there are thousands more people held on felonies than in the years before realignment, data from the Board of State and Community Corrections shows.

The state has tried to improve conditions in its sprawling network of state prisons. But county jails — designed to hold people for weeks, not years — have long mixed low-level inmates with violent defendants in cells, including those charged with murder. But California’s in-custody death data and autopsy records indicate that risky practice has at least contributed to more deadly results in the years since realignment.

On May 8, 2013, Julio Negrete Jr. was booked into a Riverside County jail on suspicion of drug possession. Officials assigned him a cellmate accused of murder. The next day, guards went to escort Negrete, 35, to a bond meeting but couldn’t find him. They searched the cell from top to bottom, found bloody socks and then came upon his strangled body under the lower bunk hidden by two small cardboard boxes, coroner and court records state. Video footage showed the attack happened roughly 10 hours earlier.

McClatchy and ProPublica sent questions to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department about inmate homicides in its jails, but the agency has not responded.

“The system obviously has fundamental blind spots,” Ross Mirkarimi, a former San Francisco County sheriff who now reviews inmate deaths, said of county jails. “Those who are hellbent on committing murder know how to defeat those blind spots.”

Mirkarimi said local sheriffs haven’t reacted with enough alarm to deaths in jail custody. He said that if dying in a cell is “the most vivid feature” of a jail’s shortcoming, a doubling of inmate-on-inmate killings should sound a blaring siren.

When dangerous or mentally ill inmates strain a short-handed staff, every part of a jail suffers the consequences. Officers are sometimes slower to conduct rounds, to see fights develop in a housing area for dozens of gang members or to notice other signs of trouble. They often arrive too late to save lives.

Boredom and frustration alone can create tension among cellmates, said Michael Bien, a lawyer representing inmates in lawsuits against California prisons and several county jails. “We know that incarcerating someone in a place where you don’t have anything to do is likely to lead to violence, mental illness, stress, suicide, all sorts of things.”

On Dec. 14, 2014, a deputy at the Sacramento County Jail was conducting overnight rounds in a pod for sick prisoners where Edward Larson was housed. Larson, 54, was a mentally ill homeless man jailed for failing to register as a sex offender.

Jail staff assigned him a new cellmate after another inmate complained of Larson’s lewd comments and poor hygiene. His behavior also bothered his new cellmate, Ernest Salmons, who alerted a deputy at 3:10 a.m. that something was wrong. Larson was lying on his back, eyes closed and a blanket pulled up to his neck.

The deputy instructed Salmons, who was in jail on suspicion of stealing a vehicle, to nudge Larson, according to the district attorney’s death-in-custody review, so Salmons jostled Larson’s mattress. He was unresponsive, his skin cool to the touch, and firefighters pronounced him dead minutes later. His autopsy report shows he was beaten to death sometime after the previous night’s “stand-up count,” when inmates must stand so guards can take attendance. After that, staff only peer through cell windows for hourly checks.

Salmons first denied fighting Larson. But investigators noticed small areas of smeared blood on the wall of the cell, which had two beds. They found a bloodied T-shirt in the trash can and remnants of pooled blood on the floor. Larson’s head was bandaged, although he had never asked for a bandage. Salmons, however, received several of them.

“It appears,” investigators wrote, “someone had tried to clean up blood from the cell.”

Salmons was convicted of the killing and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office initially agreed to an interview about the safety of its jail. Then it rescinded the offer, saying instead it would only provide written answers to questions. Then it changed course again, saying the “topics” were the subject of “ongoing litigation” and it would answer no questions.

“I can tell you that the Sheriff’s Office is aware of the concerns regarding these topics,” Sgt. Tess Deterding, a spokeswoman, wrote in a statement.

“Agitated and Shirtless”

It’s not clear why Lyle Woodward was even in the San Diego Central Jail in early December 2016. Police had arrested him for alleged drug possession weeks earlier, though county officials later claimed in a court filing that he was jailed on a parole violation. Woodward had a history of mental illness and drug cases.

Regardless, on Dec. 3, correctional officers responded to a “man-down” alert and found Woodward unresponsive, sprawled facedown on the cell floor with blood pooling around his head, according to medical examiner records. Jail staff described one of Woodward’s cellmates as “agitated and shirtless.”

Cellmate Clinton Thinn, a New Zealander charged with armed bank robbery, told officers he’d fought with Woodward several minutes earlier. However, bruises on Woodward’s neck suggested something had been tied around his throat to choke off air. In the cell toilet, officers found a jail-issued blue shirt, torn into strips and knotted together. “It is unclear if the suspect attempted to flush the shirt portion,” the autopsy report stated.

Medics rushed Woodward to a nearby emergency room, where doctors and nurses resuscitated the 30-year-old. But his brain was gravely injured, and he began having seizures. Woodward’s condition worsened; his parents told the hospital to stop life support, and he died a week after the attack.

Last year, a jury convicted Thinn of murdering Woodward and sentenced him to 25 years in prison. Woodward’s parents have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the sheriff’s department, alleging that jail staff failed to protect their son from a dangerous inmate and was slow to provide medical care. The sheriff has denied the allegations.

In written answers to questions from McClatchy and ProPublica, the sheriff’s department said the number of high-risk inmates inside San Diego County’s jail increased after realignment. It responded by forming a jail investigations unit.

“They work closely with facility staff members to develop, share and act upon information which could lead to violence and prevent it when possible,” Capt. Alan Kneeshaw wrote. “When assaults occur, they are documented and investigated.”

In Los Angeles County, a federal monitor and members of the public look into jail violence — not just the sheriff’s department. That independent scrutiny exists in only a couple of other California jurisdictions. And jail staff in Los Angeles didn’t volunteer for it.

Home to a quarter of the state’s residents, Los Angeles County once had as many inmate killings as the other 55 county jails combined. In 2011, as state officials negotiated prison realignment, civil lawsuits and news reports exposed that guards at Los Angeles’ Men’s Central Jail intentionally allowed inmates to assault each other.

County officials instituted an array of measures to protect people in the cells, including a civilian oversight board. The federal courts appointed an independent jail monitor.

Richard Drooyan, an attorney and the court-appointed monitor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, said every jail fight is reviewed to ensure staff members followed safety protocols and intervened quickly. Gang members and other high-risk inmates are escorted by guards when they leave their cells to prevent violence.

In other county jails, court and autopsy records show inmates accused of serious violent crimes or suffering psychosis are sometimes housed with people facing minor charges. “That’s not the way they run the jails down here,” Drooyan said of Los Angeles County. The nation’s largest jail system now segregates and tightly controls where the high-risk inmates go and what they do, he said.

The fixes appear to have reduced violence overall and homicides in particular. State in-custody death data shows Los Angeles County had 12 inmate homicides from 2005 to 2011, compared with just five from 2012 to 2018.

An inmate has not been killed by another person in custody in more than three years.

Today, officers and administrators in the Los Angeles County jails “understand their obligations to protect the inmates and they take those obligations pretty seriously,” Drooyan said. “And I think that it’s reflected in the statistics.”

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[l] at 6/12/19 5:00am

by Connor Sheets , AL.com

Shortly after Phil Sims became the sheriff of Marshall County, Alabama, at 12 a.m. on Jan. 14, he found a cardboard box in a storage closet containing five government-issued smartphones, each with multiple holes drilled clear through them.

It was the first time Sims had been allowed to enter the sheriff’s office, a red-brick building overlooking Lake Guntersville, a foggy bass-fishing mecca, since he defeated longtime Sheriff J. Scott Walls in the June primary election.

It didn’t take long for Sims to learn that the destroyed iPhones and Androids had belonged to his predecessor and his top brass. Sims also discovered that the hard drives had been removed from the computers in his and his chief deputy’s offices, and reams of records were nowhere to be found.

The records Walls did leave behind revealed that in the months following his electoral loss, he was wired tens of thousands of dollars from the sheriff’s office’s general fund, and more than $30,000 was missing from its commissary fund. The records, which were reviewed by AL.com and ProPublica, show that the sheriff’s office spent tens of thousands of public dollars on expenditures that Sims described as unnecessary and excessive, including over 20,000 rolls of toilet paper, hundreds of boxes of garbage bags and 10 massive drums of dishwashing liquid.

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Donald Rhea, a lawyer for Walls, didn’t respond to repeated emailed requests for comment on a detailed list of claims made by Sims. Walls’ wife declined to connect a reporter with her husband and hung up the phone, and Walls did not respond to text and voice messages left at multiple numbers listed as his in public records.

Sims is not the only new sheriff who accused his predecessor of taking advantage of the power of his office as his term wound down. In fact, his predicament is just one example of a dubious but little-known tradition of Alabama sheriffs hobbling those who defeat them at the polls.

AL.com and ProPublica interviewed nine of the 10 new sheriffs who won elections against incumbents last year. All nine said that last-minute actions by their predecessors had negative impacts on their offices and, by extension, the public. A captain in the office of the tenth, Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway, said there were no problems during his transition.

Many of the sheriffs alleged that their predecessors acted in ways that could be described as vindictive hazing: One failed to have a badge made for the new sheriff; another threw all the sheriff’s office’s unmarked keys in a pile, leaving his replacement to figure out which went to which door or vehicle.

But seven of the sheriffs made more serious accusations against their predecessors, many of which were corroborated by internal office records. Among their claims: Outgoing sheriffs pocketed public money, fudged financial reports, wasted sheriff’s office funds and destroyed or stole public property.

The findings are part of a yearlong examination by AL.com and ProPublica into how Alabama sheriffs are overseen and the vast county-by-county disparities in how they execute their duties and enforce the law.

All the former sheriffs who responded to a reporter’s inquiries denied wrongdoing, often insulting their successor or providing a counternarrative aimed at disproving the claims.

In Alabama, sheriffs are the law beyond city limits, ruling over small towns, unincorporated farmlands and suburbs. Unlike police chiefs appointed by mayors and beholden to city councils, sheriffs answer to no one but the voters who elect them. State legislators and other county officials are typically unwilling to cross them.

Every day, the state’s 67 sheriffs make decisions about what laws to enforce, what their deputies should focus on and who they should arrest. They run county jails, partner with the federal government and other agencies, and campaign to stay in office. Many of them oversee multimillion-dollar budgets, and every sheriff is largely responsible for deciding what county law enforcement activities taxpayers should pay for.

Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director for the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center, called for authorities to “fully investigate whether any laws were broken” by outgoing sheriffs after they were defeated in last year’s elections. The SPLC has long studied sheriff’s offices and other law enforcement agencies across the U.S., and it has sued sheriffs in several states, including Alabama, in recent years over alleged misconduct and abuse of power.

“At the very least, the conduct described and evidenced is a severe violation of the public’s trust and at worst, may violate the law,” Graybill said.

“Childish Crap”

At least three sheriffs found ways to take home public money on their way out the door.

