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[l] at 8/19/22 3:00am
by Sarah Alvarez, Outlier Media, and Emily Hopkins, ProPublica This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with Outlier Media. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published. Last November, Kristal Dailey looked at her weekly paycheck and realized about $150 was missing, a quarter of her take-home earnings from a factory just outside Detroit, where she makes just over $18 an hour. “I’m like, ‘What the heck is this from?’” she said. Dailey immediately reached out to her company’s human resources department. That’s when embarrassment and then anger replaced her initial shock. Her check, she learned, was being garnished over a $1,500 debt that was at least five years old. The money was being taken by a collection company she’d never heard of, after a court hearing she hadn’t attended. The garnishment went on for more than eight weeks; no matter how much she worked, 25% of her wages were garnished. “It was terrible,” she said. “I just had a baby, just got back to work. For them to start taking $150, $160 out was drastic to me.” The original source of the debt was quite familiar to her: DTE Energy, the Detroit area’s largest utility company. The company had quietly sold off Dailey’s debt in 2017, along with that of more than 290,000 other residential customers and nearly 14,000 commercial accounts, in a little-noticed financial maneuver, Outlier Media and ProPublica found. The sale brought DTE just pennies for each dollar owed: $4.8 million in exchange for the right to pursue more than $282 million in debt. But for low-income customers whose debt was sold, it was a consequential event, thrusting them into the hands of a debt collector that aggressively sues people. Under Michigan law, these cases can result in creditors garnishing up to a quarter of a person’s wages, as well as refunds from their state income tax returns. DTE officials declined to be interviewed and did not answer a list of detailed questions sent by reporters. Spokesperson Brynn Guster said in an email that the company is “focused on managing affordability for our customers” and that selling closed customer accounts lowers the burden on other customers. The company’s debt sale practices are unusual. Outlier and ProPublica surveyed the 11 other investor-owned electric utilities that each serve at least 400,000 customers in the Great Lakes states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. All of them, including Consumers Energy, Michigan’s second largest utility company, said they do not sell debt. Five of the utilities also said they do not directly sue their customers over debt. The ones that do said they do so only on rare occasions. Regulators in Michigan have paid little attention to DTE’s debt practices, even though utilities must receive the state’s approval for many other financial decisions. Outlier Media and ProPublica used a combination of publicly available disclosures, local court records and interviews with DTE customers to understand the scope of DTE’s debt sales. These new findings follow a March investigative report by the news organizations that examined how DTE shut off customers’ power for nonpayment during the pandemic. DTE’s disconnection rate outpaced all other Michigan utilities owned by private investors and regulated by the state, according to this first-of-its-kind analysis. Matt Helms, a spokesperson for the Michigan Public Service Commission, the state agency that regulates utilities and approves rate increases, said the commission is prohibited by state law from making management decisions for utilities, such as how they handle debt. “Given statutory limitations, our focus is on ways to help customers from falling behind in the first place, avoiding situations where unpaid bills may end up in collections,” Helms said in an email. U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who represents part of Detroit, has advocated for financial assistance that would help low-income people pay off utility debt. Informed of the reporters’ findings on DTE, she responded in an email: “Utility companies should not be in the business of selling consumer debt to debt collectors." DTE, which serves Detroit and nearby areas where large numbers of low-income customers struggle to afford utilities, did not reveal to the regulatory commission which company or companies were buying its debt — only that the debt had been sold. Through a search of court records, reporters identified Jefferson Capital Systems, a Minnesota-based company that buys all kinds of consumer debt, as the purchaser of at least some of it. ProPublica and Outlier made numerous attempts to contact Jefferson, which is owned by a private equity firm, but the company did not respond. Collection companies that aggressively use the courts rely heavily on the fact that many people do not show up for their initial court hearings or show up without a lawyer to argue the facts of the case. Creditors then win the case swiftly through a default judgment and, in Michigan, this allows them to garnish wages and state income tax refunds. Experts familiar with these types of legal cases said some people ignore legal notices because they don’t recall a debt from years before or don’t recognize the name of the debt collection company. For these collection companies, volume is important, according to attorneys and researchers familiar with debt collection. The more lawsuits the companies file, the more default judgments they are likely to get, and the better their chance to collect via wage garnishments. Even while shut-offs for nonpayment of bills were briefly paused in Michigan in 2020, Jefferson Capital’s lawsuits didn’t stop. It “happens every day. Happens hundreds of times a day,” said Charissa Potts, a Michigan bankruptcy lawyer who worked briefly for a third-party debt collector. “That’s the basis of third-party collection. That’s the business model.” In Detroit’s 36th District Court alone, the state’s largest, Jefferson Capital filed more than 1,000 cases related to old DTE debt in the first six months of the pandemic, including the suit against Dailey that June. Years before, she had been shut off by DTE. She then moved in with her partner, and he put the utilities in his name, though she still helps pay that bill. When she was sued in 2020, Dailey was pregnant and working at an industrial-pump-making factory, where her job was considered exempt from the state’s stay-at-home order. Dailey examines a summary of her remaining wage garnishments. (Nick Hagen for ProPublica) Court records say Dailey was notified in person of the lawsuit by a process server, but she disputes that she was ever informed. After the default judgment against her, she eventually negotiated a payment plan with Jefferson Capital that suspended the garnishment and reduced her monthly payments slightly. But that was not enough to make up for the months where 25% of her paycheck was gone. Day care costs allowed for very little room in her budget, and shefell behind on her car payment. “It threw me so far behind on bills, I’m still trying to play catch-up,” she said. “Even now I can’t pay the amount I'm supposed to pay.” An Unusual Tactic DTE handles customers’ debt in a variety of ways, working with them on payment plans or pointing them toward financial assistance opportunities. It routinely outsources debt collection to private companies, which is not unusual for a large utility. In general, those collection companies call and mail customers and then keep a portion of what they collect but return most of the proceeds to the company that hired them. Unlike many of its peers, DTE uses yet another tactic, one that can lead to a court judgment: selling uncollected old debt to third-party debt collectors. In a statement, Guster said the majority of the debt in the sale that affected Kristal Dailey was at least two years old. Guster also said DTE only sells debt from “closed” accounts, meaning after a customer is shut off or moves away from the service area. Although most of DTE’s debt sale information is private, reporters found a few details in financial disclosures the utility filed with the Michigan Public Service Commission. Those records show that DTE has sold debt at least three times in the past 15 years. Soulardarity, an energy justice group in Highland Park, a city surrounded on all sides by Detroit, has begun to push back at the commission, calling attention to the toll debt sales take on Detroit-area residents. “It feels like there’s this long cobblestone pathway of financial hell that they are exacerbating and encouraging the existence of,” Rafael Mojica, program director for Soulardarity, said of the commission. “We find it unacceptable, and MPSC needs to find it just as unacceptable.” Helms, the commission spokesperson, said in an email that the question of whether utilities should use debt sales is something the state legislature would have to address. In an interview, Dan Scripps, chair of the Michigan Public Service Commission, said the agency’s focus is keeping customers out of debt in the first place and that sales are “fairly rare.” But while the sales may be rare, they have included the debts of hundreds of thousands of ratepayers throughout the Detroit area. Reporters searched thousands of pages of utility commission filings and found mention of three DTE debt sales, in 2008, 2014 and 2017. Jefferson Capital is not mentioned in those records.But Outlier and ProPublica were able to verify the sale of some DTE debt to Jefferson Capital, one of the largest collection firms of its kind, through an examination of court data from Detroit’s 36th District Court. In response to a request for debt lawsuits brought by DTE or Jefferson Capital on behalf of DTE, the 36th District Court provided records showing Jefferson Capital filed more than 3,100 cases between January 2019 and April 2022. That number does not include cases where DTE isn’t named in the court’s electronic records. Reporters were able to find additional cases like these by observing virtual court hearings. By contrast, 36th District Court records did not show any cases where DTE directly sued its customers over debt during those three years. Guster, DTE’s spokesperson, said DTE does not directly sue current or former customers over debt. The lack of uniform court data makes analysis of Jefferson Capital’s lawsuits throughout the entire DTE service area impossible, according to a spokesperson for Michigan Courts. Using the courts to target large numbers of people is typical in the debt buying industry, said Jeff Reichman, a data scientist with January Advisors and a collaborator of the Debt Collection Lab, a Princeton University project that tracks and visualizes debt collection lawsuit data. “These debt buyers have a legal operation across the country where they can file cases like a machine,” he said. Reichman said the volume of cases means judges have less time to spend examining them for flaws, such as debt that is too old to collect or debt that is owed by another person. To show regulators how debt sales affect customers sued by Jefferson Capital, Soulardarity asked one of its volunteers, Stephanie Johnson, to testify at a utility commission hearing in January where DTE was seeking a rate increase that would bring in an additional $388 million in annual revenue from ratepayers. Johnson racked up her debt to DTE over more than a decade beginning in the early 2000s. She said she was raising a family and then went back to college to finish her degree. Johnson had a payment plan that kept her utilities on as long as she paid DTE a fixed amount each month, but the payments weren’t enough to keep her from building up a big debt. In 2016, when she was no longer able to keep up with her bill, she said, she fell off her payment plan, and her entire balance of more than $5,000 came due, as is typical when such payment plans fall apart. When she couldn’t pay, DTE shut off her utilities and closed her account. Her family then put the DTE bill in her husband’s name to get utility service again. A notice of a lawsuit from Jefferson Capital, which had purchased her old debt, followed four years later. Johnson suddenly had to scramble to find money. Before her court date, Johnson said, she called Jefferson Capital, but she couldn’t afford the monthly debt payments the company wanted. She said Jefferson told her it would accept a lump sum payment of $3,600 to satisfy the debt and stay out of court. She borrowed the money from her mother. Johnson, who works at a social service agency, is incredulous DTE sold her debt for a fraction of its face value so that Jefferson Capital could make a profit. “When I really reflect on it, all DTE had to do was reach out to me and say, ‘If you can pay this much?’” she said. “Instead they sever the relationship with you, and then they sell your debt.” She added: “You're just trying to keep your life going. We are so dependent on electricity.” All utilities have some portion of debt they determine is unrecoverable and write off their books. Utilities can then ask regulators to allow them to increase rates to cover these costs. The unpaid debt doesn’t make or break DTE’s bottom line. The amount that remains unrecovered is equivalent to less than 1% of the company’s average annual revenue, according to testimony on behalf of Michigan’s attorney general before the MPSC. Consumers Energy, which serves about 1.8 million customers in Michigan, said it stopped taking customers to court over debt in 2019. The reason, a company spokesperson said, was the company “thought it was in the best interest of our customers.” A spokesperson for ComEd, which delivers electricity across Northern Illinois, including Chicago, said the utility rarely takes residential customers to court over debt and can recover more money by continuing to collect on the debt than it would make in a one-time debt sale. Customers’ experience is another factor. “ComEd wants all of our current and former customers to be treated fairly and with respect,” Tom Dominguez, communications manager for ComEd, said in an email. “By keeping this dialog open, we also have a chance to find one of our many bill-assistance options that can help these customers remain in service in the longer term.” Dragged Into Court Iris Foster-Ray joined her Zoom court hearing in May from her living room, alone, facing off against Jefferson Capital. She ended up there after she lost control of her DTE debt during a period where one of her twin daughters was ill and her family was struggling with high medical bills. She said her daughter, who is now 20, has a rare circulatory disease, one that gives her heart palpitations and makes her prone to fainting. It took years of medical evaluation to properly diagnose her and, to help treat her condition, she needs to follow an expensive special diet. Iris Foster-Ray (Nick Hagen for ProPublica) Foster-Ray planned to explain all this to the judge, as well as how these financial stresses were worsened by Jefferson’s garnishment of $600 per month, which had begun in January. Foster-Ray, who works in billing at a local children’s hospital, was falling behind on her car payments, and her husband needed to pick up a second job. Judge Ronald Giles sent her to a digital breakout room with an attorney representing Jefferson Capital. When they returned a few minutes later, they had not reached an agreement. “I can’t afford that amount they’re taking out of my check,” Foster-Ray told the judge. “I have a disabled child, and I have a lot of medical —” Giles cut her off. “Hold on, hold on. I understand, but none of that deals with the issue,” he said. That’s when reality set in. It was too late for Foster-Ray to defend herself against the original judgment, which had come at the initial hearing in the case. Foster-Ray hadn’t been there that day. After she found the notice of the lawsuit on the door of her home in Detroit’s West Side, she didn’t know what to do. She’d never heard of Jefferson Capital and didn’t think it would be collecting on such old debt. Even after calling the company, she said, she still thought it might be a scam. So she ignored Jefferson’s notice. With Foster-Ray absent from that initial hearing, the court had ruled in favor of Jefferson Capital by default. Foster-Ray spent half a day at the courthouse to file an objection to the garnishment. She thought she’d have the chance to explain her circumstances to a judge. But the May hearing had one focus and it wasn’t whether she had to pay Jefferson Capital. The court had already decided that; the only question on that day was how much she was going to pay each month. Foster-Ray’s paperwork, redacted by ProPublica, showing the lien placed on her home by Jefferson Capital (Nick Hagen for ProPublica) An official from Detroit’s 36th District Court, who asked not to be named because they did not have permission to speak on this issue, said Foster-Ray’s experience is not unique. The official understands how some people conclude that they don’t need to show up in court but emphasized how important it is to be there. “​If you get something in the mail from Jefferson Capital, the first thought in your mind is ‘I’ve never done business with Jefferson Capital, why am I going to respond to this?’” the official said. “I think that’show some of our litigants get into a little bit of confusion.” There are few protections for people who get sued by debt collectors. No state requires legal representation for defendants in private consumer lawsuits, leaving many people to fend for themselves. The National Consumer Law Center rates Michigan worse than all but four other states, giving it an F for failing to protect its residents in debt cases because it allows wide latitude for creditors to seize Michiganders’ property and income. “Listen, the system sucks,” said Sergei Lemberg, the founder of Lemberg Law, a consumer law firm representing debtors in 29 states. “It’s the haves against the have nots.” Collectors are “hiring people who know what they’re doing, against ordinary people. And they’re prosecuting people in the courts, and people are helpless,” he said. Kristal Dailey, who also filed an objection to her garnishment, certainly felt helpless. At a garnishment hearing, she negotiated a payment plan, but it still left her overburdened. She quickly fell behind in payments, and Jefferson Capital went back to court to garnish her wages again. She is looking for part-time work on top of her factory job to pay off the $800 she still owes. “You don’t have options,” Dailey said. “You have DTE or you have nothing, and it’s unaffordable, but you don’t have a choice.” In Foster-Ray’s case, she and Jefferson Capital agreed to a payment plan at her court hearing: $150 a month. If she misses a payment, the company can resume garnishing her wages. Foster-Ray accepts responsibility for falling behind on her DTE bills, but said she wishes the utility hadn’t sold her debt to a third party. “I could have done a little bit more at the time,” she said of not paying off her original debt after her utilities were shut off in 2017. “I did push it back to the back burner because my child was sick.” Jefferson Capital recently placed a lien on her house that will remain there until her debt is paid off. In addition to the money she pays Jefferson Capital every month, she must also still cover the cost of DTE’s service. Her family’s July bill for gas and electricity — paid through her husband’s account since hers was closed — came to more than $500. She’s considering filing for bankruptcy. “It’s like I’m going to work just to pay them,” she said. Are You Having Trouble Paying Electric Bills in Detroit? Please Share Your Story.
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[l] at 8/18/22 6:55am
by Megan O’Matz ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive our stories in your inbox every week. For decades, the League of Women Voters played a vital but largely practical role in American politics: tending to the information needs of voters by hosting debates and conducting candidate surveys. While it wouldn’t endorse specific politicians, it quietly supported progressive causes. The group was known for clipboards, not confrontation; for being respected, not reviled. But those quiet days are now over, a casualty of the volatile political climate of the last few years and the league’s goal of being relevant to a new generation. In 2018, the league’s CEO was arrested, along with hundreds of other protesters, for crowding a Senate office building to demand lawmakers reject Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, a conservative accused of sexual harassment. Two years later, the league dissolved its chapter in Nevada after the state president penned an op-ed in July 2020 accusing the Democrats of hypocrisy for opposing gerrymandering in red states while “harassing” the league in Nevada over its activism on the issue. And two days after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, the league’s board of directors called then-President Donald Trump a “tyrannical despot” and blamed him for inciting the violence and for threatening democracy. The league demanded his removal from office “via any legal means.” As a result, the league is calling attention to itself and drawing criticism in ways that are extraordinary for the once-staid group. Republicans are increasingly pushing back hard against the league, casting it as a collection of angry leftists rather than friendly do-gooders. And with more right-leaning candidates snubbing the league, voters are less likely to hear directly from those candidates in unscripted and unfiltered forums where their views can receive greater visibility and scrutiny. That pushback sidelines the league at a time when misinformation has become a significant force in elections at every level. “The League of Women Voters, while that sounds like a nice organization, they don’t do a lot of nice work,” Catalina Lauf, a Republican candidate for Congress in Illinois, said in a video posted in May on Instagram, explaining her reasoning for refusing to participate in a league-sponsored debate. The league, she claimed, “peddles Marxist ideology” and is “anti-American.” In an interview with ProPublica, Lauf cited the league’s support for the rights of transgender student athletes as one reason she is suspicous of the group. She also claimed the league has endorsed the defunding of police departments, though that is inaccurate. The league has, however, taken stands in favor of sweeping police reforms that would address brutality and racial profiling. “They need to switch their brand fast,” Lauf said. “Because their hyperpartisanship is turning off a lot of women who just want common sense.” Conservative candidates for school board and county supervisor in Wisconsin have fired similar broadsides when declining to participate in league debates. And in Pennsylvania this year, only 30% of Republican candidates completed the league’s VOTE411.org informational guide for the primaries, compared with 70% of Democrats, according to the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania. The guide gives voters the candidates’ unedited answers to questions about their qualifications, priorities and stances on certain issues. Elsewhere, Republican-led policies make it harder for groups like the league to add people to the voting rolls. In Kansas, because of a change in law, the league no longer registers voters — a task that has long been central to its mission. Under its bylaws, the league does not endorse candidates. And by policy, board members can’t run for or hold any partisan elected office. Nor can they chair a political campaign, or fundraise or actively work for any candidate for a partisan office. Just as its founders were crusaders, however, the league itself is outspoken on a multitude of issues, including supporting universal health care, abortion rights, affordable child care and clean water. The league has pushed for gun control measures since 1990. And it has been a strong voice nationally for campaign finance reform. In some communities, the league has even weighed in on zoning decisions. Its viewpoints have long branded the league as a progressive organization. “They’re very fine, but they tend to be a little bit liberal,” the late Sen. Bob Dole, a Republican from Kansas, said of the league during a televised 1976 vice presidential debate in Houston. The League of Women Voters holds a registration event in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2021. (Troy Stolt/Chattanooga Times Free Press/AP) Those liberal leanings have been harder to ignore in recent years, forcing the league to defend itself against claims of partisanship. After its CEO was arrested at the Kavanaugh protest in 2018, the league admitted in a statement that openly opposing a Supreme Court nominee was “an extraordinary step for the League,” but said it believed the action was warranted. “This situation is too important to sit silently while the independence of our judiciary is threatened.” CEO Virginia Kase Solomón closed her legal case by paying a $50 fine. The league’s chief communications officer, Sarah Courtney, told ProPublica in a written statement: “Organizations always need to change with the times and current events in order to stay relevant.” She noted: “The League has been a force in American democracy for more than a century, and we expect to be around in another hundred years. We haven’t gotten this far by doing things the same way we did them in 1920.” UCLA professor Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert, said that while it’s clear that the league has been more aggressive in taking on controversial issues, it’s the group’s core mission that puts it at odds with some politicians. Supporting voting rights, he said, can be seen as an attack on the Republican Party, which has pushed for laws that make it more difficult to register and to vote. (Republicans say they are doing so to protect the integrity of elections, though there is no evidence of any widespread voter fraud.) “It’s hard to be seen as neutral when you have the political parties dividing over questions like voting rights,” said Hasen, who directs the law school’s Safeguarding Democracy Project, which is aimed at researching election integrity. To Hasen, the league’s evolution is notable. “Generally, there’s kind of a caricature of the league as kind of a group of old women coming together for tea,” he said. “Whereas, I think the league has become much more of a powerhouse in terms of advocating for strong voting rights.” “Dare to Fight” It took women more than 70 years of agitating, organizing and marching to convince men to give them the right to vote in 1920. Once the 19th Amendment was ratified, these activist women were wary of the political parties, which wanted their votes but not necessarily their input. “Women in the parties must be more independent than men,” the league’s founder, suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, wrote, according to papers kept by the Library of Congress. “They must dare to fight for what they believe is right.” Catt worried that some women would come to believe that all virtue or all wisdom was held by the party, paralyzing their judgment. The league, which was formed the same year women nationwide were finally granted the right to vote, dedicated itself not to political parties, or the men running them, but to specific causes. One cause helped forge its identity: educating league members and other voters at election time. Members of the League of Women Voters pose at the Democratic National Convention in 1920 with a sign listing policies they supported. The league also presented policy ideas to the Republican National Convention. (Hartsook/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images) Its first political agenda was long, numbering 69 items, and was called a “kettle of eels” by the league’s own president. Many of those items, such as child welfare and access to quality education, have remained league priorities for decades — as has its commitment to voter education. In 2018 and 2020, the league and ProPublica worked together to produce a guide sharing basic, nonpartisan information to help citizens choose among candidates and obtain ballots. For nearly a century, the league itself seemed to change little, but by 2018 it found itself at a crossroads. Leadership hired consultants and began to look for ways to reach disillusioned voters, combat misinformation in elections and effectively respond to society’s escalating racial issues, including the disenfranchisement of people of color. “Although it remains a trusted household name, many stakeholders cannot describe clearly the purpose of the organization and are unclear about its relevance,” a league consultant wrote in a 2018 report. “The membership is much older and whiter than the population at large, and League membership has steadily declined by almost a third over the past few decades.” Membership plunged from 72,657 in 1994 to 53,284 in 2017, according to the report. (It has since climbed back up to over 70,000, the league said.) The organization also faced greater competition. Dozens of new nonprofits had emerged to protect voting rights, including Indivisible, NextGen America, Color of Change and Hip Hop Caucus. According to the consultant’s report, league members long knew that its homogenous membership limited its effectiveness and its appeal to a broader audience. So, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, the league issued a formal mea culpa. In an August 2018 blog post, the league’s president and its CEO admitted that “our organization was not welcoming to women of color through most of our existence” and vowed to build “a stronger, more inclusive democracy.” Many of the early suffragists were also abolitionists, but after the Civil War, they were divided over whether to support the 15th Amendment, which at the time gave Black men, but not women, the right to vote. The fissure persisted for decades and had lasting consequences for the league. “Even during the Civil Rights movement, the League was not as present as we should have been,” the post said. “While activists risked life and limb to register black voters in the South, the League’s work and our leaders were late in joining to help protect all voters at the polls.” League of Women Voters CEO Virginia Kase Solomón speaks at a voting rights rally outside the White House in 2021. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images) In recent years, the league has been more visible in advocating for racial equity and fairness. It particularly focused on reducing barriers to voting in marginalized communities. The league has fought, for instance, against reductions in the number of polling places or voting hours in minority communities. After a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd by kneeling on the Black man’s neck in May 2020, the league announced the next month that it would strongly push for reforms in the justice system, including changes aimed at preventing excessive force and brutality by law enforcement. “The League of Women Voters of Minneapolis is not your grandmother’s League,” Anita Newhouse, the city chapter’s league president at the time, wrote in the MinnPost, a nonprofit news outlet, in August 2020. “We are still the nonpartisan education and advocacy group committed to empowering voters, but with a commitment to identifying racism and dismantling policies that suppress non-white votes.” Advocates, Progressives or Democrats? Even within the league, not everyone feels the group applies its principles evenly. For five years, Sondra Cosgrove, a College of Southern Nevada history professor specializing in multicultural issues, ran the league in Nevada as it took on issues such as gerrymandering. But she’s no longer part of the organization, and she wonders whether that’s because she was not always clearly in the Democrats’ corner. In 2019, the league launched a 50-state Fair Maps strategy to combat racial and political gerrymandering. As league president in Nevada, Cosgrove began pushing for a ballot initiative that would create an independent commission to draw legislative district boundaries. The move would have taken power away from the Democrats, who controlled the statehouse and the governor’s office. Cosgrove soon found the league’s ballot initiative challenged unsuccessfully in court by a Black activist and, later, by the Democratic governor, who did not allow petition signatures to be collected electronically during the pandemic. About a week after her July 2020 op-ed accusing the Democrats of hypocrisy and “harassing” the league in Nevada, officials from the national league office emailed Cosgrove, instructing her to “stop making public statements online and in the media accusing the Democratic party of attacking the League of Women Voters.” The officials clarified that their position would be no different if Cosgrove was criticizing Republicans. Cosgrove, however, said she told the league’s national office she wouldn’t seek its input on public statements. The league dissolved the state chapter not long afterward, in December 2020. Cosgrove and others quit the national organization and now are with another voting group. “There was always the feeling the league was run by the Democrats,” said former Nevada league Treasurer Ann Marie Smith. “We tried to fight that to a large degree, but in my opinion the national league has gone down that road much further than they should have.” Executives in the league’s national organization told ProPublica that the decision to shut down the state chapter was not an easy one and was made “after multiple attempts to resolve policy violations” that went beyond just the clash with the governor. “Ultimately, the board had no choice but to disband the Nevada league to protect the entire organization,” Courtney, the league spokesperson, said. “Our northern Nevada local league has remained active with a dedicated group of members who are committed to rebuilding the league’s presence in the state.” The league does sometimes call out Democrats. In late July of this year, the league released an update on its Fair Maps initiative, saying it had organized public hearings in 24 states, used apps and software to test draw fairer maps in 38 states, and joined 11 state lawsuits and six federal cases challenging maps in California, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin. Two of those states feature Democrats in control of the state legislative chambers and the governor’s office. Five of them have Republican control. In the rest, control is split. But, going forward, the league may find it more difficult to do the work it’s always done. The league chapter in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, for instance, has faced what one member there called sustained opposition in recent years. Complaints from a parent, who is also a Republican on the borough council, derailed the league’s annual Running and Winning high school program in 2019, which was to feature female speakers from both parties as a way to encourage young women to pursue careers in politics. The parent argued that the league had a political agenda and was excluding high school boys and male politicians. Ultimately, the school district canceled the event. Political tensions only got worse in the months that followed. When the newly created Laker Republican Club emailed an unsolicited mass membership appeal throughout the community, a league board member replied with an email questioning the morals, courage and patriotism of Trump and his supporters. The league defended her, saying she was speaking as a private citizen and she did not reference her role with the league. Local Republicans running for borough council responded by refusing to participate in league debates in 2020. Former Mountain Lakes Mayor Blair Schleicher Wilson wrote in a local publication that she had been a member of the league for 25 years but now supported the candidates who shunned the league. Wilson, a Republican, wrote that the local league chapter “has sadly lost their way.” In an interview with ProPublica, she added that she loved being involved with the league but believes it should stick only to voter advocacy. “I always thought their focus should be more on voter services,” she said. “That’s a perfect place for them.” The chapter lost about 30 members because of the community tensions and is trying to rebuild, said former Mountain Lakes league President Mary Alosio-Joelsson, now the organization’s events leader. She believes conservatives in Mountain Lakes have changed, not the league. “Many have moved so far to the right that anybody who is walking down the middle of the road looks like they’re on the left,” she said. The shift in the country’s political climate also has far-reaching implications for what the league considers some of its most essential work. In Kansas, the organization halted registration work a year ago after a measure enacted by a Republican-led legislature made it a felony to engage “in conduct that would cause another person to believe a person ... is an election official.” The league worried its volunteers could be prosecuted if someone mistakenly believed them to be election officials while registering voters. Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez, a Democrat, agreed there were problems with the law and said she wouldn’t pursue cases of alleged violations. “This law criminalizes essential efforts by trusted nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters to engage Kansans on participation in accessible, accountable and fair elections,” she said in a statement. But Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, quickly retorted that his office would, indeed, prosecute alleged violators. The league asked the Kansas Court of Appeals for an injunction that would temporarily prevent the law from being enforced, but the group lost and is now requesting a review from the state Supreme Court. Despite the setback, Jacqueline Lightcap, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas, said the league intends to continue to work to defend democracy and empower voters. But she said the mission has become harder. Even seeking dialogue with legislators on the ramifications of the registration law is difficult. “We are not getting much traction,” she said. Help ProPublica Investigate Threats to U.S. Democracy
