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[l] at 2/23/24 8:45am
by Cassandra Jaramillo ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. Over the past decade, the rate of veterans suffering severe pregnancy complications has risen dramatically, a new federal report found. Veterans have raced to the hospital with dangerous infections, kidney failure, aneurysms or blood loss. They’ve required hysterectomies, breathing machines and blood transfusions to save their lives. Between 2011 and 2020, 13 veterans died after such complications. The report found that among people getting health care benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs, the rate of severe complications nearly doubled during that time, from about 93 per 10,000 hospitalizations in 2011 to just over 184 per 10,000 hospitalizations in 2020. Black veterans had the highest rates. The report, which was put together by the Government Accountability Office, also made recommendations for reducing the problem, which focus on conducting more routine screenings throughout pregnancy and in the postpartum period. “It is imperative that the VA help ensure veterans have the healthiest pregnancy outcomes possible,” the report said, highlighting the increasing number of veterans using the agency’s maternity benefits as well as the troublesome complication rates faced by Black women. The report’s findings are an unfortunate trend, said Alyssa Hundrup, director of health care at the GAO. The office analyzed data on 40,000 hospitalizations related to deliveries paid for by the VA. It captures a time period before 21 states banned or greatly restricted abortion and the military was thrust into a political battle over whether it would pay for active service members to travel for abortion care if a pregnancy was a risk to their health. Hundrup, who led the review, said the analysis included hospital records from days after delivery to a year postpartum. The report was mandated after Congress passed a law in 2021 that aimed to address the maternal health crisis among veterans. The law led to a $15 million investment in maternity care coordination programs for veterans. The report recommended that the VA analyze and collect more data on severe complications as well as data on the mental health, race and ethnicity of veterans who experience complications to understand the causes behind the increase and the reasons for the disparity. The report also states that oversight is needed to ensure screenings are being completed. Studies show there’s a connection between mental health conditions and pregnancy-related complications, VA officials said. The report recommended expanding the screening questions that providers ask patients at appointments to glean more information about their mental health, including anxiety and PTSD symptoms. It urged the VA to review the data more regularly. “You don’t know what you don’t measure,” Hundrup said in an interview with ProPublica. The VA health system, which historically served a male population, does not provide maternity care at its facilities. Instead, the agency has outsourced maternity care. But when patients were treated by those providers, the VA failed to track whether they were getting screened for other health issues and mental health problems. Officials hope the improved data collection will help the VA study underlying issues that may lead to complications. For example, do higher rates of anxiety have a connection to rates of high blood pressure in pregnant people? VA officials are working with a maternal health review committee to monitor the data as it is gathered. The agency recently conducted its first review of data going back five years about pregnancy-related complications, said Dr. Amanda Johnson, acting head of the VA’s Office of Women’s Health, who is overseeing the implementation of the report’s recommendations. The VA has created a dashboard to monitor pregnant veterans’ health outcomes. The VA’s data analysis team will also examine the impact of veterans’ ages on complications and whether they differ for people who live in urban and rural areas. VA officials will begin to review mental health screenings conducted by maternal care coordinators in March. The coordinators advocate for veterans, helping them between health care visits, whether their providers are inside or outside the VA. Johnson said that reducing racial and ethnic disparities is a priority for the agency. In 2018, ProPublica published “Lost Mothers,” a series that shed light on the country’s maternal health crisis. Studies have shown that in the general population, Black women are three times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications. While deaths made up only a small portion of the bad outcomes for Black veterans cited in the report, VA care could not spare them from elevated rates of severe complications. Johnson said the maternal health crisis also persists within the VA. “There is a disparity,” Johnson said. “We are not immune to that.” Research shows pregnant people who have used the VA’s coverage have higher rates of trauma and mental conditions that can increase their risks of complications and bad outcomes. This may be because many people who join the military enter it having already faced trauma, said Dr. Laura Miller, a psychiatrist and the medical director of reproductive mental health at the VA. She said veterans with PTSD have higher rates of complications such as preeclampsia, a potentially fatal condition related to high blood pressure, gestational diabetes and postpartum depression. If untreated during pregnancy, depression also increases the likelihood of preterm birth and lingering problems for babies. Hundrup said she hopes this proactive work will improve maternal health. “We want these numbers trending in the other direction,” Hundrup said.
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[l] at 2/23/24 3:00am
by Byard Duncan, ProPublica, and Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico, photography by Adria Malcolm for ProPublica This article was produced in partnership with Source New Mexico, which was a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in 2023. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published. Survivors of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire have lessons for the rest of the country. These residents, whose property and livelihoods were destroyed by a wildfire accidentally triggered by the U.S. government in 2022, have become reluctant students of forest management and evacuation, disaster aid and bureaucracy, trauma and resiliency. The potential audience for these lessons is growing. The number of Americans in the continental U.S. directly exposed to wildfires more than doubled between 2000 and 2019. Record-setting blazes have become common in the West, where risks have reached “crisis proportions,” according to the U.S. Forest Service. One way the Forest Service limits wildfire damage is by burning off acres of brush and other vegetation that can fuel a megafire. It plans to thin or burn 50 million additional acres in the next decade or so — up to a fourfold increase from recent years in parts of the West. But these fires come with their own hazards. Roughly six of them escape and risk becoming wildfires each year, according to the Forest Service. Prescribed burns in New Mexico triggered two major blazes in 2022, including the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, the largest in state history. That led Congress, for the second time in 23 years, to pass a law to compensate victims of a wildfire triggered by the federal government. Both occurred in New Mexico. Over the past year, Source New Mexico and ProPublica have interviewed dozens of survivors of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. We found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided little temporary housing to victims and has so far paid a small fraction of a roughly $4 billion fund to make the community whole and restore the landscape. Some victims say that unless FEMA pays for intangible losses like the stress of being displaced from home and the lost enjoyment of their land, they won’t be able to recover. Many residents described an uneasy state of limbo: forced off their property, out of work, unable to rebuild. “With climate collapse, this scenario is set to repeat itself over and over across the country,” Cyn Palmer, a retired wildlife manager whose home was damaged by the wildfire, said in an email. “FEMA and the government has an opportunity here to learn how to respond differently, and better than previously. I hope they do.” FEMA has maintained that it is moving as fast as it can to do a job that’s substantially different from its typical duty of providing short-term disaster aid. The agency opened field offices, hired staff and generated policies within eight months. As of Feb. 14, it has paid $391 million to individuals, government bodies and nonprofits. Although that’s just 10% of the $3.95 billion allocated by Congress, it’s 69% of the $565 million in claims that have all documentation and are being reviewed or have been, according to FEMA spokesperson John Mills. “FEMA is committed to speeding up the claims process and maximizing payments to people affected by the fire,” Mills wrote in a statement to Source and ProPublica. “We are committed to working with people one-on-one to help with their specific needs.” The agency, he wrote, regularly holds town hall meetings and has provided residents with a list of the types of documents they can use to show what they lost in the fire. As survivors navigate the recovery process, we asked about 30 of them what they would want the rest of the country to know, and see, about their experiences. This is what they told us. First you’ll lose things. Then you’ll need to prove that you lost them. Some families who lost homes trace their roots in the area back hundreds of years. Many properties had been passed down without transferring deeds, making it difficult to prove ownership when seeking government aid and payment for losses. Yolanda Cruz on her property in Manuelitas, New Mexico. She estimates that half of the trees on her land were reduced to “black sticks.” “I absolutely honor the need to make sure that there’s not people trying to take advantage of the system. … But when you have the trauma of losing anything — and especially your home, and everything in it — having that additional trauma of being almost made to feel like you’re under the spotlight, everything is being examined, you need to prove everything? That’s trauma on top of trauma.” — Yolanda Cruz, who has spent months helping her elderly parents navigate FEMA’s claims process Jeannie Allen, left, and Bill Nevins in their home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Their vacation home in the Black Lake area was spared, but their friends’ and neighbors’ homes weren’t. “These people who have lived here for many generations on the same piece of land don’t always necessarily have the paperwork for it. And so I would recommend everybody in the country, make sure you’ve got your paperwork.” — Jeannie Allen, who said some people she knows struggled to provide documentation of what they lost in the fire Juan Ortiz at the site of his former home in Rociada, New Mexico. The fire left just the stone walls and fireplace of the house his father had built. Without barns, fencing or corrals, he was forced to sell his cattle. “They act like you’re lying.” — Juan Ortiz, who said he gave up on FEMA’s rental assistance program because he felt he was treated like a criminal for asking for aid You may get government help; you may not. Either way, it will take a toll. Residents who fought for disaster aid and are now waiting for checks to rebuild described the logistical hurdles and emotional cost. Jane Lumsden at the site of her new home in Cañoncito de las Manuelitas, New Mexico. The house is partially constructed from timber salvaged after the fire. “The people from FEMA, I mean, they came in and they were all very kind. The kindness was there. They were just inept at what they were doing. It’s a year and a half later, and people haven’t gotten anything.” — Jane