Last year, AL.com reported that Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin pocketed more than $750,000 worth of funds initially allocated to purchase food for jail inmates between 2015 and 2017, and purchased a $740,000 beach house.

Sheriff’s office financial documents recently obtained by ProPublica and AL.com via public record request show that in the six months after his June electoral loss, Entrekin personally received an additional $269,184 worth of checks from sheriff’s office accounts. The records show that the money was initially allocated to feed federal immigration detainees and state and municipal inmates housed in the county jail.

Entrekin did not respond to requests for comment via phone and text message, and Rhea, who is also his attorney, did not respond to emailed questions. Rhea instead provided a short statement denying new Sheriff Jonathon Horton’s assertion that Entrekin refused to speak with him after the election.

Last year, Entrekin said publicly that he had a legal right to leftover jail food funds under a Depression-era law. The state Legislature has since passed a law prohibiting sheriffs from keeping funds allocated to feed state inmates that they didn’t use for that purpose.

But lawyers and law professors have said that Entrekin likely ran afoul of federal law by also keeping federal jail food money, as AL.com reported in December. In July, Entrekin told AL.com that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General was investigating his handling of inmate-feeding funds. No charges have been filed, and Rhea, Entrekin’s lawyer, denied any misconduct at the time.

“He stands ready to cooperate fully and completely in the investigation that, hopefully, will begin immediately,” Rhea, said in a July statement. “That is what innocent people do.”

Six sheriffs say that they have requested state audits of their offices’ finances and that they will decide how to proceed once they have the results in hand. The other three say they are handling the fallout themselves and want to avoid causing more bad blood.

“As far as criminal or unethical, we will see,” Sims said. “I’ve asked for an audit from the [Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts] to address any issues.”

Sheriff Blake Turman of Covington County said that he filed a complaint last month with the state Ethics Commission, which has not been previously reported, and that he also plans to submit a report to local prosecutors. Both are related to former Sheriff Dennis Meeks’ spending during the transition period and what Turman alleges to be missing public funds and property. Meeks denies wrongdoing.

Though other public officials in Alabama often face growing pains and hostile staffs after displacing incumbents, sheriffs are especially vulnerable to the whims of their predecessors. Sheriffs wield far greater power than most other elected officials to spend public funds as they see fit, and they are subject to far less oversight.

In Marshall County, Sims’ first priority when he became sheriff wasn’t finances. It was feeding the hundreds of people in the jail one floor below his office. The jailhouse kitchen’s refrigerators and shelves were empty when he walked in, he said.

“There was no food,” Sims said. An inmate told his chief deputy, Doug Gibbs, that there had been 40 pounds of rice in the pantry the weekend before Sims became sheriff, but an employee of the outgoing sheriff had instructed the inmate to pour it down a garbage disposal. Gibbs confirmed the interaction in an interview.

Five months after he became Marshall County’s top law enforcement officer, Sims said he is still trying to sort out the finances of the office he won. (Bob Miller, special to ProPublica)

James Hutcheson, chairman of the Marshall County Commission, said that Roto-Rooter had to be hired to clean out the disposal, which Sims said was still clogged with soggy rice when he took office.

“I was there at midnight that night Sheriff Sims took office, and I was aware of the rice being poured down the drain and everything,” Hutcheson said. “I was concerned about the situation.”

But Sims had planned for the worst and arranged ahead of time for a food distributor to make a delivery in the early morning of Jan. 14, just in time to prepare breakfast and serve it to the inmates.

“That’s the kind of childish crap we deal with,” he said, referencing the dumping of the rice down the drain. “It was food that was bought and reimbursed by the state that was bought for the purpose of feeding the inmates.”

“A Hate Pattern”

Twenty new sheriffs took office in Alabama on Jan. 14. Half of them replaced sheriffs who retired or otherwise left their positions without running for reelection, handling the transition in a manner the new sheriffs generally described in public statements as fair and congenial. The other 10 sheriffs beat incumbents — eight of whom had held the position for at least 12 years — in last year’s primary, runoff or general elections.

The handover appears to have gone smoothly for only one of the 10 newly elected sheriffs. Capt. David Agee, of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, said the transfer of power from former Sheriff Mike Hale to Pettway proceeded without incident. Pettway is the first black sheriff in the history of Jefferson County, the most populous county in Alabama and home to Birmingham, the largest city in the state.

“We don’t have any issues to report,” Agee said. “The men and women of the sheriff’s office are professionals and they’re adjusting well and we’re moving forward with everything we need to do.”

Bobby Timmons has served as executive director of the Alabama Sheriffs Association since 1975. The bolo tie-wearing octogenarian, who previously served as a state legislator and sheriff of Jefferson County, has been such a powerful advocate for sheriffs over the course of his career that the association named its headquarters in downtown Montgomery after him.

Timmons said outgoing sheriffs with grudges have long blown through funds, refused to communicate with incoming sheriffs and have even been known to pull trucks up to the backs of their county jails and fill them with any remaining food, leaving their replacements scrambling to feed inmates.

In most of the counties that saw sheriffs voted out of office last year, their replacements said they believed the former sheriffs took detrimental steps that were motivated by pettiness or anger.

For over six weeks, Terry Mears, the sheriff of Crenshaw County, did not have a badge. Though his new deputies had shiny golden stars awaiting them when Mears assumed office on Jan. 14, the rural county’s new sheriff says he had to order one for himself that he didn’t receive until Feb. 27.

The previous sheriff, Mickey Powell, had badges made for every sheriff’s office employee who required one except, Mears said, for him. Powell did not respond to repeated requests for comment made via email and telephone.

Timmons said it’s common for sheriffs to engage in small feuds with their successors.

“The one that gets defeated, he doesn’t want to be defeated, he doesn’t want to lose,” he said. “And it may have been a dirty campaign, so you’ve got a hate pattern then.”

Impact on the Public

As they settle into their jobs, newly elected sheriffs say moves by their predecessors near the ends of their terms have made it more difficult for them to keep the public and their deputies safe, enforce laws and execute the essential duties of their offices.

Barbour County Sheriff Tyrone Smith said the transition from former Sheriff Leroy Upshaw “has really been a challenge” for his office. Following his defeat in the June primary election, Upshaw stopped selling pistol permits and halted the jail’s work-release program, two vital revenue streams in the cash-strapped county of about 25,000 people near Alabama’s southeastern corner, Smith said.

Over the 46 months ending April 30, 2016, Barbour County brought in an average of about $5,400 per month from pistol permit fees and hundreds of dollars per month from its work-release program, according to the state’s most recent audit of the sheriff’s office.

Smith said those moves and several other decisions Upshaw made in his final months left the department temporarily unable to pay for better equipment.

His deputies’ cars needed new radar detectors. Their body cameras were outdated and needed to be replaced, Smith said.

“There’s some things that my deputies need right now that the funding is not available for right now.”

Upshaw did not respond to repeated requests for comment made via email, voicemails left at multiple numbers listed as his in public records and phone messages left with his current employer, the sheriff’s office in neighboring Russell County.

Though counties foot the bill for most sheriff’s office salaries, building upgrades and other major and recurring expenses, discretionary funds are a lifeblood for sheriffs, who use them for everything from uniforms and ammunition to vehicles and office software. The money is generated by assessing fees for pistol permits, auctioning off confiscated items, selling items in jail commissaries and other efforts. It is then divided into separate accounts.

The Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts periodically audits sheriff’s finances, including discretionary accounts, and they are generally subject to review by county financial officers. Sections of the state code that govern individual counties bar most sheriffs from using the funds for anything other than legitimate sheriff’s office needs. But only sheriffs have the authority to decide what their offices purchase with the funds, and they largely spend them as they please.

So it’s a major blow to new sheriffs when they find that their discretionary funds have been depleted.

Turman, the new Covington County sheriff, said he could have used the discretionary funds the former sheriff, Meeks, spent on his way out of office to better equip his deputies, who each carry one of a variety of mismatched pistols, many of which require different types of ammunition.

“When it comes down to a firefight, if you run out of ammo and you look at your buddy and say, ’Hey, throw me a magazine,’ but you can’t throw them a magazine because your ammo is a different caliber, that’s a problem,” Turman said during a March interview in his modest office in rural Andalusia.

Internal financial records provided to AL.com and ProPublica show that in September, two months after he lost his reelection bid, Meeks used more than $6,200 of sheriff’s office funds to purchase coloring books, Frisbees, pencils and other promotional items emblazoned with his name.

Meeks confirmed that he purchased the promotional items with office funds and left them behind in the sheriff’s office. He said he bought a similar cache of items to distribute at the county fair every year he was sheriff.

“It was not bought just to be spending money,” he said. “It was bought for the county fair, but I had something come up so I couldn’t make it this year.”

Turman also said he’s been unable to locate about $40,000 from the state to pay for feeding inmates in December 2018 and January 2019. He provided an internal sheriff’s office record suggesting a $39,900 shortfall in the jail food fund that he said corroborates his claim.

“I have no idea where it went,” Turman said. “It did not come here though.”

In a phone interview, Meeks called his successor a liar, adding that, “every bit of that money is in that account.”

“I could’ve spent every bit of [the discretionary money] if I wanted to, because I was the sheriff, but I didn’t,” Meeks said. “Until Jan. 14, I was still sheriff and I still had to operate the sheriff’s office and had to spend money. I couldn’t wait for his little butt to get there.”

Back in Marshall County, in north Alabama, Sims says he could have used the tens of thousands of dollars of sheriff’s office funds Walls spent on what Sims called unnecessary items in the final months of his term. Sims said he would have replaced bulletproof vests and purchased new Tasers. He says he would have also bought new handguns to replace the aging ones many of his deputies were carrying when he took office, some of which were 20-plus years old.

Sims’ first priority when he became sheriff wasn’t finances. It was feeding hundreds of people in the Marshall County Jail. The jailhouse kitchen’s refrigerators and shelves were empty when he started on the job, he said. (Bob Miller, special to ProPublica)

Sims says that since Jan. 14, the Marshall County Commission has spent more than $900,000 on equipment, training, building repairs and other sheriff’s office expenses that he says were neglected while Walls was sheriff. In March, the county announced it was accepting bids to complete upgrades to the county’s jail that were requested by Sims and are expected to cost taxpayers around half a million dollars.

Hutcheson said he was “disappointed” to learn of the poor state of the sheriff’s office’s equipment, training and facilities under Walls.

“I believe in law enforcement having the equipment they need, and it should be kept in good working condition because they go out and put their lives on the line every day for the citizens and they should have good, updated equipment,” Hutcheson said. “We’re working day and night trying to update the sheriff’s [office] as quickly as possible.”

Gloves, Guns and Cars

Nick Smith, the new sheriff of Walker County who, at 35, is the youngest sheriff currently serving in Alabama, cut his teeth as a small-town police chief. Smith looks the part of sheriff with his crisp, bright-white uniforms and close-cropped hair. He takes pride in his ability to run a tight ship and limit costs, but he says he believes many sheriffs, including his predecessor Jim Underwood, fail to live up to that mission, in part because they act as if discretionary funds are “their money” to spend.