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[l] at 8/18/22 6:55am
by Megan O’Matz ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive our stories in your inbox every week. For decades, the League of Women Voters played a vital but largely practical role in American politics: tending to the information needs of voters by hosting debates and conducting candidate surveys. While it wouldn’t endorse specific politicians, it quietly supported progressive causes. The group was known for clipboards, not confrontation; for being respected, not reviled. But those quiet days are now over, a casualty of the volatile political climate of the last few years and the league’s goal of being relevant to a new generation. In 2018, the league’s CEO was arrested, along with hundreds of other protesters, for crowding a Senate office building to demand lawmakers reject Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, a conservative accused of sexual harassment. Two years later, the league dissolved its chapter in Nevada after the state president penned an op-ed in July 2020 accusing the Democrats of hypocrisy for opposing gerrymandering in red states while “harassing” the league in Nevada over its activism on the issue. And two days after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, the league’s board of directors called then-President Donald Trump a “tyrannical despot” and blamed him for inciting the violence and for threatening democracy. The league demanded his removal from office “via any legal means.” As a result, the league is calling attention to itself and drawing criticism in ways that are extraordinary for the once-staid group. Republicans are increasingly pushing back hard against the league, casting it as a collection of angry leftists rather than friendly do-gooders. And with more right-leaning candidates snubbing the league, voters are less likely to hear directly from those candidates in unscripted and unfiltered forums where their views can receive greater visibility and scrutiny. That pushback sidelines the league at a time when misinformation has become a significant force in elections at every level. “The League of Women Voters, while that sounds like a nice organization, they don’t do a lot of nice work,” Catalina Lauf, a Republican candidate for Congress in Illinois, said in a video posted in May on Instagram, explaining her reasoning for refusing to participate in a league-sponsored debate. The league, she claimed, “peddles Marxist ideology” and is “anti-American.” In an interview with ProPublica, Lauf cited the league’s support for the rights of transgender student athletes as one reason she is suspicous of the group. She also claimed the league has endorsed the defunding of police departments, though that is inaccurate. The league has, however, taken stands in favor of sweeping police reforms that would address brutality and racial profiling. “They need to switch their brand fast,” Lauf said. “Because their hyperpartisanship is turning off a lot of women who just want common sense.” Conservative candidates for school board and county supervisor in Wisconsin have fired similar broadsides when declining to participate in league debates. And in Pennsylvania this year, only 30% of Republican candidates completed the league’s VOTE411.org informational guide for the primaries, compared with 70% of Democrats, according to the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania. The guide gives voters the candidates’ unedited answers to questions about their qualifications, priorities and stances on certain issues. Elsewhere, Republican-led policies make it harder for groups like the league to add people to the voting rolls. In Kansas, because of a change in law, the league no longer registers voters — a task that has long been central to its mission. Under its bylaws, the league does not endorse candidates. And by policy, board members can’t run for or hold any partisan elected office. Nor can they chair a political campaign, or fundraise or actively work for any candidate for a partisan office. Just as its founders were crusaders, however, the league itself is outspoken on a multitude of issues, including supporting universal health care, abortion rights, affordable child care and clean water. The league has pushed for gun control measures since 1990. And it has been a strong voice nationally for campaign finance reform. In some communities, the league has even weighed in on zoning decisions. Its viewpoints have long branded the league as a progressive organization. “They’re very fine, but they tend to be a little bit liberal,” the late Sen. Bob Dole, a Republican from Kansas, said of the league during a televised 1976 vice presidential debate in Houston. The League of Women Voters holds a registration event in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2021. (Troy Stolt/Chattanooga Times Free Press/AP) Those liberal leanings have been harder to ignore in recent years, forcing the league to defend itself against claims of partisanship. After its CEO was arrested at the Kavanaugh protest in 2018, the league admitted in a statement that openly opposing a Supreme Court nominee was “an extraordinary step for the League,” but said it believed the action was warranted. “This situation is too important to sit silently while the independence of our judiciary is threatened.” CEO Virginia Kase Solomón closed her legal case by paying a $50 fine. The league’s chief communications officer, Sarah Courtney, told ProPublica in a written statement: “Organizations always need to change with the times and current events in order to stay relevant.” She noted: “The League has been a force in American democracy for more than a century, and we expect to be around in another hundred years. We haven’t gotten this far by doing things the same way we did them in 1920.” UCLA professor Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert, said that while it’s clear that the league has been more aggressive in taking on controversial issues, it’s the group’s core mission that puts it at odds with some politicians. Supporting voting rights, he said, can be seen as an attack on the Republican Party, which has pushed for laws that make it more difficult to register and to vote. (Republicans say they are doing so to protect the integrity of elections, though there is no evidence of any widespread voter fraud.) “It’s hard to be seen as neutral when you have the political parties dividing over questions like voting rights,” said Hasen, who directs the law school’s Safeguarding Democracy Project, which is aimed at researching election integrity. To Hasen, the league’s evolution is notable. “Generally, there’s kind of a caricature of the league as kind of a group of old women coming together for tea,” he said. “Whereas, I think the league has become much more of a powerhouse in terms of advocating for strong voting rights.” “Dare to Fight” It took women more than 70 years of agitating, organizing and marching to convince men to give them the right to vote in 1920. Once the 19th Amendment was ratified, these activist women were wary of the political parties, which wanted their votes but not necessarily their input. “Women in the parties must be more independent than men,” the league’s founder, suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, wrote, according to papers kept by the Library of Congress. “They must dare to fight for what they believe is right.” Catt worried that some women would come to believe that all virtue or all wisdom was held by the party, paralyzing their judgment. The league, which was formed the same year women nationwide were finally granted the right to vote, dedicated itself not to political parties, or the men running them, but to specific causes. One cause helped forge its identity: educating league members and other voters at election time. Members of the League of Women Voters pose at the Democratic National Convention in 1920 with a sign listing policies they supported. The league also presented policy ideas to the Republican National Convention. (Hartsook/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images) Its first political agenda was long, numbering 69 items, and was called a “kettle of eels” by the league’s own president. Many of those items, such as child welfare and access to quality education, have remained league priorities for decades — as has its commitment to voter education. In 2018 and 2020, the league and ProPublica worked together to produce a guide sharing basic, nonpartisan information to help citizens choose among candidates and obtain ballots. For nearly a century, the league itself seemed to change little, but by 2018 it found itself at a crossroads. Leadership hired consultants and began to look for ways to reach disillusioned voters, combat misinformation in elections and effectively respond to society’s escalating racial issues, including the disenfranchisement of people of color. “Although it remains a trusted household name, many stakeholders cannot describe clearly the purpose of the organization and are unclear about its relevance,” a league consultant wrote in a 2018 report. “The membership is much older and whiter than the population at large, and League membership has steadily declined by almost a third over the past few decades.” Membership plunged from 72,657 in 1994 to 53,284 in 2017, according to the report. (It has since climbed back up to over 70,000, the league said.) The organization also faced greater competition. Dozens of new nonprofits had emerged to protect voting rights, including Indivisible, NextGen America, Color of Change and Hip Hop Caucus. According to the consultant’s report, league members long knew that its homogenous membership limited its effectiveness and its appeal to a broader audience. So, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, the league issued a formal mea culpa. In an August 2018 blog post, the league’s president and its CEO admitted that “our organization was not welcoming to women of color through most of our existence” and vowed to build “a stronger, more inclusive democracy.” Many of the early suffragists were also abolitionists, but after the Civil War, they were divided over whether to support the 15th Amendment, which at the time gave Black men, but not women, the right to vote. The fissure persisted for decades and had lasting consequences for the league. “Even during the Civil Rights movement, the League was not as present as we should have been,” the post said. “While activists risked life and limb to register black voters in the South, the League’s work and our leaders were late in joining to help protect all voters at the polls.” League of Women Voters CEO Virginia Kase Solomón speaks at a voting rights rally outside the White House in 2021. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images) In recent years, the league has been more visible in advocating for racial equity and fairness. It particularly focused on reducing barriers to voting in marginalized communities. The league has fought, for instance, against reductions in the number of polling places or voting hours in minority communities. After a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd by kneeling on the Black man’s neck in May 2020, the league announced the next month that it would strongly push for reforms in the justice system, including changes aimed at preventing excessive force and brutality by law enforcement. “The League of Women Voters of Minneapolis is not your grandmother’s League,” Anita Newhouse, the city chapter’s league president at the time, wrote in the MinnPost, a nonprofit news outlet, in August 2020. “We are still the nonpartisan education and advocacy group committed to empowering voters, but with a commitment to identifying racism and dismantling policies that suppress non-white votes.” Advocates, Progressives or Democrats? Even within the league, not everyone feels the group applies its principles evenly. For five years, Sondra Cosgrove, a College of Southern Nevada history professor specializing in multicultural issues, ran the league in Nevada as it took on issues such as gerrymandering. But she’s no longer part of the organization, and she wonders whether that’s because she was not always clearly in the Democrats’ corner. In 2019, the league launched a 50-state Fair Maps strategy to combat racial and political gerrymandering. As league president in Nevada, Cosgrove began pushing for a ballot initiative that would create an independent commission to draw legislative district boundaries. The move would have taken power away from the Democrats, who controlled the statehouse and the governor’s office. Cosgrove soon found the league’s ballot initiative challenged unsuccessfully in court by a Black activist and, later, by the Democratic governor, who did not allow petition signatures to be collected electronically during the pandemic. About a week after her July 2020 op-ed accusing the Democrats of hypocrisy and “harassing” the league in Nevada, officials from the national league office emailed Cosgrove, instructing her to “stop making public statements online and in the media accusing the Democratic party of attacking the League of Women Voters.” The officials clarified that their position would be no different if Cosgrove was criticizing Republicans. Cosgrove, however, said she told the league’s national office she wouldn’t seek its input on public statements. The league dissolved the state chapter not long afterward, in December 2020. Cosgrove and others quit the national organization and now are with another voting group. “There was always the feeling the league was run by the Democrats,” said former Nevada league Treasurer Ann Marie Smith. “We tried to fight that to a large degree, but in my opinion the national league has gone down that road much further than they should have.” Executives in the league’s national organization told ProPublica that the decision to shut down the state chapter was not an easy one and was made “after multiple attempts to resolve policy violations” that went beyond just the clash with the governor. “Ultimately, the board had no choice but to disband the Nevada league to protect the entire organization,” Courtney, the league spokesperson, said. “Our northern Nevada local league has remained active with a dedicated group of members who are committed to rebuilding the league’s presence in the state.” The league does sometimes call out Democrats. In late July of this year, the league released an update on its Fair Maps initiative, saying it had organized public hearings in 24 states, used apps and software to test draw fairer maps in 38 states, and joined 11 state lawsuits and six federal cases challenging maps in California, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin. Two of those states feature Democrats in control of the state legislative chambers and the governor’s office. Five of them have Republican control. In the rest, control is split. But, going forward, the league may find it more difficult to do the work it’s always done. The league chapter in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, for instance, has faced what one member there called sustained opposition in recent years. Complaints from a parent, who is also a Republican on the borough council, derailed the league’s annual Running and Winning high school program in 2019, which was to feature female speakers from both parties as a way to encourage young women to pursue careers in politics. The parent argued that the league had a political agenda and was excluding high school boys and male politicians. Ultimately, the school district canceled the event. Political tensions only got worse in the months that followed. When the newly created Laker Republican Club emailed an unsolicited mass membership appeal throughout the community, a league board member replied with an email questioning the morals, courage and patriotism of Trump and his supporters. The league defended her, saying she was speaking as a private citizen and she did not reference her role with the league. Local Republicans running for borough council responded by refusing to participate in league debates in 2020. Former Mountain Lakes Mayor Blair Schleicher Wilson wrote in a local publication that she had been a member of the league for 25 years but now supported the candidates who shunned the league. Wilson, a Republican, wrote that the local league chapter “has sadly lost their way.” In an interview with ProPublica, she added that she loved being involved with the league but believes it should stick only to voter advocacy. “I always thought their focus should be more on voter services,” she said. “That’s a perfect place for them.” The chapter lost about 30 members because of the community tensions and is trying to rebuild, said former Mountain Lakes league President Mary Alosio-Joelsson, now the organization’s events leader. She believes conservatives in Mountain Lakes have changed, not the league. “Many have moved so far to the right that anybody who is walking down the middle of the road looks like they’re on the left,” she said. The shift in the country’s political climate also has far-reaching implications for what the league considers some of its most essential work. In Kansas, the organization halted registration work a year ago after a measure enacted by a Republican-led legislature made it a felony to engage “in conduct that would cause another person to believe a person ... is an election official.” The league worried its volunteers could be prosecuted if someone mistakenly believed them to be election officials while registering voters. Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez, a Democrat, agreed there were problems with the law and said she wouldn’t pursue cases of alleged violations. “This law criminalizes essential efforts by trusted nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters to engage Kansans on participation in accessible, accountable and fair elections,” she said in a statement. But Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, quickly retorted that his office would, indeed, prosecute alleged violators. The league asked the Kansas Court of Appeals for an injunction that would temporarily prevent the law from being enforced, but the group lost and is now requesting a review from the state Supreme Court. Despite the setback, Jacqueline Lightcap, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas, said the league intends to continue to work to defend democracy and empower voters. But she said the mission has become harder. Even seeking dialogue with legislators on the ramifications of the registration law is difficult. “We are not getting much traction,” she said. Help ProPublica Investigate Threats to U.S. Democracy
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[l] at 8/18/22 6:00am
by David Armstrong, Patrick Rucker and Maya Miller In the United States, having health insurance does not guarantee that you will receive the care you need. Every year, insurance companies reject tens of millions of claims from people seeking all kinds of medical services, ranging from surgeries to MRIs. A patient who is denied care and tries to push back faces many obstacles. Challenging the insurance company can require filing an appeal with the insurer, requesting an independent medical review or even filing a lawsuit. We are especially interested in connecting with individuals who have tried to appeal denials. These cases might involve you, your child or another loved one. We are also hoping to hear from people working for insurance companies, since you know how the system works better than most. Please fill out the below form if you work as a medical director, nurse or customer service representative or have the expertise that can help us understand the health insurance system and its pressures. Doctors and other medical professionals have already begun telling us that they are frustrated by the hours they spend trying to get insurance companies to approve care for their patients. We would like to hear about those experiences as well. Our team may not be able to respond to everyone personally, but we will read everything you submit. We appreciate you sharing your story, and we take your privacy seriously. We are gathering these stories for the purposes of our reporting and will contact you if we wish to publish any part of your story. We are the only ones reading what you submit. If you would prefer to use an encrypted app, see our advice at propublica.org/tips.
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[l] at 8/17/22 3:00am
by A.C. Thompson ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, an entire ecosystem of right-wing social media platforms has come into existence — from Gab (where the alleged Pittsburgh synagogue shooter posted hateful screeds) to Parler (a hot spot for insurrectionary activities in the run-up to Jan. 6) to the former president’s own Truth Social (which was frequented by a fan of his who was recently shot to death after attacking a Cincinnati FBI office). This new wave of apps and sites follows in the footsteps of 4chan and 8kun, older internet message boards that continue to attract a sizable audience of conspiracy theorists and violent racists. Welton Chang knows this corner of the digital world well. A former Army intelligence officer and human rights activist, Chang runs Pyrra, a small tech startup dedicated to identifying and tracking the extremist ideas circulating in these spaces. Pyrra, which launched in early 2022 with $1.3 million in funding, monitors more than 20 alternative social media sites and online forums, scanning some 100 million messages per week. Chang, a data scientist, says increased content moderation at major social media platforms — including the ouster of figures ranging from Trump to Alex Jones — has driven a sizable contingent of users to the spaces Pyrra tracks, which tend toward an absolutist view of free speech. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Can you tell me in simple terms what Pyrra does? Pyrra is a threat intelligence company. We do three things: We collect content — publicly available information — from alternative social media sites. We use machine learning and advanced algorithms to detect violent threats, hate speech and disinformation that are popping up on these platforms. And then we display that information for our clients, either through reports or through a platform that we have. We got our start in the human rights community. We were a project inside of Human Rights First [a U.S.-based advocacy group]. … We spun out of HRF as our own company in December 2021 and launched our platform earlier this year. In general, what are the big extremist threats that you’re following these days? What worries you? One is just the death of critical thinking and the amount of evidence-free speculation that becomes the truth, small-t truth, on these platforms. It can be something as innocuous as something done by some celebrity all the way to things that really have impacts on the health of our democracy. But it’s also just the general lack of confidence in institutions writ large. … We’re at an all-time low in terms of government trust, based on all the different metrics that are out there. … [This brings us to] the inherent incoherence of conspiracy theories and these really outlandish ideas about how the world actually works. People believe that the government is simultaneously totally incompetent and also all-knowing and all-seeing and capable of pulling off a massive effort like helping Bill Gates spread the COVID vaccine through mind control via 5G technology. These are diametrically opposed ideas, yet folks are simultaneously believing both of them and saying, “This is what is happening in the world today.” I’ve been really immersed in this stuff since 2016, and I’m still routinely appalled, surprised and taken aback by some of the things I read on these platforms. And maybe the day I become inured to this stuff is the day I need to leave the biz. But I’m still really shocked by the things I read. Look at the Pew Research polls that are out there about how many people believe the core tenets of QAnon. I think we’ve entered a new phase in which social media has altered and warped how we encounter information, how we process it, how we internalize what counts as the truth. It’s having significant impacts on our democracy. I really do believe that social media is an accelerator. … An accelerator of societal disintegration? Yes, yes, exactly. You had an interesting Twitter thread about the disinformation you’re seeing around the Jan. 6 committee. Can you tell me about that? On these alternative social media platforms, the narrative about Jan. 6 started getting pushed on Jan. 7. People started by saying it was antifa that was responsible. That got amplified by more mainstream characters, even Tucker Carlson talked about antifa maybe having a role in Jan. 6. Right off the bat they were trying to deflect blame. You had card-carrying members of the MAGA community like [Jan. 6 protester] Ray Epps getting falsely accused of being FBI informants and being responsible for pushing people into the Capitol. He came out and said, “I was one of them [the pro-Trump movement], and they just kind of turned on me.” All it takes is a single user on one of these platforms to write something outlandish without any factual basis or evidence. They’re not citing anything, they’re not looking at any hardcore piece of information or they’re taking things out of context. And that just gets endlessly amplified by other users. People who are not sophisticated consumers of information see that on these platforms, and they go: “I agree with that. That sounds plausible. It’s now the truth for me.” If you ask people, “Who was responsible for Jan. 6?” significant numbers of people will tell you antifa had a role in Jan. 6. Multiple credible investigations have shown that antifa had no role in Jan. 6. … Yet this maintains a consistent narrative, and that narrative started spinning basically as soon as people were cleared from the Capitol building. In the past that’s the kind of thing that would’ve happened on Twitter. But now it starts on the smaller platforms. It may eventually migrate to Twitter. But Twitter and the larger platforms actually do some content moderation, making it harder for this stuff to gain traction or get picked up. These smaller places either don’t have the resources to do content moderation or don’t have the will to do it. They are allowing these narratives to fester and gain traction and eventually jump hosts. Out of all the alternative social media apps and sites, which seem to be the most successful? Where is the energy? It’s still 4chan. … One secret about 4chan is they actually have to do a significant amount of content moderation now — where they remove posts because of how bad and violent they are. There’s a massive amount of people on 4chan on a regular basis, who are frequent flyers on the boards. It’s still crazy there. More than Telegram, an instant messenger service? Telegram is also huge. Right now we track thousands of Telegram channels, but that’s just a drop in the bucket. Help ProPublica Investigate Threats to U.S. Democracy Disclosure: ProPublica reporters used Pyrra this year for a brief trial period.
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[l] at 8/16/22 10:45am
by Justin Elliott and Paul Kiel ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. The United States has made a small but significant move toward creating a public system to allow millions of Americans to file their taxes for free. The sweeping domestic policy bill passed by the House and Senate last week mandates that the IRS study options to provide a free tax filing option for Americans. That study represents a threat to the for-profit tax prep industry dominated by TurboTax, a product of the Silicon Valley company Intuit. President Joe Biden said he plans to sign the bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, today, following the party-line vote in the House to approve it on Friday. The bill provides $15 million to study how the IRS could implement such a program, how much it might cost and how Americans would view it. The report, which must include the input of an independent third party, is due to Congress within nine months of the bill’s passage. Unlike many developed countries, the U.S. does not offer free tax filing services for taxpayers, who instead pay billions of dollars every year to highly profitable private tax prep companies. The industry has tried to block or subvert a government free tax filing system for decades. ProPublica has reported for years on how companies have sometimes even tricked customers into paying for services that they should have gotten for free. Those articles led to investigations by federal agencies and states as well as a barrage of consumer legal actions. The reporting was also cited by Senate Finance Committee chair Ron Wyden, who was behind the new provision. The companies maintain they did nothing wrong. “I’ve been working to allow taxpayers to file directly with the IRS for many years, and this is an important step toward achieving that goal,” Wyden said in a statement. “Reporting about industry scams certainly helped members see the importance of this issue and get this across the finish line.” The last time the federal government attempted to provide free tax filing was back in 2002, under the George W. Bush administration. Back then, soon after the White House floated “an easy, no-cost option for taxpayers to file their tax return online,” Intuit and its lobbyists fought back hard. The result was a program that relied on Intuit and other private software providers to provide the service instead. As we detailed in our story on Intuit’s 20-year campaign to prevent a government-provided tax filing service, the so-called Free File program was flawed from the start. Supposedly available to 70% of taxpayers, it only reached between 2% and 3% in recent years. After ProPublica reportedthat Intuit and others were intentionally making it harder for taxpayers to find the program online, there was renewed focus on Free File, including numerous investigations. The company stopped including code on its Free File website that made it harder to find the free version. Eventually, both Intuit and H&R Block, by far the largest providers,pulled out. Through information forms like W-2s, the IRS already has the info on wages and other forms of income in its systems that it would need to provide such a service. A recent study by researchers from the Treasury Department, Minneapolis Federal Reserve and Dartmouth College found that “between 62 and 73 million returns (41 to 48 percent of all returns) could be accurately pre-populated using only current-year information returns and the prior-year return.” At a Senate hearing in June, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said she supported a new free filing service. “We need to develop a new system,” Yellen said in an exchange with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. “There’s no reason in the world that a modern economy shouldn't have a system that makes it easy for such a large group of taxpayers to file their returns.” A spokesperson for Intuit reiterated the company’s opposition to the IRS offering a free public tax filing option. “Decades of experience and numerous independent studies, polling, and in-depth research about the idea of an IRS-run tax preparation system show that taxpayers see an inherent conflict of interest in having the IRS be the tax collector, investigator, auditor, enforcer and now preparer when taxpayers want the IRS to focus on its core mission rather than spending billions of taxpayer dollars on a system that would disenfranchise millions of taxpayers and jeopardize their financial freedom,” said Intuit’s Rick Heineman. In a recent settlement with state attorneys general, the company agreed to pay $141 million to filers who paid for tax prep services they were eligible to get for free. More than four million people are expected to receive payments of up to $90 each in the coming months. Intuit maintained it did nothing wrong. A spokesperson for the IRS declined to comment on the provision to study free filing options. Help Us Report on Taxes and the Ultrawealthy Do you have expertise in tax law, accounting or wealth management? Do you have tips to share? Here’s how to get in touch. We are looking for both specific tips and broader expertise.