Lumsden, who is withdrawing money from her retirement account to rebuild until her lawyer finishes the long process of calculating her losses Janna Lopez at First United Methodist Church of Las Vegas, near the burn scar. A volunteer group she founded meets in a church office to dole out grants to victims of the fire while they await rebuilding money from FEMA. “Our clients are ready to give up. And we tell them, don’t give up. This is money you’re entitled to. The government should pay for this damage. These relief funds should come to you to assist. But I think if they don’t have that support system in place, it’s easy for them to walk away.” — Janna Lopez, a retired state employee who founded Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a grassroots fire recovery organization Art Vigil in front of his manufactured home after it was delivered to his property in Rociada, New Mexico, in February. He said he wasted months trying to get into FEMA’s temporary housing and then spent months more navigating paperwork and weather to get the new home onto his land. “I’ve never been that stressed out as I am now just trying to get this shit taken care of. ... The other day, I thought I was getting a heart attack from the stress, you know. I went and got an EKG.” — Art Vigil, who pulled out of FEMA’s temporary housing program after repeated problems and is now trying to decide whether to hire a lawyer to pursue his damage claims You’ll lean on friends and family. But those relationships will be tested. People sprang into action to help one another. Over time, though, the stress has eroded marriages and driven some into isolation. Lea Knutson in Cañoncito de las Manuelitas, New Mexico “As much as the government might come in and try to take over in a disaster, it’s really neighbors helping neighbors. The better your relationships are with your community, the more resources you have. And then the more ability you have to give something. If you don’t have any connections, if you don’t know your neighbors, you’re just all on your own.” — Lea Knutson, whose environmental restoration nonprofit grew dramatically after the fire “There is so much red tape. It just gets so complicated, so discouraging. It’s even getting between me and my wife. We made a deal between the two of us that if we argue over an issue, I says, at the end of the day, we will give ourselves our sorries if I said anything I shouldn’t have said. That’s already helped us be able to deal with it. We’ll apologize to each other or we go for a walk, but we try not to even talk about it right after.” — Donato Sena, a former local police chief who died in November while waiting for money to rebuild his home Loma Hembree, left, and David Hembree in their trailer at an RV park in La Cienega, New Mexico “We’re not very nice people from day to day. I’ll put it that way. The stress and the strain has taken its toll. … I don’t like the person I am. I’m irritable, restless and discontent.” — Loma Hembree, who has been living with her husband in a cramped RV for more than a year after losing their home Accountability needs to be part of fire prevention. The officials responsible for one of the prescribed burns that triggered the wildfire underestimated the danger of dry, windy conditions and didn’t have enough backup staff on-site, according to a review by the Forest Service. Survivors aren’t satisfied with the answers they’ve gotten about how that happened. A spokesperson for the Forest Service said the wildfire prompted the agency to examine how to do its work safely and that no single person was responsible for the fire. Heather Vuchinich, right, and Miguel Ani in their Las Tusas, New Mexico, home, which is still contaminated with soot “Having gone through three wildfires that were basically caused by human error — even though there is a climate change influence on it all — these all could have been prevented if we had better infrastructure in place. … So the fact that there were no backup systems in place after the fire that took place in Los Alamos … I mean, I’m not a conspiracy theorist. But what happened with that?” — Heather Vuchinich, a consultant who lost property in the fire and fled two other wildfires while living in California Matt Martinez in the Sangre De Cristo Broadcasting Co. studio in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Although the fire didn’t reach the town, smoke damaged transmission equipment there. “I think there’s always got to be consequences. Of course, I don’t think they’re ever going to stop prescribed burns, but I think you’ve got to pay attention. And if you would have asked anybody, prior to this thing happening, no one would have recommended you start a prescribed burn in the spring — late winter, early spring. I just wonder, what happens to the person actually responsible at the end of the day? I think the community would like to know.” — Matt Martinez, whose radio station’s programs were a reliable source of information for residents without power or internet access after the fire Recovery — to the extent there is one — will take a lot longer than people say. Hundreds of millions of dollars are finally flowing into these communities, but residents face years of rebuilding homes, flood-proofing properties and repairing roads. It will take decades for trees to cover the mountains again. Talissa Ralph with her horse, Nova Vida, in the burn scar on her property in Sapello, New Mexico “Even though people may say it’s nice to get the money, it’s also a burden. Because if you want to do this work on your land, you have to organize it and find the people and make the plan and oversee it. It’s a long project, at least five years or more of concentrated effort. … The whole thing makes me tired. I mean, I am doing better than a lot of people, but it’s just burnt trees all the time. Everything’s burnt.” — Talissa Ralph, who lost most of the trees on her 228-acre ranch Cyn Palmer in her friend’s home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Palmer said her spinal pain and pancreatic disease grew worse after she fled the fire and tried to protect her home from subsequent flooding. She stays with her friend when she has to see her specialists so she can make it to all of her appointments. “All of this is now a 500-square-mile flood zone. FEMA can never restore my view, nor will it ever restore the impact to my physical and mental health. That is true for thousands of people. There are still many people living in RVs and trailers. … We have years of flooding ahead. Many will never fully recover; certainly this area will never be the same.” — Cyn Palmer, who was displaced for eight months after her home was damaged by smoke and flooding Photo editing by Peter DiCampo. Design by Zisiga Mukulu.
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[l] at 2/22/24 11:10am
by Becca Savransky, Idaho Statesman, and Asia Fields, ProPublica This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with the Idaho Statesman. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published. For decades, school districts across Idaho have struggled to pass bonds to repair and replace their aging, crumbling buildings. A legislative proposal introduced Wednesday could change that by starting the process of lowering the vote threshold school districts need to pass a bond. Idaho is one of only two states that require two-thirds of voters to support a bond for it to pass. Most states require either a majority or 60% of voters. The resolution, introduced by Republican Rep. Rod Furniss, R-Rigby, would propose changing the Idaho Constitution to lower the threshold to 55% during years when statewide elections are held, such as presidential election years, when turnout is traditionally higher. The two-thirds threshold would remain in years with only local elections. The resolution is intended to ease the requirements when more community members turn out to vote. Local elections often have low turnout while general elections have typically drawn 60% to 80% of registered voters, according to data from the Idaho secretary of state. “What this does is this focuses on elections where we have higher participation rates. Hopefully, the idea is that we will know the will of the people from these votes,” Furniss told a legislative committee. “Fifty-five percent, that would increase our chances of funding these.” Superintendents and school board members said the two-thirds threshold has been unachievable. “It’s about time,” Mountain Home Superintendent James Gilbert told the Idaho Statesman and ProPublica. “It’s something that’s needed to be done for decades. That supermajority threshold is becoming virtually impossible to pass bonds on.” The new resolution will need support from two-thirds of legislators in each chamber to place it on the general election ballot. It would then require approval from a majority of voters to change the state constitution. The resolution is the second proposal to address the state’s school facilities funding crisis this legislative session, following a Statesman and ProPublica investigation that showed some students are learning in freezing classrooms, sometimes with leaking ceilings and damaged equipment after their districts failed to pass bonds. This month, Idaho Republican leaders introduced a bill that would add $1.5 billion and redirect an additional $500 million over 10 years to help districts repair and replace their buildings. But some lawmakers and school district officials have raised concerns that the bill would not adequately address the needs of rural areas because it’s based on attendance, which favors larger urban districts. That legislation followed a call from Gov. Brad Little during his State of the State address to make school facilities funding “priority No. 1” this legislative session. The House will soon vote on the proposal, House Bill 521, after a panel of lawmakers sent it to the floor last week. Aside from distributing funds based on average daily attendance, the bill would also eliminate the August election as an option for school districts to run bonds and levies and lower the state’s income tax rate. Little celebrated the legislation as the largest investment in school facilities in state history. Jason Knopp, an Idaho School Boards Association board member and Melba School District board chair, told the Statesman and ProPublica that the bill is a good first step but likely won’t be enough for districts like Melba to construct new schools without bonds. Melba would get about $3.1 million in a lump sum and additional money each year to help pay off its bonds and levies, according to estimates shared with the Statesman by the governor’s office on Feb. 20. Superintendents have said this funding wouldn’t eliminate the need to pass bonds and levies, which can be big lifts for districts across the state. Swan Valley School District Superintendent Michael Jacobson said he hopes to replace his school’s coal boiler, which requires constant maintenance and raises health concerns, with an electric boiler — a cost of nearly $1 million. If the funding bill passed as is, Swan Valley would receive about $200,000, according to the estimates. He believes all districts should get a base amount, in addition to funds determined by attendance, to help level the playing field for rural districts, which make up a majority of Idaho’s school districts. “The majority of the funding should not always go to the larger districts,” Jacobson said. He said that he could see how lowering the threshold would be a win for other districts, but that it won’t make much of a difference in his community, given the lack of support for a bond. Some superintendents have said they’ve given up on trying to pass bonds altogether. Others have run multiple bond elections but failed every time. Still others have come within a few votes of meeting the threshold. Paired with a bill to lower the two-thirds threshold, the proposals could have a huge impact on school districts and communities, Knopp said. “That’s a great pairing coming together. We can lower the tax burden on the people who live in our school districts and also help make it easier for us to bond with less tax burden,” he said.