Internal Walker County Sheriff’s Office financial records reveal that discretionary fund spending skyrocketed after Underwood lost his reelection bid in July. Underwood spent approximately $162,000 worth of the funds in just three months, from August through October 2018. That’s $9,000 more than was spent in the 10 previous months.

Underwood’s last-minute purchases with discretionary money included more than $9,000 worth of black rubber gloves purchased at $69.99 per box about a week before he left office and $13,050 to buy a new washing machine and have it delivered to the jail.

Smith said that he was able to quickly find the same model of gloves retailing online for $10 a box, and that he found a similar washing machine for sale online for over $10,000 less than the outgoing sheriff spent.

The records show that Underwood also used discretionary funds to purchase four brand-new sheriff’s office vehicles, including a $32,671 Toyota Camry.

Underwood said in an interview at his home in a quiet community on the outskirts of Jasper that he did not personally order the gloves, that a county employee made the decision about which washing machine to buy and that he would have bought the cars even if he had won the election.

“I don’t know about the gloves. I didn’t order the gloves. It sounds like an excessive amount for whoever ordered them,” he said. “It’s like anything else you purchase. You can always find cheaper somewhere, but it’s to your own detriment to buy cheaper.”

Underwood said that he left Smith “somewhere around $150,000” in the sheriff’s office’s discretionary accounts, which is in line with what the records show.

“Whatever money was spent out of that discretionary money was lawful,” Underwood said. “There’s no way I would jeopardize a 45-year career in law enforcement for some monetary amount.”

Smith says the thousands of sheriff’s office dollars Underwood spent on such big-ticket purchases should have instead been left behind for him to use.

“I would rather have the money,” Smith said in an interview. “When someone is going out of office, I would rather, not just here but statewide, [they] just leave that money and let the next incoming sheriff spend that for what he sees fit for his administration.”

Aaron Littman, staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, an Atlanta-based nonprofit civil rights law firm that advocates for criminal justice reform in Alabama and has sued sheriffs across the state for financial records, said in a statement that sheriffs “are not feudal kings” and need to be held accountable.

“These allegations, along with a long track record of sheriffs misappropriating jail food funds, make clear that increased transparency and aggressive oversight is necessary,” he said.

“Just to Spend the Money”

Today, five months after he became Marshall County’s top law enforcement officer, Sims is still trying to sort out the finances of the office he won.

Between December 2017 and August 2018, more than $81,000 worth of wire transfers were made from the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office’s general fund into one of Walls’ personal bank accounts, according to internal sheriff’s office records and interviews with two sheriff’s office employees who reviewed the documents.

The records show that no other wire transfers were made from the fund over the nine-month period, and the two sheriff’s office employees said they did not know why the disbursements — more than $29,000 of which took place after Walls lost his reelection bid — were made.

This is not the first time questions have been raised about how Walls managed sheriff’s office funds. In August 2015, the state Department of Examiners of Public Accounts released an audit report stating that between January 2012 and February 2014 the sheriff’s office used over $12,000 of public funds on “payments made without legal authority” and expenditures that “were not for a law enforcement purpose.” The report stated that the office spent $750 to pay “property taxes of an individual” and thousands more on unauthorized uniform allowances, travel expenses, and food, coffee and flower purchases. Walls repaid most of the money, but he declined to pay back over $1,000, prompting the agency to “certify it to the district attorney for collection,” according to the report.

That same month, the Alabama Ethics Commission alleged that Walls had violated ethics law, though it did not disclose details of the allegations, and referred the results of its investigation into his conduct to the state attorney general’s office. Charges were never filed, and a special prosecutor’s investigation into the alleged violation was dropped in August 2016. Walls denied any wrongdoing in a statement he provided at the time to media outlets, including the Sand Mountain Reporter newspaper.

Edmon de Haro, special to ProPublica

Sims also complained about a series of large purchases the sheriff’s office made over the final months of Walls’ term, including an outlay of more than $20,000 for 24,000 rolls of toilet paper and $9,000 for 450 cases of trash bags. The sheriff’s office also purchased 10 55-gallon drums of dishwashing liquid, but Sims has not been able to determine how much they cost. To put that spending in context, the sheriff’s office has just $15,000 budgeted for janitorial supplies this year.

In October, The Advertiser-Gleam reported that Walls defended the five-figure toilet paper purchase. Sims says he was ultimately able to return around $5,000 worth of the rolls.

“We have always bought supplies for the jail in bulk for the year when we bought and kept it in the warehouse,” Walls said, according to the Guntersville newspaper. “But if [county officials] don’t want us to do that, we will buy just enough to get by.”

Gibbs, Sims’ chief deputy, says he believes all the spending amounts to nothing more than a cynical ploy to undermine the new sheriff.

“They bought a bunch of unnecessary items just to spend the money, to keep us from having it.”

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[l] at 6/12/19 5:00am

by Connor Sheets , AL.com

Last year, 10 Alabama sheriffs lost their reelection campaigns. Afterward, nine of them took steps that their successors say negatively affected their ability to perform their new jobs.

Some of the new sheriffs, who took office on Jan. 14, accused their predecessors of pocketing sheriff’s office funds or purchasing thousands of dollars of items the new sheriffs described as wasteful or unnecessary. Other outgoing sheriffs took steps that their successors described as petty, like refusing to communicate for months and purchasing promotional items with their name printed on them on their way out the door. The now-former sheriffs generally disputed these accusations.

Below is a breakdown of some of the allegations made by each new sheriff in interviews with AL.com and ProPublica as part of a yearlong investigation into Alabama sheriffs:

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  • Outgoing sheriff: Leroy Upshaw

  • Incoming sheriff: Tyrone Smith

  • Election defeat: Primary

  • Years in office: 12

  • Communication after the defeat: Smith said he and Upshaw did not speak for “over a year” until the day before the new sheriff took office.

  • Allegations: Smith said Upshaw ceased issuing pistol permits and halted the county’s jail work-release program in the final months of his term, depriving the county of thousands of dollars of revenue that Smith said he wishes he had for new body cameras and radar detectors. Smith said there was “not much” money in the sheriff’s discretionary funds, jail food funding was about “$6,000 in arrears,” and “there was not a lot of food” in the jail’s kitchen when he took office.

  • Response: Upshaw did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Butler County
  • Outgoing sheriff: Kenny Harden

  • Incoming sheriff: Danny Bond

  • Election defeat: Primary

  • Years in office: 12

  • Communication after the defeat: Bond says he and Harden did not speak between the June primary and the day before the new sheriff took office.

  • Allegations: Bond said Harden did not provide accurate information about how much money was left in the office’s discretionary fund. “He has a figure that he says he left, and I have a different figure, so we’ll just agree to disagree,” Bond said. He declined to provide those figures. Bond added that he was left without transition instructions. “They don’t tell you anything or show you anything. You just have to do it on your own.”

  • Response: Harden confirmed that he and Bond went months without speaking before Bond took office. Asked about the discretionary funds, Harden said the new sheriff is “just new and don’t know how the system works.” Harden said he left about $80,000 of discretionary funds for Bond, far more than the $15,000 Harden said the previous sheriff left for him. Harden added that he did not spend discretionary funds “on anything personal, and everything that was purchased was left” for Bond.

Covington County
  • Outgoing sheriff: Dennis Meeks

  • Incoming sheriff: Blake Turman

  • Election defeat: Runoff

  • Years in office: 12

  • Communication after the defeat: “I had no help from the prior administration, no communication,” Turman said. “Prior to the transition, I came and asked if I could come and maybe help do inventory or be involved, and I was denied.”

  • Allegations: Turman said he filed a complaint last month with the state Ethics Commission and plans to submit a report to local prosecutors about Meeks’ actions during the transition. Internal financial records provided to AL.com and ProPublica show that in September, two months after he lost the runoff, Meeks used more than $6,200 of sheriff’s office funds to purchase coloring books, Frisbees, pencils and other promotional items emblazoned with his name. Turman also said he’s been unable to locate about $40,000 from the state to pay for feeding inmates in December 2018 and January 2019. He provided an internal sheriff’s office record suggesting a $39,900 shortfall in the jail food fund. “I have no idea where it went,” Turman said. “It did not come here though.”

  • Response: Meeks said that he purchased the promotional items with office funds and left them behind in the sheriff’s office. He said he bought similar items to distribute at the county fair every year he was sheriff but he was unable to attend the most recent one. Meeks said Turman did not contact him after the election. “They have not called me about anything,” Meeks said.

    Asked about the discretionary funds Turman said were missing, Meeks called his successor a liar. “Every bit of that money is in that account. … I could’ve spent every bit of [the discretionary money] if I wanted to, because I was the sheriff, but I didn’t,” Meeks said. “Until Jan. 14, I was still sheriff and I still had to operate the sheriff’s office and had to spend money. I couldn’t wait for his little butt to get there.”

Crenshaw County
  • Outgoing sheriff: Mickey Powell

  • Incoming sheriff: Terry Mears

  • Election defeat: Primary

  • Years in office: 4

  • Communication after the defeat: Mears said he was given 1 ½ hours worth of transitional assistance the day before he took office.

  • Allegations: Mears said the sheriff’s office spent thousands of dollars of discretionary funds in Powell’s final months in office on items Mears considers unnecessary or wasteful, including “$3,000 to $4,000” for a gun safe. Mears said Powell told him there was upward of $73,000 in the discretionary fund, but “it was around $20,000 or $30,000. … The guy I relieved may have just been making up numbers.”

  • Response: Powell did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Etowah County
  • Outgoing sheriff: Todd Entrekin

  • Incoming sheriff: Jonathon Horton

  • Election defeat: Primary

  • Years in office: 12

  • Communication after the defeat: “I had 7 months in between [winning the primary and entering the office in January] with zero transitional assistance from the past administration,” Horton said in an email.

  • Allegations: Internal sheriff’s office records show that between July 11 and Dec. 11, Entrekin received $269,184 worth of checks from sheriff’s office jail food accounts. The records show the funds had initially been allocated to feed state and municipal inmates and federal immigration detainees in the Etowah County Jail.

  • Response: Entrekin did not respond to requests for comment. Donald Rhea, an attorney for Entrekin, did not respond to questions about the money the records show he kept. Rhea emailed the following statement: “On the night of the election, Sheriff Entrekin was with District Attorney Jody Willoughby. Sheriff Entrekin called Sheriff-elect Horton, congratulated him and offered to meet with him to discuss the transition that would take place. There was no additional contact between Sheriff Entrekin and Sheriff-elect Horton until October 12, 2018. At that time, Sheriff Entrekin again called Sheriff-elect Horton and offered to meet with him to discuss the transition. No meeting ever occurred.”