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[l] at 8/16/22 3:00am
by Lisa Song ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. Apartment hunting in New York City is a special kind of hell. Friends warned me before I moved here five years ago, sharing stories of cockroaches and sketchy real estate brokers, of paying $2,000 per month to live next to an early morning parade of garbage trucks. So when I landed my first apartment — with hardwood floors, a short commute and an in-unit washer/dryer for less than $1,850 a month — I thought I’d found a unicorn. The unicorn turned out to be a pile of rotting meat in a trenchcoat. First my ceiling became waterlogged from my neighbor’s leaking radiator (while she was recovering from surgery). Then my radiator soaked the apartment of my downstairs neighbor (who was paying $3,000 a month even though there was no heat in her toddler’s bedroom). A feud between our landlord and the local post office ensured all of our mail was dumped onto the basement stairs, where it got stolen or buried under snow. When I could no longer use my radiator for fear of leaking water everywhere, the landlord suggested I deal with a historic cold snap by installing “extra thick curtains.” Once the weather warmed, a building down the block started hosting parties so loud they made my floorboards tremble until two in the morning. I was determined to use some of my investigative reporting skills to find a better place to live. I set up spreadsheets, browsed government databases and questioned prospective buildings the way I would a reluctant source. It worked: My next two apartments were a huge improvement. Of course, I was lucky: I’ve never faced a bidding war; I can work from home, so I choose to live farther from Manhattan, where rents are cheaper; I am able-bodied and college-educated and have the resources to avoid the worst landlords. Lower-income tenants and people with disabilities face far greater obstacles. Quartz recently reported that because landlords prefer tenants whose annual salary is 40 times the monthly rent, residents in Manhattan would need a household salary of $160,000 to afford the median rent for a vacant one-bedroom apartment. That’s more than twice the city’s median household income of $67,000 from 2016 to 2020. (Average rent for vacant Manhattan apartments reached $5,000 in June for the first time ever.) With low vacancy rates, “landlords are in the enviable position of taking a pretty terrible apartment, charging a lot of money for it and when someone comes in basically telling them, ‘Take it or leave it,’” said Ellen Davidson, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, which represents low-income New Yorkers in housing court and other legal matters. No amount of due diligence can solve the affordability crisis. But I hope these backgrounding tips can help you screen out some obvious bad actors. This guide is divided into three sections; the first two will help renters do their due diligence. Part three is a primer on tenant rights. I’ve also included anecdotes from ProPublica colleagues who shared their own renter horror stories. Finally, these tips are far from comprehensive and biased toward my own priorities: I’m obsessed with flood risk (an occupational hazard of being an environment reporter), and as a pathetically light sleeper, I care a lot about ambient noise. (For additional coverage of New York housing policy and real estate, I recommend THE CITY, Gothamist, Curbed and Brick Underground.) How to Research a Building and Landlord Here’s a list from Curbed on where to search for apartments. I’ve also had luck with NYBits, where you can easily filter for no-fee apartments. Once you’ve found an apartment you like: Start with Who Owns What. Type in the building’s address to see the property owner, a summary of recent tenant complaints and other buildings owned by the landlord (or related entities). In my searches, I sometimes saw apartments in the same neighborhood with similar amenities and prices but vastly different histories of complaints. Who Owns What is an easy way to weed out specific buildings and owners from consideration. The site was built by JustFix, a nonprofit that builds tools for tenant organizers. Check out their user’s guide and methodology. Landlords often create LLCs that make it hard to identify a building’s owner, said Sam Rabiyah, data lead and engineer at JustFix, which pulls public registration files to map out the people behind these entities. Rabiyah said the tool was originally intended for housing advocates, but its audience has grown to include apartment hunters, journalists and city officials. Screenshot from an address search in Who Owns What Once you’ve selected a specific building, click on the “Timeline” tab for more details. The “Display” drop-down menu defaults to show 311 complaints tenants have filed with the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. These complaints often involve pests, plumbing problems, or heat and hot water issues. You can also choose “DOB/ECB violations” in the drop-down to view buildingwide violations such as broken elevators or illegal construction. To view the specifics of each complaint, click on “ANHD DAP Portal” at the bottom right. That will take you to another online tool from housing advocates, funded by city and state legislators, that shows a wealth of information about the property. You’ll be able to view individual complaint descriptions, along with building eviction stats and permit applications. At this point you’ll have to gauge the seriousness of the complaints. If you’re a parent, complaints about lead paint or missing window guards could be major red flags. Rabiyah said it’s helpful to focus on the most common complaints: Those that involve pests or heat and hot water are hazardous and “very intensely disruptive to someone’s home,” he said. I also recommend the “Summary” tab, which shows statistics for all the buildings owned by the same entity. The section on “Maintenance code violations” shows the rate of open violations across these properties compared to the city average. A lower rate could indicate a landlord who’s more attentive to building repairs. Rabiyah warned that the rate skews low for larger landlords, since they own so many units. He said this figure is more reliable when it comes to smaller landlords. A caveat: Public housing isn’t subject to the same data disclosure policies as private landlords, so Who Owns What has limited insight into living conditions there. These buildings are owned and managed by the New York City Housing Authority. When you enter one of these addresses into the tool, it provides info on regulators and how to submit complaints. Screenshots of Who Owns What for a public housing development in Brooklyn These links are at the bottom of every public housing address search on Who Owns What. Remember, not all tenants feel comfortable filing complaints with the city, so there may be problems that never show up in official records. “People don’t want to call 311,” said Larry Wood, director of advocacy and organizing at Goddard Riverside, a community-based nonprofit that offers a range of services including child care and a legal clinic. “Most tenants don’t want to rock the boat.” Other issues may be seasonal or take a while to emerge. (Illustration by Laila Milevski/ProPublica) Sophie Chou, a ProPublica data reporter, spent months in an apartment that had raccoons living in the ceiling. At first it wasn’t a problem, she said, but over time the noise became unbearable. “Every evening it would literally sound like our roof was being demolished by rabid gremlins. It got so bad I didn’t want to sleep in my room anymore.” The landlord’s attempts to remove the raccoons didn’t work, Chou said, not even cutting holes in the ceiling and spraying raccoon repellant. Luckily, her roommate convinced the landlord to let them move out before the end of their lease. Audio of the raccoons in Sophie Chou's ceiling, courtesy of her former roommate Don’t forget to Google: Once you’ve identified the building’s owner, it’s worth typing their names into the search engine of your choice. You might find Yelp reviews for the management company or tenant reviews. Keep an eye on the Landlord Watchlist, compiled by the city’s Office of the Public Advocate. The list scores multifamily rental buildings using data on open violations recorded by the city. The site also has a guide to tenants’ rights. Learn about flood risk: The intense flooding from Hurricane Ida last fall led to horrific deaths and flooding throughout the city. I use the Risk Factor site, created by the nonprofit First Street Foundation, to screen for flood risk at individual buildings. (I wrote about the first version of the tool in 2020; it has since been updated with wildfire risk.) Enter your address to get the projected current and future flood risk at that location. The Bedbug Registry: this site includes crowdsourced reports of bedbugs at specific addresses and hotels around the country. Noise complaints: I’m eternally jealous of people who can sleep through anything. If street noise bothers you, check out the 311 noise complaints portal. Type in the building address and select “Noise” under “Problem Area.” Try searching for both summer and winter complaints; some areas get a lot louder in warm weather. If you’re looking at apartments near hospitals, it’s worth checking whether you’ll hear a lot of sirens at night. I’ve found Reddit threads about neighborhoods with loud ambulances. Noisy radiators are a true New York tradition. The heaters in my first apartment clanked all night long like an army of tiny elves were banging away with hammers. My landlord only offered Band-Aid fixes that did nothing to stop the noise. I even recorded the sounds to keep a document of my complaints. A good super might be able to fix the problem, but it could require more extensive repairs than the landlord is willing to make. While searching for my current apartment, I prioritized buildings with baseboard heaters, which are much quieter. Lisa Song's clanking radiators, recorded at 5:13 a.m. on Feb. 20, 2018. What to Do When You View the Apartment (Illustration by Laila Milevski/ProPublica) Talk to other tenants: In a city where many people dread small talk with strangers, it may feel awkward to lurk on the sidewalk until you spot a likely resident. But hearing directly from tenants is your most reliable source of intel. Arrive 20 minutes early for a viewing and talk to people you see in the lobby or walking in and out of the building. Ask them what it’s like to live there: How’s the landlord? Does the management company respond quickly to maintenance requests? Do residents’ packages get stolen? I chose my current place partly because the prior tenants told me they’d lived there for three years and were only moving because their kid needed their own room. Bring all your documents: If you like the apartment, you’ll want to apply right away. The landlord or broker will ask for various documents, which may include: a copy of your most recent W-2 a snapshot of your bank account your two most recent pay stubs a letter from your employer confirming your salary a copy of your driver’s license or other ID contact info for references I always bring paper copies and store electronic versions on my phone. To secure the apartment, you may have to pay a security deposit, first and last month's rent and a broker's fee (if you used a broker). Many apartments also require application fees that you’ll need to pay with cash, a cashier’s check or money order. If you can afford it: Once you move in, get renter’s insurance. I started buying it years ago after a friend’s apartment burned down, and it costs me $200 to $400 a year. My landlord also requires insurance as a condition of the lease. Your Rights as a Renter Nothing is foolproof. You can do all the research in the world and still end up with a dysfunctional building. Even luxury apartments aren’t immune. All tenants have certain rights: You have the right to live in safe, pest-free conditions, with basic amenities such as heat, hot water and electricity. The city’s ABCs of Housing report includes helpful references. Renters have the right to organize a tenants’ association, Wood said, and to use the building’s public spaces for their meetings. And, once you’ve lived somewhere for at least 30 days, the landlord cannot simply lock you out; a tenant is entitled to due process in housing court. This rule even applies to alleged squatters or other residents who can document as least 30 days’ occupancy, Wood said. Some tenants have more rights: Anyone living in rent-regulated units, whether rent-controlled or rent-stabilized, has additional protections, including limits on rent increases. (For rent-stabilized apartments, the cap is set annually by the Rent Guidelines Board, whose members are appointed by the mayor; you can find the latest cap here.) In an unregulated or “market-rate” apartment, the landlord can kick you out at the end of your lease for any reason at all, said Davidson, the Legal Aid attorney. The fear of being forced to relocate can lead tenants to avoid complaining about needed repairs, she said. Tenants in rent-regulated apartments, by comparison, have “much more power to be able to stand up for your rights.” Landlords can only terminate their leases if they have a good reason, such as showing that the tenant has been a nuisance or has violated the lease. Some landlords will overcharge tenants by falsely declaring a rent-regulated apartment as market-rate. To fact check your landlord, here are two tools that let you request a unit’s rent history, which will show whether it’s really rent-regulated. (This information is only available to the current tenant, so you can’t use it to screen potential apartments.) Here are some general guidelines on rent stabilization and how to tell if a building contains at least one rent-stabilized unit. Finally, if you moved into a building while the landlord was receiving a J-51 property tax abatement, then every unit in that building is rent-stabilized for at least the duration of that tax break (often lasting more than 20 years). The building and apartment may lose rent stabilization status only if the landlord follows correct procedures, Wood explained, and the landlord must notify tenants of when that benefit runs out. You can search for J-51 buildings by tax year and learn more about the J-51 program. If you have a dispute with your landlord, try to resolve it directly with them. Wood said it’s important to build a paper trail in case you decide to take the case to housing court. If your landlord promises in a verbal conversation to fix something, send a follow-up email summarizing what you discussed, he suggested. If problems persist, you can escalate by calling 311. If much-needed repairs are required, for example, you can ask 311 for a housing inspection, which could put pressure on your landlord. Wood also recommended Housing Court Answers and the Met Council on Housing, which provide advice and advocacy for renters throughout the city. (Wood is president of the board at Housing Court Answers.) Both groups may refer tenants to local community groups that organize collective action in their neighborhoods. Another group, Housing Justice for All, advocates for housing rights throughout New York state. For tenants struggling to recover their security deposits, the New York state attorney general’s office offers a mediation service. In extreme cases, tenants can go to housing court. They can do that by filing a case against their landlord or withholding rent until the landlord initiates the process for a case, Wood said. Once that happens, tenants can use the paper trail they’ve built up to defend themselves. But going to court comes with its own risks: Credit companies and tenant-screening apps collect renters’ names from court filings, so tenants can end up on a blacklist that makes it hard to rent again in the future, Davidson said. “There are no great solutions here.” (Illustration by Laila Milevski/ProPublica) When ProPublica reporter Lizzie Presser struggled with a bird infestation several years ago, she initially considered taking her landlord to housing court. Presser was living on the top floor of a building with exposed wooden beams. She’d loved the apartment until birds squeezed through holes in the ceiling. “Big black birds with yellow beaks” started “circling my bedroom,” Presser explained. “They soiled the whole place with feces. My super was no help. The only way I could figure out how to get them to leave was by putting on a bike helmet, opening my bedroom window, and thrashing a broom against the walls to scare them into looking for cold air.” But fear of the blacklist convinced Presser not to start a case. She moved out as fast as she could, and found another tenant to take over the lease once management told her they’d patched the roof. (Illustration by Laila Milevski/ProPublica) Sometimes you’re stuck: ProPublica's Lucas Waldron and his partner left California for New York in 2017. A friend of Waldron’s helped them scope out apartments ahead of time. The best option in their price range was one where the apartment was large but the building itself was a bit run-down, Waldron said. By the time they moved in, it had deteriorated considerably: There was a pile of trash in front of the mailboxes, along with human feces. The post office stuck a note on the door stating they would no longer deliver mail until it was cleaned up. A note from the U.S. Postal Service to residents of Lucas Waldron's building Waldron and his partner asked the management company for help. They sent messages collectively with their neighbors and filed 311 complaints. Nothing worked. “We couldn’t break the lease,” Waldron said. “We even talked to a lawyer about it,” but they were told, he said, that “you’ve signed the lease, this is a contract, and it would be very difficult and very expensive for you to try to break it.” The other option — subletting the apartment for the remainder of the lease — felt unethical, Waldron said, so they stayed for a year and left as soon as they could. Wood said they might have had better luck with a different lawyer. Many private attorneys prefer to represent landlords, he said, and may not always have tenants’ best interest at heart. Waldron said their next apartment was a huge improvement. His main takeaway from the experience was to “never get an apartment that you haven’t physically gone to yourself. And always vet who the owner is.” Ruthie Baron, Sophie Chou, Lydia DePillis, Mariam Elba, Bianca Fortis, Lisa Larson-Walker, Brett Murphy, Cezary Podkul, Lizzie Presser and Lucas Waldron contributed tips, anecdotes and references.
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[l] at 8/15/22 4:00am
by Ren Larson, Vianna Davila and Lexi Churchill ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. This article is co-published with The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan local newsroom that informs and engages with Texans. Sign up for The Brief weekly to get up to speed on their essential coverage of Texas issues. Military commanders have the power to detain service members ahead of trial through a process known as pretrial confinement. Commanders consider whether the suspect may flee or reoffend and if less severe restrictions can keep the person out of trouble. An investigation by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune into the Army’s use of pretrial confinement found that soldiers who were detained weren’t always the ones accused of the most serious crimes. Below are examples of how a soldier accused of sexual assault and another accused of drug offenses were treated differently. Christian Alvarado Private first class Olivia Ochoa Private Charged in total with: Christian Alvarado: Nine counts of sexual assault involving five women One count of aggravated assault by strangulation Two counts of making a false official statement 8% of sexual assault cases tried or arraigned at courts-martial in the past decade resulted in pretrial confinement Olivia Ochoa: Three counts of drug use or possession Seven counts of disobeying or disrespecting officers One count of failing to obey an order 18% of drug cases tried or arraigned at courts-martial in the past decade resulted in pretrial confinement In deciding whether to place soldiers in pretrial confinement, commanders can consider previous misconduct. Their alleged misconduct included: Before the first sexual assault allegation, Alvarado was arrested by local police for firing a gun outside his girlfriend’s house. He was reprimanded by the Army. Ochoa was written up repeatedly for misconduct that included a messy room, not having enough water in her water bottle and being late to work. Ochoa was reprimanded when she and another soldier were accused of sexual harassment after repeatedly flirting and slapping each others’ butts and thighs during formation. She was punished for drinking. Commanders also look at the nature of the offenses that may be tried at court-martial. Their alleged offenses included: Alvarado admitted in a statement to sexually assaulting a soldier named Asia Graham. He was accused of sexually assaulting an Army chaplain's assistant. He admitted in a text message that he had sexually assaulted and strangled a civilian named Lee, who agreed to be identified by her middle name. Ochoa admitted to consuming THC, the compound that gives marijuana its high. Army investigators found psychedelic mushrooms and what they believed to be a vape pen in her room. Before invoking pretrial confinement, commanders can place restrictions on soldiers’ freedom. Their restrictions included: Protective orders required Alvarado to stay at least 100 feet away from Graham and the chaplain's assistant. Army commanders issued another protective order after Lee accused Alvarado of sexual assault. They then limited where Alvarado could be when he was at Fort Bliss. He could still live off post. He was required to check in with commanders multiple times per day, in person or by phone. Ochoa was limited to specific places on post at Fort Huachuca. She needed to sign out of her barracks and be accompanied by a buddy wherever she went. She was required to check in with the drill sergeant’s office hourly. They allegedly broke their restrictions by: Alvarado failed to consistently check in with his commanders four weekends in a row. Ochoa visited stores from which she was barred on back-to-back days. They were put in pretrial confinement for: Alvarado was placed in pretrial confinement eight days after a fourth and fifth woman accused him of sexual assault. This was a month after he first started to miss check-ins and nine months after the first two sexual assault accusations. He eventually spent 108 days in pretrial confinement. Ochoa was placed in pretrial confinement for refusing commanders’ orders to return to her room about three weeks after she was caught with drugs. A military magistrate ordered her release, saying she hadn't violated her restrictions. Commanders soon confined her again, immediately after she visited prohibited stores on post. She eventually spent 103 days in pretrial confinement. They were convicted of: Christian Alvarado: Sexually assaulting Graham and Lee Strangling Lee Lying to investigators Alvarado was sentenced to 18 years in a military prison and given a dishonorable discharge. His case is under automatic appeal by the Army Court of Criminal Appeals, which can overturn convictions and reduce sentencing. In a letter, Alvarado told ProPublica and the Tribune that he is innocent. He and his attorney declined to answer the news organizations’ questions. Olivia Ochoa: Consuming THC Possessing psychedelic mushrooms Disobeying or disrespecting superior officers four times Ochoa was sentenced to time served after receiving credit for the more than 100 days she spent in pretrial confinement. She was given an other-than-honorable discharge, which her lawyer is appealing, and had to forfeit some wages as part of her plea deal. Ochoa and her attorney maintain that commanders treated her unfairly and that the length of time she spent in pretrial confinement was excessive. Source: U.S. Army records of trial, disciplinary documents and criminal investigation reports; Army Court-Martial Information System. Graphic by Fernando Becerra and illustrated portraits by Kate Copeland for ProPublica and The Texas Tribune.
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[l] at 8/12/22 10:30am
by Jeremy Kohler ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive our stories in your inbox every week. One of the nation’s biggest residential “clean energy” lenders has suspended making loans to homeowners in Missouri, citing economic conditions and a new state law that mandated more consumer protections and oversight. Ygrene Energy Fund, based in California, said it will also stop lending in California, but will continue lending to homeowners in Florida, where it can make loans for wind and hurricane protection, a more viable business. No other states have large residential Property Assessed Clean Energy programs, although dozens of states allow them for commercial borrowers. The measures in Missouri were signed into law last year, after a ProPublica investigation found that the high-interest PACE loans disproportionately burdened borrowers in predominantly Black neighborhoods. A Ygrene spokesperson said Thursday that the company wanted to turn its focus to other areas of the country where it would find opportunities for profit. The spokesperson said that legislative reforms in Missouri were a “small factor” in the company’s decision to stop making loans to homeowners there, although a company executive said the reforms had likely contributed to a decline in loan applications. In its investigation, ProPublica found that PACE lenders in Missouri, including Ygrene, charged high interest rates over terms as long as 20 years, collecting loan payments through tax bills and enforcing debts by placing liens on property — all of which left some borrowers vulnerable to losing their homes if they defaulted. We analyzed about 2,700 loans recorded in the five counties with the state’s most active PACE programs and found that 28% of borrowers in predominantly Black neighborhoods were at least one year behind in repaying their loans, compared with 4% in mostly white areas. If loans are not repaid, the local government can seize a borrower’s property. PACE was marketed as a way to finance energy-saving home improvements without upfront costs. Missouri law required the energy savings from each project to at least equal the cost of the loan, but many borrowers said they did not always see that much in savings. ProPublica found that while the state law authorized PACE programs to do audits to ensure that borrowers saved money on their energy bills, it did not require them, and PACE programs in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas did not typically perform them. The programs targeted many vulnerable homeowners, including people who needed urgent repairs but had few options for credit. ProPublica found that some Ygrene loans in the St. Louis area were issued to owners of homes with exceptionally low property values; in several cases, the size of the loan exceeded what the local assessor said the entire property was worth. Ygrene and other PACE lenders had used private appraisals that were often much higher. The new Missouri law required PACE programs to base loans on appraisals from local governments, a change that sharply curtailed the availability of loans to owners of homes with low property values. The law also required that residential PACE programs be reviewed by the state Division of Finance at least every other year. Previously, PACE programs had to submit annual reports to the state, but ProPublica’s investigation found there was little oversight. PACE officials and its lenders have said the program’s interest rates tend to be lower than those of some credit cards and of payday lenders, providing much-needed financing for home upgrades, particularly in predominantly Black neighborhoods where traditional lenders typically don’t do much business. Before the new law, Ygrene said, it beefed up its standards by making sure borrowers had a record of paying property taxes on time and by using more conservative property valuations to underwrite loans. The company said it has also reduced its delinquency rates since the program began making residential loans. A Ygrene executive told the city of St. Louis’ Clean Energy Development Board on Wednesday that the company wanted a one-year break from making any new loans, starting Aug. 18. “This is simply due to interest rates and economic conditions that are making the program not viable at this time,” Jim Malle, Ygrene’s director of government affairs, told the board. He also said the company had seen a reduction in new applications for loans “and we believe that is due to the Missouri legislation.” The board, which only months ago had renewed Ygrene’s contract to act as its administrator for residential loans, said it could have found the company in default of its contract with the city but agreed to suspend the program for at least three months and reevaluate the decision quarterly. Neal Richardson, executive director of the city’s development agency and a clean energy development board member, said the city would use money from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to help homeowners with energy projects and home repairs. A representative for the St. Louis County PACE program, which also uses Ygrene, could not be reached for comment. Ygrene had competed for market share in Missouri with another entity, Missouri Clean Energy District. While Ygrene dominated the market in St. Louis and St. Louis County, MCED operated mostly in St. Charles County, west of St. Louis, as well as across the state in the Kansas City area. St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman, who has criticized PACE programs and last year urged the county council to “get out of this business,” said that while Ygrene's departure was good, he worried that other companies may get in the market. David Pickerill, MCED’s executive director, said his district was still making loans but that business was “down quite a bit, I think, due to the economy and inflation and various factors.” He said it was possible “the people who were the best people to use the PACE program have already done so.” Ygrene is not getting out of the lending business altogether. The company recently announced it had secured investments from two venture capital firms to expand other types of residential and commercial loans nationally, including those not secured with collateral. Ygrene also offers PACE loans for commercial projects; those loans have not attracted as much attention from regulators because they tend to involve borrowers with more experience and access to capital who aren't as likely as residential borrowers to default. The company announced last year that it was offering PACE to homeowners in Ohio in a partnership with the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority. The port authority had run its own successful small-scale PACE program that offered affordable loans in the northwest Ohio city. But port officials said they needed a national company to help offer loans statewide. Ygrene months ago removed any mention of Ohio from its website. Port officials have not responded to questions about the project’s status.
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[l] at 8/12/22 10:01am
by Nicole Carr ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive our stories in your inbox every week. A group of Georgia mothers has been trying to get certain library books banned by reading sexually graphic passages aloud at school board meetings. Now, after the board barred one of the mothers from attending, the group is claiming in a federal lawsuit that their First Amendment rights have been violated. In essence, members of the group, which has dubbed itself the Mama Bears, are arguing that they’re being censored — in their own pursuit of censorship. At a February school board meeting in Forsyth County, Georgia, Mama Bears member Alison Hair wanted to draw attention to a book that was available at her son’s middle school library, according to the lawsuit. Turning to a page from “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel about a 9-year-old boy whose father was killed in the 9/11 attacks, Hair began to read: “I know that you give someone a blow job by putting your penis ...” That’s as far as she made it before Board of Education Chair Wesley McCall cut her off. He reminded her of “the rules that we talked about in the beginning” of the meeting concerning the board’s policy about “profane comments.” He also let her know that “we understand your point” and stated that the district already has a vetting system in place “so these books are not read out loud to students.” Hair continued to try to speak during her allotted three minutes, asking that she be given back the time that McCall spent interrupting her. “Here’s what I’m here to tell you,” she said. “I am here to confront evil.” McCall cut her off again: “Your time is up.” Hair returned to the Forsyth School Board meeting the following month, again attempting to read from a book and again getting cut off. The board later sent her a letter banning her from school board meetings until she agreed to follow board policies: “It was clear that your intent was not to comment to the Board in the public forum but was to disrupt the meeting of the Board of Education to draw attention to yourself and your beliefs.” The lawsuit, filed in late July by the Institute for Free Speech on behalf of Hair, Mama Bears of Forsyth County, and Mama Bears Chair Cindy Martin, claims that “the Forsyth County School Board, embarrassed by debate about its choices, has gone so far as to silence and banish from its meetings any parent who simply reads aloud from its schools’ library books.” Del Kolde, a senior attorney with the Institute for Free Speech Institute who’s representing the plaintiffs, said of the lawsuit: “It’s not about censoring the books. It’s about reading from the books in a public setting. We don’t see any irony.” “To me, the irony is if you’re putting books in the system, why can I not read them in a public setting?” Hair told ProPublica. “But again, this is not about books. This is about my right to speak to the school board about concerns that we have regarding our children.” According to Kevin Goldberg, an attorney and First Amendment specialist with the nonprofit free-speech advocacy group Freedom Forum, “There’s at least some merit to the suit. The premise is valid.” (Forsyth County Schools Chief Communications Officer Jennifer Caracciolo said the district and school board could not comment on pending litigation; individual school board members did not respond to requests for comment.) Goldberg points out that “the First Amendment provides a right for parents to petition.” And he notes that “the suit is not the first of its kind and likely won’t be the last, because it has legs.” Below, Goldberg provides commentary on the lawsuit. ProPublica has provided relevant excerpts from the suit to give some additional context to Goldberg's analysis. Lawsuit: Plaintiffs — mothers who wish to protect their young children from Defendants’ questionable choices — want to exercise their right to criticize the placement of pornographic books in school libraries by accurately reading those books aloud at public meetings. The books’ language, after all, best illustrates why the parents contend the books are inappropriate for school. Plaintiffs want to read these books aloud because they want to elicit in these elected officials, and in their fellow citizens participating in the debate, the same emotions that struck them when they first read these words; embarrassment and motivation to action. They want their audience, including elected board officials, to hear the jarring, unsettling, and sexually graphic words in their original medium. If Plaintiffs cannot read these excerpts, then the power of their message is lost, indeed, the message itself is censored. Goldberg: Parents have a right — and frankly, we want them to have a right — to be able to speak during these meetings. They also have a right to speak as they want to speak, and that right should be very broad. That’s why I think this case has some merit. Lawsuit: At the February 15, 2022 school board meeting, Defendant McCall adopted the practice of opening every Public Comment period by purporting to read from the Public Participation Policy though he added language that cannot be found in the policy. This spoken variation of the policy adds a new category of things the boards can censor: A reading from something “inappropriate.” “We want to remind our citizens that public participation is to present issues or concerns to the Board” [the lawsuit quotes McCall as saying] “but in doing so we do not allow profane comments or comments which involve inappropriate public subjects. If your comments include anything that you might read tonight is … inappropriate to being stated in public you will be instructed to stop.” Goldberg: The policy as written is problematic, I think, from a First Amendment point of view. But certainly when you go off script, it raises a host of First Amendment problems, primarily because it tends to be vague. The biggest problem with vagueness is that I don’t know how to moderate or calculate my speech, which means I’m likely to self-censor to not get in trouble. That is a clear First Amendment violation. Vagueness also leads to selective enforcement. What we end up seeing here is one side being told to be quiet because they’re being inappropriate or disruptive. Lawsuit: Protecting the innocence of Forsyth County’s children is central to Mama Bears and its members. Barring the availability of pornographic materials in school libraries is among the group’s chief concerns. … The Mama Bears have identified over one hundred books they believe are inappropriate. Goldberg: A stated purpose of their exercising their First Amendment right in this issue is to bar the availability of pornographic materials in school libraries. But pornography is protected by the First Amendment, and there’s no clear evidence that any of these materials are actually pornographic. The First Amendment right of the parents is absolutely necessary for them to speak, to be a part of the process. It’s what makes the process work. It’s what helps us come to a final decision. But the parents should not be making that decision. The parents should not be imposing that decision. And that’s my real concern, that when they are imposing their decisions, their preferences on everybody else, we run into another First Amendment problem. They are now seeking to use the process to restrict the First Amendment rights of other parents. Lawsuit: On March 17, 2022 Wes McCall sent Hair a letter banning her from attending future public meetings until she provided a guarantee in writing that she would follow the public participation rules and his directives. … Though Hair did not attend any meetings after March 15, on May 11, 2022, the full FCS Board sent Hair a second letter, signed by each individual defendant Board member, confirming that she is banned from attending public meetings. Goldberg: I would hope that they [the school board members] would be pushing to keep as many of these books in the library as possible, but they are at the same time shutting down speech. Cohen v. California was a really fun and interesting case from the Supreme Court that was decided about 50 years ago. It’s best known as the “fuck the draft” case, where the guy wears the jacket in the L.A. County Courthouse that says “fuck the draft” on the back. The court said, look, I mean, one man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric. If you don’t like it, avert your eyes. We do not think that the mere presence of bad words is sufficient to punish somebody. Well, I think that applies here. If you can use the words “fuck the draft” in a courthouse, you can use them in a school board meeting.