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[l] at 2/22/24 4:00am
by Caleb Bedillion, The Marshall Project This article was produced in partnership with the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, formerly a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, and The Marshall Project. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published. The right to an attorney is fundamental to the U.S. justice system. Yet, in a small Mississippi court off the interstate between Jackson and Memphis, that right is tenuous. The two judges in Yalobusha County Justice Court appointed lawyers for just 20% of the five dozen felony defendants who came before them in 2022, according to a review of court records; nationally, experts estimate that lawyers are appointed to at least 80% of felony defendants at some point in the legal process because they’re deemed poor. In this court, the way these two judges decide who gets a court-appointed attorney appears to violate state rules meant to protect defendants’ rights. A few defendants have even been forced to represent themselves in key hearings. Despite the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee that everyone gets a lawyer even if they’re too poor to pay for one, most felony defendants in this court went without any representation at all before their cases were forwarded to a grand jury, according to a review of one full year of court files by the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, The Marshall Project and ProPublica. (Read more about how we analyzed the court’s appointment rate in our methodology.) “That is a huge problem,” said André de Gruy, who leads a state office that handles death penalty cases and felony appeals but has no power over local public defense. “I believe almost every one of those people would like a lawyer and is unable to afford one.” For decades, civil rights advocates and legal reformers have complained that Mississippi is among the worst states in the country in providing attorneys for poor criminal defendants. It’s one of a handful of states where public defense is managed and funded almost entirely by local governments, and the way they do so varies greatly from county to county. Defendants in some places see appointed lawyers quickly and remain represented thereafter; elsewhere, sometimes right over the county line, defendants can wait months just to see a lawyer or can go long periods without having one at all. The Mississippi Supreme Court, which oversees how state courts operate, has issued several rules in recent years that were intended to drive improvements. But it is up to locally elected judges to carry out those mandates, and there’s no oversight to make sure they’re doing it right. Much like Mississippi, Texas places primary responsibility for public defense on counties. A state commission in Texas investigates the counties with low appointment rates; a felony appointment rate below 50% would raise serious questions about a county’s compliance with state law, according to current and former officials there. In Mississippi, state officials don’t even know how often judges appoint attorneys. When people are arrested on felonies in Yalobusha County, a rural area in north Mississippi with just 12,400 residents, many have initial hearings in the county’s Justice Court. Judges there primarily handle misdemeanors. But when a felony defendant appears in their court, it falls to Judge Trent Howell and Judge Janet Caulder to deliver on the Sixth Amendment’s promise. Caulder handles many initial hearings, where she’s required by state rules to find out whether a defendant is too poor to afford an attorney and to appoint one if so. Although Caulder informs defendants of their right to an attorney, she said she doesn’t ask if they can afford one and appoints one only if they request it. “I don’t question them. I don’t try to force indigency on them,” she said. (Neither she nor Howell would comment on their appointment rate.) Caulder and Howell are supposed to operate by the same rules as judges in circuit court, who handle felony cases from indictment through trial. But that doesn’t appear to be what’s happening: 15 of the cases that Howell and Caulder handled in 2022 are now in circuit court; just four of those defendants were appointed attorneys in Justice Court, but 13 were provided with lawyers when their cases moved to circuit court. I don’t question them. I don’t try to force indigency on them. —Judge Janet Caulder Explaining why he is sometimes reluctant to appoint an attorney, Howell told the news outlets that he has a “fiduciary duty” to spend taxpayers’ money wisely. He said he’s more likely to provide a lawyer if a defendant is in jail because a lawyer can seek a lower bond to get their client released. On the other hand, Howell said, “If they’re arrested on a felony and they’ve made bond, I’m not too quick to pull the trigger on a public defender — particularly if they’ve made a high bond.” State rules don’t allow Howell to consider whether someone made bond when he decides if he will appoint an attorney, but he said that doing so was just “human nature.” That’s what happened when Kayla Williams, a single mother with no stable job, came before Howell last summer on a charge of shooting and wounding her stepfather in a tussle. Williams, whose mental health issues include bipolar disorder, has been arrested three times in the past year or so after confrontations with others. In two hearings related to the shooting charge, Howell refused to appoint an attorney even though she said she couldn’t afford one, according to Williams, as well as a lawyer who observed one hearing and a reporter who observed another. In an interview, Howell defended his decision, which he made without asking a single question about Williams’ finances: “She just didn’t strike me as an indigent person.” “Can You Appoint Me a Lawyer? Because I Can’t Afford One.” Kayla Williams asked repeatedly for a court-appointed lawyer in Yalobusha County Justice Court, but she didn’t get one. Since last summer, she has navigated the justice system alone in her fight against a charge that carries a possible 20-year prison sentence. (Rory Doyle for ProPublica) Though Mississippi doesn’t have any guidelines for how judges should decide who is poor enough to get a court-appointed lawyer, a half-dozen legal experts who reviewed the facts of Williams’ case said she appears to qualify and that her constitutional rights have been violated. Problems getting a court-appointed lawyer began soon after she was arrested. On June 12, Williams’ elderly stepfather, whose name is Lawyer Crowder, was pulled over by a Yalobusha County sheriff’s deputy because he was weaving slowly down a rural road. Crowder, whose leg was bleeding, told the deputy that his stepdaughter had shot him. He had the pistol she used with him. Around the same time, Williams called 911 and said she had shot Crowder after he hit her, according to a dispatch log. Deputies arrested her and charged her with aggravated assault against a family member, a felony with a possible prison sentence of 20 years. (While Crowder told the news outlets that Williams started the fight and that he believes she meant to shoot him, he said: “I don’t want her put away. I want her to get some help.”) At Williams’ first court hearing a couple of days later, Caulder told her she had a right to a court-appointed lawyer, but the judge didn’t ask Williams if she could hire one herself. The state’s rules required Caulder to make a decision that day: “The determination of the right to appointed counsel, and the appointment of such counsel, is to be made no later than at the indigent defendant’s first appearance before a judge.” Caulder did gather the facts of Williams’ finances to set conditions for her release from jail — the same sort of information that judges use when deciding whether to appoint a lawyer. According to court records, the judge knew the 22-year-old mother had no job at the time and no place of her own to live. What I witnessed in the courthouse in Water Valley that day was not a judge carefully exploring the ability of a defendant to afford a lawyer. … What I saw was an immediate rejection of her request for assistance without any inquiry whatsoever into her ability to pay. —Civil rights attorney Cliff Johnson That should have been enough to prompt Caulder to appoint a lawyer, said de Gruy, the head of the state public defense office. Caulder, however, said she believes she complied with court rules because she told Williams of her rights. She always does that, she said, and she’s always willing to consider a request for a lawyer. Caulder shouldn’t force defendants to ask for a lawyer, said William Waller, a retired chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court who helped write the state’s court rules. That “is absolutely not right,” he said, because many defendants don’t know how or when to ask. “The judge makes the inquiry” to learn whether a defendant can afford an attorney, he said. Williams’ friends and family paid a bail bond company to post a $7,500 bond to get her out of jail. Her next opportunity to get a lawyer came a month later, when she walked into Howell’s courtroom in Water Valley for a hearing. Cliff Johnson, a civil rights attorney and law professor, happened to be in the courtroom that July day doing pro bono work for an animal shelter. Williams asked for a lawyer more than once, Johnson said. Howell said he wasn’t going to appoint one at that time. “What I witnessed in the courthouse in Water Valley that day was not a judge carefully exploring the ability of a defendant to afford a lawyer,” Johnson said. “What I saw was an immediate rejection of her request for assistance without any inquiry whatsoever into her ability to pay.” In an interview, Howell defended his decision in that hearing and a subsequent one: “I think that what I did at this particular point for this lady was within my discretion and proper.” He suggested that hearings in his court aren’t as critical to the outcome of a case as those in circuit court. However, the state’s rules say poor defendants must have a lawyer throughout the process. Howell did tell Williams she could ask for a preliminary hearing, an optional hearing that defendants can request to force a prosecutor to show that there was probable cause for an arrest. The courthouse in Water Valley, Mississippi (Rory Doyle for ProPublica) That’s how Williams found herself the following month in a crowded conference room that served as a courtroom, sitting at a table with the deputy who arrested her and the prosecutor handling her case. The prosecutor asked if she had an attorney. “No, because the judge has not provided me with one,” Williams replied. Howell didn’t respond. After a brief exchange, the judge said he was ready to proceed with the hearing. His decision to hold that hearing for a defendant who didn’t have a lawyer was particularly egregious, according to law professors, civil rights attorneys and a legal consultant. The U.S. Supreme Court requires that appointed counsel be present with a poor defendant at key hearings, called critical stages, at which the defendant’s rights could be impaired. Experts agree that a preliminary hearing in Mississippi is considered a critical stage. “That is clearly a violation” of her rights, said David Carroll, who has studied Mississippi’s defense system as executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center, a Boston-based nonprofit research center. Without an attorney, Williams handled the hearing herself. She stammered as she cross-examined the deputy, who acknowledged that the case hinged largely on the stepfather’s account. “I’m nervous,” she said. After the deputy testified, Howell told Williams there was no need for her to testify. Anything she said could be used against her later, he said, and he was prepared to rule that the case could move forward. “I want to tell my side of the story,” Williams said. “You’re going to testify over my recommendation,” the judge responded. Williams did testify, stressing her belief that the gun was fired by accident. Testifying was a risky move, one that a defense lawyer likely would have prevented, said Jonathan Rapping, who runs the national nonprofit public defender training organization Gideon’s Promise. Williams’ hearing, he said, was “a textbook example of why you need a lawyer.” After Howell ordered that Williams’ case could proceed to a grand jury, she made a direct appeal: “Can you appoint me a lawyer? Because I can’t afford one.” Howell said that if she were eventually indicted, a judge in circuit court would decide whether she would be eligible for appointed counsel. But that might not happen, the judge said, until the next grand jury was convened in December, four months away. Justice Court Judge Trent Howell signed this order forwarding Williams’ case for consideration by a grand jury. A handwritten note on the order says the court determined that Williams wasn’t indigent, but Howell didn’t ask Williams any questions to learn why she said she couldn’t afford an attorney. (Obtained by the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, The Marshall Project and ProPublica. Highlighted by ProPublica.) The Rules Are Mandatory, but No One Enforces Them Months later, as Williams waited for an update on that case, she had a different experience in another county. She had been arrested on two felony counts of arson after she acknowledged lighting two small fires in a homeless shelter she was staying in, according to a police report. Within 48 hours, she had a lawyer in Tupelo Municipal Court, which, unlike Yalobusha County Justice Court, employs a full-time public defender. She had seen for herself what criminal justice reformers have long argued is a key problem with Mississippi’s locally controlled public defense system: While some local courts swiftly deliver lawyers to poor criminal defendants, others delay and deny representation for months without any oversight by the state. Multiple commissions and task forces have tried to address shortcomings in the public defense system over the years, but the Legislature hasn’t acted. So the state Supreme Court has wielded its authority over the courts below