    Last year, Entrekin said publicly that he had a legal right to leftover jail food funds under a Depression-era law. The state Legislature has since passed a law prohibiting sheriffs from keeping funds allocated to feed state inmates that they didn’t use for that purpose. But lawyers and law professors have said that Entrekin likely ran afoul of federal law by also keeping federal jail food money, as AL.com reported in December. Entrekin said in July that the federal government was investigating his handling of inmate-feeding funds. No charges have been filed in that investigation, and Rhea denied any misconduct at the time.

    “He stands ready to cooperate fully and completely in the investigation that, hopefully, will begin immediately,” Rhea said in a July statement. “That is what innocent people do.”

Fayette County
  • Outgoing sheriff: Rodney Ingle

  • Incoming sheriff: Byron Yerby

  • Election defeat: General

  • Years in office: 12

  • Communication after the defeat: Yerby said he wasn’t allowed to enter the sheriff’s office until 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 14.

  • Allegations: Yerby said the jail food fund was so depleted when he took office that he had to ask the county commission to “give me some money to feed the inmates. We only had enough food for barely one meal.” He also contended that Ingle “spent all the money” in the sheriff’s office’s various discretionary funds, leaving “just a few dollars.” The day before the election, the accounts held several thousand dollars, Yerby said.

  • Response: Ingle confirmed that he and the new sheriff did not communicate for months. Responding to Yerby’s claim that there was almost no money available to feed inmates when he took office, Ingle provided copies of cashier’s checks showing that on Jan. 23 — nine days after Yerby took office — he paid the new sheriff more than $9,300 from a jail food account in Ingle’s name. The money was paid via checks made out to Yerby himself. Ingle said he did not know how much money he left in the office’s discretionary accounts, but called Yerby’s assertion that they were nearly empty “a joke,” adding that “anything that was spent out of those funds was used for something legitimate.”

Jefferson County
  • Outgoing sheriff: Mike Hale

  • Incoming sheriff: Mark Pettway

  • Election defeat: General

  • Years in office: 16

  • Communication after the defeat: David Agee, a captain in the sheriff’s office under Pettway, said, “We don’t really have anything to compare the transition to, but I will say that things have been orderly.”

  • Allegations: Speaking on Pettway’s behalf, Agee cited no problems with the transition: “We don’t have any issues to report. … The men and women of the sheriff’s office are professionals and they’re adjusting well and we’re moving forward with everything we need to do.”

Lawrence County
  • Outgoing sheriff: Gene Mitchell

  • Incoming sheriff: Max Sanders

  • Election defeat: General

  • Years in office: 12

  • Communication after the defeat: Chris Waldrop, a lieutenant in the sheriff’s office under Sanders, said that Sanders attempted to call Mitchell after the election but never got a response, and that the new sheriff was not allowed to enter the sheriff’s office building until 12 a.m. on Jan. 14.

  • Allegations: Sanders said Mitchell used discretionary funds to purchase seven 2019 Chevy Tahoes for the sheriff’s office after he lost his bid for a fourth term as sheriff. The total bill, Waldrop said, was $215,173, or “well over half” the discretionary money. Waldrop said Mitchell also sold $5,940 of food from the jail’s pantry to the county and personally kept the funds, further depleting the resources Sanders had available when he took office. Mitchell was legally permitted to sell the food and pocket the funds under a policy Gov. Kay Ivey instituted last summer, but most new sheriffs said their predecessors chose not to do so.

  • Response: Mitchell said it’s “not true” that he was not available to help Sanders with the transition: “I was there through the last day, and I haven’t seen Sanders at all. You got fed more lies than a Christmas turkey’s going to eat.” Mitchell confirmed that he bought the vehicles, but he said that they were “for law enforcement purposes” and that “I would’ve bought the cars whether I stayed or not. I didn’t buy the cars because the new sheriff came in, that had nothing to do with it. We were buying the cars for the sheriff’s department.” He also confirmed that he sold back jail food but that he didn’t remember the dollar amount: “I don’t remember how much it was but the clerk wrote me a check.”

Marshall County
  • Outgoing sheriff: J. Scott Walls

  • Incoming sheriff: Phil Sims

  • Election defeat: Primary

  • Years in office: 12

  • Communication after the defeat: Sims said that he had no communication with Walls after the primary, and that he was barred from entering the sheriff’s office building until about 15 minutes before he became sheriff at 12 a.m. on Jan. 14.

  • Allegations: Records show — and two sheriff’s office employees confirmed — that more than $81,000 of wire transfers were made from the sheriff’s office’s general fund into one of Walls’ personal bank accounts between December 2017 and August 2018. More than $29,000 of the wire transfers were made after Walls’ electoral loss in June. Sims said five work smartphones used by Walls and his top brass had holes drilled through them, and that the hard drives had been removed from his and his chief deputy’s computers. Records show that in the final months of Walls’ term, the sheriff’s office also spent more than $20,000 on 24,000 rolls of toilet paper, and $9,000 on 450 cases of trash bags.

  • Response: Rhea, who is also a lawyer for Walls, declined to provide a response to repeated requests for comment from the former sheriff. Walls’ wife declined to connect a reporter with her husband, and Walls did not respond to texts and voice messages left at multiple numbers listed as his in public records and investigative databases. In October, The Advertiser-Gleam reported that Walls defended the five-figure toilet paper purchase. “We have always bought supplies for the jail in bulk for the year when we bought and kept it in the warehouse,” Walls said, according to the Guntersville-based newspaper. “But if [county officials] don’t want us to do that, we will buy just enough to get by.”

Walker County
  • Outgoing sheriff: Jim Underwood

  • Incoming sheriff: Nick Smith

  • Election defeat: Runoff

  • Years in office: 4

  • Communication after the defeat: Smith said he was not allowed to enter the Walker County Sheriff’s Office until two days before he took office.

  • Allegations: Underwood spent about $162,000 of discretionary funds between August and October — more than was spent over the 10 previous months — according to internal sheriff’s office records. The last-minute purchases included more than $9,000 for black rubber gloves purchased at $70 per box in January and $13,050 to buy a new washing machine and have it delivered to the jail, according to the records. Smith said he found the same gloves selling online for $10 a box and a similar washing machine retailing online for $1,800. Underwood also used discretionary funds to buy four new vehicles for the sheriff’s office, including a $32,671 Toyota Camry.

  • Response: Underwood said he did not personally order the gloves and doesn’t know who did: “It sounds like an excessive amount for whoever ordered them.” He said that a county employee decided which washing machine to buy. “You can always find cheaper somewhere, but it’s to your own detriment to buy cheaper.” Underwood said that he only spent discretionary money in ways that were legal, and that he left Smith “somewhere around $150,000” in such funds. “Whatever money was spent out of that discretionary money was lawful. One thing I think anyone would tell you — we did what’s right,” he said. “There’s no way I would jeopardize a 45-year career in law enforcement for some monetary amount.”

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[l] at 6/12/19 3:00am

by Ken Ward Jr. , The Charleston Gazette-Mail

A week after the West Virginia Supreme Court unanimously upheld the property rights of landowners battling one natural gas giant, the same court tossed out a challenge filed by another group of landowners against a different natural gas company.

In the latest case, decided Monday, the court upheld a lower court ruling that threw out a collection of lawsuits alleging dust, traffic and noise from gas operations were creating a nuisance for nearby landowners.

Charlie Burd, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, said the latest ruling lets “Wall Street know capital investment in oil and natural gas is welcome in West Virginia” and increases the possibility of more such investments in drilling and in so-called “downstream” chemical and manufacturing plants related to the gas industry.

In the property rights case last week, the justices set a clear legal standard that natural gas companies can’t trespass on a person’s land, without permission, to tap into gas reserves from neighboring tracts. In Monday’s case, the justices didn’t articulate a new legal precedent.

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The mixed messages of the two cases show that “this is new litigation and the theories are evolving,” said Anthony Majestro, a lawyer who represented residents who lost their nuisance action before the Supreme Court.

“As the Marcellus shale drilling has expanded, there have been conflicts between surface owners and the companies that are drilling,” Majestro said. “Absent some legal requirement to require the industry to be good neighbors, I’m afraid we’ll continue to have these situations.”

Majestro’s clients were a group of residents in the Cherry Camp area of Harrison County, in north-central West Virginia. They wanted Antero Resources, the state’s largest gas company, to compensate them for unbearable traffic, “constant dust” that hangs in the air and settles on homes and vehicles, disruptive heavy equipment noise and bright lights that shine into their homes day and night.

The case focused on two dozen wells and a compressor station on six pads. The plaintiffs argued that their lives were being interfered with by Antero’s production of gas from beneath their property, even though the wells were on neighboring land, not on their own properties.

Across West Virginia’s gas-producing region, many residents own the surface of the land where they live, but don’t hold the minerals located beneath. Often, rights to the natural gas were signed over decades ago, long before drilling and gas production of the size and scope now conducted was even dreamed of.

The two court cases were featured last year as part of a series of stories by the Gazette-Mail and ProPublica that explored the impacts of the growth of natural gas on West Virginia communities.

In some ways, the Antero case was more complex than the earlier matter, in which the state court ruled clearly for Doddridge County residents Beth Crowder and David Wentz in their dispute with EQT Corp., West Virginia’s second-largest gas producer.

EQT had built a well pad and pipelines on Crowder and Wentz’s property to reach natural gas not located beneath their farm, but under neighboring tracts, including some that were thousands of feet away. Modern natural gas drilling uses horizontal drilling to use smaller numbers of larger wells to reach much greater amounts of gas.

Justice John Hutchison wrote the court’s 5-0 decision against EQT, including a new point of law that sets a precedent that calls what the company did trespassing and forbids it from being done in the future.

The ruling in the Antero case was a split, 3-2 decision, and the opinion by Justice Evan Jenkins included no new points of law setting precedent for future cases.

Instead, his opinion was based on the view that Antero had gas leases that created a right for it to do whatever was “reasonably necessary” to get at its mineral holdings.

Antero spokeswoman Stephanie Iaquinta said, “We appreciate the court’s thorough review of this important matter and its decision.”

Chief Justice Beth Walker wrote a concurring opinion, pointing out that the majority decision wasn’t necessarily getting to the heart of the matter: whether the kinds of gas industry impacts complained about by the Harrison County residents constitute a legal nuisance.

And Justice Margaret Workman wrote a strongly worded dissent, saying that the court had not only ducked the central legal issue in the case, but that it had usurped the authority of a jury to decide if the facts of how Antero operates should be deemed to be “reasonably necessary” to produce natural gas.

“For a century, the tenor of our mineral easement case law, in each temporal and technological ideation, has been that there must be a balance of the rights of surface owners and mineral owners,” Workman wrote. “Rather than making any attempt to establish legal guidance for that goal in this new context, the majority endorses a gross inequity that effectively gives this new industrialization carte blanche to operate without any regard for the rights of those who live on the land.”