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[l] at 8/11/22 6:00am
by Mike Hixenbaugh, NBC News ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. This article was produced in partnership with NBC News. It was also co-published with The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan local newsroom that informs and engages with Texans. Sign up for The Brief weekly to get up to speed on their essential coverage of Texas issues. Weston Brown was scrolling through Twitter last month when he came across a video that made his chest tighten. It showed a woman at a school board meeting in North Texas, calling on district leaders to ask for forgiveness. “Repentance is the word that’s on my heart,” she said near the start of the video. For months, the woman in the clip had been demanding that the Granbury Independent School District ban from its libraries dozens of books that contained descriptions of sex or LGBTQ themes — books that she believed could be damaging to the hearts and minds of students. Unsatisfied after a district committee that she served on voted to remove only a handful of titles, the woman filed a police report in May accusing school employees of providing pornography to children, triggering a criminal investigation by Hood County. Now, in the video that Weston found online, she was telling the school board that a local Christian pastor, rather than librarians, should decide which books should be allowed on public school shelves. “He would never steer you wrong,” she said. The clip ended with the woman striding away from the lectern, and the audience showering her with applause. Weston, 28, said his heart was racing as he watched and rewatched the video — and not only because he opposes censorship. He’d instantly recognized the speaker. It was his mother, Monica Brown. The same woman, he said, who’d removed pages from science books when he was a child to keep him and his siblings from seeing illustrations of male and female anatomy. The woman who’d always warned that reading the wrong books or watching the wrong movies could open the door to sinful temptation. And the one, he said, who’d effectively cut him off from his family four years ago after he came out as gay. “You are not invited to our house for Thanksgiving or any other meal,” his mother had texted to him in November 2018, eight months after he revealed his sexual orientation to his parents. Weston Brown shared texts that he'd exchanged with his parents with NBC News, including this one with his mother from November 2018. (Courtesy of Weston Brown) Weston, who lives with his partner in San Diego, had long ago come to terms with the idea that he would never again have a meaningful relationship with his parents. He still loved them and desperately missed his younger siblings, he said, but he was done trying to convince his mom and dad that his sexuality wasn’t a choice or a sin. He was done challenging their religious beliefs and praying for them to change. Until he saw the video of his mom at a school board meeting. In recent months, Weston has watched as the same foundational disagreements that tore his family apart have begun to divide whole communities. Fueled by a growing movement to assert conservative Christian values at all levels of government, activists across the country have fought to remove queer-affirming books from schools, repeal the right to same-sex marriage, shut down LGBTQ pride celebrations and pass state laws limiting the ways teachers can discuss gender and sexuality. Monica Brown, who served on a school district book review committee in Granbury, has called that process a sham. She filed a police report in May accusing school employees of providing pornography to children. (Screenshots of Granbury ISD video by NBC News) Much as the seemingly intractable arguments over America’s pandemic response and conspiracy theories about the 2020 election have led to fractured personal relationships in recent years, these clashes over gender and sexuality have pitted neighbors against neighbors, parents against teachers and — in the case of the Browns — a son against his mother. “It was one thing when my parents’ beliefs were causing this rift between us and it was just a family matter,” Weston said. “But seeing now that she’s applying those same views to public activism, at a time when so many basic rights are being challenged, I couldn’t stay quiet about that.” Monica, 51, who has homeschooled all nine of her children and serves as the director of a private Christian education cooperative, declined to be interviewed or answer written questions. In a series of email exchanges with NBC News, she initially invited a reporter to discuss the article over dinner at her home in Granbury, but in a subsequent message, she said her husband would not allow the meeting, adding, “I have been advised to not speak with you at all.” Her husband also declined to be interviewed. In public, Monica has denied targeting LGBTQ books. At a recent school board meeting, she said her only objective has been to protect children from sexually explicit content — gay or otherwise. “There’s nothing about LGBTQ involved in this,” she said. “There are LGBTQ books that are sexually explicit, yes. They are wrong, too. If they are between men and men, women and women, cats and women, dogs and women, whatever, that is not appropriate educational content.” That statement, however, doesn’t square with many of the books that she has flagged for removal at Granbury. Several of the titles on her list feature LGBTQ storylines, but contain no sexually explicit content. That includes “Drama,” by Raina Telgemeier, a graphic novel that depicts gay and bisexual characters navigating the routine awkwardness of middle school crushes. Of the nearly 80 library books Monica and her supporters want removed, 3 out of 5 feature LGBTQ characters or themes, according to an NBC News analysis of titles posted on GranburyTexasBooks.org, a website where the activists have compiled parent reviews of books they want banned. In addition to sexually explicit content, the site calls for books to be removed for “normalizing lesbianism,” focusing on “sexual orientation” and promoting “alternate gender ideologies.” Monica has also signaled anti-LGBTQ views in formal library book challenges that she’s sent directly to Granbury school officials, according to copies of the forms obtained through a public records request. In one instance, she criticized a biography of notable women in part because it included the story of Christine Jorgensen, a trans woman who made national headlines in the 1950s for speaking openly about her gender-confirmation surgery. She suggested replacing that book with a Christian biography series about girls and women who used their talents to serve God — “biographies of truly great Americans,” she wrote. After watching the video of his mom at the school board last month, Weston skimmed through excerpts of the books she wanted pulled. It seemed to him that she and her supporters were pushing public schools to adhere to some of the same strict religious ideologies that he says he suffered under as a child. Granbury’s Long Fight Over LGBTQ Library Books The public library’s refusal in 2015 to remove two LGBTQ books from the children’s section sparked a yearslong political battle that was still reverberating in last year’s school board elections. In January, school district superintendent Jeremy Glenn was recorded telling librarians that Granbury is a conservative town, and therefore there’s no place for books about sex and LGBTQ subjects in schools. The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas has called on the school district to apologize for pulling LGBTQ books from shelves. He thought about all the students, at Granbury and across the country, who might benefit from reading the types of books that were off-limits to him growing up. With tears in his eyes, he started to type a tweet on the afternoon of July 3. “This is my mom,” he wrote, with a link to the school board meeting video. “Seeing her advocate for the erasure of queer representation is crushing. Coming up on the 5 year anniversary of being effectively cut off from my family and siblings after coming out in 2018.” He hesitated, knowing he would be reopening old wounds for the world to see. He didn’t want to do anything to hurt the woman who’d raised him, he said. But trying to get librarians arrested? Weston added one more line to his post — “Much love to those standing up and pushing back for representation” — along with a rainbow flag emoji. And then he hit send. “The Rejection You Have Chosen” Weston has many fond memories growing up in the suburbs between Dallas and Fort Worth, about an hour from his parents’ current home in Granbury. He recalled summer days splashing in their backyard swimming pool, family ski vacations to Colorado and hours spent at the public library with his mom, who fostered his love of reading. “I didn’t really have friends growing up, and going to make new friends via fictional characters was always something I looked forward to,” he said. “It was a beautiful way to leave my world and go somewhere better.” But in a conservative Christian home, some content was off-limits. Although the Brown family’s bookshelves were lined with classics, such as books from C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” series, many popular titles were forbidden, Weston said. That included the Harry Potter series, which he said his mother, like many other conservative Christians, regarded as a satanic depiction of witchcraft. Weston, the eldest child, said his mother also did her best to shield him and his siblings from words or images that might stir sexual curiosity. He remembered being told to look down at the floor anytime they walked through the women’s underwear section at department stores. Even as a child, he said, he was more intrigued by the marketing photos on display in the men’s section — though he didn’t dare tell anyone. The lessons on purity didn’t stop after he became an adult. In 2015, when he was 20 and still living with his parents, he returned home late one evening after seeing “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” a PG-13 superhero movie that his mother disapproved of. When he walked into his kitchen, he said, he found two pans of brownies waiting for him, along with a stack of articles printed off the internet about the corrosive influence of Marvel comics and films. One pan of brownies was normal. The other had a label that warned it had been baked with a small amount of dog poop mixed in. “Poo anyone? Just a little?” Monica wrote later, when she posted an image of the brownies on Facebook. “How much yuck is too much?” Monica Brown posted this picture on Facebook after baking two batches of brownies — one normal, and one with dog poop mixed in — to teach her then-20-year-old a lesson on purity after he went to see “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” a PG-13 superhero movie that she disapproved of. (Courtesy of Weston Brown) The moral of the illustration, which is popular among some evangelical Christians: If you wouldn’t eat brownies that might harm your body, then why would you expose yourself to movies, books or music that might harm your soul? Her son was disgusted, but he didn’t push back on the lesson. “She made her point,” he said, “and we never spoke about it again.” That was the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage — a tectonic cultural development that disturbed many evangelical Christians. Afterward, Monica posted frequently on social media about the “dangerous” gay agenda that she believed was on the march across mainstream U.S. society. She warned in posts that Disney was secretly pushing LGBTQ lifestyles on children in movies such as “Toy Story 4,” and shared a link to a video alleging that pop star Katy Perry was conspiring with satanic forces to convince teens to embrace homosexuality. Weston said he didn’t challenge his mom’s views while he lived with her. He’d spent years struggling to reconcile his desires with the religious values his parents had instilled in him — trying to convince himself that the butterflies in his stomach any time he was around one of the boys at church was just something friends felt for each other. It didn’t help, he said, that he’d had no meaningful sex education as a teenager — just a blanket instruction to abstain until marriage — and no understanding of LGBTQ identities or what those letters even meant. But by 2018, he was 23, living on his own and finally confident enough to tell his parents what he’d always known about himself. “Dear Mom and Dad, I’m writing this to share something that I’ve wanted to share with you yet have held back for a long time,” he wrote in an email to his parents in February 2018. “It is with great relief, clarity and vulnerability that I share this with you: I am gay.” He ended the note: “I pray that you receive this with an open mind.” That prayer, he said, went unanswered. Over the next year and a half, he said, his parents tried to convince him that he was mistaken. Through a series of emotional lunch meetings, phone calls and text messages, he said, they urged him to see a Christian counselor in the hopes that he could learn to overcome his homosexual urges. They invited Weston to church — the one place where they would allow him to see his younger siblings — and openly wondered about what corrupting influences might have led their son down this sinful path. For months, his mother sent him links to articles from Christian news sites with headlines like “Evidence shows sexual orientation can change” and “It’s not gay to straight, it’s lost to saved” — links that she was simultaneously posting publicly on Facebook. But after Weston made clear that there was no prayer or summer camp that would change who he is, he said his parents made clear that he was not welcome at their home, even on holidays or birthdays. “You are not rejected, not at all, and never will be,” his father, James Brown, texted to him in October 2019, more than a year after he came out. “The lifestyle you have chosen goes against God and therefore that is the rejection you have chosen.” His father added, “Have you ever considered the pain you have put your mother and I through?” That same day, Monica sent him a message on Facebook to say that she was praying for dark forces to be cast out of him. “I specifically come against evil that has entered you from the movie ‘It,’” she wrote, referring to the time when Weston, at around age 10, had watched part of the Stephen King mini-series about a murderous clown. “Clown demons have to go in the mighty name of Jesus.” She ended the message, “I love you, Mom.” “A Raging Fire” Monica Brown’s campaign to rid schools of books that she considers obscene began late last year with a trip to the Granbury Middle School library, which sometimes hosts robotics competitions that her homeschooled children have competed in. She started flipping through a few books while she was there and was disturbed by what she found, according to a May interview she recorded with The Blue Shark Show, a local far-right internet talk show hosted by a Republican former state legislator. “What I saw was negative, dark — things nightmares are made of,” Monica said, without sharing more details. Her sudden interest in library books coincided with a wave of similar book ban attempts across the country last year amid a growing conservative backlash against school programs and lessons dealing with racism, gender and sexuality. The books that have drawn the most intense scrutiny, both in Granbury and nationally, are largely young adult novels and memoirs that contain passages with explicit descriptions of sex or rape, especially those featuring LGBTQ themes and characters. Defenders of these books argue that any sexual content is presented in the context of broader narratives that help teens understand and process the world around them. The fight has been particularly heated in Texas, where Republican state officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott, have gone as far as calling for criminal charges against any school staff member who provides children with access to novels, memoirs and sex ed books that some conservatives have labeled as “pornography.” Monica didn’t say in her talk show interview whether she had reported her concerns to the school district. But in early January, Granbury’s schools superintendent, Jeremy Glenn, called a meeting with district librarians and shared that he’d started to get complaints about library books. “Let’s call it what it is, and I’m cutting to the chase on a lot of this,” Glenn told the librarians, according to a secret recording of the meeting obtained by NBC News, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune and first reported in March. “It’s the transgender, LGBTQ and the sex — sexuality — in books. That’s what the governor has said that he will prosecute people for, and that’s what we’re pulling out.” When asked about his comments, Glenn released a statement in March saying the district was committed to supporting students of all backgrounds. And although he said the district’s primary focus is educating students, Glenn said “the values of our community will always be reflected in our schools.” In the days after the meeting, district employees pulled more than 130 books off of school library shelves and announced the formation of a volunteer committee to review them. Monica was one of the first residents appointed. From the start, she felt the process was a sham, she said in her Blue Shark interview. The first two meetings were held at times when she couldn’t attend, she said, and by the time she arrived at the third meeting, the committee had already voted to return most of the books to shelves. Weston Brown’s social media posts show his disapproval of his mother’s attempts to remove library books she finds offensive. (Alan Nakkash for NBC News) “That meeting was completely disrupted in the sense that we didn’t vote at all because I kept asking questions,” she said. In the end, over objections from her and one other member, the volunteer committee voted to ban only three books: “This Book Is Gay,” a coming-out guide for LGBTQ teens by transgender author Juno Dawson that includes detailed descriptions of sex; “Out of Darkness,” by Ashley Hope Pérez, a young adult novel about a romance between a Mexican American girl and a Black boy that includes a rape scene and other mature content; and “We Are the Ants,” by Shaun David Hutchinson, a coming-of-age novel about a gay teenager that includes explicit sexual language. The district returned dozens of other titles to shelves. Several of the books had no sexual content, the committee found. For the others, a majority of committee members believed that any descriptions of sex were age-appropriate when read in complete context. Monica was outraged, she said on the Blue Shark Show in early May. “I think they’re breaking the law,” she said. That same week, she put that belief to the test. On May 2, she and another disillusioned member of the book committee filed a police report with Hood County Constable Chad Jordan alleging that the district was making pornography available to students, according to a copy of the incident report. Four days later, Hood County constables visited Granbury High School to investigate the claim. In a letter sent to NBC News on Wednesday and dated Aug. 1, Jordan said his office could not release additional information about the case because the investigation remained active. In a statement issued in May, Glenn, the Granbury superintendent, said the school district was cooperating with law enforcement. In the months since, Monica has continued to keep the pressure on, speaking at every school board meeting, filing more than a dozen additional book challenges and, in the process, becoming a prominent and polarizing figure in Granbury. Her activism has been praised by several leading conservative figures in town, including members of the Hood County Republican Party and Melanie Graft, the school board member who selected Monica to serve on the book review committee. Graft, who rose to local prominence in 2015 while leading a conservative campaign to remove LGBTQ-themed picture books from the children’s section at Granbury’s public library, did not respond to messages requesting an interview. Monica’s fight has also come at a personal cost. In social media posts and public remarks, she’s said the hours spent reviewing library books have required her to sacrifice time with her family and led to a barrage of personal attacks from residents who oppose her efforts. In May, Adrienne Martin, a Granbury parent and chair of the Hood County Democratic Party, was recording on her phone as she confronted Monica outside a school board meeting. “You want to have librarians arrested,” Martin said as Monica walked away. “That’s fascism. You’re a fascist.” At a board meeting last month, Monica tried to explain why she’s fought so hard to remove books from a school district that her kids do not attend. She’s doing it, she said, for all the other children. “I feel like it’s a raging fire,” she told the board, “and I’ve got a water pistol.” “I Pray for You” After Weston’s initial post criticizing his mother, he fired off several more tweets denouncing her efforts in Granbury. It didn’t take long before the posts had reached his parents. His dad texted him to demand that he apologize to his mother. “We have not come out against the LGBT Community,” his father wrote, insisting that their efforts at Granbury schools were focused on “pornography” and nothing else. “I know you are hurt by our decisions but we are also hurting and have been ever since you said you were Gay. “We have not been hateful to you,” his father added. Weston replied: “All I can say is I pity you and wish you the best.” Soon, opponents of Monica’s efforts began posting images of her son’s tweets on Granbury community Facebook groups — making a family’s private rift public. “Call your son and leave ours alone!” a woman wrote in response to one of Monica’s many public posts about obscene library books. “Your crusade against books won’t bring your son back to you or make him straight,” another Granbury resident wrote. “Go home and look in the mirror, fix your house before you worry about others.” Monica never publicly addressed her son’s tweets, but in response to a Facebook post about them, she wrote: “You can believe what you want about me. In the meantime, I will carry on doing my best to finish out my life for an audience of One.” A couple of weeks later, she finally got in touch with her son. Two days after NBC News contacted her to request an interview, she texted him to let him know that she didn’t plan to share “personal family details” with a reporter. “I did not come out against LGBTQ at all — ever,” she wrote, before adding: “I love you, and I pray for you.” Weston studied the message, thinking back to all the hours he’d spent pleading with her to accept him for who he is rather than trying to control and change him. It hurt, having the woman who’d given birth to him tell him that his sexual orientation was an abomination. He didn’t want to revisit that trauma, he said. He just wanted his mom to stop pushing her beliefs on other people’s kids. Weston re-read her text message one more time. He started to type a reply, then stopped. Instead he closed the message and set his phone aside. He’d already told his mom everything that needed to be said.