it. Though its rules are mandatory, Mississippi’s Supreme Court relies on judges across the state to implement them. Those local judges don’t have a good track record, the Daily Journal, The Marshall Project and ProPublica have found. In 2017, the Supreme Court put all Mississippi courts under the same rules. Among them: Judges in each court would have to write down how they provide attorneys for poor defendants. The Supreme Court would review those policies and approve them. Six years later, the first of the state’s 23 circuit courts complied. Since then, just two more have filed plans. A similar lack of compliance emerged last summer, when the court took action to address poor defendants being left without legal representation between their initial court hearings and an indictment, a period that often lasts months and sometimes years. We don’t hear from many places other than Mississippi of judges simply ignoring or deferring the question of whether the right to counsel applies. —Lisa M. Wayne, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers A revised rule aims to eliminate that gap in representation — which critics have called the “dead zone” — by preventing a lawyer from leaving a case unless another has already taken over. On the eve of last summer’s deadline to comply, many local officials told the news outlets that they were unaware of the rule or contended they didn’t need to change their current practice. But it’s not the Supreme Court’s role to go out and make sure judges follow these rules, a justice told legislators last fall. Although an individual defendant can petition to have their case dismissed if they have been denied a lawyer, the only way, outside of a lawsuit, to hold judges accountable for their actions is to file a complaint with a state judicial commission. The commission hasn’t publicly sanctioned any judges for denial of counsel in at least a decade. In 2014, Mississippi’s Scott County was sued for practices similar to those in Yalobusha’s Justice Court. The county settled the suit in 2017 and, without admitting fault, agreed to hire a chief public defender and ensure that when people were arrested on a felony charge, they were provided with the paperwork to request a lawyer. “We don’t hear from many places other than Mississippi of judges simply ignoring or deferring the question of whether the right to counsel applies,” said Lisa M. Wayne, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Johnson, the civil rights law professor, was among those who argued for the Supreme Court’s recent move to address the dead zone. He has argued that there’s important defense work to be done as defendants wait to be indicted, a view that puts him at odds with many judges and lawyers in Mississippi. The Supreme Court’s rule change went into effect in July; about a week later, he saw Howell deny Williams’ requests for an attorney. “My fear is that this happens far more often than we know,” Johnson said. “I was reminded quickly that change comes hard in Mississippi.” Howell, however, said he wants to go back to what he called “the old way,” to a time when the Supreme Court hadn’t spelled out so many procedural steps to follow before an indictment. His view on the change that Johnson argued for, meant to ensure that a poor defendant always has a lawyer from arrest to trial? “Hopefully,” he said, “the Supreme Court will come down and modify that rule.” Sometimes I get overwhelmed, but most of the time I’m just numb. … I’m tired. I’m only 22, but I feel like I’m 55. —Kayla Williams Williams hasn’t gotten any updates on the case involving her stepfather since she saw Howell last summer. After repeatedly calling Yalobusha County officials, she recently learned that she hadn’t been indicted by the December grand jury there. It’s unclear when, or even if, she will be. Prosecutors in Mississippi face no deadline to seek an indictment, and the grand jury in that part of Yalobusha County typically meets three times a year. By the time the most recent grand jury met this month, she was in jail on the latest charges and couldn’t call anyone to check on last summer’s case. “Sometimes I get overwhelmed, but most of the time I’m just numb,” Williams said. ”I’m tired. I’m only 22, but I feel like I’m 55.” If she had an attorney, Williams said, “I would understand more and have more trust” in the legal process. But after she appeared in Tupelo Municipal Court on the arson charges, she said, “I actually had a lawyer this time.” In all the months she had been speaking to the news outlets, it was the first time she felt that the court system had worked the way she thought it was supposed to. In an interview from jail, she said that the public defender had explained what would happen in court and argued for a lower bond, which was eventually set at $30,000. “He was really informative,” she said, “and made things seem a little bit better and like I wasn’t by myself.” How We Reported This Story The state of Mississippi does not collect data on how often judges provide an attorney to criminal defendants who are too poor to afford their own. Many counties don’t know that information either, even though each controls its own public defense system. A task force that met from 2015 to 2018 found that it could not fully evaluate public defense in the state without knowing how often attorneys were appointed to indigent defendants. State officials surveyed circuit clerks, asking them to estimate their appointment rates. Circuit court clerks in 53 of 82 counties responded; the vast majority, including Yalobusha’s, estimated appointment rates of 75% or more in circuit court. However, people arrested on felony charges make their first court appearance in lower courts, where judges are required to evaluate their ability to pay for an attorney and appoint one if needed. These courts handle only hearings that precede an indictment, after which cases are transferred to circuit court. In Yalobusha County, people arrested for a felony can have a first appearance in Water Valley Municipal Court or the county Justice Court. To understand how frequently judges in Yalobusha County’s Justice Court appointed lawyers for defendants, a reporter traveled to the court clerk’s office and pulled the files for every felony case that was opened in 2022. We chose cases from 2022 because it was the most recent full calendar year and every case had had at least one opportunity to be presented to a grand jury for a possible indictment. We also reviewed files in another clerk’s office and billing records for attorneys appointed in Justice Court. We found 63 cases in which court records indicated that defendants appeared before a judge in Justice Court. For each case, a reporter logged various facts, including the defendant’s name, the charge, hearing dates, the judge or judges that heard the case, and whether the file included an indigency affidavit, a judge’s order appointing an attorney or a letter from a lawyer stating that they had been retained in the case. We counted the number of defendants who were provided counsel in Justice Court. (Defendants who appeared in court multiple times were counted once, even if they appeared on unrelated charges.) This number was used to calculate an appointment rate for 2022: 20%. In the majority of cases — 61% — the defendant had no attorney at all. (In a couple of cases, they waived their right to an attorney.) In a few cases, notes in case files say that defendants told a judge they had hired an attorney or intended to, but there are no records showing they did so. We counted those defendants as privately represented, based on the case notes. We excluded two cases from our analysis because we could not determine whether the lawyer listed had been appointed or hired. Our reporter also checked Mississippi’s online court database to see how many of the 2022 cases had been moved to circuit court and how many of those defendants had been appointed lawyers there.
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by Mark Olalde, ProPublica, and Nick Bowlin, Capital & Main 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. In the 165 years since the first American oil well struck black gold, the industry has punched millions of holes in the earth, seeking profits gushing from the ground. Now, those wells are running dry, and a generational bill is coming due. Until wells are properly plugged, many leak oil and brine onto farmland and into waterways and emit toxic and explosive gasses, rendering redevelopment impossible. A noxious lake inundates West Texas ranchland, oil bubbles into a downtown Los Angeles apartment building and gas seeps into the yards of suburban Ohio homes. But the impact is felt everywhere, as many belch methane, the second-largest contributor to climate change, into the atmosphere. There are more than 2 million unplugged oil and gas wells that will need to be cleaned up, and the current production boom and windfall profits for industry giants have obscured the bill’s imminent arrival. More than 90% of the country’s unplugged wells either produce little oil and gas or are already dormant. By law, companies are responsible for plugging and cleaning up wells. Oil drillers set aside funds called bonds, similar to the security deposit on a rental property, that are refunded once they decommission their wells or, if they walk away without doing that work, are taken by the government to cover the cost. But an analysis by ProPublica and Capital & Main has found that the money set aside for this cleanup work in the 15 states accounting for nearly all the nation’s oil and gas production covers less than 2% of the projected cost. That shortfall puts taxpayers at risk of picking up the rest of the massive tab to avoid the environmental, economic and public health consequences of aging oil fields. Are you a journalist, academic or someone else interested in localizing, analyzing or otherwise working with the bonding and cleanup cost data referenced in this story? Reach out directly at mark.olalde@propublica.org to discuss the data or to request access to it. The estimated cost to plug and remediate those wells if cleanup is left to the government is $151.3 billion, according to the states’ own data. But the actual price tag will almost certainly be higher — perhaps tens of billions of dollars more — because some states don’t fully account for the cost of cleaning up pollution. In addition, regulators have yet to locate many wells whose owners have already walked away without plugging them, known as orphan wells, which states predict will number at least in the hundreds of thousands. “The data presents an urgent call to action for state regulators and the Department of the Interior to swiftly and effectively update bond amounts,” said Shannon Anderson, who tracks the oil industry’s cleanup as organizing director of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a nonprofit that advocates for Wyoming communities. Anderson and nine other experts, including petroleum engineers and financial analysts, reviewed ProPublica and Capital & Main’s findings, which were built using records from 30 state and federal agencies. “We have allowed companies intentionally to do this,” said Megan Milliken Biven, who reviewed the data and is a former program analyst for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a federal regulator of offshore oil rigs, and founder of True Transition, a nonprofit that advocates for oil field workers. “It is the inevitable consequence of an entire regulatory program that is more red carpet than red tape.” Sources: State oil regulators and the Department of the Interior, via public records requests by ProPublica and Capital & Main; Enverus. Regulatory agencies in several states maintain that they have adequate tools to protect taxpayers, such as the authority to require companies to post larger bonds as their wells stop producing. Other states are working to reform their bonding systems. Industry representatives, meanwhile, say they have done their part by paying fees on oil production that help fund states’ well-plugging efforts. “Our industry is taking action every day to address the permanent closure of historic oil and natural gas wells and the remediation of historic well sites in accordance with applicable federal and state laws,” Holly Hopkins, a vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s major trade group, said in a statement. A graveyard of rusting wells rising from once-picturesque sand dunes near Artesia, New Mexico, tells a more complicated story. Around the corroding skeletons of pump jacks, the ground is stained black from spills. Leaking hydrogen sulfide, which reeks of rotten eggs, has turned the air toxic, making each breath burn. At the base of one salt-caked well, a sign indicates who is responsible for the mess. Barely legible beneath splattered oil, it reads “Remnant Oil Operating.” The story of Remnant is the story of the American oil industry. The industry’s household names — Chevron, ExxonMobil and others — often reap the biggest profits from any given oil field. As the booms fade and production falls, wells are sold to a string of ever-smaller companies, many of which let the infrastructure fall into disrepair while violations and leaks skyrocket. The number of idled wells soars too, as companies warehouse them to avoid costly cleanup. By this point, regulators’ hands are tied because the bonds states demand to use as leverage are so small. Seeing little incentive to plug wells and get their tiny bonds back, companies slip into bankruptcy court, where executives are protected from their environmental liabilities. When the dust settles, the government is on the hook for the now-orphaned wells. The practice is so tried-and-true that researchers and activists call it “the playbook.” As the company’s name implies, Remnant gathered the industry’s dregs into a portfolio of several hundred wells. Drilled decades ago by larger companies, their most productive days were behind them. When Remnant arrived in 2015, it briefly boosted production, but regulatory violations, bad bets and the oil fields’ age caught up with the company. Within four years, Remnant filed for bankruptcy protection, and its leadership shuffled assets and liabilities between