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[l] at 6/11/19 7:00am

by Melissa Sanchez, ProPublica Illinois, and Elliott Ramos, WBEZ Chicago

After six months of meetings, a task force examining Chicago’s ticketing and debt collection practices on Tuesday suggested an array of reforms that include possible changes to one of the city’s costliest vehicle citations, a targeted debt forgiveness program and an overhaul of the city’s onerous payment plans.

The 25-page report from the Chicago Fines, Fees & Access Collaborative falls short of calling for immediate reforms or specific changes to some of the most controversial practices, including license suspensions over unpaid tickets, late penalties and ticketing disparities. Instead, it lays out a broad road map for Chicago’s City Council if it chooses to introduce legislation to reform the city’s ticketing policies.

“Things of this magnitude took eons to get to this hot mess, so we can’t be unrealistic and change things tomorrow,” said Rosazlia Grillier, a parent leader from the nonprofit Community Organizing and Family Issues who sits on the task force. “The city of Chicago, unfortunately, is complicated. … That’s just the reality. Some of the things we thought we could just do, unfortunately, need a bit more case study and research.”

City Clerk Anna Valencia launched the task force in December in response to reporting from ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ Chicago that showed how the city’s ticketing and debt collection practices had disproportionately affected low-income and black neighborhoods. Thousands of residents file for bankruptcy each year to cope with unpaid tickets and late penalties.

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In an interview Monday, Valencia described the task force recommendations as “just the starting point” and said she now plans to brief new aldermen on the issues before introducing proposals for reform in the coming months. “I really feel confident that this is a roadmap to remove serious barriers that harm communities and don’t allow people to get ahead,” she said.

The task force — which included community advocates, aldermen and city department heads — met monthly behind closed doors and held several public forums to solicit input from residents. Valencia said the task force will continue to meet quarterly to monitor progress toward reforms.

Ticketing — including costly vehicle sticker tickets — became an issue during the crowded mayoral race this spring, with all 14 candidates promising reform. In a statement, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, “It’s time we end our reliance on a system of regressive fines and fees by moving away from balancing budgets on the backs of our low-income residents, and prioritize opportunity for every Chicagoan.”

Some of the recommendations try to shift the city’s use of citations to encourage compliance instead of generating revenue. The report’s authors suggest allowing motorists who receive city sticker tickets — which cost $200 each and quickly can rise to $488 with late penalties and collections fees — to pay a reduced rate of, say, $10 if they come into compliance by purchasing a vehicle sticker. City stickers cost between $88 and $139, depending on vehicle weight.

ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ Chicago reported how a 2011 decision to raise the cost of sticker tickets from $120 to $200 produced only modest revenue increases but led to hundreds of millions of dollars in debt for residents. The task force report suggests rolling back the cost of sticker tickets, ending the automatic doubling of tickets when paid late or tying the cost of the ticket to the driver’s income.

The report recommends reforming the city’s payment plans by changing the down payment amount or basing them on motorists’ ability to pay. Currently, motorists with significant ticket debt must make down payments of up to $1,000 to keep their vehicles off the boot list or to lift a suspension of their driver’s license. Advocates have suggested reducing the down payment to just $25 or eliminating it altogether for low-income drivers.

Task force members said they could not come to an agreement on license suspensions. Each year, the city asks the Illinois secretary of state to suspend the licenses of thousands of motorists who have accumulated 10 unpaid parking tickets or five unpaid traffic camera tickets. ProPublica Illinois has reported on how suspensions disproportionately affect drivers from low-income and black neighborhoods in Chicago and its south suburbs.

Legislation to end suspensions was approved by the state Senate but is stalled in the House. Lightfoot’s administration has said she opposes the legislation but will work with advocates over the summer to reach a compromise plan to bring to the General Assembly in the veto session this fall. In a letter to lawmakers last month, Lightfoot said she shares their “deep concerns” over license suspensions but asked for time to “address the totality of these serious issues in a holistic approach.”

Mari Castaldi, the director of policy and advocacy for the nonprofit Chicago Jobs Council, which was part of the task force, said she appreciates the holistic approach taken by both Lightfoot and the task force. But she said she was disappointed that license suspensions were not part of the task force’s recommendations.

“We don’t want to get so bogged down in making everything perfect that we delay taking care of some of the most urgent matters that are causing the most harm,” she said.

Similarly, Alderman Gilbert Villegas, of the Northwest Side’s 36th Ward, said he plans to reintroduce legislation this week to reduce late penalties, give motorists more time to pay tickets, allow some to perform community service in place of some fines and penalties, and reduce down payment amounts for low-income motorists.

The measure died in committee this year, but Villegas said he’s optimistic that it may pass under the new administration. “Every day that we delay puts people at risk, people having to think of bankruptcy,” he said. “I don’t think we need a task force to put forward legislation that’s been impacting black and brown communities.”

The task force also recommends the city create a new financial justice director job, modeled on a similar position in San Francisco, to oversee ticketing reforms. This person would be responsible for creating an analysis for any new ticket, fine or fee in the city for racial and economic fairness.

The task force recommended continuing to study some of the most controversial parts of the ticketing and debt collection system. For example, the report calls for a comprehensive review of how tickets are issued, including whether police should issue citations for non-moving violations at all. “Chicago has a long history of structural racism that spans generations, and thus, it is important to Collaborative members that future assessments be conducted through a racial equity lens,” the report said.

Similarly, the report calls for more review of the city’s massive impoundment program. A WBEZ investigation this year showed how Chicago sold tens of thousands of impounded vehicles to a private towing company for less than $200 each.

Villegas did not mince words on the impound sales.

“I think it’s a stupid policy,” he said. “It’s a dumb policy, and it needs to be revisited.”

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[l] at 6/10/19 3:45pm

by Beena Raghavendran and Adriana Gallardo

KOTZEBUE, Alaska — Tia Wakolee is a mother, grandmother and an artist. She also is a survivor of multiple rapes and sexual assaults.

Wakolee recently self-published a book about her experiences. But until Thursday, she’d never told her story publicly in Kotzebue, where several of the assaults took place, starting in her early childhood.

“I don’t want any children to go through the things that I grew up dealing with,” Wakolee said at an event sponsored by ProPublica and the Anchorage Daily News in this coastal hub town of about 3,200. The event in some ways represented a homecoming — and her town’s moment of reckoning.

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Wakolee began to cry as she told her story, and a fellow panelist rubbed her back. An audience member passed her a packet of tissues.

After days of visits with town elders, seeking their blessings to hold this conversation with outsiders and media, Wakolee sat holding a microphone. In the crowd of about 70 people were familiar faces, including Wakolee’s best friends, and others, including a half-dozen state troopers and government officials from Juneau.

The event, titled Breaking the Silence: Stopping Sexual Assault in Alaska, was among the first of its kind for the town. Counselors and resources were available for anyone triggered by the discussion.

Joining Wakolee on the panel were Shylena Lie and Jackie Hill, who work at Maniilaq Association, the local nonprofit that provides social and health services in the region. State Rep. John Lincoln, a Democrat who was born and raised in Kotzebue, and John Moller, policy adviser to Alaska Gov. Michael Dunleavy, a Republican, spoke about the government’s role in addressing the sexual assault crisis.

Together, the group touched on the role of law enforcement throughout the state, as well as treatment and support for survivors and the people who assault them. The event was moderated by Shady Grove Oliver, a reporter for The Arctic Sounder, the local newspaper.

ProPublica and the Anchorage Daily News are spending the year investigating sexual violence in Alaska. We’ve previously reported that the sex crime rate in the state is nearly three times the national average. At least one in three Alaska villages has no local law enforcement. Many of the unprotected villages are in western Alaska, where sex crime rates are double the state average.

Lie talked about the Maniilaq Family Crisis Center, which offers domestic violence and sexual assault victims an on-call advocate available around the clock, as well as legal advocacy. Hill discussed the Child Advocacy Center in Kotzebue, which provides a space for young victims to be examined by a nurse and to talk with a forensic interviewer.

“I can’t describe, when you first make contact with a child, the fear in their eyes and what they’re thinking,” Hill said. “And you try to work with them and you try to make them feel comfortable.”

Panelists touched on the long-standing issue of sexual assault. Moller mentioned working on the issue earlier this decade under former Gov. Sean Parnell, who had called it an epidemic.

“We can no longer be the leader in this country statistically with domestic violence and sexual assault statistics — just unacceptable,” Moller said.

Panelists debated the role of law enforcement in ending the crisis, particularly in rural areas.

Amanda Price, Alaska’s public safety commissioner, told the crowd that lack of law enforcement was not the cause of sexual violence. Until people focus their outrage on abusers, Price said, she doesn’t “believe that we’re going to see anything change, even if I have seven troopers at every village in Alaska.”

Moller agreed with Price, adding that Alaskans have to change the culture of “what we’re seeing in our villages.”

Lincoln, who sponsored a bill in the Alaska House to bolster the state’s sex crime laws, took issue with the exchange.

“I absolutely think that having local law enforcement matters to communities and matters to people and matters to women and kids who want to feel safe in the village, who are being hurt and being mistreated, and there’s nobody there for them to go to,” he said.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr visited Alaska to hear from officials and tribal representatives statewide about the issue. He called public safety in much of the state “an emergency.”

The evening culminated with a question from Scotty Barr, father of Ashley Johnson-Barr, who was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered last year in Kotzebue. He talked about the cycle of abuse and wanted to know about programs in the state for troubled young men.

“There’s so many people that saw their fathers and saw their uncles abusing females, young girls,” he said. If there isn’t a program for them, “can we start one?”

Lie answered that the Family Crisis Center in Kotzebue serves people of all genders and is working to educate male and female students on healthy relationships, domestic violence, legal consent and sexual assault.

The event ended in a standing ovation.

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[l] at 6/10/19 10:50am

by Hannah Fresques and Meg Marco

So you want to explore the world through data. But how do you actually *do* it?

Hadley Wickham is a leading developer of open source tools for data science and works as the chief scientist at RStudio. We talked with him about interrogating data, what stories might be hiding in the gaps and how bears can really mess things up. What follows is a transcript of our talk, edited for clarity and length.


ProPublica: You’ve talked about the way data visualization can help the process of exploratory data analysis. How would you say this applies to data journalism?

Wickham: I’m not sure whether I should have the answers or you should have the answers! I think the question is: How much of data journalism is reporting the data that you have versus finding the data that you don’t have ... but you should have ... or want to have ... that would tell the really interesting story.

Hadley Wickham (Courtesy of Hadley Wickham)

I help teach a data science class at Stanford, and I was just looking through this dataset on emergency room visits in the United States. There is a sample of every emergency visit from like 2013 to 2017 ... and then there’s this really short narrative, a one-sentence description of what caused the accident.

I think that’s a fascinating dataset because there are so many stories in it. I look at the dataset every year, and each time I try and pull out a little different story. This year, I decided to look at knife-related injuries, and there are massive spikes on Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s.