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[l] at 8/11/22 4:00am
by Vianna Davila, Lexi Churchill and Ren Larson, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, and Kengo Tsutsumi, ProPublica ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. This article is co-published with The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan local newsroom that informs and engages with Texans. Sign up for The Brief weekly to get up to speed on their essential coverage of Texas issues. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can receive confidential help by calling the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 800-656-4673 or visiting its website. You can be connected to a hotline staff member in your area or to the Department of Defense’s Safe Helpline. U.S. Army soldiers accused of sexual assault are less than half as likely to be detained ahead of trial than those accused of offenses like drug use and distribution, disobeying an officer or burglary, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune. The news organizations obtained data from the Army on nearly 8,400 courts-martial cases over the past decade under the Freedom of Information Act and analyzed a process known as pretrial confinement. The resulting investigation of the nation’s largest military branch revealed a system that treats soldiers unevenly and draws little outside scrutiny. What is pretrial confinement? When service members are accused of crimes, their commanders, who aren’t required to be trained lawyers, get to decide whether they are detained before they go to trial. Here are the main findings from the investigation: 1. Soldiers accused of sexual assault are placed in pretrial confinement at lower rates than those charged with some more minor offenses. On average, soldiers had to face at least eight counts of sexual offenses before they were placed in pretrial confinement as often as those who were charged with drug or burglary crimes, the news organizations found. That disparity has grown in the past five years. The rate of pretrial confinement more than doubled in cases involving drug offenses, larceny and disobeying a superior commissioned officer, but it remained roughly the same for sexual assault, according to the analysis. “Justice that’s arbitrary is not justice,” said Col. Don Christensen, a former chief prosecutor for the Air Force. “It shouldn’t come down to the whims of a particular commander.” 2. Use of pretrial confinement varies from one Army post to another. As a whole, the Army has used pretrial confinement in about 1 in every 10 cases handled by the branch’s highest trial courts over the last decade, but some posts employ it at a significantly lower rate than others, the news organizations found. For example, at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, defendants were confined ahead of trial 5% of the time in cases involving sexual assaults, while soldiers at another large Texas installation, Fort Hood, were confined almost 12% of the time in the same type of cases. Pretrial Confinement Is Used Less Frequently in Sexual Assault Cases The percentage of sexual assault cases that included pretrial confinement was lower than other types of cases at most Army posts. Shown are domestic posts that tried or arraigned at least 20 sexual assault and 20 other types of cases in the past decade. Note: Numbers include Army general and special courts-martial cases. “Other” cases exclude those with murder charges. Among these 29 posts, the number of cases tried or arraigned varied, ranging from just over 40 to more than 800. The median installation had 66 sexual assault cases and 83 other cases. Source: U.S. Army Court-Martial Information System. (Ren Larson/ProPublica and The Texas Tribune) 3. Across the Army, soldiers charged with drug crimes are confined at an especially high rate. More than 1 in 6 Army drug cases that went to courts-martial in the past decade involved a defendant who was put in pretrial confinement, twice the rate of sexual offense cases. Aniela Szymanski, a private attorney and U.S. Marine Corps Reserve judge advocate, said commanders often interpret drug use as jeopardizing the morale or safety of the unit, whereas they tend to view sexual assaults as a conflict between two people. “I think that’s going to take some time for commanders to grow into having the same knee-jerk reaction to sexual assault offenses as they do to drug offenses,” she said. 4. The Army’s justice process is different from the civilian one. Take the case of Christian Alvarado, an Army private first class at Fort Bliss who admitted in a sworn statement to sexually assaulting a fellow soldier in December 2019. “She was drunk and so was I,” Alvarado wrote in July 2020. “We had sex, but she passed out.” On the same day, Alvarado acknowledged that he had sex with another woman while she was intoxicated, which he said was wrong. He would not agree to a sworn statement about the second allegation because he said he believed it would just be “icing on the cake.” At the end of the interrogation, Alvarado’s commanders didn’t place him in detention or under any restrictions beyond the orders he had already received to stay at least 100 feet away from the two women who had accused him of assault, according to records. A month later, Alvarado assaulted another woman. Had Alvarado’s case been handled by civilians and not the military, his written admission could have been enough evidence to quickly issue an arrest warrant and bring a criminal charge, according to two lawyers who previously worked for the El Paso County district attorney’s office. “I would have felt comfortable charging at that point,” said Penny Hamilton, who led the Rape and Child Abuse Unit at the district attorney’s office and later served as an El Paso County magistrate judge. In Texas’ civilian system, Alvarado would have then gone before a magistrate judge, who could set a bail amount in the tens of thousands of dollars. He’d only be released if he could pay the bond. The military justice system has no bail. Many decisions about who should be detained for serious crimes before trial are made not by judges but by commanders, who are not required to be trained lawyers. The Army eventually charged Alvarado with the three sexual assaults in late October 2020 and ordered him to stay 100 feet away from the third woman to accuse him. Still, he was not detained. Lt. Col. Allie Scott, a former Fort Bliss spokesperson, said that the conditions to justify placing Alvarado in pretrial confinement were not met after the three assault accusations. She declined to answer additional questions seeking clarification, saying Fort Bliss would not comment on internal deliberations. In June 2021, a military judge found Alvarado guilty of sexually assaulting two women, strangling one of them and lying to investigators. He was sentenced to 18 years and 3 months in a military prison and a dishonorable discharge. His case is under appeal. Alvarado told the newsrooms he was innocent but declined to answer specific questions. 5. Despite calls for reforms, commanders still control many parts of the military justice system. Congress passed reforms last year that stripped commanders of some of their powers related to certain serious crimes. The law created a new office of military attorneys, giving them, and not commanders, the power to prosecute cases such as sexual assault, domestic violence, murder and kidnapping. But commanders retained prosecutorial control over other offenses. They also still control who is placed in pretrial confinement in all cases, serious and minor. Army officials defended the system. They said that soldiers accused of violent offenses aren’t necessarily more likely to get pretrial confinement. “The nature of the offense is one factor to consider in a decision to put someone in pretrial confinement, but it is not the sole factor,” said Lt. Col. Brian K. Carr, chief of the operations branch at the Office of the Judge Advocate General’s Criminal Law Division, in an email. Characteristics of individual soldiers and their willingness to follow orders are also important factors, Carr said. He said that, under military regulations, commanders must first decide whether there’s good reason to believe that a soldier committed a crime and is either likely to flee before trial or engage in serious criminal misconduct. Commanders have to consider if other restrictions, such as directing soldiers to remain in military housing or requiring regular check-ins with superiors, are sufficient to keep them out of trouble. They should also weigh a soldier’s military service record, character, mental condition and any previous misconduct. Help ProPublica and The Texas Tribune Report on the Military Justice System
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[l] at 8/11/22 3:00am
by Shannon Dooling and Christine Willmsen, WBUR ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive our stories in your inbox every week. This story was produced in partnership with WBUR. WBUR’s investigations team is uncovering stories of abuse, fraud and wrongdoing across Boston, Massachusetts and New England. Get their latest reports in your inbox. When the mayor of Revere, a working-class city north of Boston, began looking for a new police chief in 2017, he wanted a leader to clean up what he described as the “toxic culture” within the department. Mayor Brian Arrigo brought in a consultant to help pick the city’s top cop, who oversees more than 100 officers and civilian employees. The consultant, a former police chief in another Boston suburb, tested four candidates — all internal — for attributes such as decisiveness, initiative, leadership and communication skills. None of the candidates scored high enough to persuade the consultant that they would do the job well. “No city should settle for a Police Chief who cannot deliver an ‘Excellent’ performance when competing for the Police Chief’s position,” he reported to the mayor. Nevertheless, Arrigo chose one of those four candidates for a three-year interim chief role and appointed another, then-Lt. David Callahan, as chief in 2020. An investigation by WBUR and ProPublica found Callahan not only fell short on the assessment but was also steeped in the toxic culture the mayor deplored. In 2017, the same year that Arrigo started searching for a chief, Callahan was accused of bullying and sexually harassing a patrolman and “creating an atmosphere of fear.” In the fallout, the 40-year-old patrolman has been on paid leave for more than a year and is seeking an “injured on duty” retirement status, which would cost the city at least $750,000 before the typical retirement age of 55. Callahan disputes those allegations. He did acknowledge in an interview with WBUR and ProPublica that, before becoming chief, he sent a sexually explicit image to another officer. “It was a mistake,” he said. “It shouldn’t have happened. And I owned up to it and it’ll never happen again.” Callahan’s selection from an underwhelming pool of candidates illustrates the predicament of Revere and other municipalities that are constrained by regulations from hiring outsiders for the key position of police chief. “If you restrict the search process to somebody who is already inside the department, you’re making it a lot more difficult for any sort of substantive change to take place,” said Carl Takei, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU focused on police practices. In a wide-ranging 90-minute conversation in a conference room at Revere police headquarters, Callahan defended his record. He said that he is revising the department’s policies so it can obtain state accreditation, and that he is trying to make it more diverse and welcoming. “It’s not like the kind of good old boys’ network anymore,” he said. He added that he’s willing to take unpopular steps when necessary, citing an investigation a decade ago of a Revere colleague in a public corruption case, for which he received a commendation from the FBI. “I’ve gone against the grain, and I’ve taken a lot of heat for it,” he said. In a separate interview with WBUR, Arrigo said he would give Callahan an “A” for his performance as chief. While some critics say Callahan has applied discipline unevenly, Arrigo said the chief has stood up to the department’s culture as if he were an outsider rather than a veteran of three decades on Revere’s force. Still, the mayor emphasized that his options were limited by a decades-old requirement that the chief of police in Revere be chosen from within the department. In fact, after Arrigo received the candidates’ assessment scores in 2017, the mayor urged the City Council to amend the hiring rule so he could look outside the Police Department. “The fact of the matter is we are currently constraining ourselves to a limited pool of candidates when selecting someone for one of the most important jobs in the city of Revere,” he told the council. His goal, he said, was to choose from the best candidates anywhere “in the name of public safety.” The council didn’t budge. Restrictions on hiring police chiefs from outside department ranks are common in Massachusetts. In Waltham, which has an ordinance similar to Revere’s, two chiefs who were promoted internally became embroiled in scandal. More than 60 other Massachusetts municipalities abide by state Civil Service Commission rules for how to appoint a chief. This means that the chief is selected from within the department, based on the highest scores on the civil service exam, unless the city specifically requests a statewide search, which hardly ever happens. According to Massachusetts officials, there have been 32 civil service appointments for police chiefs within the last five years. All have been internal promotions, and none of the municipalities considered outside candidates. The colonel who heads the Massachusetts State Police also had to be hired from within its ranks until 2020. The legislature dropped the requirement in the wake of a sweeping overtime pay scam in which more than 45 troopers were implicated and at least eight pleaded guilty. Police departments in at least two other states face similar constraints. New Jersey law prevents most municipalities from looking outside their departments for chiefs, and California authorities linked internal hiring mandates in one city to alleged civil rights abuses by police. Police unions and local elected officials often support hiring from within. It’s seen as a way to reward veterans of the force for their service and to keep political allies close. Having a chief who grew up in the area and knows the community may also be an advantage. Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo. He said he would give Callahan an “A” for his performance as chief. (Jesse Costa/WBUR) Callahan pointed to these homegrown benefits when asked about internal hiring mandates for police chiefs. He said while it depends on what an individual department needs, it can be difficult to bring in someone from the outside. “There’s a lot of animosity because you’re going to have people in the department that are upset that they weren’t chosen for the position,” he said. “They’re not necessarily going to cooperate with the new person who’s hired, and there’s going to be some friction.” But with police departments facing demands for reform nationwide, some experts say one way to address problems such as toxic cultures, racial discrimination, poor training or use of excessive force is to bring in an outsider. Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said internal hiring mandates are outdated and can be counterproductive for troubled departments. “To simply limit your department and say, ‘We’re not going to look at anyone outside,’ I don’t think that’s good management, period,” Wexler said. For more than four decades, the Revere Police Department has struggled with corruption and ineffective leadership by chiefs hired from within. A Revere lieutenant was promoted to chief in 1980 after attaining the highest score on the civil service exam. He had purchased a stolen copy of the test from an exam theft ring and was sentenced to four years in prison in 1987. In that era, Revere typically chose the internal candidate for chief of police who scored highest on the state civil service exam. That changed in 2001, when then-Mayor Thomas Ambrosino wanted the freedom to hire someone regardless of exam results and to have more control over the terms and length of the appointment. “My recollection is that I was anxious to remove the police chief position in Revere from civil service because I didn’t think that was the most effective way of choosing a police chief,” Ambrosino, who is now city manager in Chelsea, said in an interview. First, he needed the support of the City Council. They reached a compromise. The council agreed to take the chief’s position out of civil service, and the state approved the move. From now on, the chief would be chosen from within the ranks of the Police Department and no civil service exam was required. Ambrosino recalled that the council wanted to please the police unions by making sure that the chief continued to be hired from inside. Ambrosino said he considered it the cost of getting the deal done. But he now says the ordinance hamstrings the mayor’s ability to choose the best candidate for the job. “As a chief executive, you want to have maximum flexibility. You would want to have the ability to go outside the department if you felt you didn’t have a really strong qualified candidate within the department,” he said. “So for that reason, it’s, in my opinion, not a great policy.” More recent mayors have sought the power to choose someone from outside the department, but they couldn’t persuade the City Council. In 2012, under pressure from then-Mayor Dan Rizzo, the chief resigned and stayed on as a captain, according to the Revere Journal. Rizzo said the Police Department lacked leadership and clear direction, and he wanted the option to pick an outside candidate. None of the four candidates for Revere police chief scored “excellent” or “very good” on an assessment. (Jesse Costa/WBUR) Two consultants to the city would later express similar concerns. In 2015, the year that Arrigo was elected mayor, the Collins Center consulting group said in a draft report that the department’s culture was “very militaristic” and the “lack of unity between the command staff members is most alarming.” Deploring the “fair amount of distrust” among Revere police at all levels, the consultant concluded the city’s internal hiring requirement for its police chief “limits the ability of the department to get the best candidate for the job.” The other consultant, Ryan Strategies Group, evaluated Callahan and the other three internal candidates in 2017 for police chief. Headed by a former Arlington, Massachusetts, police chief, it administered a series of exercises and tests over multiple days. Each candidate role-played a counseling session with a disgruntled subordinate, led a mock community meeting and completed a written take-home essay. No candidate scored in either of the two highest ranges, “excellent” and “very good.” The highest of the four scored a low “good,” and the others were “satisfactory,” according to Ryan group’s report. Callahan was one of the top two scorers, according to a person who requested anonymity to discuss individual results. Callahan said that he didn’t know his score or receive any feedback on his performance. He, like the other three candidates, said that the testing was fair and thorough. The Ryan group did not review personnel records. Besides Callahan’s issues, the city had settled a sexual harassment complaint in 2008 against 13 defendants, including one of the other candidates, Steven Ford. He did not admit any wrongdoing. Another candidate, James Guido, whom Arrigo named as interim chief in 2017, would be sued in 2019, along with the Revere police department, by a female officer who accused him of unfair discipline and retaliation because of her gender. In a deposition, Guido disputed the allegations. The case is pending. During a heated 2017 meeting with the council, Arrigo said that both the Collins report and the candidates’ scores on the Ryan group’s assessment showed why the city needed to look outside the department for the next police chief. “We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our city, to have an expanded pool of candidates,” he said. Ryan Strategies Group also performed an organizational review of the department at Arrigo’s request. It revealed concerns about morale. It also found the department was shirking best practices by not conducting regular audits of property and evidence, and had failed to report to the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office that an audit found discrepancies in drugs and guns. The Ryan group’s report strongly opposed a requirement to hire an internal candidate as chief. “There are times when the culture of a community and/or Department become so politicized or polarized that it is necessary to be able to consider a candidate who is not overly involved with local politics or enmeshed in long standing conflicts,” it said. The council sent Arrigo’s request to change the ordinance to its public safety committee, where it was never brought to a vote. Revere City Councilor Patrick Keefe, who opposed the mayor’s proposal at the time, said that he’s confident in Callahan’s leadership, but he would be open to expanding the pool of candidates for chief in the future. “I would probably prefer to have the chief of police be an internal candidate, but if you don’t have the best candidate, sometimes you have to think of other options,” he said. WBUR reached out to multiple city councilors to ask their opinion on the ordinance. Only Keefe responded. At Callahan’s swearing-in ceremony in July 2020 on the steps of City Hall, the new chief told a crowd thinned by the pandemic that he would honor the same values he’d practiced for almost 30 years at the department. “Since my first day, I have always treated everyone fairly and with the respect they were due,” he said. “I’m committed to serving the community this way, and I will instill these values in the men and women that will be following my lead in the Revere Police Department in the future.” His appointment capped a steady rise through the ranks. After joining the department in 1991, the Revere native became a lieutenant in 2003. He served as the commander of the Drug Control Unit and was assigned to the Criminal Investigation Unit. In 2012, the FBI recognized Callahan for his “exceptional assistance” in the bureau’s investigation into a public corruption case involving a Revere police officer. As a lieutenant, he was among the highest paid Revere employees. In 2019, he made $213,500, including $72,700 for working details or overtime. Callahan has a five-year contract as chief, and his current salary is $192,000. But Callahan’s behavior hasn’t always been exemplary. This past May, Callahan testified at an arbitration hearing in City Hall over his role in the firing of an officer. Under cross-examination by union attorney Patrick Bryant, and again in an interview with WBUR and ProPublica, Callahan admitted that, while he was a lieutenant, he texted a sexually explicit image to a patrolman. The patrolman passed the image, which depicted the Virgin Mary superimposed on a vagina, to others in the department, according to screenshots seen by WBUR and ProPublica. According to notes of the testimony taken by Bryant’s law clerk, Callahan said he was never disciplined for his actions. The most serious allegation against Callahan emerged in March 2017, when Revere police officer Marc Birritteri filed a formal complaint to then-police Chief Joseph Cafarelli. It outlined “harassment and bullying concerns that I have had with Lt. David Callahan over the past several years,” according to documents obtained by WBUR and ProPublica. “I feel like I have become a target of Lt. Callahan’s disrespectful torment and jokes that have had a negative impact on my job and personal life,” Birritteri wrote. “I have actually had to seek therapy on more than one occasion which is still ongoing due to this continuing harassment in the work place.” In his complaint, Birritteri alleged that Callahan repeatedly called him a “rapist” in front of fellow employees, apparently alluding to a sexual assault allegation against him. Birritteri wrote that a three-month investigation determined that he had not committed any wrongdoing, and he was never disciplined. Callahan also told Birritteri that he needed “to drop a load in another whore so she can take the rest of your paycheck,” according to Birritteri’s complaint. The comment referred to a child custody dispute that Birritteri was going through at the time, the complaint stated. At least three officers told WBUR they witnessed Callahan’s taunting of Birritteri and described it as relentless, including Revere Police Patrol Officers Association President Joseph Duca and two others who declined to be named for fear of retaliation. Callahan disputed these allegations. He said no one told him about the complaint for 11 months after it was filed. “I never knew there was a problem,” he said. A review of Revere police records shows that Birritteri’s complaints were never investigated by internal affairs, and Callahan was not disciplined. Department policy prohibits “harassing conduct” that “creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.” “I have actually had to seek therapy on more than one occasion which is still ongoing due to this continuing harassment in the work place,” Marc Birritteri wrote in a formal complaint about Callahan, then a lieutenant. (Jesse Costa/WBUR) In a letter sent to Arrigo on April 12, 2017, then-chief Cafarelli informed the mayor that he had been made aware of an “ongoing pattern of psychological abuse directed at Officer Birritteri at the hand of Lieutenant Callahan.” The verbal abuse, Cafarelli wrote, was “occasionally sexual in nature in the presence of other officers.” Describing Callahan as a “domineering supervisor who leads by creating an atmosphere of fear,” Cafarelli recommended that the mayor place Callahan on administrative leave pending a full investigation by an outside body. The recommendation wasn’t followed. Two months later, Birritteri reported to the department that the bullying was continuing. “I am being further harassed and intimidated by employees and supervisors,” he stated. He was referring to friends of Callahan’s in the department, according to two officers, who declined to be identified for fear of retribution. That October, the city reached a settlement with Birritteri, acknowledging that he presented “credible complaints of harassment” while on duty. The city paid for his legal fees and insurance co-pays for mental health therapy, and it reinstated 38 sick days. In 2018, when he was no longer chief, Cafarelli sued the city and the mayor. He alleged that Arrigo failed to restore him to his former position as lieutenant because Cafarelli had advocated for Birritteri and had recommended putting Callahan on leave, according to court documents. Cafarelli said in the lawsuit that Arrigo and Callahan were “very good friends” and that the mayor had already decided to name Callahan as police chief. The city and the mayor responded in court documents that Cafarelli had not given timely notice of his intent to return to his old rank. This past April, a superior court judge dismissed the retaliation claim but allowed a breach of contract claim to go forward. Cafarelli said he now works as a private contractor for the U.S. government. Arrigo acknowledged that the city substantiated Birritteri’s complaints and said that he had spoken with Callahan about the allegations. Still, the mayor said the harassment did not give him pause when he appointed Callahan as chief. Birritteri continued to receive counseling, according to his correspondence with the city. In 2021, he and the mayor reached another agreement that would pay him $65,000. The patrolman promised not to disparage the city, the mayor or Police Department. The mayor also agreed to not fight Birritteri’s request with the city Retirement Board for a special type of retirement for officers injured on duty. That claim is pending. If granted, he would likely collect pay of more than $50,000 a year, or almost three-fourths of his highest salary. Allegations about Birritteri’s own conduct as a police officer have also cost the city. In 2012, he was sued by a man who said he was assaulted at a parade and alleged that Birritteri failed to intervene. The city settled the case for $15,000, according to the city solicitor, and all claims were dismissed. And in a September 2021 lawsuit, a woman alleged that Birritteri violated her civil rights by wrongfully arresting her and unlawfully searching her car. A $36,000 settlement was reached in April, according to the solicitor. Duca, in his capacity as union president, said that Birritteri denies wrongdoing. Like many internally hired police chiefs, Callahan is a political ally of the mayor’s. Callahan has donated close to $5,000 to Arrigo’s campaigns over the last six years and has knocked on doors on Arrigo’s behalf. He said he was “very active” in supporting Arrigo’s election because he agreed with the mayor’s vision for the city. Both Callahan and Arrigo said that his political support for the mayor had nothing to do with his hiring as chief. Arrigo interviewed the top two candidates, according to people familiar with the process. The mayor said he also sought feedback from other police officers and community members. As chief, Callahan has feuded vehemently with the patrolman’s union — for example, over his decision to restore a shift schedule that the union criticized for contributing to burnout. Callahan, who has the shift rotations posted on the wall of his spacious office, said the schedule he has implemented is better for public safety. Duca is so dismayed with Callahan that he’s now open to hiring an outsider as chief. Duca said the police force would benefit from looking elsewhere for future chiefs instead of having to “choose from the best of the worst” candidates. Arrigo said he has seen Callahan “hold the department to a higher standard than prior chiefs.” The mayor cited the firing of a patrolman, Rick Griffin, the son of a retired sergeant. The mayor determined that Griffin, while in his probationary period, was allegedly untruthful when questioned by the police’s internal affairs department, according to court documents. Griffin was asked about an evening in which he argued with his girlfriend and then was in a car accident, according to Griffin and Duca. Griffin denied the allegations and said he was not formally interviewed before he was let go. He filed a complaint in superior court against the Civil Service Commission, the city and the mayor, alleging that his termination was politically motivated, because his family backed an opponent of Arrigo’s, and that he was denied due process. The case against the city and the mayor is pending, while the complaint against the Civil Service Commission is on appeal. Also fired was another patrolman, Youness Elalam, who had sexual contact with a custodian in a private room at the police station while off duty, according to a state police investigation. Elalam and the custodian told investigators that, while she was uncomfortable with having sex at work, they were in a consensual relationship, documents show. Elalam told WBUR that he was treated harsher than other officers facing discipline because he is Muslim and Moroccan. Elalam’s firing was the subject of the arbitration hearing that Callahan testified at in May. During that hearing, Callahan said that, as a lieutenant, he had become aware of allegations that another senior officer had sex with a 911 dispatcher throughout the police station and in department vehicles while on duty. Callahan acknowledged at the hearing that he had an obligation to investigate the information he received but didn’t do it thoroughly, according to notes of the testimony. The senior officer, who denied the allegations, wasn’t reprimanded. “If you’re friendly with the chief and supportive of his interests, you again have your own kind of private internal affairs process,” said Bryant, the union attorney representing Elalam. Callahan declined to comment on the case, saying it’s still pending. According to Elalam, a tentative settlement was reached last month, in which the city will pay him $25,000 and reinstate him on the force. He will be placed on unpaid administrative leave and will be allowed to resign in good standing, with favorable letters of recommendation from the chief and the mayor. “It’s a huge win and relief. I fought so hard so I could continue to be a police officer,” he said. “I don’t have to deal with Revere anymore, and I can move on to another chapter of my life doing the job I love.” Youness Elalam. He says he was disciplined more harshly than other officers because he is Muslim. (Jesse Costa/WBUR) In 1999, two years before Revere adopted its ordinance requiring police chiefs be hired from within, Waltham instituted a similar policy. Promoted under the new rule, Edward Drew became chief in 2000 after 26 years in the Waltham department. In 2008, Drew paid a $1,000 fine to the State Ethics Commission for interfering with the hiring process to help his daughter gain a position on the force. Drew, who waived his right to contest the commission’s findings, did not respond to emails or phone messages. While Drew was being criticized for favoritism, Waltham Mayor Jeannette McCarthy tried to broaden the selection process to external candidates. The measure was tabled by the City Council and hasn’t been brought up again. McCarthy, who has been mayor since 2004, did not respond to requests for comment. After Drew retired from Waltham’s force, he was replaced by Thomas LaCroix, who resigned after being found guilty in 2013 on two counts of assaulting his wife. LaCroix died the following year. Waltham City Councilor Kathleen McMenimen said she voted in favor of the internal hiring mandate in 1999 after hearing several potential candidates for chief voice their support during a council meeting. McMenimen, still a councilor, said she remains supportive of the ordinance, despite the tarnished chiefs, because she believes internal candidates are the most knowledgeable about the city. “They understand their rank and file, they understand their superior police officers, they understand the city, its neighborhoods and its population, and its demographics,” she said. “And they understand the laws that they are required to adhere to.” Scandals involving chiefs hired from within have also cropped up in New Jersey. As a result of a century-old state law and Civil Service Commission rules, most smaller New Jersey municipalities must hire chiefs internally. In Caldwell, a few miles northwest of Newark, Chief James Bongiorno, who joined the force in 1996, was accused of creating a hostile work environment and violating the civil rights of two female officers.The town settled the cases in 2019 for a total of $240,000. Two years later, the town reached a $375,000 settlement with a former lieutenant who alleged Bongiorno created a hostile work environment. Bongiorno did not acknowledge wrongdoing either time. He remains at the helm of the department. South of Trenton, in Bordentown, then-police Chief Frank Nucera allegedly assaulted a Black teenager while the young man was handcuffed. Nucera, who then retired after 34 years on the force, was convicted in 2019 of lying to the FBI in connection with the investigation. Federal hate crime charges were dropped after two juries failed to reach a verdict. Police unions in New Jersey have pushed to keep the internal hiring requirements. “Many times police unions are in support of not bringing an outsider because even though they’re not the chief, everybody below has this hope that they might be chief,” said Brian Higgins, retired chief of the Bergen County police and a lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. In 2021, the Atlantic City Police Department’s largest union sued the state, which is in charge of staffing decisions for the department, when officials signaled a move to expand the search for chief to external candidates. Union President Jules Schwenger said that a new chief will soon be named. “He is from our department and very qualified for the position,” Schwenger said, adding the lawsuit is “on standby.” Bakersfield, California, reached a settlement in 2021 with the state’s Department of Justice, which had been investigating alleged civil rights abuses by city police officers. As part of that settlement, and to avoid further litigation with the state DOJ, the city will have a ballot referendum on whether to remove a requirement to select the police chief from within the department. This November, voters will have the final say on how the chief is hired. Arrigo, Revere’s mayor, is up for reelection next year. He said that he would still like to see the ordinance amended to allow the hiring of an outsider as chief, but he doesn’t expect it to happen soon. “That may be for the next mayor,” he said. Alex Mierjeski of ProPublica contributed research. Yasmin Amer of WBUR contributed reporting.
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by Catherine Rentz ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. Baltimore County police are starting to get back test results from a long-delayed project to process the oldest known collection of DNA evidence from rape cases. Last year, ProPublica wrote about the trove of evidence and the prescient doctor who began assembling it in the 1970s, long before preserving forensic evidence was common police practice. Police have processed DNA from 49 of about 1,800 remaining cases as of the first quarter of this year, according to a department memo obtained through a public information request and follow-up communications with a sergeant in charge of the cold case unit. Ten of the 49 cases yielded actionable DNA profiles, according to the sergeant. The results, even from such a small batch, are at once promising and alarming: The DNA profiles of unidentified suspects in three “stranger rape” cases have been uploaded into a federal DNA database. Sgt. Moe Greenberg wrote in an email that there are no results in those cases yet. Police identified a suspect in a 1979 case. The prosecutor’s office initially decided not to move forward with charges, but Baltimore County Deputy State’s Attorney John Cox said his office is now reevaluating and looking at what options are available. A suspect was identified in a 1978 case, but the answers came too late: The suspect died in October, and the victim died years ago. Police connected a fourth victim to a serial rapist whose identity has eluded them since 1978; they have his DNA profile, but it doesn’t match anyone in the FBI database. That could mean the person was never arrested for a crime that would result in his DNA profile being uploaded into the database or that his profile remains in a backlog somewhere. According to the memo, police have sent the case to a private lab, Bode Technology, for forensic genealogy testing, which will try to identify a suspect by looking for possible relatives in publicly accessible DNA databases. “It’s frightening but also heartening to think there are more serial rapists who may be caught with this testing,” said Wendell Carter, whose sister Alicia was killed in 1983 on the Goucher College campus by a serial predator who terrorized women across the Baltimore region between 1978 and 2000. Police developed DNA profiles from testing 100 cases between 2005 and 2014, which eventually exposed Alicia’s killer, Alphonso W. Hill, as the worst known serial rapist in the state. Those cases placed him in the same spot on Goucher College campus where two other students were raped in the years before Alicia was killed. He has admitted to those rapes. He has since been linked to 25 rapes around the region, mostly thanks to forensic clues provided by this database. Hill confessed to killing Alicia last year after our investigation. Though the evidence has delivered some promising results so far, ProPublica’s investigation exposed how much more must have been lost when some hospitals and police departments destroyed evidence and when police delayed testing. Dr. Rudiger Breitenecker saved glass microscope slides and tubes containing samples from 2,252 sexual assault examinations conducted in his hospital between 1975 and 1997. He was the founder and director of the Rape Care Center at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, and he started saving the samples years before rape kits were standardized and DNA testing technology was invented. His forensic pathologist background led him to believe it was better to save than to destroy, as others were doing at the time. The doctor’s evidence collection went largely ignored until retired Sgt. Rose Brady heard about it in 2004 and began the first systematic effort to process and test Breitenecker’s savings. Investigators focused on stranger rape cases that had a high probability of being solved, and they ultimately arrested nearly 20 suspected serial rapists. The project stopped in 2014 due to lack of funds. Before Brady got involved, the hospital had destroyed some of the oldest slides in the collection in accordance with its retention policy. Today, about 1,800 cases’ worth of evidence remains untested. Following scandals over police using questionable investigative practices and destroying evidence from sexual assault cases more recently, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. announced reforms and a new testing effort in 2019 thanks to a grant from the private Hackerman Foundation. Shelly Hettleman, a state senator from Baltimore County, requested funding from the foundation after sponsoring a law that mandated the testing of newer rape kits. The law does not cover the older evidence. Hettleman said it is too soon to conclude much from the early results, but she expressed frustration that the testing has been so delayed. She and other officials say the pandemic and restricted lab capacities have slowed the new effort down. At the current rate, processing the rest of the evidence could take another half a century. Advocates say such a delay is unacceptable, especially considering that many sex offenders assault more than one person. Recent research also documents how these predators can become one-man crime waves who also wind up charged with burglaries and murders. “How can we value women so little that we allow this to continue?” asked Jane Manning, a former prosecutor who now leads the Women’s Equal Justice Project, which helps survivors navigate the criminal justice system. Special victims units typically work with relatively anemic resources given their daunting case loads. Baltimore County’s SVU team added 19 new cases in a recent stretch of 11 days. Cold case squads frequently have even fewer resources. Police leadership had not devoted a single full-time detective to investigating the doctor’s evidence before the 2019 effort began, despite earlier pleas from the SVU team after they began to discover how many serial criminals were hidden in the untested slides. The dynamic is exacerbated when the media focus on newer cases, putting the pressure on officials with limited funds to deprioritize cold cases. Now, Baltimore County’s SVU squad actually has a cold case group with one sergeant, two full-time detectives and three assistants. Despite this boost in resources, the workload is nevertheless tremendous considering the 1,800 cases from Breitenecker’s collection that are still waiting to be gone through, in addition to other cold cases. When investigating decades-old crimes, it’s often a challenge just to locate victims and witnesses. But the effort can be worth it. Martha Southworth said it was very difficult not knowing who had attacked her at the edge of Goucher College campus in 1979. She thought her case would never be solved. But after police began testing the hospital slides in the mid-2000s, the slides from her case exposed Hill as a serial predator and provided a major clue that was vital to solving two other cases on the campus: Julie Wood’s rape in 1980 and Alicia Carter’s murder in 1983. Southworth said that going to court and seeing Hill sentenced to 30 years “was such a freeing experience for me. I didn't have to be afraid anymore.” That is one reason, Manning said, that it is so important to pursue these cold cases. The ex-prosecutor also said that those frustrated with investigations have other avenues they can use to pursue justice. They can reach out to elected officials to push for new city and state laws that would enable survivors to file lawsuits against law enforcement for failure to protect, as people can do in New York City. They can also reach out to the Department of Justice, which investigates police departments, and ask it to look into the way local law enforcement is handling sex crimes. The federal government investigated the Baltimore city police in 2016 and found indications of gender bias and a general failure to sufficiently process sexual assault evidence and pursue what looked to be suspected serial offenders. The city police have since undergone reform efforts. The Justice Department is also investigating the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for its response to sexual misconduct, according to The Baltimore Sun. Most importantly, Manning said, survivors can organize politically around the issue to “let public officials know that there will be a price to pay if you continue to allow impunity for rape.” Baltimore County police wrote in the memo that the pace of testing should pick up now that they have expanded staffing and added another private DNA lab to help process the evidence. Greenberg said in an email that in addition to this first batch of test results, 75 more slide cases have been outsourced for testing. Testing has been completed on 17 of those cases so far, and the results are still under review.