companies the executives managed. What’s left of Remnant is 401 wells scattered across the New Mexico countryside. While a few are still pumping, more are idle and potentially already orphaned, joining thousands of other wells that are sitting unplugged and in need of cleanup across the wider region. Regulators here in the Permian Basin, the world’s most productive oil field, must contend with Remnant and other undercapitalized companies like it that could add even more wells to the list of orphans. Sources: New Mexico Oil Conservation Division; Railroad Commission of Texas. (Jason Kao and Lucas Waldron/ProPublica) Remnant representatives did not respond to ProPublica and Capital & Main’s requests for comment. Over their lifespans, the wells that remain in the hands of Remnant and a related company generated roughly $2 billion in revenue, when adjusted for inflation, enough to cover the cost of their cleanup many times over. This is according to estimates produced from state production data by ProPublica, Capital & Main and Texas-based petroleum reservoir engineer Dwayne Purvis. The New Mexico State Land Office sent letters in 2023 demanding that cleanup begin. Remnant’s executives have yet to comply. Seeking Fortunes As wildcatters scoured Texas for oil in the 1920s, one hopeful investor christened their well in honor of Saint Rita of Cascia — the patron saint of impossible causes — asking for a miracle. The gusher that followed ignited a drilling frenzy in the Permian Basin, from West Texas to southeastern New Mexico. By the late 1940s, the Square Lake Pool had come alive among New Mexico’s sand dunes. Anadarko Production Company — now part of the $50 billion Oxy Petroleum — took over the oil field in the 1960s and increased production. To keep the oil and gas flowing, Anadarko turned to unconventional methods: fracturing underground rock, injecting wells with gelled water and frac sand and waterflooding. The chemical treatments continued into the 1980s, but production steadily declined as the wells aged and underground oil reservoirs were depleted. In 1995, Xeric Oil & Gas Corp. acquired much of the field. Two years later, Xeric transferred the wells to GP II Energy Inc. In the two decades that followed, the wells ping-ponged to CBS Operating Corp., Boaz Energy LLC, Memorial Production Operating LLC, Marker Oil and finally, in 2017, to Remnant. Remnant was the brainchild of Everett Willard Gray II, Robert Stitzel and Marquis Reed Gilmore Jr., oilmen out of Midland, Texas, the heart of the Permian. They set up shop north of downtown, their office surrounded by those of other oil companies, a politician and banks in a six-story office building rising above a parking lot full of white pickup trucks. Initial investments in the wells succeeded in reversing the declining production and squeezed out tens of millions of dollars of additional revenue, estimates based on state data show. But Gray, Stitzel and Gilmore — who did not respond to requests for comment — reduced the workforce that serviced the wells and limited repairs to cut costs. Regulators noted 146 infractions in the years Remnant and a related company operated the wells, according to New Mexico Oil Conservation Division data. Among them: leaks and spills, degraded wells, a lack of infrastructure to contain spills and “contaminated material on location.” The records show Remnant only brought two of the infractions into compliance, but it continued pumping. Peer-reviewed studies have found that wells emit methane, a greenhouse gas that in the short term has 85 times the warming impact of carbon dioxide, at a higher rate as they move down the oil industry food chain, from majors to thinly capitalized operators like Remnant. Transferring wells between companies has historically been approved automatically in New Mexico, as long as the company receiving the wells is in compliance with inactive-well rules and has a bond, according to Oil Conservation Division acting Director Dylan Fuge. As oil fields age and are passed between companies, it’s also common to let wells stand inactive temporarily to wait out a price dip or complete maintenance. But idling is often a prelude to a well being orphaned, and after a few months of inactivity, the chance that a well never produces again rises significantly. Across the country, more wells are idle than producing, according to an analysis of data from energy software company Enverus. Despite a New Mexico law that requires companies to plug, restart or get approval to temporarily idle wells that haven’t produced for 15 months, ProPublica and Capital & Main identified more than 3,100 oil and gas wells in the state — 4% of the state’s portfolio — that sit unproductive and out of compliance, a step away from being orphaned. A bill introduced in this year’s legislative session — written by the Oil Conservation Division, the industry and certain environmental groups — would’ve reformed New Mexico’s Oil and Gas Act, giving the agency more authority to intervene to stop transfers that pose a risk of leaving wells orphaned. The bill died on the floor of the state’s House of Representatives. Any reforms would likely come too late for the oil fields in Remnant’s hands, where numerous wells are already idle. Hesitant to Regulate On a brisk November day, ProPublica and Capital & Main reporters examined a Remnant well that, like the company, was listed in state records as inactive. Oil coated the wellhead, rust crept across the pump jack and a faded sign bore Remnant’s coat of arms — a bird of prey with outstretched wings perched on a shield. Suddenly, the well creaked to life, producing for a dead company. A haze appeared. Methane, typically invisible to the naked eye, leaked in such a high concentration that the air shimmered. A handheld gas detector aimed at the wellhead screeched a warning — the amount of escaping methane had made the air explosive. That day’s production and emissions never appeared in state records. Methane leaks from a Remnant well listed as inactive in state records. The gas is invisible to the naked eye but detectable as a black plume using specialized infrared camera technology. (FLIR footage courtesy of Charlie Barrett/Earthworks) Watch video ➜ ProPublica and Capital & Main reporters visited dozens of Remnant wells and tank batteries — facilities used for oil storage and early stages of processing — scattered across this rural stretch of New Mexico. Multiple sites emitted explosive levels of methane, with one leak clocked at 10 times the concentration at which the gas can explode. Several wells belched sour hydrogen sulfide at concentrations that maxed out the gas detector, registering levels three times as high as what is “immediately dangerous to life or health,” according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Oil Conservation Division inspectors hadn’t visited some of the wells since 2017, according to agency records. Two hundred fifty miles northwest of these oil fields, New Mexico’s Democrat-controlled government in Santa Fe has for years made big promises on climate change and the environment. But there has been little action to regulate the industry in ways that could hit the bottom line of the state’s petroleum companies and oilmen like Remnant’s Gray, Stitzel and Gilmore. The taxes and royalties the industry pays, which the state has tied to public education funding, typically account for more than a quarter of the state’s general fund, earning it a nickname — “golden goose.” This close relationship to the industry cuts across parties. When Republicans were in power, the head of the New Mexico Environment Department left to run the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. Now, the state’s Democratic leaders take major fossil fuel donations, publicly assert that they will not target the industry with aggressive regulations, and block reform. State Rep. Joanne Ferrary, a Las Cruces Democrat who has worked on oil legislation, had a simple explanation for what dooms these efforts: money. She pointed to the industry’s spending on lobbying as well as the threat of losing taxes and royalties. “We do get a lot of money from them,” she said, “but those are our resources and they’re not doing us any favors.” Consider the state’s Office of Natural Resources Trustee, which pursues polluters for financial settlements to clean up the environment. The agency has secured millions of dollars from mines, an Army munitions depot and a wood treatment facility. But it completed just one action for petroleum pollution in decades. Even then, the office only had jurisdiction to pursue a small settlement because a tanker truck flipped on an icy road, spilling refined gasoline and diesel into the Cimarron River. Legislators attempted to expand the office’s authority in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013 and again last year. All those efforts failed. Ferrary, who sponsored the 2023 bill to grant the trustee more authority over petroleum and certain cancer-causing substances, said the oil and gas industry has “such strong lobbying that we have to negotiate whatever we are trying to do. It always seems to get negotiated down.” In a recent four-year period, the state’s oil and gas industry spent $11.5 million to influence policy, in addition to employing dozens of lobbyists, according to research from two government accountability nonprofits. “Lawmakers and regulators appropriately balance the need to hold industry accountable while also ensuring oil and gas operations remain viable,” Frederick Bermudez, the vice president of communications for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said in a statement. He added that Remnant is not a member of the trade group and that “bad actors in the industry should be held accountable.” Regulators argue they’re underfunded and understaffed, while environmental activists point out agencies are sometimes tasked with simultaneously overseeing and advancing the industry. New Mexico records, for example, show that the Oil Conservation Division inspects roughly half the state’s wells annually, but many go years without a visit. Meanwhile, it quickly greenlights requests to drill new wells, generally granting approval for more than 90% of permits within 10 days. The state does even worse at preparing for the industry’s decline. The division secured about 7% of the tens of millions of dollars of additional bonds it requested from companies in violation of idle well rules, according to a ProPublica and Capital & Main analysis of the agency’s data. (The division said some companies no longer need to hand over the requested bonds because they have since left their wells as orphans for the state to plug. The state has already labeled more than 1,700 wells as orphans.) The Oil Conservation Division has “limited bandwidth” and has to triage enforcement, Fuge, its acting director, said, adding that a mix of enforcement actions and business decisions lead companies to plug many of their own wells. “We don’t prioritize inactive well actions when the chute’s too deep because we want to devote the resources that we have to other enforcement initiatives.” Oil wells cover the landscape near Loco Hills, New Mexico, which sits in the Permian Basin, a major oil- and gas-producing area in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico. (Jim WEST/REPORT DIGITAL-REA/Redux) “Ill-Prepared for This Last Phase of Life” By the time regulators took notice of Remnant’s myriad violations and idle wells, it was too late. Core to oil regulators’ power are bonds, the financial assurances oil companies must set aside to guarantee that wells are plugged. Proper cleanup is expensive, so when bonding levels are low, companies have no incentive to finish cleanup and retrieve their bonds. To decommission a typical orphan well in New Mexico costs the state about $167,000, according to documents the Oil Conservation Division submitted to the U.S. Department of the Interior. That translates to an $11.8 billion shortfall between the potential future cleanup costs and bonds that companies set aside with the agency, ProPublica and Capital & Main found. “The state of New Mexico is short,” Fuge said. “We don’t hold sufficient bonding to cover likely plugging liabilities.” Fuge suggested the shortfall might be smaller, deferring to an environmental group’s lower projection. Elsewhere in state government, the State Land Office in 2022 estimated the gap between bonds and cleanup costs was $8.1 billion. Based on the per-well cleanup costs Fuge’s agency submitted to the federal government, the wells belonging to Remnant and a related company could cost the state $67 million if they are orphaned. The companies have only set aside about $1.5 million in bonds across three state and federal agencies. Under current New Mexico rules, companies only need to put up a single bond worth a maximum of $250,000 — no matter how many wells they have — with the Oil Conservation Division. The failed reform bill would’ve increased that cap to $10 million. The division can request additional bonds to cover the increased risk from idle wells, but when it asked Remnant and a related company for about $3 million, the operators put up less than a tenth of that and kept pumping oil. Weak bonding rules and an unwillingness to take on the industry have created similar shortfalls across the nation. The Pennsylvania General Assembly in the 1990s, for example, forced the state’s oil regulators to hand back money that oil companies had set aside to plug wells drilled prior to 1985, which numbered in the tens of thousands of wells. Oklahoma allows oil companies that prove they’re worth at least $50,000 — about the price of one of the ubiquitous pickup trucks cruising the oil fields — to set aside no money to plug their wells. And Kansas gives companies, no matter how many wells they own, the option of paying a flat $100 annual fee instead of setting aside a bond, as long as they have not committed recent infractions. Seven out of eight companies in the state take this route, leaving an average of less than $13 in bonds for each of the state’s 150,000 unplugged wells. The state’s estimated cleanup costs — which experts said may be low — would mean the state faces about a $1 billion shortfall between