As a generalist you want to turn that into a story, and there are so many questions you can ask. That kind of exploration is really a warmup. If you’re more of an investigative data journalist, you’re also looking for the data that isn’t there. You’ve got to force yourself to think, well, what should I be seeing that I’m not?

ProPublica: What’s a tip for someone who thinks that they have found something that isn’t there. What’s the next step that you take when you have that intuition?

Wickham: This is one of the things I learned from going to NICAR, which is completely unnatural to me, and that’s picking up a phone and talking to someone. Which I would never do. There is no situation in my life in which I would ever do that unless it’s life-threatening emergency.

But, I think that’s when you need to just start talking to people. I remember one little anecdote. I was helping a biology student analyze their field work data, and I was looking at where they collected data over time.

And one year they had no data for a given field. And so I go talk to them. And I was like: “Well, why is that? This is really weird.”

And they’re like, well, there was a bear in the field that year. And so we couldn’t collect any data.

But kind of an interesting story, right?

ProPublica: What advice would you have for editors who are managing or collaborating with highly technical people in a journalism environment but who may not share the same skill set? How can they be effective?

Wickham: Learn a little bit of R and basic data analysis skills. You don’t have to be an expert; you don’t have to work with particularly large datasets. It’s a matter of finding something in your own life that’s interesting that you want to dig into.

One [recent example]: I noticed on the account from my yoga class, there was a page that has every single yoga class that I had ever taken.

And so I thought it would be kind of fun to take a look at that. See how things change over time. Everyone has little things like that. You’ve got a Google Sheet of information about your neighbors, or your baby, or your cat, or whatever. Just find something in life where you have data that you’re interested in. Just so you’ve got that little bit of visceral experience of working with data.

The other challenge is: When you’re really good at something, you make it look easy. And then people who don’t know so much are like: “Wow, that looks really easy. It must have taken you 30 minutes to scrape those 15,000 Excel spreadsheets of varying different formats.”

It sounds a little weird, but it’s like juggling. If you’re really, really, really good at juggling, you just make it look easy, and people are like: “Oh well. That’s easy. I can juggle eight balls at a time.” And so jugglers deliberately build mistakes into their acts. I’m not saying that’s a good idea for data science, but you’ve taken this very hard problem, broken it down into several pieces, made the whole thing look easy. How do you also convey that this is something you had to spend a huge amount of time on? It looks easy now, because I’ve spent so much time on it, not because it was a simple problem.

Data cleaning is hard because it always takes longer than you expect. And it’s really, really difficult to predict in advance where the problems are going to lie. At the same time, that’s where you get the value and can do stuff that no one has done before. The easy, clean dataset has already been analyzed to death. If you want something that’s unique and really interesting, you’ve got to dig for it.

ProPublica: During that data cleaning process, is that where the journalist comes out? When you’re cleaning up the data but you’re also getting to know it better and you’re figuring out the questions and the gaps?

Wickham: Yeah, absolutely. That’s one of the things that really irritates me. I think it’s easy to go from “data cleaning” to “Well, you’ve got a data cleaning problem, you should hire a data janitor to take care of it.” And it’s not this “janitorial” thing. Actually cleaning your data is when you’re getting to know it intimately. That’s not something you can hand off to someone else. It’s an absolutely critical part of the data science process.

ProPublica: The perennial question. What makes R an effective environment for data analysis and visualization? What does it offer over other tool sets and platforms?

Wickham: I think you have basically four options. You’ve got R and Python. You’ve got JavaScript, or you’ve got something point and click, which obviously encompasses a very, very large number of tools.

The first question you should ask yourself is: Do I want to use something point and clicky, or do I want to use a programming language? It basically comes down to how much time do you spend? Like, if you’re doing data analysis every day, the time it takes to learn a programming language pays off pretty quickly because you can automate more and more of what you do.

And so then, if you decided you wanted to use a programming language, you’ve got the choice of doing R or Python or JavaScript. If you want to create really amazing visualizations, I think JavaScript is a place to do it, but I can’t imagine doing data cleaning in JavaScript.

So, I think the main competitors are R and Python for all data science work. Obviously, I am tremendously biased because I really love R. Python is awesome, too. But I think the reason that you can start with R is because in R you can learn how to do data science and then you can learn how to program, whereas in Python you’ve got to learn programming and data science simultaneously.

R is kind of a bit of a weird creature as a programming language, but one of the advantages is that you can get some basic templates that you copy and paste. You don’t have to learn what a function is, exactly. You don’t have to learn any programming language jargon. You can just kind of dive in. Whereas with Python you’re gonna learn a little bit more that’s just programming.

ProPublica: It’s true. I’ve tried to make some plots in Python and it was not pretty.

Wickham: Every team I talked to, there are people using R, and there are people using Python, and it’s really important to help those people work together. It’s not a war or a competition. People use different tools for different purposes. I think is very important and one project, to that end, it is this thing called Apache Arrow, which Wes [McKinney] has been working on because of this new organization called Ursa.

Basically, the idea of Apache Arrow is to just to sit down and really think, “What is the best way to store data-science-type data in memory?” Let’s figure that out. And then once we’ve figured it out, let’s build a bunch of shared infrastructure. So Python can store the data in the same way. R can store the data in the same way. Java can store the data in the same way. And then you can see, and mostly use, the same data in any programming language. So you’re not popping it about all the time.

ProPublica: Do you think journalists risk making erroneous assumptions about the accuracy of data or drawing inappropriate conclusions, such as mistaking correlation for causation?

Wickham: One of the challenges of data is that if you can quantify something precisely, people interpret it as being more “truthy.” If you’ve got five decimal places of accuracy, people are more likely to just kind of “believe it” instead of questioning it. A lot of people forget that pretty much every dataset is collected by a person, or there are many people involved. And if you ignore that, your conclusions are going to possibly be fantastically wrong.

I was judging a data science poster competition, and one of the posters was about food safety and food inspection reports. And I … and this probably says something profound about me ... but I immediately think: “Are there inspectors who are taking bribes, and if there were, how would you spot that from the data?”

You shouldn’t trust the data until you’ve proven that it is trustworthy. Until you’ve got another independent way of backing it up, or you’ve asked the same question three different ways and you get the same answer three different times. Then you should feel like the data is trustworthy. But until you’ve understood the process by which the data has been collected and gathered ... I think you should be very skeptical. Your default position should be skepticism.

ProPublica: That’s a good fit for us.

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[l] at 6/10/19 3:00am

by Dan Mihalopoulos, WBEZ Chicago, and Jason Grotto, ProPublica Illinois

Before he managed to kick his gambling habit in 2014, Chris — a 62-year-old lawyer and grandfather — saw a good chunk of his retirement account disappear at the craps tables of Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.

“I estimated that I lost somewhere between $600,000 and $700,000,” he said last week in the living room of his house in Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood.

With help from his gambling-addiction counselor, Chris says he hasn’t gambled in five years and is confident he will resist the temptation of all the new opportunities to bet that Illinois lawmakers approved this month.

But Chris and other recovering gambling addicts say they fear the impact the expansion will have on others who are still hooked. And they say more gambling opportunities inevitably create new addicts.

A review of Springfield’s 816-page gambling bill by ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ found that the number of state-sponsored gambling “positions” — seats to place a bet inside a casino, bar or racetrack — will jump from almost 44,000 to nearly 80,000.

The bill’s provisions include allowing more casinos, more video gambling machines with higher betting limits and a new way of to legally wager: sports betting.

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“There’s going to be gambling on every corner,” said Chris, who asked that his last name not be used in this story to spare his family embarrassment. “I’m a [Chicago] Bears season-ticket holder. I’m going to be able to bet on the Bears before the game. It’s crazy what the expansion is doing.”

Democratic Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has indicated that he will sign the gambling bill. The first-term governor and lawmakers say they hope to shore up the state’s battered finances and pay for long-overdue capital projects with hundreds of millions of dollars a year in new revenue from gambling, though revenue projections of 2009’s gambling expansion fell short.

But Pritzker said he has not ignored the state’s gambling addicts and budgeted $6.8 million in the coming year to fund programs that could help them cope with their habit.

“We’ve very much focused on that,” Pritzker said last week when asked about the impact of the expansion on gambling addicts. “We’ve got to make sure that those addiction treatment and therapy opportunities are all over the state, wherever there may be people who have a gambling addiction problem.”

In February, a ProPublica Illinois-WBEZ investigation found the state had failed to address the issue of gambling addiction in any meaningful way, even as lawmakers approved a huge gambling expansion a decade ago.

Illinois is one of only a few states that have chosen not to track the rate of gambling addiction. Now, though, Pritzker administration officials say they plan to conduct a statewide study to measure addiction — the first such study in nearly three decades.

A 750% Funding Increase

The $6.8 million that’s been set aside to help with gambling addiction was part of the budget that lawmakers also approved this month.

The amount would represent an increase of more than 750% compared with the roughly $800,000 a year that Illinois had been spending to help compulsive gamblers.

There currently are 10 casinos in the state, but the opportunities to bet grew exponentially when lawmakers and then-Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, legalized video gambling machines in 2009.

Now there are 7,000 places that have as many as five video gambling machines each in 1,000 towns across Illinois. The total number of machines outside of casinos has surpassed 31,000, and gamblers have lost about $5.8 billion at the devices, state records show.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said the state has to be “very much focused" on gambling addiction. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)

When they legalized video gambling, lawmakers promised they would provide $1.5 million a year for addiction services. But they quietly removed the provision of the bill that guaranteed the funding.

And much of what was allocated by Springfield has gone unspent, meaning the amount of state dollars going to agencies that serve addicts has actually decreased in recent years, ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ reported in February.

Pritzker said last week that he was well aware of that sad track record as his administration crafted its first budget.

“There were not a lot of dollars for [gambling addiction programs] in prior budgets,” Pritzker said. “We’ve expanded it. But in prior budgets, you know, it’s only about $1.5 million, and they weren’t even spending that.”

The new budget language does not make clear how exactly that $6.8 million is to be spent.

The Illinois Department of Human Services oversees how the grant funds get used. Officials there said last week they would begin a study to gauge just how many people in Illinois are suffering from gambling addiction. Advocates for compulsive gamblers say the state has conducted no such survey in nearly 30 years.

The increased funding will be used to “strengthen services” for gambling addicts and to conduct a “needs assessment,” said Kia Coleman, assistant secretary for programs at the department.

“That will allow us to really get a very clear picture of what the state of gambling disorders is here in Illinois,” Coleman said. “We are committed completely to being able to address the needs for the entire state.”

Officials said they also have created a new website for gambling addicts who are seeking help, www.WeKnowtheFeeling.org. Those seeking help also can call the state’s hotline, 1-800-GAMBLER, or text ILGAMB to 53342.