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by Vianna Davila, Lexi Churchill and Ren Larson This story includes descriptions of sexual assault and physical violence. ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. This article is co-published with The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan local newsroom that informs and engages with Texans. Sign up for The Brief weekly to get up to speed on their essential coverage of Texas issues. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can receive confidential help by calling the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 800-656-4673 or visiting its website. You can be connected to a hotline staff member in your area or to the Department of Defense’s Safe Helpline. Christian Alvarado began to type as he sat alone in an interrogation room at Fort Bliss, a sprawling Army post in El Paso, Texas. He’d spent most of the previous seven hours hooked up to a polygraph, answering a military investigator’s questions about an allegation that he’d sexually assaulted a fellow soldier. His story had changed several times during the interview in late July 2020. The investigator told Alvarado he’d already failed two polygraph tests, then left the room so that the young soldier could type up his account in a sworn statement. With his fingers on the keyboard, Alvarado began describing the night in December 2019 that he spent in the barracks with a female soldier he’d met that day. “She was drunk and so was I,” Alvarado, an Army private first class, typed on the investigator’s computer. “We had sex, but she passed out.” A portion of Christian Alvarado’s statement to investigators, highlighted and redacted by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune. Although Alvarado is identified here as a specialist, military court documents and an Army spokesperson identify his rank as a private first class. (Obtained by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune) He wrote that he’d lied about the encounter being consensual in previous interviews with investigators because he wanted to protect his Army career. When Alvarado was done with his written admission, the military investigator walked back in the room. He asked Alvarado why he continued to have sex with the woman after she passed out. “I was in the moment,” the 20-year-old soldier replied. The investigator then asked Alvarado about another allegation against him. An Army chaplain’s assistant had accused him of sexually assaulting her in May 2020 after a house party. Sex with her was “wrong due to how intoxicated she was,” Alvarado said, but he would not agree to a sworn statement about the second allegation because it would just be “icing on the cake.” Alvarado told the investigator that he’d had sex with 42 women in the past four years, about a quarter of whom were intoxicated at the time. His sexual experiences had become boring and they blurred together, he said, to the point that he struggled to remember specific details about his partners. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. At the end of the daylong interrogation, Alvarado’s commanders didn’t place him in detention or under any restrictions beyond the orders he had already received to stay at least 100 feet away from the two women who had accused him of assault, according to records. He was free to leave. A month later, he sexually assaulted another woman. Had Alvarado’s case been handled by civilians and not the military, his written admission could have been enough evidence to quickly issue an arrest warrant, according to two lawyers who previously worked for the El Paso County district attorney’s office. “I would have felt comfortable charging at that point,” said Penny Hamilton, who led the Rape and Child Abuse Unit at the district attorney’s office and later served as an El Paso County magistrate judge. “When you have the offender admitting the sexual act took place and you have the offender admitting that the alleged victim couldn’t have consented because she was passed out, then you have the elements” of a criminal charge. In Texas’ civilian system, a person charged with sexual assault goes before a magistrate judge, who’d set a bail amount that experts said could easily be in the tens of thousands of dollars. Civilian magistrates and judges use bail to ensure suspects show up at trial. Suspects are released only if they can pay the bond. The military justice system has no bail. Many decisions about who should be detained for serious crimes before trial are made not by judges but by commanders, who are not required to be trained lawyers. Recent congressional reforms changed the system, which has long drawn criticism for the extensive discretion commanders wield. While the revisions stripped some of their authority, commanders continue to control various aspects of the judicial process, including deciding whether service members accused of crimes should be detained while awaiting trial, a process called pretrial confinement. A ProPublica and Texas Tribune investigation into how commanders in the Army, the nation’s largest military branch, use pretrial confinement revealed a system that treats soldiers unevenly and draws little outside scrutiny. Over the coming months, ProPublica and the Tribune will explore how military justice operates, often in vastly different ways than the civilian system. The news organizations obtained data from the Army on nearly 8,400 courts-martial over the past decade under the Freedom of Information Act. The resulting analysis, the first-of-its-kind, showed that soldiers accused of sexual assault are less than half as likely to be placed in pretrial confinement than those accused of offenses like drug use and distribution, disobeying an officer or burglary. Soldiers accused of sexual assault are less than half as likely to be placed in pretrial confinement than those accused of offenses like drug use and distribution, disobeying an officer or burglary. The analysis showed that, on average, soldiers had to face at least eight counts of sexual offenses before they were placed in pretrial confinement as often as soldiers charged with drug or burglary crimes. That disparity has grown in the past five years. The rate of pretrial confinement more than doubled in cases involving drug offenses, larceny and disobeying a superior commissioned officer, but it remained roughly the same for sexual assault cases like Alvarado’s, the analysis found. For instance, the Army opted against pretrial confinement for a staff sergeant who was accused of raping the wife of a soldier in his command at Fort Bliss, while at another post a 19-year-old Texas woman was placed in detention for more than three months for using drugs and mouthing off to commanders. “Justice that’s arbitrary is not justice,” Col. Don Christensen, a former chief prosecutor for the Air Force, said. “It shouldn’t come down to the whims of a particular commander.” Army officials defended the system. They said that soldiers accused of violent offenses aren’t necessarily more likely to get pretrial confinement. “The nature of the offense is one factor to consider in a decision to put someone in pretrial confinement, but it is not the sole factor,” said Lt. Col. Brian K. Carr, chief of the operations branch at the Office of the Judge Advocate General’s Criminal Law Division, in an email. Characteristics of individual soldiers and their willingness to follow orders are also important factors, Carr said. He said that, under military regulations, commanders must first decide whether there’s good reason to believe that a soldier committed a crime and is either likely to flee before trial or engage in serious criminal misconduct. Commanders have to consider if other restrictions, such as directing soldiers to remain in military housing or requiring regular check-ins with superiors, are sufficient to keep them out of trouble. They should also weigh a soldier’s military service record, character, mental condition and any previous misconduct. In March 2020, months before Alvarado was interviewed about the sexual assault allegations, commanders reprimanded him after El Paso police arrested him for firing an AR-15 outside of his girlfriend’s apartment. Alvarado told police at the time that he was attempting to scare off a pack of coyotes. An El Paso County warrant in the case remains outstanding. Despite the reprimand and the initial sexual assault allegations, former Fort Bliss spokesperson Lt. Col. Allie Scott said that the conditions to justify placing Alvarado in pretrial confinement were not met. Scott, who recently transferred to another post, declined to clarify. She said Fort Bliss would not comment on internal deliberations. Nearly a month after Alvarado walked out of the interrogation room at Fort Bliss, an Army captain determined there was probable cause that he committed sexual assault, according to records obtained by ProPublica and the Tribune. In a letter to the news organizations, Alvarado would later say he was innocent but declined to answer specific questions. If something had been done sooner, he would have never gotten the chance to hurt me. —Lee, who was assaulted by Alvarado The Army’s decision, and the failure to quickly act on it, came too late for Lee, a civilian and the third woman whom he would later be charged with sexually assaulting. Lee, who agreed to go by her middle name for this story, still relives the moment in late August when Alvarado assaulted her in her living room. He pinned her down on her couch and wrapped his hand around her throat while her two children slept across the house. She recalls calling a friend and crying weeks later when she learned from military investigators that Alvarado had previously been accused of sexual assault. “If something had been done sooner, he would have never gotten the chance to hurt me,” Lee said. A Justice System Led by Military Commanders The U.S. military justice system dates back to the American Revolution. Yet the way in which the system works and how it diverges from the civilian legal process is unknown to many Americans. (About 8% of adults in the U.S. currently serve or have served in the active-duty and reserve military forces.) The system was created to help commanders keep their fighting forces in line. So, at the start, courts handled only military-specific offenses like desertion or dereliction of duty. “George Washington needed a means to discipline his troops,” said Rachel E. VanLandingham, a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles and a former Air Force judge advocate, which is a military attorney. “It was very much a commander’s tool.” Bail was never part of the military system because service members were often stationed in fortresses or remote, frontier garrisons, where commanders controlled their movements, said Joshua Kastenberg, a professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law and former Air Force judge advocate. Civilian crimes were not tried at court-martial until the American Civil War, and then only as a way to prosecute Union soldiers who were accused of crimes in Confederate states, Kastenberg said. For decades after, the military could tackle civilian offenses only during times of war. Then the first and second world wars exposed a greater number of enlisted men and women to a justice system that was dramatically different from the civilian one. For example, the people representing them at trial were not required to be trained lawyers. In an effort to bring the military more in line with civilian court practices, Congress developed the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1950. This was a major turning point, giving the military — and, in turn, commanders — jurisdiction over civilian offenses like murder and sexual assault, not just during wars but in times of peace, Kastenberg said. In the years since, the military pushed back against limiting commanders’ control. Some military legal experts interviewed by ProPublica and the Tribune maintain pretrial confinement is superior to the civilian bail system because a suspect’s freedom has nothing to do with their ability to pay. Criminal justice experts who oppose bail argue that it criminalizes poverty and penalizes people of color. Critics of the military justice system say giving commanders authority over who gets detained reinforces an ongoing problem in the military. Commanders are an accused person’s supervisor and have little experience or training to make consequential legal decisions. Commanders “have convinced themselves that they have some special insight shared by no others that makes them solely qualified to make prosecution decisions and control the justice system,” said Christensen, now president of the nonprofit Protect Our Defenders, an organization that promotes military justice reform. The most recent congressional push to shield the courts-martial process from commanders’ influence followed the 2020 murder of Vanessa Guillén, an Army specialist who was sexually harassed by a supervisor and then allegedly killed by another soldier at Fort Hood, Texas. A mural and growing memorial honor Spc. Vanessa Guillén at Houston’s Taqueria del Sol in July 2020. (Briana Vargas for The Texas Tribune) Guillén’s death helped build momentum for a long-standing effort by some lawmakers to dramatically reduce commanders’ role in the military justice system. A bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, proposed stripping commanders of the power to decide whether to prosecute serious offenses and giving that authority to military lawyers. The military brass pushed back. To remove commanders “from prosecution decisions, process, and accountability may have an adverse effect on readiness, mission accomplishment, good order and discipline, unit cohesion, trust, and loyalty between commanders and those they lead,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a May 2021 letter to Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee. In the end, Congress approved a compromise last year that created a new office of military attorneys with the power to prosecute cases related to some serious crimes such as sexual assault, domestic violence, murder and kidnapping. Commanders retained prosecutorial control over other offenses, like robbery, assault and distribution of controlled substances. Under the new law, commanders also held on to authority over other parts of the judicial process, including pretrial confinement. They can consult military attorneys with legal questions, but they are not required to follow that advice. And while a magistrate judge reviews cases in which a person is placed in pretrial confinement, there is no such review when commanders opt against detaining soldiers accused of crimes. “A Dangerous Person” Staff Sgt. Randall S. Hughes (U.S. Army) To understand the way that commanders’ discretion works in practice, consider the case of Randall S. Hughes, a Fort Bliss Army staff sergeant who was accused of raping the wife of one of his soldiers at a Super Bowl party in 2017. The woman told ProPublica and the Tribune she repeatedly asked that the Army place Hughes in pretrial confinement after it began an investigation. Hughes’ commanders did not. They eventually decided against pursuing the case, citing evidence and advice from military counsel. Hughes later moved to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey where, in May 2020, his 16-year-old daughter told military investigators that he had sexually assaulted her two months earlier. Again, he was not detained. Hughes’ commanders in New Jersey instead directed him to live on post and required him to check in by phone three times a day. During the investigation into his daughter’s accusation, military law enforcement discovered allegations that years earlier Hughes sexually assaulted one ex-wife and raped another. The latter incident occurred while he was already under investigation for the rape at Fort Bliss. They learned a third ex-wife accused him of strangling her in 2015. Hughes was again not put into pretrial confinement. Matt Leonard, an Army spokesperson, said in an email that Hughes’ commanders “took appropriate action” to ensure the staff sergeant showed up at trial and did “not engage in further serious misconduct.” They also issued protective orders for the victims. In a March 2021 plea deal, Hughes admitted to a number of charges, including raping the woman at the Super Bowl party and one of his ex-wives. He also was convicted of “squeezing” another ex-wife’s neck with his hands. A judge sentenced him to almost 14 years in prison and dishonorably discharged him. He did not plead guilty to sexually assaulting his daughter but admitted to using indecent language with her and pulling her by the hair. Hughes’ attorney did not respond to an email requesting comment. Chayla Madsen, Hughes’ first ex-wife and the mother of the daughter who accused him of sexual assault, said she agreed to the plea deal only because military attorneys said it would speed up the judicial process and be better for the victims. Madsen used to believe the safest place her daughter could be was on a military base. Now she has no faith in a system that failed to take serious legal action against Hughes in 2017 when he was first accused of sexual assault. “They had every reason to believe he is a dangerous person,” Madsen said. Serial Offenses Fort Bliss, where Hughes was first accused of sexual assault, uses pretrial confinement significantly less often than the vast majority of Army posts, applying it at a rate of roughly 6% for cases without sexual offenses and 5% for sexual assault cases, according to the news organizations’ analysis. Pretrial Confinement Is Used Less Frequently in Sexual Assault Cases The percentage of sexual assault cases that included pretrial confinement was lower than other types of cases at most Army posts. Shown are domestic posts that tried or arraigned at least 20 sexual assault and 20 other types of cases in the past decade. Note: Numbers include Army general court-martial and special court-martial cases. “Other cases” exclude those with murder charges. Among these 29 posts, the number of cases tried or arraigned varied, ranging from just over 40 to more than 800. The median installation had 66 sexual assault cases and 83 other cases. Source: U.S. Army Court-Martial Information System. (Ren Larson/ProPublica and The Texas Tribune) Just as they had done with Hughes, Fort Bliss commanders similarly decided at various junctures not to detain Alvarado. They had another opportunity two weeks after he assaulted Lee. Military investigators guided the 30-year-old mother, who had a brief relationship with Alvarado before the assault, to contact him and see if he would acknowledge what happened on the night of Aug. 26, 2020, when he asked to come over to her house to talk. While sitting in a room with investigators, Lee texted Alvarado and asked him to explain why he didn’t stop when she told him to. He apologized. “Do you even know what you’re apologizing for?” “My aggressive behavior.” “Alvarado, it was more than aggressive. You choked me until I almost passed out and left bruises around my neck. Even when I told you to stop, you still shoved your hand down my pants. Why didn’t you stop when I told you to?” The two texted for more than an hour. Lee kept pressing even after Alvarado attempted to end the conversation. Then he finally answered. “I choked you and fingered [you]. I don’t want to talk about it.” After the admission, the Army ordered that Alvarado stay 100 feet away from Lee. He also had other restrictions, including a requirement that he check in with commanders seven times a day in person or by phone, text or video call. Scott, the Fort Bliss spokesperson, said commanders determined Alvarado’s restrictions “based on the information available to them at the time.” But six attorneys and military law experts expressed surprise that commanders still did not order him into pretrial confinement. “He’s under investigation for two sexual assaults, he’s been told to leave these people alone and then we have credible evidence that he’s committed another sexual assault,” said Geoffrey S. Corn, a former Army officer and law professor. “That’s enough to prove to me two things: No. 1, he’s dangerous and, No. 2, he might be a flight risk because he’s not getting the message he has to behave.” One night, almost a month after the text exchange, Lee called 911 when her 10-year-old son told her that Alvarado had tapped on his bedroom window and said hello, according to a police report and an interview with Lee. Military police arrived quickly but could not locate anyone. Had Alvarado been there, he would have been in violation of the protective order that required him to stay away from Lee. Scott said neither Fort Bliss investigators nor Alvarado’s commanders knew of the claim because military police files did not mention his name. Records obtained by ProPublica and the Tribune show that Lee shared Alvarado’s name and the fact that she had a protective order against him with a 911 dispatcher. In late October, two months after Lee was assaulted, the Army formally charged Alvarado with three counts of sexual assault, as well as with strangling Lee and lying to investigators. Still, he was not detained. By the end of December, Alvarado was in trouble again. How long do we need to let a serial predator continue to violate orders and harm people? —Franklin Rosenblatt, a law professor who previously served as a Fort Bliss judge advocate from 2010 to 2012 He was arrested for driving drunk during a trip to Arizona, where his family lives. Fort Bliss officials said they were not aware of the arrest because neither Alvarado nor the Scottsdale Police Department notified the post. Alvarado then missed several required check-ins with commanders. Such failures could trigger pretrial confinement. They didn’t. After a month of missed check-ins, Alvarado’s company commander increased how often he had to contact his superiors and required him to write a 1,000-word essay on “the importance of Army leaders ensuring the safety and well-being of their Soldiers.” “How long do we need to let a serial predator continue to violate orders and harm people?” said Franklin Rosenblatt, a law professor who previously served as a Fort Bliss judge advocate from 2010 to 2012. Different Treatment A photo of Olivia Ochoa displayed in her parents’ home. Her experience shows how aggressive Army commanders can be even in cases with more minor infractions. (Ilana Panich-Linsman for ProPublica and The Texas Tribune) Army officials say that pretrial confinement should be a last resort because it detains soldiers before they’ve been convicted of a crime. But Pvt. Olivia Ochoa’s experience shows how aggressive Army commanders can be even in cases with more minor infractions. A San Antonio native, Ochoa became interested in military intelligence jobs after meeting a recruiter her senior year of high school. She joined the Army as a promising soldier in August 2020 shortly after graduating and was promoted in rank, according to her recruiter. The 19-year-old soldier soon began to get in trouble. Months into her Army career, Ochoa was reprimanded for sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment after she and another soldier were accused of slapping each other’s butts, inner thighs and frequently flirting during formation in Fort Huachuca, Arizona. The incident, which Ochoa denies, was the first in a series of run-ins with her drill sergeants, ranging from not carrying “the appropriate amount of water” in her water bottle to more serious issues like underage drinking and eating a THC edible. “Once I knew I was gonna get in trouble no matter how much I tried, I completely stopped trying,” Ochoa said. By May 2021, one of Ochoa’s drill sergeants recommended that she be released from the Army. While waiting to be discharged, Ochoa said, she was sexually assaulted by another soldier at an off-post hotel. She initially worried that if she filed a report, the military would delay her release, but after her mental health began deteriorating, she decided to report the assault. In July, Ochoa was caught with psychedelic mushrooms and what investigators believed to be a vape pen with THC. The Army charged her with drug possession and use. Her commander placed her under restrictions that, among other things, allowed her to visit only the few buildings on post where she slept, ate and worked out. Two days later, Ochoa got in trouble for refusing her superiors’ order to go back to bed after she left her room to check on a friend who was being placed in confinement. That was enough for commanders to place her in pretrial confinement the next day. A military magistrate ordered Ochoa’s release about a week later, determining confinement was “not warranted” because she had not broken her restrictions. Her freedom was short-lived. In the week following her release, Ochoa’s commander again placed her in pretrial confinement after she was caught two days in a row at stores she had been barred from visiting, once trying to buy cough medicine she said she planned to take to get high. Although the Army’s case centered on drug use and possession, Ochoa was ultimately put in pretrial confinement both times for violating superior officers’ orders. Although the Army’s case centered on drug use and possession, Ochoa was ultimately put in pretrial confinement both times for violating superior officers’ orders. Her commanders added seven new counts of disobeying and disrespecting superiors onto her drug case for reasons that included refusing to return to her room and visiting the on-post stores. Ochoa’s actions showed that she should not be in the Army, but her punishment was excessive, said Rosenblatt, the law professor and former Army judge advocate. He said her case is an example of how pretrial confinement is used in “arbitrary” ways that can often be fueled by a commander’s relationship with the soldier. Commanders often interpret drug use as jeopardizing the morale or safety of the unit, whereas they tend to view sexual assaults as a conflict between two people, said Aniela Szymanski, a private attorney and Marine Corps Reserve judge advocate. “I think that’s going to take some time for commanders to grow into having the same knee-jerk reaction to sexual assault offenses as they do to drug offenses,” she said. Ochoa spent 103 days in pretrial confinement. She stopped eating, barely slept and was losing her hair and eyelashes. “Once I knew I was gonna get in trouble no matter how much I tried, I completely stopped trying,” Ochoa said. (Ilana Panich-Linsman for ProPublica and The Texas Tribune) In November, after her initial trial date was pushed back by two months, Ochoa accepted a plea deal. She was sentenced to time served. During the hearing, Ochoa learned Army officials had decided not to pursue her sexual assault case, determining that they could not establish probable cause. The decision was a surprise to Ochoa and her civilian lawyer, Sean Timmons, who said investigators did not interview key witnesses about the assault. Army officials later agreed to speak with additional people, but they came to the same conclusion and closed the case this year. “I believe if she was a soldier who they actually liked and wanted to see have a productive career, they probably would have already taken steps to do this investigation properly,” Timmons, a former military attorney, said in an interview. “But because they don’t like her, they’re going to maltreat her and they’re going to do a half-assed job prosecuting him.” A Fort Huachuca spokesperson said the Army takes sexual assault allegations seriously and conducted a thorough and independent investigation into Ochoa’s case. “Broken” In March 2021, more than seven months after Alvarado confessed during his interrogation, he was placed in pretrial confinement. By then, the allegations of sexual assault against him had drawn national attention. Asia Graham, the soldier who Alvarado acknowledged he sexually assaulted while she was unconscious, died at age 19 after accidentally overdosing on drugs. Before her death, Graham had written a letter to her mother, Nicole Graham, about the pain she felt because the Army had failed to take action against Alvarado. Nicole Graham’s daughter, Asia, was the soldier whom Alvarado acknowledged sexually assaulting while she was unconscious. She died at age 19 after accidentally overdosing on drugs. (Ilana Panich-Linsman for ProPublica and The Texas Tribune) The publicity around Graham’s case caused two more women to come forward in an interview with the cable news network NewsNation and accuse Alvarado of assaulting them years earlier in Arizona. The women had not previously reported the incidents. Commanders’ repeated decisions against pretrial confinement, which gave Alvarado the opportunity to assault Lee, did not draw public attention. But Alvarado’s civilian defense attorney last year, Sherry Bunn, told ProPublica and the Tribune that she believed Army leaders were simply reacting to “the press and publicity and the political nature” of Graham’s and Guillén’s deaths when they decided to confine him. Army officials say he was put in pretrial confinement because of the additional allegations. Nicole Graham said her daughter might still be alive had commanders placed Alvarado in detention earlier. Nicole Graham said her daughter might still be alive had commanders placed Alvarado in detention earlier. That might have convinced her daughter, who was haunted by the assault, that the Army was taking the case seriously, the mother said. “I think she would have felt maybe stronger in her recovery and not self-medicated,” she said. Nicole Graham got the chance to face Alvarado on June 18, 2021, when a military judge found him guilty of sexually assaulting her daughter and Lee, of strangling Lee and of lying to investigators. The judge acquitted him of all other charges, including the sexual assault of the chaplain’s assistant. After the judge’s ruling, Nicole Graham read a statement from the stand about Asia: “The military has let her down.” The judge sentenced Alvarado to 18 years and three months in a military prison and a dishonorable discharge from the Army. He got credit for the time he spent in pretrial confinement ahead of his trial: 108 days, five days more than Ochoa. Because of the dishonorable discharge and the length of his sentence, Alvarado’s case is under automatic appeal. A decision is still pending. He remains in custody. The fact that Alvarado is behind bars gives Lee little comfort. The attack changed her. She still has nightmares about the presence of someone in her home, walking up the steps to her bedroom and beating on the door. Life was not perfect before the assault. She’d lost a pregnancy before having her two children. Two marriages to Army soldiers ended. But she still had a life. She used to enjoy socializing, inviting friends over for game nights or going out around town. Now, she stays home most of the time. She’s thought about cutting her long hair, because attackers can grab you by the hair. She no longer likes to be touched, especially on her face. Even her young daughter loving on her can sometimes cause her to panic. “I’m a little more broken than I used to be.” Help ProPublica and The Texas Tribune Report on the Military Justice System
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[l] at 8/9/22 3:59am
by Ren Larson ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. This article is co-published with The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan local newsroom that informs and engages with Texans. Sign up for The Brief weekly to get up to speed on their essential coverage of Texas issues. Each year, hundreds of Army soldiers face trial in military courts for offenses that range from murder to failure to report for duty. The military justice system largely operates separately from the civilian legal process and is unknown to many Americans. Under the system, commanders, who are not required to be trained lawyers, wield significant influence and can detain soldiers while they are awaiting trial through a process known as pretrial confinement. Soldiers Accused of Sexual Assault Are Less Likely to Be Placed in Pretrial Confinement Than Those Accused of Drug Offenses The decision to detain a soldier before trial is made by Army commanders. Here is the pretrial confinement rate for: Note: Data includes Army general court-martial and special court-martial cases tried or arraigned in the past decade. Cases with concurrent murder charges are excluded. Drug cases exclude those with a concurrent sexual assault charge. Source: U.S. Army Court-Martial Information System. (Ren Larson/ProPublica and The Texas Tribune) An investigation by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune found that soldiers accused of sexual assault are less than half as likely to be placed in pretrial confinement than those accused of offenses like drug use and distribution. Soldiers accused of other more minor offenses such as disobeying an officer or damaging nonmilitary property also have higher rates of pretrial confinement than those accused of sexual assault. That gap held up even when narrowing in on certain types of sexual assault cases that we suspected might be more likely to result in pretrial confinement. When we limited the analysis to charges involving the most violent sexual offenses, the pretrial confinement rate remained well below that of drug offenses. (Sexual assault charges include a range of offenses, from rape to nonconsensual contact of body parts like the inner thigh.) Our analysis also focused on charges, not the outcome of the trial, since the decision to put a soldier in pretrial confinement is made before a case is adjudicated and because guilt is not a requirement for pretrial confinement. But even for soldiers who were eventually found guilty of at least one sexual assault offense, the rate of pretrial confinement remained well below the rate for drug cases, with or without a drug offense conviction. Here’s How We Did This ProPublica and the Tribune examined nearly 8,400 cases over a decade that went to the Army’s general court-martial and special court-martial, which are sometimes likened to felony and misdemeanor courts, respectively, in the civilian system. A case was considered to have pretrial confinement if the soldier was held or given credit for at least one day in confinement. We analyzed the rate of pretrial confinement for the 25 offenses most frequently referred to courts-martial, including sexual assault, drug crimes, physical assault, larceny and being AWOL. Never miss the most important reporting from ProPublica’s newsroom. Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter. ProPublica and the Tribune spoke with military law experts and individuals familiar with the way Army records are maintained to inform our analysis and review our findings. Experts provided guidance on the accuracy of data fields, informed our approach to standardize charges and helped to vet our findings. Over time, the military has changed how it charges some offenses. For our analysis, older charges were standardized to the most recent edition of the Manual for Courts-Martial, which guides trial proceedings. We did this by looking at the description of the offense and articles the case was charged under in the Uniform Code of Military Justice at the time an alleged offense took place. (Our analysis focuses on cases that went to courts-martial in the past decade, but a handful of those cases used charges from older editions of the manual.) For example, the military’s criminal laws used to group certain consensual and nonconsensual sexual acts under the same article when charging soldiers. We aligned these rape and sexual assault charges with the recent edition of the manual and did not count charges related to consensual acts as assault. We analyzed sexual assault offenses by looking at cases with charges of either sexual assault of an adult or of a child. Cases with a murder or sexual assault charge were grouped only with their most serious offense. Put another way, if a soldier’s case included both murder and sexual assault charges, our analysis of pretrial confinement grouped it with murder charges, not with sexual assault offenses. And cases that included sexual assault offenses and more minor charges were grouped only with sexual assault. If a case did not include one of those more serious offenses but had multiple charges, we analyzed pretrial confinement for each charge. For example, if a case included larceny and drug use, it was grouped with the larceny offense and the drug offense cases. This was necessary because beyond murder, homicide and sexual assault, there is not a clear way to rank the roughly 600 offenses by severity. We also looked at pretrial confinement by trial location. For about 1% of cases, we corrected the trial location because it was entered imprecisely. We found that the rate of pretrial confinement varied greatly by location. For sexual assault cases, it ranged from just under 4% at Fort Sill in Oklahoma to about 19% at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. We looked at U.S. installations that tried or arraigned at least 20 sexual assault cases and 20 cases of other types, excluding murder. At 20 of the 29 installations, sexual assault cases had a lower rate of pretrial confinement than other cases that were tried or arraigned. Pretrial Confinement Is Used Less Frequently in Sexual Assault Cases The percentage of sexual assault cases that included pretrial confinement was lower than other types of cases at most Army posts. Shown are domestic posts that tried or arraigned at least 20 sexual assault and 20 other types of cases in the past decade. Note: Numbers include Army general court-martial and special court-martial cases. “Other cases” exclude those with murder charges. Among these 29 posts, the number of cases tried or arraigned varied, ranging from just over 40 to more than 800. The median installation had 66 sexual assault cases and 83 other cases. Source: U.S. Army Court-Martial Information System. (Ren Larson/ProPublica and The Texas Tribune) We Will Continue to Investigate Military Justice The database is expansive, with trial records from five continents and cases going back to the 1980s. But it has noteworthy limitations. Military regulations require commanders to consider if lesser restrictions (like requiring regular check-ins) are insufficient before placing a soldier in pretrial confinement. For this story, we could not assess whether individuals received or followed restrictions before confinement because this information was not reliably recorded in the database. Of cases that had pretrial confinement, only 7% noted pretrial restrictions. Our review of case documents revealed instances where soldiers were subject to pretrial restrictions that were not recorded in the database. We also know that some types of cases are not captured in the database, including cases where a soldier withdrew from military service ahead of arraignment or was punished outside of court. According to the most recent report to Congress on military justice, the Army used nonjudicial punishment in more than 25,000 cases in the past fiscal year. During that time, only about 700 people were arraigned in the branch’s highest trial courts. We know other offenses are never reported at all. A 2020 Department of Defense report on sexual assault in the military estimates that for every service member who reports a sexual assault, at least two more do not. ProPublica and the Tribune will continue to investigate the military justice system, which regulates the conduct of more than 1.3 million active-duty service members. Evidence from trials, nonjudicial punishment and administrative actions are essential to our investigations. Your story is important to us. Help ProPublica and The Texas Tribune Report on the Military Justice System Texas Tribune data editor Chris Essig reviewed the analysis.