the bonds and plugging costs. “Regulations that may have worked well enough in the past have left the public and the industry ill-prepared for this last phase of life for millions of old wells,” Purvis, the petroleum reservoir engineer, said. “Left unchanged, current regulations and practices will continue to accrue liabilities that will ultimately fall on taxpayers.” All told, oil drillers have set aside only $2.7 billion in bonds with the 15 states that account for nearly all the country’s oil and gas production and $204 million with the Bureau of Land Management, the main federal oil regulator. The expected cost to plug and clean up wells in those states is $151.3 billion. ProPublica and Capital & Main obtained and analyzed more than a thousand pages of states’ applications for funding to plug orphan wells as part of the Biden administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The documents reveal for the first time states’ own estimates of the cleanup costs in a way that allows states to be compared. “You can give us probably the entire infrastructure act funding — $4.7 billion — and we'd probably spend that in Pennsylvania,” Kurt Klapkowski, head of the commonwealth’s Office of Oil and Gas Management, told a national meeting of regulators in October. Some states acknowledged that accumulated costs from unplugged wells are high but said they could be mitigated by additional money in the states’ orphan well funds — which often contain several million dollars and were not included in this study — and by tools meant to ensure companies, rather than taxpayers, plug the wells. For example, Wyoming significantly increases the bonds required of operators when wells go idle. “Wyoming is fully bonded to be protective of the wells” under state oversight, Tom Kropatsch, oil and gas supervisor of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said in an email, pointing to the fact that most wells that have been plugged in Wyoming were plugged by the industry, not the state. “The bonds we hold are adjusted on an ongoing basis as our agency conducts an annual bond review of each operator.” North Dakota regulators, with the luxury of a still highly profitable industry, have resources to more rigorously police oil. Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, said this includes enough inspectors to observe well plugging, determine whether idle wells require additional bonding and scrutinize proposed well transfers to smaller operators, which are “the biggest risk.” Helms said the state aims to cover as much as 10% of future plugging costs through bonds and orphan well funds, although his department is still working to reach that level. Both North Dakota and Wyoming hold more bonds and face lower impending liability than New Mexico. “When the bottom goes out of this oil and gas production economy, who’s going to be left holding that bag?” New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands Stephanie Garcia Richard asked. Wind turbines have sprung up around oil wells near Odessa, Texas. (Lalo de Almeida/Folhapress/Panos/Redux) “I Got Big-Time Screwed Over” In July 2019, less than four years after Gray, Stitzel and Gilmore began buying up wells, Remnant was in bad shape. Its wells were deteriorating and production was declining. The owners had made a costly gamble on an oil sale and the company’s bank demanded payment on a debt, according to court testimony from Gray. So Remnant employed a tactic that has saved the oil industry billions — its owners filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection with a court in Texas. The Bankruptcy Code is meant to protect jobs, creditors and the economy by allowing companies to stabilize during rough patches. But bankruptcy court is a key step in the industry’s playbook, as it has become an oil field escape hatch, effectively allowing companies with aging wells to sell off valuable assets while orphaning wells in need of immediate cleanup. Companies can also stop the clock on many enforcement actions. Between 2015 and 2021, 256 oil and gas producers entered bankruptcy protection across the country, carrying with them about $175 billion in debt, according to Haynes and Boone, a law firm that produced the most comprehensive research on oil field bankruptcies. (Haynes and Boone is representing ProPublica in several Texas lawsuits.) Court records show the bankrupt Remnant companies owed millions of dollars to hundreds of creditors — oil field service companies, the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department, counties, banks, trucking companies and a local air conditioning and heating company. But in the year leading up to the bankruptcies, court filings show, Remnant paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees to companies belonging to at least two of the men who ran the company and cut numerous paychecks to a daughter, son, cousin and daughter-in-law of various executives. In April 2020, unsecured creditors who were owed millions of dollars had the case converted to Chapter 7, meaning a trustee would take over, liquidate the company’s assets and pay back creditors where possible. Debts relating to cleaning up the environment or repaying labor “get pretty low priority” in bankruptcy cases, explained Josh Macey, a law professor at the University of Chicago who studies bankruptcy and reviewed ProPublica and Capital & Main’s findings. To Macey, one solution to unfavorable bankruptcy rules is bonds, as they’re protected even in bankruptcy. “Bonding requirements have not proven to be sufficient,” he said, “but if they were, it would make bankruptcy irrelevant.” Arturo Carrasco was one of Remnant’s unsecured creditors, meaning a long list of debts would have to be settled before he saw any money. Carrasco, now retired, owned Art’s Hot Oil Services, an oil field maintenance company with a handful of drivers and trucks out of Lovington, New Mexico. By the time Remnant hired Carrasco’s company to work on its wells, most were “already depleted,” he said. Remnant only paid him a little at a time and never the full amount it owed, Carrasco said. Carrasco filed claims for more than $165,000 in the bankruptcy, according to court records, and that didn’t include another $50,000 in unpaid expenses like fuel, he said. Concerned his company might go under, Carrasco worked “double time” to make up for the lost income. With no expectation of recovering money via the bankruptcy, he briefly fantasized about throwing a chain around Remnant’s pump jacks and pulling them down. “I got big-time screwed over,” he said. Graveyards of Wells Three months after the judge ordered that Remnant liquidate, a buyer called Acacia Resources LLC wired $402,000 to the trustee, completing the purchase of Remnant’s assets. The new company was run by familiar names — Stitzel and Gilmore, Remnant’s former chief operating officer and president, state records show. Business filings and his LinkedIn profile suggest Gray left the venture to launch a helium and natural gas company. “All they did was file bankruptcy. Then they went to the bank and bought it at a cheaper price, and they’re still producing,” Carrasco said. “How can that be allowed?” Fuge, the New Mexico oil regulator, said the companies are the “subject of prime enforcement attention” but did not comment further. And a Bureau of Land Management spokesperson said Remnant had no outstanding violations and the agency was not preparing to forfeit the company’s bonds. The details of Acacia’s operations are murky. The on-the-ground situation doesn’t always match New Mexico’s data, while state records don’t align with federal records. But Remnant’s business practices are similar to those of any number of undercapitalized drillers holding portfolios of old wells. So the State Land Office began a campaign to bring such operators into compliance to protect the state from shouldering the burden of even more orphan wells. Buried amid pages of infractions in Remnant’s files, agency staff noted that satellite imagery appeared to show a spill at a Remnant well in the Drickey Queen Sand Unit. In November, the agency wrote to Gray, Stitzel and others, demanding they begin plugging wells in the field. Jaclyn McLean, an attorney representing Acacia, responded with a proposal — Acacia would plug a few wells per year and pay back some money it owed for pumping oil on expired leases if the state would renew those leases and reduce the amount the company owed. With Gilmore, who was a manager of both Remnant and Acacia, copied on the letter, McLean blamed prior management’s “severe inaction” and promised that “the new management team seeks to maintain professionalism, integrity, and authenticity.” (McLean did not respond to a request for comment.) “Tell your client to get serious,” the agency responded. Still unplugged, Remnant’s wells in the Drickey Queen Sand Unit stood eerily silent during a recent site visit, the bellowing and bleating of cattle the only sound as they grazed among the apparent orphans. At one of the pump jacks, which had not drawn oil in more than eight years, pieces of metal had corroded and fallen off. Lines used for collecting oil in preparation for sale lay in the dirt. They connected to nothing. Methodology To investigate what leads to oil and gas wells being orphaned, ProPublica and Capital & Main filed more than 55 public records requests with state and federal agencies and toured oil fields in New Mexico, Texas and California. We interviewed dozens of petroleum engineers, researchers, community members and government officials, including the leadership of oil agencies in Louisiana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. To determine the magnitude of the shortfall between cleanup costs and bonds, we needed to answer several questions: how many wells are unplugged, how much money have companies set aside in bonds and how much does it cost to plug and remediate a well. The analysis focused on the top 15 oil- and gas-producing states because, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data, they accounted for 99% of the country’s output in recent years. Those states are Texas, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Louisiana, Colorado, West Virginia, Ohio, Wyoming, Alaska, California, Arkansas, Utah and Kansas. With petroleum reservoir engineer Dwayne Purvis, we analyzed data from energy software company Enverus to determine the number of unplugged wells in each state, conservatively defining them as either clearly active or in some stage of idling. We checked these figures against previous estimates, such as what states self-reported to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. To calculate plugging costs, we used the estimates that states reported to the U.S. Department of the Interior in their notices of intent to apply for Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funds. We checked these figures against states’ next round of applications, Native American tribes’ applications and hundreds of orphan well plugging contracts from across the country. The agreements showed the detailed mechanics of the work, such as where cement plugs were placed, how surface infrastructure was removed and what post-remediation environmental monitoring was completed. Plugging costs varied widely depending on the depth, condition and geography of the well, but costs ballooned to the high six figures or even the seven-figure range when projects faced unanticipated obstacles, such as cannonballs having been dropped into a well as an improvised plug, wells igniting and the need to tear up city streets to plug some wells. For bonding figures, we obtained the 15 states’ datasets of all active bonds tied to oil and gas well plugging, remediation and reclamation. We relied on figures reported by the Government Accountability Office for the value of bonds held by the Bureau of Land Management. We requested, but did not receive, that agency’s data, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs didn’t answer questions about bonds on tribal land. We didn’t include other jurisdictions’ bonds, as those are much smaller. (For example, New Mexico’s State Land Office requires bonds but only holds $20,000 for Remnant’s wells.) To check our methodology, we gave a 10-member panel of petroleum engineers, law professors and former regulators an opportunity to comment on the findings. These experts have worked or currently work with the California Geologic Energy Management Division, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Texas Christian University, the Carbon Tracker Initiative and other research organizations. They widely accepted the final methodology. The lead oil regulatory agency from all 15 states also had a chance to review the findings. Some states’ data showed slightly different numbers of unplugged wells than Enverus’ data, but we used the Enverus data because it is standardized and not all states provided well counts. Regulators also emphasized that bonds are an insurance policy not meant to cover 100% of the cost, that states won’t have to plug every well because the industry will plug many and that other agencies also hold bonds. When estimating the total revenue generated by Remnant’s and Acacia’s wells, we used New Mexico Oil Conservation Division data to tell us how much oil and gas each well produced. Because some production wasn’t assigned a year, we worked with Purvis to model a likely production decline curve. We multiplied that by each year’s oil and gas prices, mainly found in Energy Information Administration data, and adjusted that for inflation, using Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. Finally, our emissions testing fieldwork was completed using a handheld Bascom-Turner Gas Explorer Detector. We consulted Amy Townsend-Small, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Cincinnati, to formulate the testing plan. We checked the readings with the manufacturer, whose employees said they had never seen their equipment register such high levels. They gathered in an office to call our reporter and ask if he was all right (he was because he wore an acid gas and organic vapor respirator around the wells). Graphics by Jason Kao. Mollie Simon contributed research, and Agnel Philip contributed data reporting.