Only 63 Gambling-Addiction Counselors

When he finally managed to quit betting, Chris, the recovering gambler from Chicago, went to a rehab center in Louisiana and then spent a month at a suburban Maywood treatment center called the Way Back Inn.

The group’s executive director, Anita Pindiur, said she and other advocates for compulsive gamblers were often frustrated when the administration of former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner restricted the disbursement of grant funds that lawmakers budgeted.

Pindiur said she is excited about the funding increase in the new state budget, and she has lots of ideas of how the money could be put to the best use.

She is one of only 63 people in the entire state who are credentialed as problem and compulsive gambling counselors, according to the Illinois Certification Board.

Like Chris, Pindiur is wary of the state’s plans to expand gambling. “I don’t think we have enough trained professionals to deal with the potential problem that might be coming,” she said.

With the state’s casinos, problem gamblers often can try to control their habit by putting themselves on the Illinois Gaming Board’s “self-exclusion list.” Anybody on the list who gets caught in a casino faces arrest and the confiscation of any winnings.

The new gambling bill calls for the creation of a self-exclusion list for sports bettors, too.

But there still is no self-exclusion list for people who bet at the state’s 7,000-plus locations of video gambling machines. Internal gaming board memos obtained by WBEZ and ProPublica Illinois show state officials expected video gambling — which some experts say is so addictive it’s called “the crack cocaine of gambling” — would increase the number of problem gamblers.

But state officials feared that creating a self-exclusion list for video-gambling places would generate pushback from industry interests and lawmakers who would not want revenue from the machines to decline, the internal memos show.

Of the $5.8 billion generated by video gambling in Illinois since the machines went online, about $4 billion was kept by private investors in the machines, and nearly $1.8 billion has gone to state and local governments, according to a ProPublica Illinois-WBEZ analysis of gaming board records.

“I Have to Worry About Myself”

Many problem gamblers rely on support groups run by Gamblers Anonymous. On June 3 — a day after the Illinois Senate approved the expansion — seven recovering addicts met at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting in a tiny Methodist church in Loves Park, near Rockford.

The Rockford area has nearly 200 betting locations with a total of 900 video gambling machines, some on the same street as the church. And now, thanks to the new legislation, the city is in line to open a new casino with 2,000 more positions.

One member of the Gamblers Anonymous group in Loves Park drives an hour each way to get to the meeting.

A woman who was there last week said she had managed to avoid gambling for more than 20 years.

But Will, a retired worker at an auto plant, said he has been “free from gambling” for less than 14 months.

Will said he was focusing on keeping himself accountable rather than thinking about what happened in Springfield, though he had heard about the approval of a Rockford casino.

“I don’t care how much gambling comes to Illinois, as long as I’m not gambling, you know?” Will said. “I have to worry about myself.”

Will, 65, hopes he can stay clean.

“To say I’m not going to gamble anymore puts a lot of pressure on me,” he said. “It’s a day-to-day reprieve.”

He added: “Some people can gamble, but I have a problem with myself gambling. Yes, it would be a lot easier if it wasn’t in the community and you had to travel. It’s going to become a problem for people like myself, if they’re actively gambling.”

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[l] at 6/10/19 3:00am

by Finlay Young for ProPublica

In 2016, a girl came forward to say she had been raped by a staff member of More Than Me, an American charity that sought to rescue Liberian girls from sexual exploitation. He was the second employee to be accused of violating girls in the charity’s care; the first had AIDS and died in jail just months earlier, after a trial in which 10 of the charity’s students testified he raped them.

With the Liberian government having just signed on to allow the charity to run a number of its public schools, More Than Me president and onetime board member Saul Garlick raised what he called a “critical question” in an email to its U.S.-based board:

“We are going to be operating … 6-9 schools starting this Fall and these issues will arise again,” he said. “Is it something that [the] board wants to know about every time? Is it appropriate for whenever there are charges being pressed? It’s a tough balance and there is the reality on the ground in Liberia.”

The email was one of many previously unseen documents cited in a damning and wide-ranging 108-page report published by a panel appointed by the charity’s Liberian advisory board. The panel was created after a ProPublica investigation last year found that the charity’s leaders missed opportunities to prevent the rapes of girls in its care. It follows an independent audit released last month, launched by the charity’s American board, which identified deficits in the charity’s child protection practices and sharply criticized founder Katie Meyler, who resigned from her position as CEO in April.

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This report, assembled by a panel of Liberian civil society leaders and headed by a prominent local lawyer, attributed Meyler’s conduct to inexperience. It put much of the responsibility on the charity’s American board, which had “either a limited appreciation of or a deliberate indifference to the responsibility of corporate directors.”

The panel, which conducted its work pro bono, called the board’s conduct an “astonishing failure of oversight and/or refusal to accept responsibility and be accountable.” It cited possible violations of a raft of provisions of Liberia’s Children Law of 2011, which include a requirement to assess and respond to “any risk that may result in any child’s vulnerability to abuse, exploitation and neglect.” The charity “may be held liable civilly,” the panel said.

The American board, in a communication from its legal representative, Nixon Peabody, to the head of the panel prior to publication, commended the panel’s “dedication and intensive work” but declined the panel’s offer to comment on its findings, stating its “paramount concern” was “the complete independence” of the panel. The board said it “did not commission the investigation nor did we have any input into the membership of the panel or the scope of its work.” The only change the board had requested in the process was “the omission of a footnote that maintained a misstatement of fact.”

In a statement to ProPublica, a More Than Me spokesperson said that the board cooperated fully with the inquiry and added: “We want to once again acknowledge and apologize for past failures by More Than Me in safeguarding our students. As we wrote recently to the Government Ministries with oversight of MTM, ‘No child should ever have to endure sexual abuse, and we are profoundly sorry some of our students were victimized. We sincerely apologize to those who were harmed, and we deeply regret their suffering.’

“We recognize words are not enough, which is why we are exploring taking action through governance changes,” the statement said. It said MTM should be led by Liberians, on the ground, “to ensure a safe learning environment for our students. Our hope is that the restructured organization, in close partnership with the government of Liberia, as well as the communities it serves, would be best-positioned to continue to improve the educational opportunities for all students.”

The panel’s conclusions are based on a review of documents, including emails and meeting minutes, and interviews with 37 people including Meyler, former board members and survivors. ProPublica independently reviewed 89 items which were supplied as an appendix to the report and linked to in a spreadsheet provided to the panel by Meyler. These documents supplied to the panel, which found ProPublica’s work was “supported by the records, and is not specifically denied by MTM,” also offered some additional insights.

The Aftermath of Widespread Rape

The report paints a picture of a sexual predator, Macintosh Johnson, placed “in almost exclusive charge of the selection of the vulnerable children … who would benefit from the [More Than Me] scholarship program.”

Survivors told the panel he “had repeated sex with nearly all of them at will and in many places on the MTM Academy compound during and after school.” During school hours, Johnson would cite disciplinary measures that generally involved confinement, then rape the girls once he had isolated them. Johnson would keep them after school, administrators and teachers were aware, and no one asked questions, the panel was told.

Once American staffers were informed of the abuse in June 2014, they turned Johnson over to police. But the panel found no evidence that the charity’s board ever had a meeting in the six months following his arrest where they discussed or took action to “establish the cause for the incident,” “accept or establish responsibility,” “authorize a probe” or “provide for the sustainable care and support of the survivors who have come forth and any other(s) who may later come forward or otherwise become identified.”

Excerpts of minutes from board meetings from the incident up to 2018 showed attention to the incident was “only in the context of staff updates on the indictment and trial of Macintosh, and no more,” the panel found.

A Focus on Public Relations

Emails supplied to the panel show the focus MTM and Meyler placed on public relations in the days after the arrest. In an update email, Meyler asked JPMorgan Chase, which had awarded the charity $1 million to open the school following a Facebook voting competition in 2012, to look over “PR plans” crafted by a specialist the charity contracted. (There is no evidence that JP Morgan staff did so.) In a separate email to then-interim-COO Jim Rettew, Meyler wrote: “We get Nick Kristof on board. We get Anderson Cooper on board. … Just think we can get ahead of all of this by calling up the most influential reporters and getting them on our side.” (There is no evidence she was successful.) Meyler could not be reached for this story.

Meyler’s goal, she wrote in the email, was to make sure that Johnson was convicted. But the panel found that the charity’s public statements were “carefully structured to achieve objective(s) not entirely focused on pursuing justice for the survivors.”

ProPublica’s reporting outlined how after Johnson’s arrest, the charity removed references to him from old blog posts, neglected to mention that multiple girls had said they were raped in the charity’s school, and failed to note the fact that a school nurse had kept quiet for five months after a girl disclosed Johnson had been abusing her since she was 11. The charity also minimized Johnson’s role in the organization; once called “co-founder” and “program director,” the charity presented him as a “community liaison” in the wake of his arrest.

The panel said it repeatedly asked Meyler, former board chair Skip Borghese and others for the basis of the sudden change in Johnson’s official designation, but none answered.

Borghese, who resigned after ProPublica’s story published in October, responded to the panel’s questions in a letter sent from his lawyer. It stated that Borghese was not involved in the day-to-day operations of the charity or the drafting of the press release. As he was not chairman of the board at that time, he “did not have the authority to convene meetings” and “did not control MTM’s actions.” Regarding the criminal prosecution of Johnson, Borghese “believes that MTM was cooperative, transparent, and supportive.”

Empty Promises

According to a document outlining its plans after Johnson was arrested, the charity would “form a strong Liberian advisory board” to “help us navigate the cultural/political/legal issues here in the long-term.” But the panel found that this board, assembled the following year, “has no effective authority or voice in the running of [More Than Me] and there is little evidence that they have had any formal consultation or meeting with the US Board in respect of [charity] operations.”

According to the panel, charity officials said at least one board meeting was held in Liberia with Liberian advisory board members in attendance, but Liberian board members told them it was “an acquaintance meeting with no substantive discussions.” Advisory board members learned of an abuse allegation against a second staff member years later, from ProPublica’s investigation.

Though the charity outlined promises in a press statement after Johnson’s arrest, the panel said it found no records to back up the establishment of a “coalition of partners…to jointly address sexual abuse of children in the West Point Community” or efforts “to ensure a smooth investigation, conduct [an] internal probe into the event, and ensure that it is an isolated incident.”

Lack of Cooperation in Johnson’s Trial

According to meeting minutes from six months after Johnson’s arrest, reviewed by the panel, Meyler talked about people helping the charity with the case but also told her board: “We want to distance ourselves.”

She and program director Michelle Spada didn’t testify in Johnson’s 2015 trial. His defense attorney built a case partly out of the fact that the people who had reported Johnson to authorities — the charity’s American leaders, including Meyler — were not testifying. Meyler had been romantically involved with Johnson, and the attorney used this to weaken the prosecution’s case. Meyler and her board knew this, according to board minutes.