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by Vianna Davila, Ren Larson, Lexi Churchill and Jessica Priest, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, and Adriana Gallardo, ProPublica Military investigations can be opaque. The people involved may be the only witnesses to how cases move or stall. An investigation by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune into pretrial confinement, an aspect of the military justice system that allows commanders to detain service members ahead of trial, showed that Army soldiers accused of sexual assault are less than half as likely to be placed in pretrial confinement as those accused of offenses like drug use and distribution, disobeying an officer or damaging nonmilitary property. Our news organizations plan to continue examining the military justice system, which handles more than 1,000 cases across all branches annually. Charges in those cases range from disobeying an officer to murder. We also want to learn more about how the military handles cases that do not make it to courts-martial and how commanders assign nonjudicial punishments. To do this, we’d like to hear from service members, former service members and families about how the military justice system operates, including how it investigates allegations of sexual assault, domestic violence, drug use as well as noncombat deaths. We are also interested in how military justice intersects with the civilian justice system. As we embark on this effort, we want to make sure we’re asking the right questions. We hope our work can prevent future harm. To that end, we hope to learn from and speak with military support staff and current and former service members, along with the families of both groups. In particular, we would like to hear from people who have experience at military bases in Texas. Tell Us Your Story We will read everything you share and keep you updated on our progress. OUR COMMITMENT TO YOUR PRIVACY: We appreciate you sharing your story and we take your privacy seriously. We are gathering these stories for the purposes of our reporting and will contact you if we wish to publish any part of your story. About Us: ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force. We dig deep into important issues, shining a light on abuses of power and betrayals of public trust — and we stick with those issues as long as it takes to hold power to account. The Texas Tribune is the only member-supported, digital-first, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. Some of Our Organizations’ Previous Reporting on the Military: Disaster in the Pacific An investigation into what went wrong in America’s 7th Fleet after a series of deadly naval accidents in the Pacific. Deplorable conditions, unclear mission: Texas National Guard Troops call rushed border operation a disaster Some Guard members say a massive mobilization, which would normally take months to plan, set back their income, education and well-being. Reliving Agent Orange For decades, Vietnam veterans suspected that the chemical mixture harmed their health and that of their children. But the Veterans Affairs agency hadn’t studied its own data for clues. ProPublica and The Virginian-Pilot investigated the mixture’s effects and military families’ fight for benefits.
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by Mark Olalde and Maya Miller, video by Mauricio Rodríguez Pons and Ed Ou, photography by Ed Ou ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. This piece was originally published in The Weekly Dispatch, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country. Sign up for it here. Join us Aug. 16 for a live virtual event, “New Mexico’s ‘Death Map’: Uranium and Nuclear Energy in the U.S.” The “death map” tells the story of decades of sickness in the small northwest New Mexico communities of Murray Acres and Broadview Acres. Turquoise arrows point to homes where residents had thyroid disease, dark blue arrows mark cases of breast cancer, and yellow arrows mean cancer claimed a life. Neighbors built the map a decade ago after watching relatives and friends fall ill and die. Dominating the top right corner of the map, less than half a mile from the cluster of colorful arrows, sits what residents believe is the cause of their sickness: 22.2 million tons of uranium waste left over from milling ore to supply power plants and nuclear bombs. Neighbors created the “death map” to highlight cancer cases in New Mexico’s Murray Acres and Broadview Acres communities. (Image courtesy of Candace Head-Dylla. Graphic composition by Mauricio Rodriguez Pons/ProPublica) “We were sacrificed a long time ago,” said Candace Head-Dylla, who created the death map with her mother after Head-Dylla had her thyroid removed and her mother developed breast cancer. Research has linked both types of illnesses to uranium exposure. Beginning in 1958, a uranium mill owned by Homestake Mining Company of California processed and refined ore mined nearby. The waste it left behind leaked uranium and selenium into groundwater and released the cancer-causing gas radon into the air. State and federal regulators knew the mill was polluting groundwater almost immediately after it started operating, but years passed before they informed residents and demanded fixes. Watch video Candace Head-Dylla was one of the first neighbors to leave Murray Acres because of the contamination. The contamination continued to spread even after the mill closed in 1990. The failures at Homestake are emblematic of the toxic legacy of the American uranium industry, one that has been well-documented from its boom during the Cold War until falling uranium prices and concerns over the dangers of nuclear power decimated the industry in the 1980s. Uranium mining and milling left a trail of contamination and suffering, from miners who died of lung cancer while the federal government kept the risks secret to the largest radioactive spill in the country’s history. But for four decades, the management of more than 250 million tons of radioactive uranium mill waste has been largely overlooked, continuing to pose a public health threat. ProPublica found that regulators have failed to hold companies to account when they missed cleanup targets and accepted incorrect forecasts that pollution wouldn’t spread. The federal government will eventually assume responsibility for the more than 50 defunct mills that generated this waste. At Homestake, which was among the largest mills, the company is bulldozing a community in order to walk away. Interviews with dozens of residents, along with radon testing and thousands of pages of company and government records, reveal a community sacrificed to build the nation's nuclear arsenal and atomic energy industry. Time and again, Homestake and government agencies promised to clean up the area. Time and again, they missed their deadlines while further spreading pollution in the communities. In the 1980s, Homestake promised residents groundwater would be cleaned within a decade, locals told the Environmental Protection Agency and ProPublica. After missing that target, the company told regulators it would complete the job around 2006, then by 2013. In 2014, an EPA report confirmed the site posed an unacceptable cancer risk and identified radon as the greatest threat to residents’ health. Still, the cleanup target date continued shifting, to 2017, then 2022. Rather than finish the cleanup, Homestake’s current owner, the Toronto-based mining giant Barrick Gold, is now preparing to ask the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the independent federal agency that oversees the cleanup of uranium mills, for permission to demolish its groundwater treatment systems and hand the site and remaining waste over to the U.S. Department of Energy to monitor and maintain forever. Uranium waste piles are the main source of contamination at the Homestake facility. (Video by Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/ProPublica) Watch video ➜ Uranium waste piles are the main source of contamination at the Homestake facility. (Video by Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/ProPublica) Watch video ➜ Before it can transfer the site to the Department of Energy, Homestake must prove that the contamination, which exceeds federal safety levels, won’t pose a risk to nearby residents or taint the drinking water of communities downstream. Part of Homestake’s strategy: buy out nearby residents and demolish their homes. Local real estate agents and residents say the company’s offers do not account for the region’s skyrocketing housing costs, pushing some who accept them back into debt in order to buy a new home. Those who do sell are required to sign agreements to refrain from disparaging Homestake and absolve the company of liability, even though illnesses caused by exposure to radioactive waste can take decades to manifest. Watch video As a nurse, Elaine Borchert saw many uranium miners suffer serious illnesses. Property records reveal the company had, by the end of 2021, purchased 574 parcels covering 14,425 acres around the mill site. This April, Homestake staff indicated they had 123 properties left to buy. One resident said the area was quickly becoming a “ghost town.” Even after the community is gone, more than 15,000 people who live nearby, many of them Indigenous, will continue to rely on water threatened by Homestake’s pollution. The company said it has produced models showing that its waste won't imperil the region's water if it walks away. The NRC says it will only grant a groundwater cleanup exemption if that’s the case. But while Homestake and other mining companies have polluted the region, it’s been the NRC and various other agencies that stood by as it happened. ProPublica found the NRC has issued exemptions from groundwater cleanup standards to uranium mills around the country, only to see pollution continue to spread. This has occurred as climate change hammers the West, making water ever scarcer. “Groundwater moves. Groundwater doesn’t care about regulations,” said Earle Dixon, a hydrogeologist who reviewed the government’s oversight of uranium cleanup and pollution around Homestake for the New Mexico Environment Department and the EPA. Dixon and other researchers predict contamination at Homestake will likely spread if cleanup ends. The company has denied that its waste caused residents’ illnesses, and judges ruled in Homestake’s favor in a case residents filed in 2004 alleging the site caused cancer. Doctors testified that the pollution was a substantial factor contributing to residents’ cancers, but tying particular cases to a single source requires communitywide blood, urine and other testing, which hadn’t been done. “We are proud of our work done in remediating the Homestake Uranium Mill site,” Patrick Malone, Homestake's president, said in a letter responding to questions from ProPublica. He said Homestake was entering the final stages of cleanup because “the site is at a point where it is not technically feasible to provide additional, sustainable improvements to water quality.” David McIntyre, an NRC spokesperson, attributed cleanup delays to the area’s complex groundwater system. “We understand and share the concern that remediation is taking so long,” McIntyre said, adding that the agency’s priority is to protect public and environmental health rather than meet particular deadlines. The EPA has oversight of the former mill’s cleanup under its Superfund program that aims to clean the country’s most toxic land. The EPA regional office did not respond to questions. Larry Carver has lived in Murray Acres for the majority of his life. He has no plans to move. (Ed Ou for ProPublica) Larry Carver has implored an endless stream of regulators to take action since his family moved to Murray Acres in 1964, and neighbors defer to him to tell the community’s story. The 83-year-old leaned against his Chevrolet pickup on a blustery spring morning, peering from beneath a baseball cap at Homestake’s 10-story pile of waste. He lamented that the community would be sacrificed so uranium waste could remain. For Carver, arrows on a map don’t tell the full story of uranium’s impact. His wife’s aunt and uncle owned the home closest to the waste piles. Her aunt died of liver cancer when she was 66 years old, and her son, who grew up playing in unfenced waste ponds, died of colon cancer when he was 55 years old. Now, Carver and his wife both have spots on their lungs, with hers recently requiring radiation treatment. “All the houses are going to be gone. The wells are being plugged. The septic systems are being torn up,” Carver said. “There will be nothing.” Homestake Has Bought More Than 14,000 Acres Surrounding the Mill Larry Carver, who has lived in his home since 1970, has refused to sell his property to the company. Graphic by Lucas Waldron/ProPublica. Source: Satellite imagery from NAIP; parcel data obtained from the Cibola County assessor. Watch video ➜ “A Long Time to Keep the Secret” Saturday, April 26, 1958, was a momentous day in the towns of Grants and Milan, New Mexico. (Images courtesy of the Cibola County History Museum. Graphic composition by Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/ProPublica) Full-page newspaper ads announced the opening of Homestake’s new uranium mill. A military flyover kicked off the festivities, a high school band played, and the New Mexico secretary of state unveiled a plaque commemorating the occasion. An estimated 6,000 people, nearly three times Grants’ population at the beginning of that decade, toured the mill, the local newspaper, the Grants Beacon, reported. Grants would be the Carrot Capital of America no more. It was running headlong into the Atomic Age. But the celebration was short-lived: Less than a year and a half after operations began, state and federal regulators, with the company’s help, began investigating whether contaminants were leaking from Homestake’s waste. Homestake opened in 1958, drawing workers from across the country to the towns of Grants and Milan. Image ​​courtesy of the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources. (Graphic composition by Mauricio Rodríguez/ProPublica) ProPublica found that, as with most uranium mills in the U.S., Homestake built no liner between the earth and the sandy waste left over from milling, known as tailings. This happened even though an engineer with the New Mexico Department of Health warned the company only weeks after the mill opened that it needed to at least compact the soil underneath its waste to prevent leaks. Without a liner, pollution seeped into aquifers that supplied drinking water. In 1961, the same engineer wrote that groundwater samples showed radium 226, a radioactive and cancer-causing element, at levels as much as 31 times higher than naturally occur in the area, indicating “definite pollution of the shallow ground water table by the uranium mill tailings’ ponds.” A federal report a year later identified even higher levels of radium 226 in groundwater. Residents drank that water, fed it to livestock and applied it to crops. They weren’t told of the issue or supplied with bottled water until the mid-1970s, neighbors said. “A long time to keep the secret,” Carver said. The EPA in the 1970s found elevated levels of selenium, which can damage the nervous system at high doses. Homestake disputes what levels of contaminants are attributable to the mill versus other sources, a question regulators are currently studying. The company confirmed in 1976 that its waste had created a plume of contamination in the groundwater but waited another decade to connect residents to an uncontaminated water system, only doing so after pressure from the EPA. Seventeen years after pollution was first detected, Homestake began a series of ultimately unsuccessful attempts to clean the groundwater. The company pumped contaminated water out of aquifers and evaporated it aboveground, treated it in filtration systems and dumped hundreds of millions of gallons of clean water on the waste to flush uranium out of the pile, collecting the newly contaminated water for disposal. Homestake was still left with more polluted water than it could process, so the company irrigated crops, applying more than 3.1 billion gallons to farmland in the subdivisions. As a result, the topsoil contained elevated levels of uranium and selenium. The state and the NRC halted the practice, which the NRC said the company had done without its approval. (Video by Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/ProPublica) Watch video ➜ Much of the now-fallow farmland has turned to dust that’s an incessant headache for residents. Windstorms whip it up, piling it on roadways and pushing it through the slightest cracks in homes. Regulators have issued dozens of violation notices to the company, including for failing to fence off contaminated land and for exposing workers to high uranium levels without alerting them. At the state level, New Mexico regulators waited until 2009, 49 years after first finding water pollution, to issue a formal warning that groundwater included substances that cause cancer and birth defects. They waited another nine years before barring people from drilling new or replacement wells in aquifers near the cleanup effort, but the order did not require existing wells to be plugged. A spokesperson for the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer said authorities had issued a “relatively small” number of domestic or livestock well permits in the contaminated area. That number, the spokesperson said, is 122. Uranium exposure is pervasive in this part of the world. Miners who worked before 1971, when the government was the sole purchaser of uranium, are eligible for compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. In June, President Joe Biden signed a bill postponing its expiration for two years. But miners who worked in the industry after other uranium buyers entered the market, as well as residents of communities that were impacted by uranium extraction and processing, like those next to Homestake, still receive no benefits. Spearheaded by the New Mexican delegation, bills pending before Congress would expand the legislation to include more miners and appropriate funds to study the health impacts of living near these sites. Linda Evers is waiting on those reforms. She worked in the area’s mines and mills, including Homestake, after the 1971 cutoff. She stayed on the job through two pregnancies, removing trash from the ore until hours before she gave birth to her son. Both her children have birth defects, and she now lives with kidney failure, cysts on her organs and a degenerative bone disease. (Video by Ed Ou for ProPublica) Watch video ➜ “You worked in a never-ending dirt storm,” Evers remembered. “You were supplied a paper mask that was worthless in about 20 minutes.” She also dealt with contamination at home. For more than 15 years, Evers lived across the street from Homestake. Her well water was so foul it stunted the plants in her garden, she said. Evers eventually accepted the company’s buyout offer and moved to a new home farther from the waste. A half-built greenhouse sits in her former backyard, her once-lively home stripped of its porch and part of the roof. “I’m Just Left on the Ground to Seep” Down the road, John Boomer doesn’t know where he’ll go if he sells to Homestake. An artist who paints with a Southwestern palette of sand and soil, he lives in an art studio and home he shares with his partner, Maggie Billiman, a member of the Navajo Nation and fellow artist. Watch video The music of artist John Boomer, who lives near the waste, tells the story of the decline of the uranium industry in Grants, New Mexico. The consequences of uranium production are constantly on the couple’s minds. More than 500 abandoned uranium mines pockmark the Navajo Nation, and Billiman’s father, a Navajo Code Talker in World War II, died of stomach cancer, an illness associated with downwind exposure to nuclear tests. Boomer has written the story of uranium into lyrics, singing about the harm caused by the waste that was left behind. Those corporate little creeps Will cause many a widow to cry and weep While I’m just left on the ground to seep Homestake is working on requests to both the NRC and the EPA for groundwater cleanup waivers, arguing it’s done all it can to clean up the area. The company excavated soil from more than 3,500 acres where wind had carried contaminants off-site. Homestake also collected about 1.3 million pounds of uranium and 75,000 pounds of selenium by treating or evaporating more than 10 billion gallons of groundwater, according to company data. Other uranium mines and mills polluted the area’s main drinking water aquifer upstream of Homestake. Residents worry what will happen to contamination from those sites and from Homestake when the company halts its water treatment. Homestake says it has built a hydrological model that shows the former mill’s contamination will stay close to the site. (The model won’t be released until the company files its formal application for cleanup exemptions, likely in August.) Watch video ➜ Despite Homestake's remediation, residents of surrounding communities continue to be exposed to radiation from the piles. (Video by Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/ProPublica) Watch video ➜ But researchers who have studied the hydrology around Homestake said the contamination will head downstream. “Would it keep on moving? Yes, that’s nature,” said Dixon, the hydrogeologist. The real question, he said, one that modeling can’t answer, is how quickly the pollution will migrate. ProPublica identified sites across the West where regulators approved waivers based on modeling, only to later discover the predictions were flawed. At a site in Wyoming called Bear Creek, the NRC found concentrations of uranium in groundwater more than 10 times higher than a model had predicted. At a site along the banks of the Colorado River, in Rifle, Colorado, the NRC approved a cleanup plan based on groundwater modeling that predicted uranium would fall to safe levels within 10 years. Monitoring showed concentrations remained dangerously high about a decade later, and new modeling predicted uranium levels wouldn't reach safe levels for more than a century. There’s also the cleanup of another Wyoming mill named Split Rock, which Homestake has compared its site to as it seeks a cleanup exemption. Regulators granted a waiver in 2006 after the responsible company presented a model showing contamination wouldn’t reach downstream wells for 1,000 years. “The recent data, however, have shown results that are not consistent with the model predictions,” the NRC wrote seven years later. Nitrates, which are sometimes used in the uranium refining process, were measured in a downstream monitoring well at more than four times approved limits. McIntyre, the NRC spokesperson, said that in those cases, “NRC staff reviewed groundwater monitoring results and verified that the levels were and remain protective of public health and safety,” adding that the agency requires models used in waiver requests be conservative in their predictions. Leaders of communities downstream from Homestake, including the Pueblo of Acoma, fear that wishful thinking could allow pollution from the waste to taint their water. The Acoma reservation, about 20 miles from Homestake’s tailings, has been continuously inhabited since before 1200. Its residents use groundwater for drinking and surface water for irrigating alfalfa and corn, but Donna Martinez, program coordinator for the pueblo’s Environment Department, said the pueblo government can’t afford to do as much air and water monitoring as staff would like. “There are always going to be concerns with the plumes,” Martinez said. Most days, Billiman contemplates this “poison” and whether she and Boomer might move away from it as she prays to Mother Earth and Father Sky toward Mount Taylor, one of the four sacred Diné peaks, which rises just east of the subdivisions. “I tell her, gosh, we did this to you. I’m sorry,” Billiman said. “Then, we just say ‘hózho náhásdlii, hózho náhásdlii’ four times.” “All will be beautiful again,” Boomer roughly translated. Watch video John Boomer and Maggie Billiman pray to the sacred mountain of Mount Taylor. Day after day, they apologize to nature for the damage caused by the uranium industry. As they prayed one recent morning, the dawn light tumbled over the mountain, illuminating the nearby Haystack Mountain, where a Diné man named Paddy Martinez discovered economically recoverable uranium in 1950 and ignited the region’s mining boom. The light cascaded over Homestake’s tailings piles, across the valley and onto the five subdivisions. “Doing It Right… …Right to the End” The smell of pizza wafted through a Village of Milan government building down the road from the mill site, as about 20 locals trickled in to meet with Homestake one April evening. They caught up while JoAnne Martinez, a community liaison for Homestake, beseeched them to tuck into the food she had set out. A map taped to the wall showed the location of groundwater contamination, and a stack of glossy booklets celebrated the company’s reclamation project with the slogan: “Doing it right… …Right to the end.” Tensions rose when residents spoke about the company’s offers to buy their properties. Homestake, whose parent company Barrick had nearly $12 billion in revenue last year, pays market value based on past sales prices of comparable properties, rather than the cost to replace what residents have, which is ballooning rapidly amid the housing crunch. Over the past five years, prices for residential properties around New Mexico have increased about 59%, while they’ve spent about half as long on the market, according to data from real estate companies Zillow and Redfin, respectively. Neighbors are concerned by what they deem to be low offers from Homestake to buy their properties. (Mark Olalde/ProPublica) In the meeting, residents explained what that trend, coupled with Homestake’s offers, has meant for their own housing searches. “It’s like you spit on me,” one resident said of the company’s proposal to buy the property where she has lived for 61 years. Another neighbor told ProPublica she had asked a builder to assess the cost of constructing a nearly identical home and got an estimate $60,000 higher than what Homestake offered. But Homestake didn’t budge. Neighbors have worried about Homestake’s impact on their property value for decades. They filed a class-action lawsuit against the company in 1983 for alleged property damages, later settling the case for what they deemed to be small payouts. In exchange, those residents agreed to release the company from further liability. More recently, the company has rejected residents’ requests to move the waste to a lined disposal cell, which could prevent additional groundwater contamination and radon exposure and possibly allow them to stay in their homes. So far, cleanup has cost more than $230 million, including about $103 million that came from taxpayers through the Department of Energy. Homestake estimates it could cost as much as $2 billion more to move the entire pile. Buying out five subdivisions is the cheaper option. (Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/ProPublica) Homestake argues capping the site and walking away is safer, citing reports that conclude moving the pile would lead to at least one workplace traffic-related death and a high likelihood of workers and residents developing cancer. The reports used calculations from the Department of Energy, which is moving 16 million tons of uranium waste off of a site in Moab, Utah. The department’s report found it posed far less risk to workers than later estimates for Homestake. Department of Energy staff said they could not comment on why there are such different risks for the Homestake and Moab sites. As more neighbors at the meeting demurred about the company’s offers, Orson Tingey, a land manager for Homestake and Barrick, explained that the company has continued to offer the same rates for properties as it did before the COVID-19 pandemic to remain consistent. “We know that doesn’t necessarily work for everybody,” he said. “I Don’t Even Know How You Fight It” Jackie Langford set a radon detector on her kitchen table and shooed away her inquisitive 12-year-old, who was more interested in talking uranium policy than finishing his homework. She recalled when her family moved in a decade ago for her husband’s job. No one mentioned the risks posed by Homestake’s tailings pile, which looms less than a mile away. Jackie Langford in her house near the mill. No one alerted her about the radon risks in the area before she moved in. (Ed Ou for ProPublica) Now, as a registered nurse tending to former uranium miners, Langford knows too much about the dangers. When it’s inhaled, radon breaks down in the lungs, releasing bursts of radiation that can damage tissue and cause cancer. Her patients have respiratory issues as well as lung cancer. They lose their breath simply lifting themselves out of a chair. Radon, the radioactive gas formed as uranium decays, poses Homestake’s main cancer threat to residents, according to the EPA’s 2014 study. It is more concentrated in outdoor air near Homestake than in a nearby community with a former uranium mill that has fully covered its waste. It hasn’t helped that the company has struggled to control radon emanating from its larger waste pile, exceeding federal safety standards each of the last six years, according to company readings reported to the NRC. This year, Homestake requested permission to add a new cover to the pile to reduce radon emissions, which the NRC is now reviewing. A radon test kit in a resident’s home. (Ed Ou for ProPublica) During the pandemic Langford and her family began thinking more about Homestake’s possible impact on their respiratory health, driving them to buy a radon detector. The gas can seep into buildings through cracks in foundations. Indoor radon exposure is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, behind smoking. When Langford measured levels in her home, the radon detector registered 4 picocuries per liter and rose as high as 7 pCi/L, she said — levels high enough that the EPA recommends remediation. She brought her concerns to Homestake, but “for the longest time, they wouldn’t talk to me,” she said. The company eventually connected her with one of their consultants, who told her not to worry because his own home tested above 4 pCi/L and the results did not concern him. He also told Langford, as well as ProPublica, that he is not a radon expert and suggested she complete a longer-term radon test and contact people better versed on the topic. In 2010, before Langford moved in, EPA contractors placed radon detectors in homes near Homestake and found unsafe radon levels in a dozen homes. While independent researchers suggested the uranium waste could be a source of indoor radon, the EPA has not determined that is the case, instead identifying naturally occurring gas seeping from the soil. The agency required Homestake to fund radon mitigation in homes but has not done any more radon testing or mitigation since. “Best practice would be retesting at least every other year to assure things have not gotten worse,” said Michael Murphy, who is retired from the EPA’s indoor air quality team. ProPublica spoke with eight households the EPA monitored, and all said they were never retested or advised to retest on their own. An EPA staffer told one resident the agency had no plans to conduct follow-up studies. John Boomer and Elaine Borchert measured radon levels in their homes. (Ed Ou for ProPublica) Because the EPA did not return to test, ProPublica did, placing certified indoor radon kits in nine area households. Three returned readings that exceeded the EPA’s threshold for mitigation, while a fourth registered above the World Health Organization’s lower suggested mitigation level. Langford’s tests averaged 6.95 pCi/L. She immediately thought about her son. Children are more vulnerable to radon. Jackie Langford’s test results (Photo by Ed Ou for ProPublica. Graphic composition by Mauricio Rodríguez Pons/ProPublica.) Early this spring, Homestake approached Langford and her husband with an offer to purchase their home. They wavered. The family loved the area and knew neighbors who had sold, only to find it impossible to buy a similar property elsewhere. “I don’t think that’s fair,” Langford said, “but at this point I don’t even know how you fight it.” With the results from their radon testing front of mind, Langford’s husband signed Homestake’s buyout deal. The family had made a decision. Their health was too important to remain in their home. How We Reported the Story Methodology: To report on the Homestake uranium mill’s impact on the area, ProPublica worked with residents to crowdsource indoor radon levels, home purchasing contracts and health-related documents. Radon Testing: Indoor radon levels were collected using Air Chek 3- to 7-day radon test kits placed in nine houses in Milan and Grants, New Mexico. Air Chek’s devices and laboratories are included on the National Radon Proficiency Program’s approved device and analysis provider list. Radon levels vary day to day and season to season, so ProPublica followed EPA recommendations to conduct two sequential short-term tests. A ProPublica reporter helped install the first test at each house to ensure the testing locations adhered to EPA testing protocols. After about five days, residents took down each test and sent the kits to Air Chek’s laboratory. Residents immediately placed the second Air Chek 3- to 7-day test in the same location. About five days later, residents shipped the second test to the lab. We averaged the results of the two tests to obtain an estimated indoor radon level for each house. Three households were only able to obtain one result. In one case, this was because a test was not properly sealed and could not be analyzed; in another, a test had a manufacturing defect; due to a shipping delay the third arrived at the laboratory beyond the necessary time frame for testing. For these three households, we relied on the readings from one test. Each of the households that received only one test showed levels below the EPA and World Health Organization thresholds for radon mitigation. Before placing the tests, we interviewed seven professionals with radon testing expertise and reviewed the EPA and American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists’ testing guidelines. These independent experts reviewed ProPublica’s methodology and provided feedback. After testing, ProPublica presented the results to the same experts. We also discussed the results with residents of each household that hosted tests. Outreach Methodology: To interview as many households living near the mill site as possible, we mirrored community engagement efforts conducted by federal and state authorities during previous environmental health studies. This included: publishing advertisements in the Cibola Citizen and Gallup Independent sending letters to every household in the area following up with phone calls and text messages to numbers associated with every area household door-knocking at households that did not respond to the ads, letters and phone calls Help Us Report on Uranium Mining, Milling and Enrichment Alex Mierjeski and Mollie Simon contributed research.