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by Mary Hudetz and Logan Jaffe ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. As major U.S. museums in recent weeks closed displays and exhibit halls containing Native American objects, the Museum of Us in San Diego hasn’t done the same. That’s not because the anthropological museum is ignoring new federal repatriation rules, which took effect this year. Rather, more than five years ago, its board of trustees adopted a policy on collections from Indigenous communities that addressed the concerns the new rules focus on. In its policy, the Museum of Us admitted it had blocked the repatriation of items and excluded Indigenous perspectives in exhibits centered on the groups’ cultures. It also acknowledged that it had failed to link the collecting practices it embraced after its founding in 1915 to the history of genocide against Native Americans. “We’re not scrambling,” Kara Vetter, the Museum of Us’ senior director of cultural resources, said of the new regulations. “It doesn’t really change anything for us.” The fact that the Museum of Us addressed its collections years ago stands in sharp contrast to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which shuttered two exhibit halls where items from tribes in the northern U.S. were displayed. Harvard University’s Peabody Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York also have removed select items from display. And Chicago’s Field Museum has shrouded dozens of display cases in its ancient Americas, northwest coast and arctic exhibits. Each of those museums say they are prioritizing repatriations under NAGPRA and the perspectives of tribes. They also have removed items from display in the past in response to requests from tribes but are now closing or covering displays as they review information about the items and meet the mandates of the new federal regulations. Founding displays at many of the country’s older museums reflected the once-widespread, racist view held by many white anthropologists and early archaeologists that Native Americans were an inferior and dying race of people whose ancestors needed to be studied and preserved. Under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, institutions are required to provide summaries of their holdings to tribes and federal officials — which then allows tribes or descendants to begin the process of reclaiming the items or their ancestors’ remains. In a series of articles last year, called “The Repatriation Project,” ProPublica reported how today, hundreds of institutions still hold the remains of over 97,000 Native Americans, along with tens of thousands of belongings that were buried with them. Because museums have been so slow to relinquish hundreds of thousands of objects — often obtained generations ago through exploitative purchases or grave looting — they now face a new mandate to again consult with tribes about the items they still have, including those on display. The rules mandate that museums have a “duty of care” to defer to tribes’ requests and customs in handling their ancestors and belongings in storage facilities. They also require the consent of tribes in order to exhibit cultural and funerary items. The Field Museum in Chicago has shrouded dozens of display cases. (Kevin Serna for ProPublica) While closures at some high-profile museums made headlines, other institutions like the Museum of Us and History Colorado, a publicly funded network of museums, had no need to scramble because they had already taken measures to work with tribal nations in deciding what items should be displayed and how. “This is just a little piece of what NAGPRA is about, and if institutions were doing what they were supposed to do, this is not what they would have to do today,” said Shannon O’Loughlin, an attorney and chief executive of the Association on American Indian Affairs. “They would have already repatriated and educated the public more appropriately about who Native people are.” Under the policy adopted in 2018, Museum of Us staff must obtain documented authorization from tribal communities to continue housing tens of thousands of items in its collections. And no items subject to NAGPRA, such as items taken from graves, are to be displayed. Museum leaders’ meetings with Indigenous people about the collection are expected to foster new exhibits that tell authentic and nuanced stories, according to its policy. Today, the museum is years into a process that’s now mandated by the new NAGPRA regulations. It has transferred items to tribes that request them. But it has also found that some tribes want items made by their ancestors to stay at the museum — such as several baskets from the Jamul Indian Village, 20 miles east of San Diego. At History Colorado, curators also have not had to remove objects from exhibits or cover displays since the rules took effect. Founded as the state government’s historical society in the late 1800s, it has already returned to tribes all items and human remains subject to NAGPRA. Today, History Colorado’s museums continue to present exhibits about tribes and their histories, but collaboration with tribal representatives who help make decisions about displays is now a “guiding virtue,” said Dawn DiPrince, History Colorado’s CEO and president. “Some of this really is about where authority is held and whose knowledge should come to bear. This is something that we deal with in the creation of exhibitions and materials in our collections.” History Colorado improved its collaboration with tribes following a painful episode more than a decade ago in which the museum opened and promptly closed an exhibit on the Sand Creek Massacre. More than 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people were murdered on the plains of eastern Colorado in the 1864 attack, and tribes have long told of how the trauma caused by the massacre has persisted among Cheyenne and Arapaho people for generations. Yet tribal representatives were excluded from the planning of the 2012 exhibit, “Collision: The Sand Creek Massacre, 1860s to Today,” which showcased weapons. Tribes were immediately critical, pointing out that the exhibit’s title suggested the massacre was a two-sided battle when the tribes had not sought a confrontation with the U.S. government, whose troops killed women, children and elders at Sand Creek. They also noted the insensitivity of displaying weapons, DiPrince said. Following years of talks, History Colorado began to work directly with tribal members on exhibits — first on one about Ute tribal nations that opened in 2018 and then a new exhibit on the Sand Creek Massacre, which opened in 2022, without items from the massacre site. “Tribal reps and staff weighed every single word in that exhibition,” DiPrince said. “The belongings that are on exhibit were also selected by them.” Chance Ward, History Colorado's NAGPRA coordinator who is Lakota and a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, said that the state historical society also now accommodates tribal members’ requests for access to objects that are on display. For example, a ceremonial staff with eagle feathers in the Sand Creek exhibit is still used by the tribes, including during an annual healing run at Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. Afterward, tribal members return the staff to the exhibit, where text explains what it was used for in the past and how it is still used today. “That’s a great example of what exhibits should reflect in all museums, that tribes are still alive and they still use modern contemporary items in their culture and for ceremonies and it’s not just black and white photos of us,” said Ward, who joined History Colorado in September. He said History Colorado updated its repatriation policy this month to ensure its museums continue honoring tribes’ wishes, especially when a tribe initially consents to the museum possessing or displaying an object but later wants it to be returned. “Consent today does not equal consent in the future,” the museum’s updated policy states. “Consultation with Native American and Indigenous Peoples on how to present their histories is an ongoing process that cannot be rushed.” The Museum of Us’ policy uses similar language. It’s important for museums to acknowledge their past, said Elysia Poon, director of the Indian Arts Research Center at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Poon said she’s noticed over the past decade more museums are trying to work with tribes, but leadership’s involvement is a key factor in whether that happens. Last year, she and a group of colleagues from tribal museums, culture centers and other institutions published new industry standards, calling for more deference to Native traditions and knowledge when displaying and storing Native American items. The standards inform the museum accreditation process through the American Alliance of Museums but are not formal criteria, Poon said, adding that their hope is to address the need for greater cultural competency and sensitivity within institutions. “These are issues that have long been identified as problems with museum structures,” Poon said. “The structures are colonial inherently.” When NAGPRA passed in 1990, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii acknowledged that reality, telling members of Congress, “For museums that have dealt honestly and in good faith with Native Americans, this legislation will have little effect.” But for museums that have “consistently ignored the requests of Native Americans,” he said, “this legislation will give Native Americans greater ability to negotiate.”