The director of the sex crimes prosecution unit, John Gabriel, told the panel he had not been directly involved in the trial, but that multiple lawyers who were, including a U.S. government adviser, told him, “MTM, especially Katie, did not fully cooperate with the unit.” They had been told Meyler would not be in the country and officials were “shocked to learn that indeed Katie had been in country.” Gabriel said, “Katie should have been here to take the stand, because after all she was a key complainant. … I don’t know if it was done by inadvertence. I don’t know why she failed to appear.”

This was in direct conflict with what he wrote to ProPublica last year, in a letter delivered by More Than Me’s public relations representative. The letter said testimony from Meyler and Spada was not necessary. A prosecuting attorney in the case told the panel it was “essential.”

Meyler gave the panel emails showing the prosecution unit was in contact with MTM’s team on the ground in Liberia and had her contact details. She told the panel: “I was never asked to testify. If I had been asked to testify, I would have testified.”

Questionable Conduct Amid a Second Abuse Case

According to an incident report obtained by the panel, a girl came forward in 2016 to report that she had previously been raped by longtime staff member Cyrus Cooper, at an after-school art program held for MTM’s scholarship students at his house. She said that the abuse began when she was 9, and that Johnson had also raped her at the same location. Like Johnson, Cooper had leveraged his influence to continue the abuse, threatening her family, she said.

According to the incident report, charity officials suspended Cooper and visited the sex crimes prosecution unit with the girl and her family to report the crime, but no formal complaint was made. Then, the charity sought legal advice. Officials were informed that since the abuse didn’t take place on school grounds, it was “up to the parents and student to press charges.” According to the incident report, MTM official Laura Smith went back to the sex crimes unit to ask what MTM’s legal responsibilities were, and she was told the same. Last year, Smith told ProPublica a decision was made by charity leaders that the charity should not report the case to the police, but that she helped the family. A More Than Me staff member attempted to meet with Cooper at his house to pay out the rest of his contract, but he was already gone. ProPublica spoke briefly with him last year, and he denied the abuse. The panel did not speak to him.

According to the incident report, the girl and her family, sometimes with the support of a Liberian staff member, sought to report the case to legal authorities over a period of weeks but were “given the run-around” and were “ready to give up because they are not being taken seriously.”

Two months later, on July 8, Garlick wrote an email informing the board that “the whole thing has been handled confidentially, but we are able to discuss now that progress in the Liberian Judicial system has stalled.” He said the abuse ended in 2013 “after [More than Me Academy] opened for its first year (we believe).” It was at the end of that email that Garlick asked whether the board should be informed every time charges are pressed. The panel asked Garlick for the board’s response to his question; he said there was nothing in writing.

The panel concluded this question “gave the impression that less [of a] premium was placed on the importance of safeguarding [the charity’s] beneficiaries, and this conclusion is inescapable even if one accepts his claim as being new in the job as president of the organization.” Garlick should “accept full responsibility and liability for his actions and omissions that contributed to [the charity’s] failure to have reported

the Cyrus Cooper rape incident to the competent authority.” Garlick did not respond to ProPublica’s request for further comment on the panel report.

Four months later in November 2016, Garlick and board chair Borghese issued a statement that contradicted his earlier email to the board, saying the alleged abuse happened “several years ago, prior to the opening of More Than Me Academy.” The statement gave the impression Cooper had not been on staff at the time, and said MTM “supported the child and her mother in bringing forward a case.” A Dec. 15 letter to then-President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, signed by all board members, said the same.

In its response to the panel, the MTM board asserted attorney-client privilege concerning communications with their lawyer, and stated “More Than Me went to the Sex Crimes Unit with the victim and her mother to file a complaint, which they did.” The panel report states it was told by unit representatives that no formal complaint was ever filed with it or the police.

Victim Support Increased Amid ProPublica’s Reporting

Documents linked to in a report appendix showed the charity’s support to rape survivors changed after ProPublica started asking questions in December 2017. By that point, four of the 10 girls who testified against Johnson were still in More Than Me-supported foster care, but the other six, who the charity said had returned to their families, were no longer receiving additional support. (The charity told the panel it spent $36,000 on the girls in the three years after Johnson’s arrest.)

On Feb. 1, 2018, the charity signed a memorandum of understanding with the sex crimes prosecution unit. More Than Me would channel funds to the unit to provide for monthly counselling sessions for the survivors, distribution of school materials, and to monitor foster homes. The support amounted to $840. According to the agreement, “In December 2016, none of the girls received a holiday gift, while in December of 2017, funding was distributed to purchase a gift for all the young women.”

In January, at the prosecution unit, More Than Me staff questioned some of those same survivors and their mothers about what they had told ProPublica and asked them if they wanted to take back their stories. All said yes.

A week later, the charity’s public relations representative had sent ProPublica the letter from unit director Gabriel, which praised the charity, attacked the ongoing reporting and included the now-contradicted assertions about Meyler’s testimony.

Then in May, as a result of feedback from an independent evaluation of its child protection practices, the charity “decided to provide additional life skills training and individual counselling to each of the girls,” contracting a social worker. The More Than Me board told the panel that in addition to the payments via the sex crimes unit, the charity spends “roughly $12,000 annually for the 10 girls.”

The investigative panel described the “quantum and uncertain duration” of this support as “manifestly inadequate, especially in light of the fact that at least one of the survivors is HIV+.” It recommended a substantial increase in support which “could entail the establishment of a trust fund for survivors known and others that may come forward or be identified in the future.”

In a statement to ProPublica, an MTM spokesperson said: “We are committed to continuing our support of the 11 survivors who have come forward. We have been working closely with the Ministry of Justice to understand how best to support these young women — now and in the future — and to formulate a plan with the Ministry to provide for their ongoing education and care.”

Panel Says Meyler Should Accept Responsibility or Be Held Liable

The panel noted that the young women interviewed expressed their appreciation of Meyler and did not complain or make demands. One said: “We the girls, ourselves were at fault,” because they were not forthcoming about the abuse. “Katie was talking to us; she even pleaded with us, we did not say it so.”

Still, the panel found that their abuse could be traced to Meyler’s poor decision-making, lack of policies, romantic relationship with Johnson and insufficient response when Johnson’s ex hinted that he abused children. In failing to report her suspicions, Meyler “breached the duty of care owed the children and her safeguarding obligations to the survivors.” The panel found she should “accept responsibility and/or be held liable to the fullest extent of applicable law.”

Meyler, in a letter to the MTM board concerning the panel’s draft report, stated that when she heard something that made her feel “uncomfortable,” she “immediately took appropriate measures to investigate and conduct due diligence to ascertain whether Johnson had committed any misconduct and to ascertain whether there was truth to or evidence of my concern;” this included interviewing the girls, Johnson’s ex and “numerous members of the community.” The panel found these denials “neither credible nor adequate.”

The panel said that Meyler, who claimed she had been misquoted multiple times in a draft report, tried to influence the investigation and its findings, including having some of her current and former workers, “including her cook and security guard,” appear before the panel “under the guise of being residents of West Point.”

Disagreement, Disassociation and Lawyers’ Letters

The investigative panel was appointed by the Liberian advisory board to give the Liberian perspective, but in the end, there was disagreement over the panel’s findings, whether the charity now accepted it was responsible for the rape of children in its care, and whether the report should even be released.

A letter from the Liberian advisory board to the panel said, “More Than Me takes full moral responsibility for the actions and/or inactions that allowed this tragic incident to occur,” but highlighted choices of language it saw as “unduly negative” and “factually unsubstantiated.” The letter went on to say, “elements of the panel’s report carry an avoidable risk of provoking a number of possible law suits for libel.”

The final communication from the U.S. board, which is also known as the global board, came from its lawyer. It said two of its former members, Garlick and Borghese, were now also “represented by counsel.” Citing communications by the U.S. board and panel head Negbalee Warner, the letter concluded: “It is clear it is the panel and your firm, and not MTM, that has the responsibility and authority to publish the Final Report.”

The panel released the report at a press conference on June 1, with no one from the charity present. In its report, citing what it called the U.S. board’s continuing failure to accept any responsibility, sensitivity to public discussion, decision to assert attorney-client privilege in respect to some questions from the panel and its later “disassociation from the work of the panel,” the panel concluded it had “substantial doubts as to whether MTM currently has or can cultivate the requisite commitment, governance and transparency and sense of responsibility fit for its mission and operations in Liberia.”

The panel found “the facts of the incidents, horrible as they are/were, are not as troubling as the persistent failure of MTM to have accepted responsibility for the incidents, learn from them, and, working with partners, forged ahead with accountability, improved procedures and transparency...”

In a statement, an MTM spokesperson said, “We are mystified and saddened by the Investigatory Panel’s last minute change of heart about the current MTM Board, especially as the Panel acknowledge[d] with appreciation the Global Board, ‘who greatly contributed to the completion of [its] work.’ The Global Board cooperated fully in all investigations, including the Panel’s.”

Charity Keeps Mum About Funders, Another Case of Alleged Rape

More Than Me’s latest Form 990 tax return submitted to the IRS and posted on its website last week show that in the same year ProPublica published its investigation, the charity more than doubled its revenue as compared with the previous fiscal year.

Unlike in previous years, and despite repeated requests from ProPublica, More Than Me has chosen not to make public the part of the form that details who funds it. Asked whether the charity had plans to inform its supporters of the panel’s findings, particularly the thousands of social media followers on whom the charity’s success was built, a spokesperson said: “More Than Me plans to provide updates on their website, through social media and in donor communications when they have substantive news on the organization’s plans going forward.”

The Liberian government still has not released the results of a multi-agency inquiry it launched after the ProPublica story last year. Officials said they expected that it would come last week, but nothing has yet been released. However, two days after the investigative panel’s report was released, a June 3 briefing by the Liberian Ministry of Gender mentioned for the first time allegations of rape, sexual misconduct and failure to report suspicions of sexual abuse at another one of the 18 government schools run by More than Me.

Olmestord Nyeneh was one of three male teachers mentioned in the briefing. He told ProPublica all had been selected by MTM and brought to the school when the charity took over its operations. He said he was not a government employee and had been paid a stipend by the charity. He said he had learned in 2017 that a colleague raped a 14-year-old student in a classroom, and that he told his superiors at the school, but nothing happened.

Later, he heard the teacher made sexual advances on other students. He said he eventually reported it to an MTM supervisor this May. As they investigated, he was accused of harassment by a student, an allegation he strongly denies. He, the teacher accused of rape and the principal who allegedly didn’t report the matter have been suspended. He told ProPublica he had never been given child protection training.

MTM’s spokesperson said: “Allegations involving two teachers, both Liberian government employees working at Fofee Town Public School, were recently brought to MTM’s attention. MTM immediately informed the government, which is now investigating, As this is an open matter with the Liberian government, More Than Me cannot comment further.”

As of 6/24/19 8:57pm. Last new 6/24/19 1:12pm.

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