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[l] at 8/8/22 2:59am
by Maya Miller, Graphics by Mauricio Rodríguez Pons and Ed Ou ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive our stories in your inbox every week. About five billion years ago, stars merged and exploded, creating uranium that eventually became embedded in the Earth. As uranium decays as part of a natural process, it emits radon, a radioactive gas. This gas can seep into homes and other buildings through pipes and cracks in foundations. If present in high enough concentrations, the gas and its byproducts can damage lung tissue and cause lung cancer. This guide will explore: Why is radon a public health threat? How do I know if I’m at risk from radon? What is radon testing? How can I get a radon test? What level of radon is unsafe? How do I get rid of radon? Where can I get more information on radon? How do I share tips, questions and experiences with reporters? Radon is prevalent across the country, but particularly in areas with large uranium deposits. The Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Geological Survey identified areas where it is a greater concern. (See if you live in one of these areas by checking your state map.) We learned about radon risks while reporting on the lingering health threats from the three-decade uranium mining boom in the United States that peaked during the Cold War. It quickly became apparent that many people are unaware of risks from radon and struggle to find accurate information on the radioactive gas. (Mauricio Rodríguez / ProPublica) Watch video ➜ Take Jackie Langford. When she moved into a home near a former uranium processing site, no one alerted her to the dangers of radon. Many of her neighbors had also been surprised to learn of the risks. That’s partly because there are no federal laws requiring developers and property owners to disclose information about the presence of the cancer-causing gas, regularly test for radon or construct buildings in ways that prevent the gas from seeping into homes. A radon test kit hangs in Jackie Langford’s home in Milan, New Mexico. (Ed Ou for ProPublica) Langford took steps to protect herself that others can take, too. To understand these steps, we spoke with state radon officials, environmental scientists and health specialists, as well as residents who live with varying radon levels in their homes. We also dug into global health reports and federal data. Why is radon a public health threat? Breathing in radon can be dangerous. Its radioactive particles decay in the lungs, releasing small bursts of radiation. Research shows this can damage lung tissue and cause lung cancer. In the U.S., exposure to indoor radon accounts for 7,000 to 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year, according to estimates by the EPA. Only cigarettes cause more annual lung cancer deaths. In Utah, which recently passed a law to assess prevention opportunities, researchers estimated the state had 5,826 radon-related lung cancer fatalities over a 50-year span — or more than 100 deaths each year. How do I know if I’m at risk from radon? The most effective way to learn the risk is to test for the gas (more on that below). You may also be entitled to information from the property’s current or previous owners. In 36 states, property owners have a legal obligation to disclose radon testing results or sources of radon emissions to homebuyers. The situation is murkier for renters: Only four states require landlords to disclose past radon levels to tenants, according to a database assembled by Temple University’s Center for Public Health Law Research. You can learn about your state’s radon laws by contacting your state radon office. What is radon testing? You can measure radon levels indoors using small devices and test kits, similar to smoke detectors. There are two main approaches: long-term and short-term. Since indoor radon levels are tied to airflow, levels can fluctuate day to day and by season. This makes long-term testing, which takes between 90 and 365 days, the most accurate method. If you are interested in long-term testing, you can check out this list of long-term and continuous radon devices approved by the National Radon Proficiency Program. Your state radon office should also have information and equipment for long-term testing. Short-term tests are a sound alternative, especially if you need results quickly. These tests take anywhere between two and 90 days. Here are best practices for short-term tests: Two tests are better than one. Experts recommend using two short-term tests before deciding whether to install a radon reduction system. Possible approaches are: Two tests, back-to-back. Put up one test and then, when it’s time to send it to the lab, put up a second test in the same spot. Make sure you are using the same test model. Average the two results to get a better sense of the radon levels in the home or building. Two tests, side-by-side at the same time. You can put up two test kits (again, make sure they are the same model) four inches apart. This method helps determine the accuracy of the tests and is often used in real estate transactions since it takes the least amount of time. Radon experts told us they consistently use tests from Air Chek and Alpha Energy Laboratories and find they’re easy to use and accurate. Experts said to avoid tests that are not calibrated since these are far less accurate. Follow the instructions on the test kit as closely as possible. Each state has a radon program and many offer free radon testing kits. You can find the contact information for your state radon office here. Your state radon expert should also be able to answer any questions you have. The National Radon Program Services at Kansas State University has partnered with the EPA to offer discounted short-term radon test kits. How can I get a radon test? Each state has a radon program, and many offer free radon testing kits. You can find the contact information for your state radon office here. Your state radon expert should also be able to answer questions about setting up a test. You can also visit the website of the National Radon Program Services at Kansas State University, which has partnered with the EPA to offer discounted short-term radon test kits. How much radon is considered unsafe? The more radon someone breathes in over their lifetime, the more likely they are to develop lung cancer, according to the EPA. Radon amounts are determined by calculating the rate of radioactive decay in the air, measured in picocuries per liter of air (abbreviated pCi/L). Eleanor Divver, a radon coordinator with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, likens the cumulative risk of radon to the risk of smoking cigarettes. If a house has an average of 4 pCi/L of radon, breathing that air every day would be the equivalent of smoking between six and eight cigarettes daily, she said. Radon risk if you’ve never smoked (Mauricio Rodriguez Pons/ProPublica. Source: EPA) The EPA estimates that if 1,000 people who do not smoke are exposed to 4 pCi/L of radon over a lifetime of 70 years, about seven could develop lung cancer as a result. Children are generally more vulnerable because they breathe more frequently and are closer to the ground, where radon concentrations are higher. The risk also increases for smokers — at the 4 pCi/L radon level, about 62 additional people out of 1,000 could develop lung cancer. These estimates exceed the EPA’s threshold for acceptable cancer risk. The federal agency recommends households with an average of 4 pci/L of radon install mitigation systems to reduce radon levels. The World Health Organization suggests mitigation systems starting at 2.7 pCi/L of radon in the air. WHO’s recommendations are based on a review of research by 100 scientists from 30 countries. How do I get rid of radon? The strategy for lowering radon levels depends on how the radon is getting into the house and why the gas is becoming trapped there. To find the strategy that’s best for your residence, speak with a certified radon specialist. Here are some ways to find one: The National Radon Proficiency Program has a searchable database of certified radon mitigators. The National Radon Safety Board has its own searchable database of certified radon mitigators. Ask your state radon office for recommendations for certified radon mitigators. The cost to reduce radon levels often exceeds $1,500, according to experts. Few states assist with the cost. Your state radon office might have suggestions if you need to remediate your home but need financial assistance. Where can I get more information on radon? The EPA publishes a Citizen’s Guide to Radon and a website with information and resources. How do I share tips, questions and experiences with reporters? We want to hear from you if you have had experience with radon, and are especially interested in connecting if: You have done radon testing and want to report the results. You are concerned about the indoor radon levels in your space and want to test. You have worked with a government agency, nonprofit or private company dedicated to radon and have insights or experiences to share. To get in touch, email maya.miller@propublica.org or fill out the form below. We look forward to learning from you.
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[l] at 8/8/22 2:58am
by Maya Miller and Mark Olalde The American uranium industry boomed in the 1950s, pockmarking the West with mines and mills and leaving behind contamination that disproportionately impacted Native American land. Four decades ago, the industry collapsed, hit by high-profile nuclear accidents, changes in global markets and the advent of new uranium extraction methods. Now, ProPublica is working to better understand the process and impacts of transferring responsibility for long-term monitoring and maintenance of uranium mills to the federal government. We’re interested in learning about different agencies’ approaches to regulating as these handoffs take place and what it’s like to work at companies involved in these transitions. Hearing about your experiences will help us focus our coverage and hold the relevant institutions accountable. Please fill out this questionnaire if you have worked with any public agencies, consulting firms, tribes or companies involved in the uranium industry, or have been impacted by uranium because of where you live. The more people we hear from, the better we’ll be able to report on uranium.
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[l] at 8/5/22 4:00am
by Jesse Eisinger ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. Law professor Lev Menand has a new book out on that strange institution, the Federal Reserve, what it does and how its power and responsibility have grown over time. Menand is an associate professor at Columbia Law School specializing in finance and regulation. Before he joined the law school, he held various roles at the Treasury Department during the Obama administration and was an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, helping to oversee large lenders. I recently sat down with him to discuss the Fed, the economy, the capital markets, whether we are facing another financial crisis and why he thinks over-reliance on the Fed is bad for our economy and our democracy. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Thanks very much for joining me. Can you summarize the thesis of your book, “The Fed Unbound: Central Banking in a Time of Crisis”? The Federal Reserve is an organization created by Congress for a limited, very important purpose to do a difficult job, which is to manage the U.S. money supply. When you log on to a Bank of America or Citigroup account and you see a balance there, that’s the money that the Fed is managing. Those are not the same thing as green pieces of paper. And the Fed’s job is to ensure that you treat them the same, that you think of them the same. And that the amount of those Bank of America bucks is growing at a rate that is appropriate for the economy to put all of its resources to work, including all of its people. The thesis of the book is that monetary liberalization, deregulation of the banking system and a lot of choices made during the second half of the 20th century caused the Fed to become “unbound.” Basically, what you have is the rise of a “shadow banking” system. All these financial companies that aren’t under the Fed’s purview, they start creating money. The Fed doesn’t have the tools to manage them, and then they run into problems during economic downturns, and the Fed pulls out all the stops and tries to backstop them — bail them out. That’s the 2008 financial crisis. And that fundamental dynamic is still with us. Essentially what you’re saying is that this institution, which is about 100 years old, the Federal Reserve, was created to manage money so that when there was a financial crisis, the Fed would come in and lend to them and cushion that blow. But over time, the Fed’s mandate had grown and its power had grown and we’re trying to figure out why that happened and whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Is that fair enough? Fair enough. Following the Great Depression, the Fed was very successful. We didn’t have intermittent banking panics. Every time there was a recession, people didn’t run on banks. We thought that we had solved monetary instability and financial crises until 2008. And what was 2008? It was a run on shadow banks. A whole group of financial institutions had come along and started to do what banks do. They started to create deposits of their own called different things. And they were exposed to the same run dynamics that you saw in the 19th century before the Fed was created. And the Fed decided if we don’t come in and backstop this system, it will collapse. But it was never expected that this would be how the Fed [acted]. The Fed was not designed to stabilize the shadow banking system. Let’s just back up. You’ve given a preliminary definition of shadow banking, but walk us through it. These are not bank deposits that are backstopped by the federal government, by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Give us a really simple example. A money market fund is part of the shadow banking system, right? So it’s not like it’s an obscure financial system for the elite. Most middle-class Americans touch the shadow banking system. Yeah. So there are three major types of shadow banking that I talk about in the book. You mentioned one, that’s the one that ordinary Americans are most likely to have encountered. The other types are primarily wholesalers for businesses, not ordinary individuals, but basically what they all have in common is they are non-bank firms that do not have a bank charter that are trying to reproduce the bank business model. The Fed doesn’t have the same set of tools to ensure that the money market fund [and other shadow bank institutions aren’t] taking too many risks. The shadow banking system is huge, right? In 2007, which was the peak of the shadow banking system, a peak we will eventually return to if further reforms are not made, it’s estimated that there were about $15 trillion of shadow bank-issued money instruments against $7 or $8 trillion of bank deposits and less than $1 trillion of government-issued cash. In the aftermath, the shadow banking system got a lot smaller because we had a lot of major shadow banks fail like Lehman Brothers. And then over the last 10 to 15 years, it has grown again. So now we’re back where the banking system is much bigger. There’s $18 trillion of deposits. And the shadow banking system is probably around the same size, maybe slightly smaller. It’s very hard to estimate the size, well, because it’s in the shadows. You say that this is in the shadows, which is another way of saying it’s not fully regulated. So we had a financial crisis in 2008. You write that they essentially have two failures coming out of this. One is to not recognize the true nature of the crisis. They think of it as a 100-year flood rather than a fundamental aspect of structural fragility. And then the second thing is that we pass a sweeping financial reform, the Dodd-Frank act, that touches every corner of the financial system and yet is, I think your view would be, woefully inadequate. What does the Fed do right? What does the Fed do wrong? So a stable and, in fact, growing money supply is an absolutely critical precondition for the sorts of economies that we live in today. If the money supply shrinks rapidly, our entire economic structure falls apart. People owe each other money. And if the amount of money in circulation starts to shrink rapidly, because the entities that have issued it are failing, then debtors can’t pay back their debts and they start defaulting. That turns into a vicious cycle. You can think of the failure of banks a bit like the failure of power plants. If the Long Island Power Authority just shut down and stopped working, it would be very hard for any business on Long Island to continue to produce goods and services. The Fed and Congress ultimately stepped in to bail out and prevent the further collapse of this grid. Now that was necessary, otherwise we would have ended up in a great depression of the same scale or probably a larger, worse depression than in the ’30s. So the Fed’s hand in 2008 was more or less forced. If we wanted to continue to operate this economy, we were held hostage by the players that were providing the infrastructure upon which the economy was operating. Where things went wrong was a failure to grapple with the deep problems with continuing to have an economy in which the public and households and businesses are at the mercy of unregulated power plants that are able to basically profit off economic activity during good times, and then hold the entire society as it were hostage for public support during bad times. We ended up making some changes but not addressing that fundamental problem. Today we continue to have a dynamic where a very large financial sector is profiting off implicit and explicit public backstops and is fundamentally fragile in its design. The pandemic was exactly such a shock. The lesson that the Fed learned from 2008 was to offer even more public support for the financial sector, even faster. And in one respect that was successful. But the dynamics of that, the implications for all of the rest of us of having this government agency making $3 trillion available for a bunch of financial firms that aren’t operating in the public interest, this is deeply troubling. It’s a dynamic that will eventually lead to either the failure of our democracy or the failure of our economy. A dynamic leading to a failure of our democracy seems pretty dire and significant. I want to obviously explore that in a second and explore the implications of this, the quiet crash, the silent crash of March 2020. In some ways the Fed never stops bailing out the economy throughout that period from late 2008 through to March of 2020. I do think in critical respects, we are still living in a 2008 financial crisis world. The acute phase of that crisis ended in early 2009, but we have not recovered from the damage. The last 15 years are characterized by anemic growth, worsening inequality that is in part a byproduct of the Fed’s effort to juice economic growth, which disproportionately enriches asset owners. [We have] a financial sector that is not investing in expanding the productivity of the American economy. We didn’t actually use this period to invest in expanding capacity. And we continue to have a financial system that is fragile. By the time 2009 comes around, you have a financial system that is very weakened. Fed officials launch a program called quantitative easing. That’s initially targeted at the housing market. And so they go and buy hundreds of billions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities. “Quantitative easing” is this wonky phrase, but there are two things about it. One is the Fed is buying securities and it didn’t used to do that; it used to just move short-term interest rates up and down. And then the second thing is it’s buying assets to help certain sectors of the economy. It’s a dramatic change that’s happening here with the Fed, right? Yeah. Look, the Fed is operationally a bank. It’s supposed to be a bank just for banks. And it’s generally the way that it operated from the Second World War up to the 2008 crisis was to adjust the constraints on bank balance sheets. Then there are subsequent rounds of QE where the Fed buys Treasury securities, the federal government’s debt, in an effort to bring down longer-term interest rates in the economy and further juice economic activity. So there’s not sufficient fiscal stimulus and the economy is coming back very slowly. And the Fed has moved its interest rates down to zero so that the banks can expand their balance sheets, but they’re not expanding their balance sheets at a rate sufficient to allow the economy to rebound. The mechanism by which QE works is to increase asset prices. So you have a booming stock market, a booming government debt market, a booming housing market, even though you have an economy, an underlying economy that is still weaker than it was before the 2008 crisis. It’s a troubling way in my view to do economic policy. It might be the ninth-best approach. It’s making one group of people who are already very well off even more well off. It is a very unhealthy place for society to be. My friend, Chris Leonard, has written a book called “The Lords of Easy Money” about how the Federal Reserve “broke the economy.” Here in this interregnum between crises, what you’re saying is that the Fed was flooding the markets with purchasing power that was stimulating the asset markets and it was flowing to the wealthiest people, asset holders already. And we got something that looked like bubbles too, right? We get the crypto markets, we get NFTs, we get SPACs. The Fed in some ways is trapped into this because governments around the world are not spending wisely. They’re not helping the Fed out. They’re not helping the economy. In fact, they’re counterproductive. They’re embracing austerity. Yeah. The failure of the fiscal authorities of legislatures in the United States and also in Europe to address economic weakness is a source of the pressure and the motivation on the Fed to experiment with massive asset purchases as an alternative approach to avoiding an even weaker economy. We need to recognize this was a very bad policy mix that we ended up in, to inject huge amounts of liquidity into the financial system as opposed to, say, writing people checks or helping keep people in their homes or investing in infrastructure the way that Chinese government does. There’s so many other ways to manage economic weakness. But if your approach is not to do any of those things and actually to restrict the amount of money available to governments and state and local governments to spend, and to cause layoffs of public-sector employment, if you’re not going to do any of those things and you just want to flush the financial system full of liquidity, one of the problems you’re going to have is that you’re going to get bubbles in financial markets. So let’s go back to March of 2020. It’s poorly understood. Because in some ways the government and the Fed have learned from this critique that you’re leveling. The Fed does a bunch of things it had never done before, even in the financial crisis of 2008. Yeah. In part the lesson they took from 2008 was never let things get so bad that we have a failure of a major firm like Lehman Brothers, because that’s a disaster. And so when things started to deteriorate in March of 2020, when there was just a run on the shadow banking system, just like there was in 2008, the Fed stepped in quickly. It expanded its own balance sheet enormously, very rapidly. It didn’t do anything like this in 2008. This was a shock-and-awe approach to suggest to anybody running on a shadow bank that there was no need to run, that the Fed could take all the assets onto its own balance sheet, that there wasn’t going to be a repeat of Lehman Brothers. With some encouragement from Congress, it also sets up facilities to lend to ordinary businesses and to state and local governments. But the actual dynamic, when you look at it carefully, is they’re getting breadcrumbs and these additional programs are helping to legitimize the much, much larger and fundamentally problematic lending programs for the financial sector. Our politics are calcified. Our political system is subject to numerous veto points. The Fed in contrast is a committee run by one guy, Jerome Powell. A defender of the Fed would say: “Look, they can act very quickly. Yes, it goes through the financial system, which helps financiers and asset holders and the wealthy disproportionately, but eventually it trickles down and saves the economy. Your criticism really is with the political system, not the Federal Reserve.” There is this dynamic in which the more the Federal Reserve tries to use its financial system-based tools to respond to economic problems, the more pressure it takes off the political system to produce legislative solutions that are more egalitarian and more effective at solving these same problems. A key predicate of this is our democracy doesn’t work, that our politics don’t work, that fundamentally legislators can’t make good policy, that we need to rely on a couple of unelected technocratic experts to make policy that most Americans don’t understand that benefits the financial sector disproportionately, and that’s the best we can do as a society and a polity. I reject the idea that’s the best we can do. We are dooming ourselves to very bad dynamics over time, a declining economy really, and potentially a declining society. To reinvigorate our economy and our society, we have to move beyond our reliance on central bank medicine and to revive a meaningful economic, legislative agenda and politics. And one thing that’s encouraging in this regard is that the last couple of years you’ve seen some of that. You’ve seen the legislature act in ways that it did not act between 2008 and 2020, reflecting some sense that mistakes were made during that period. Now we have a very interesting and troubling period because we have the Fed confronting something much more traditional. We have an overheated economy. What do you think about the Fed’s job right now? Is the Fed doing the right thing? Is this a product of the shadow banking systems frailty or is this completely separate? I think it’s important to recognize that the current inflationary dynamic is primarily a supply-side shock. The pandemic just scrambled the normal patterns of demand for goods and services, and we ended up with shortages in certain important goods and services, which caused prices to rise. Then we have spiking commodity and energy prices due to geopolitical conflict and also due to the pandemic in various ways. The driving factors of this inflationary dynamic are not loose financial conditions. Here again, we stand the risk of over-relying on the Fed to solve a set of problems that require action by the government through a variety of other tools. So it’s certainly the case that some amount of interest rate hiking is necessary. Interest rates were too low and should be hiked. But the big question is should they continue to be hiked to the point where they choke off the whole overall economy, to shrink the overall economy so that it can match up in size with the amount of oil and natural gas that’s currently being produced and the amount of key goods and services that are coming through our supply chains? We don’t need the Fed to tighten to such an extent that it induces a recession. Instead, we need other government policies targeted at supplying more of the goods and services that are experiencing this shock. It would be very unfortunate if because of the high price of oil and gas, we cause people to lose jobs all across the economy. I am cautiously optimistic that policymakers understand this now better than they have. We will be better off tolerating some amount of inflation for some period of time while the economy adjusts to an enormous shock rather than overreacting and trying to eliminate that inflation by creating a certainty of high unemployment and a bad investment outlook and climate for the economy going forward. It’s so frustrating. The Fed functions through the financial system disproportionately helping the wealthy. It creates asset bubbles all throughout the economy. It then starts to tighten. And in doing so, it disincentivizes companies from investing and growing while courting a recession that will throw millions of average people out of work after those millions of average people have only barely begun to benefit from a decade of loose financial conditions by having their wages grow. Let me just add one more piece that will really make your head explode. There’s a very good chance that to the extent the Fed follows through on aggressive tightening in the coming months, that it leads to financial instability. And so at the same time, as you have the Fed pursuing policies that push up unemployment, weaken the labor market and reduce business investment, the Fed may well find itself standing up all of its emergency facilities again to support the shadow banking system. Essentially because they created bubbles and now… The shock of removing them, yes, is going to cause a run dynamic in the shadow banking system. It could happen at any point really. Well, that was where I was going to end this conversation, which is: Do you think we’re headed for another financial crisis? Because the fundamental fragility of the economy — the shadow banking system — has not been dealt with, and you have a Fed that is using these very blunt tools. I think it’s entirely possible. Part of the problem we have is it’s very hard for officials or academic observers and even market participants to have a handle on the balance sheet strength of financial institutions that fund themselves in the [shadow banking system]. And so it’s difficult to anticipate when a run might happen. The Fed needs to be very cautious. It’s not actually dealing with a financial system that can necessarily go to that speed and absorb that shock. We’re in a very uncertain and risky time from an economic and financial perspective right now. Everybody should be on high alert and people should demand that their Congress try to tackle these issues and think about these problems, because it’ll be much better to start moderating now than to wait for another big crash, to put in place safeguards and structures that are necessary for a healthy economy and flourishing society going forward. Do You Have a Tip for ProPublica? Help Us Do Journalism.

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