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[l] at 2/20/24 3:00am
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. Robert Tracy’s appointment as St. Louis’ police chief came with a sweetener: In addition to a $175,000 annual salary from the city, a nonprofit organization made up of local business leaders pays him $100,000 a year more. The arrangement raised some questions at the time about whether the St. Louis Police Foundation’s money would influence Tracy’s approach to policing in a city with one of the nation’s highest rates of violent crime. Thirteen months after Tracy took charge, those questions remain largely unanswered. Megan Green, president of the board of aldermen and the city’s second-highest ranking official, said that while Tracy is generally responsive to the board, aldermen need more information about the financial relationship between the foundation and the Police Department and will now ask for it. “I think we don’t know the exact extent to which he collaborates with the foundation or they have his ears,” Green said. “The public deserves to understand exactly, even beyond salary, how much money the police foundation is investing in the Police Department.” Sharon Tyus, a longtime alderwoman who represents some north side neighborhoods most affected by crime, questioned whether Tracy’s arrangement with the foundation is legal. “Who else can pay the chief?” she asked. “Can the criminals get together and pay the chief?” Since it was founded in 2007, the foundation has given the Police Department at least $20 million in support, including both cash donations and in-kind gifts of training, weapons, protective gear and technology. But until Tracy’s hiring, it had never paid a public official; the deal with Tracy, policing experts say, is unheard of for a U.S. police chief. (It’s far more common for coaches at elite college athletic programs.) Tracy, who previously was the chief of police in Wilmington, Delaware, was the first chief in the St. Louis department’s 214-year history to be selected from outside the department. Mayor Tishaura O. Jones announced his appointment after a nationwide search with help from a firm whose work was paid for by another St. Louis-area business group, the Regional Business Council. Jones has praised Tracy for the city’s reduction in reports of violent crime in his first year on the job, while Tracy has credited the work of the department’s officers, community support and his own crime reduction strategies. Tracy and Jones did not respond to questions from ProPublica or requests for interviews. Nick Dunne, a spokesperson for Jones, said in an email that the mayor has been “continuously transparent” about the selection process and Tracy’s salary. “It remains clear that Chief Tracy is a worthwhile investment in the safety of St. Louis residents,” Dunne said. Tracy assumed his role just a few months after ProPublica published stories focusing on the growth of private police forces in St. Louis. Those stories revealed that wealthier neighborhoods paid private companies for additional police services provided by moonlighting city officers and high-ranking leaders. After the stories’ publication, Jones said in a radio interview that she intended to make changes to the private policing system to eliminate the disparities. But Tracy’s appointment has only cemented the city’s pay-to-play policing environment; the promised overhaul has not taken place. In a recent interview with KSDK-TV, Tracy said he didn’t want to prevent his officers from earning additional money in second jobs. Experts in policing and public administration criticized private funding of Tracy’s salary. They said the foundation’s money threatens to divide Tracy’s civic loyalties or at least create the impression that he’s beholden to wealthy donors. “When you have what could be perceived as a very high-level pay-to-play scheme, where certain businesses and entities have not just the chief’s phone number but literally sign more than a third of his paycheck, that’s just a bad look,” said Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina’s law school who has studied private policing. Money from police foundations is used in a number of cities and in a variety of ways, from funding officer appreciation days to providing helicopters. They bridge budget gaps and provide resources that might otherwise be unavailable because of public funding limitations. Their supporters say they enhance what police can do and can foster partnerships between the community and the police. But, Stoughton said, that kind of spending is “significantly different from giving a police chief a private stipend, particularly one that constitutes a substantial portion of his public salary. That’s weird.” Justin Marlowe, a research professor at University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and the director for the school’s Center for Municipal Finance, said it was clear “something is wrong with the way St. Louis is budgeting for policing.” If it was important to pay the chief $100,000 more, he said, “then you find a way to do that through the budget process. And then that way it’s very clear where the accountability is and clear what the performance expectations are.” Marlowe noted that public officials are expected to recuse themselves from votes or actions in which they have a financial interest to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. While taxpayers and the foundation might share objectives, “What we’re worried about is, What if there’s not alignment?” In public statements to the media, Tracy has said he is not beholden to the foundation. The foundation’s chairman, Doug Albrecht, has told reporters that the foundation’s only condition for Tracy was that he remain engaged with the community and with officers. But in his first year on the job, the foundation played a role in financing Tracy’s downtown crime strategy, contributing $860,000 for additional patrols in the business district, an area that had seen spikes in crime and raucous parties that turned violent. The foundation said this funding was at Tracy’s request. And Tracy told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he chose downtown for foundation-funded patrols because it’s a popular gathering place. The program has been renewed this year. In the email to ProPublica, Dunne, the mayor’s spokesperson, said the downtown patrols were “designed to incentivize officers to work secondary under the department itself, rather than private companies.” Joe Vaccaro, the longtime chairman of the Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee until he lost reelection last year, said that, if he were still on the board, he would ask why Tracy chose downtown for the foundation-funded patrols. “Why are you picking downtown over my neighborhood?” he asked. “There are more killings in areas of north St. Louis. Why is downtown more important? Oh, wait a minute, the money comes from the group that’s paying you.” Vaccaro’s successor as public safety chair, Bret Narayan, said the financial relationship between the foundation and Tracy “is something we should be taking a hard look at.” He said that though the board has not typically received line-item detail on foundation gifts to the department, some aldermen have been discussing legislation that would require the department to provide that. In an interview, the foundation’s president and executive director, Michelle Craig, said that its relationship with Tracy is substantially the same as with his two predecessors — though neither of them received foundation money. She said board members “do not have any more access than anyone else who would call the chief’s office and make an appointment.” Tracy’s predecessor, John Hayden, who served as police chief for 4 1/2 years until his retirement in June 2022, said the foundation did not try to influence his decisions. He said the department would sometimes ask the foundation to buy equipment instead of waiting for the next year’s city budget allocation. He said that when the department said it needed bulletproof helmets, the foundation bought them, citing an incident where an officer had been shot. Hayden said he wished that he’d had the opportunity to try to negotiate a higher salary than the $153,000 he made in his last full year. But he said he would have preferred to be paid by the city. “I think then the citizens would be more comfortable that I wasn’t beholden to somebody,” he said. Lt. Col. Michael Sack, who served as interim chief for about six months in 2022 and was one of four finalists for the chief’s job, said in a federal lawsuit against the city that he would have turned down the extra pay from the foundation so St. Louis would not have a chief “who has conflicts of interest.” (Sack says he was wrongly rejected for the job; the city says that the lawsuit has no merit and has asked a federal judge to dismiss it.) St. Louis does not appear to have a clear need for private funding of its chief. The department’s budget this year is $189 million and, because it is about 300 officers short of its authorized strength of 1,215, it has not spent all the money the city has made available. Last year, the department was more than $12 million under budget. The private pay for Tracy is part of a broader pattern where St. Louis-area business leaders, many of whom live and work outside the city, have quietly tried to influence police operations because of concerns about crime’s impact on the regional economy. Albrecht, the foundation chairman lives in Ladue, an affluent suburb 12 miles west of St. Louis known for sprawling estates and private golf clubs. That’s also where his venture capital and private equity firm, Bodley Group, is based. The foundation’s mailing address is his office. Albrecht didn’t respond to requests for comment. At the time of Tracy’s hiring, Albrecht said the group learned during the search that the process was limited by the low pay for the position. The city charter requires that the police and fire chief be paid equally. Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson made $157,423 in 2022. He was paid $175,000 in 2023 after Tracy was hired. Jenkerson said in a brief interview that he was “in the process of working on that issue” and that “parity is parity.” He said he did not want to comment on what he thought about Tracy’s foundation pay. St. Louis ranks at the lower end for how it pays its chief — at least before Tracy. A survey by the Police Executive Research Forum found that, in 2021, the average salary for chiefs in the 38 largest U.S. police departments was $232,380. The additional pay for the chief’s job was never part of publicly available information about it. And it’s not clear if the city considered paying the chief a higher salary, even if it meant paying the fire chief more. Green said she didn’t know if such a proposal was taken to the Board of Aldermen before she was elected its president in November 2022. Her predecessor, Lewis Reed, resigned and is in federal prison on a bribery conviction. Records the foundation provided to John Chasnoff, a local activist who has pressed for transparency over the city’s policing, show that its board members were discussing a plan to contribute to the next chief’s salary at least three months before Tracy’s selection. An email to board members from Albrecht said the city’s maximum salary of $175,000 “will not allow us to acquire the highest level of talent for this position.” Albrecht wrote that to secure the contract of up to $100,000 with the new chief, the foundation would work directly with the search firm the city used and, ultimately, with the candidate. “The city would not be involved,” he wrote. In an email to St. Louis Police Foundation members, its chairman, Doug Albrecht, discusses a pay package for the new city police chief. (Obtained by ProPublica) Minutes from a foundation board retreat in September 2022 indicate members agreed that this financial support was crucial to attract the most qualified candidate, even if they had no control over the process or the eventual appointee. Minutes from a St. Louis Police Foundation retreat (Obtained by ProPublica) Tracy insisted in a KMOV-TV interview that he was not beholden to the foundation and that his integrity was intact because “that was a deal with the city, and not a deal to me personally.” But that appears to not be true. A contract released by the foundation — after pressure from Chasnoff — shows that it was signed by Tracy and Albrecht. Besides salary, the contract requires Tracy to conduct a series of outreach efforts, including town hall meetings with department staff, regular communications and updates to the community by a blog or other means, and annual meetings with leaders in each of the city’s 14 wards. The agreement runs for three years or unless Tracy is fired by the city or the foundation has probable cause that he has committed misconduct or failed to uphold the agreement. Craig said the foundation was pleased with Tracy’s performance. “I’m not in the media, so I don’t know the struggles of getting his attention,” she said, “but to us it appears he’s in a lot of places in the community, and that’s what he’s supposed to be doing.”
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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. Wisconsin’s dinosaur-shaped legislative district could soon be history. The curiously drawn district and other oddities associated with the state’s extreme gerrymandering would be erased in new voting maps passed this week by the Wisconsin Legislature. A state Supreme Court decision finally forced Wisconsin Republicans to cede an advantage they enjoyed for more than a decade with maps that made the state one of the nation’s foremost examples of gerrymandering. The Senate and Assembly voted to adopt voting maps drawn by the office of Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat. Evers said a week ago that he would sign his redistricting plan into law if passed unchanged by the Legislature, and proponents of fairer maps have encouraged him to do so. The surprising legislative development promises to end a six-month battle in front of the state’s now left-leaning high court, which ruled the GOP maps unconstitutional shortly before Christmas. The new design resolves many of the irregularities in the current electoral maps, chief among them the “Swiss cheese” appearance that stranded some constituents in segments detached from the rest of their districts. One of the more obvious examples of partisan artifice was in the northwest corner of the state, in the 73rd Assembly District, where the GOP had strategically added Republican areas and subtracted Democratic ones in a plan enacted in 2022. Residents joked the contours came to resemble a Tyrannosaurus rex. The maneuver was successful. That year, a Republican won the seat, which had been held by Democrats for 50 years. The new map completely redraws that district and others. “The legislature will be up for grabs,” Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said from the floor on Tuesday, the day the vote was taken. In an unusually magnanimous gesture, Vos said, “Pains me to say it, but Gov. Evers gets a huge win today.” Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images) Even under the governor’s maps, the GOP is still expected to retain majorities in both chambers, though the party’s advantage would likely be slimmer than the absolute authority it now commands, particularly in the Senate. Currently, the GOP has a supermajority in the Senate and a near supermajority in the Assembly. Vos acknowledged in a news conference that running under Evers’ map is “going to be more challenging, there’s no doubt about that.” But, he said, “I still think we can win because we have a better message.” Prior to the legislative action, justices had been set to select new district maps from a group of proposals, including the one from Evers. Indications were the decision would not be favorable to the GOP. Rather than take their chances, Republicans decided to approve the governor’s maps, which are considered to be “friendlier” to the GOP than the others when measuring partisan bias and incumbent matchups. A Marquette University analysis determined that if the 2022 election had taken place under Evers’ maps, it’s likely that Democrats would have won an additional 11 seats in the Assembly and five in the Senate, neither enough to flip control. Nine Senate Democrats voted against Evers’ plan, signaling concerns that the GOP’s approval was a strategic ploy to be followed by a challenge in federal court from a Republican ally. “I am voting no because I do not trust what you guys are up to,” said Sen. Chris Larson, a Milwaukee Democrat. But Vos downplayed the likelihood of more court action, telling reporters Tuesday that he preferred to get on with the business of campaigning and talking about ideas with voters. “I think that is a better answer than drawn-out court battles and going through millions of dollars of taxpayer expense when there’s really no need to do so,” he said. The Assembly passed the governor’s maps without debate. Only one Democrat voted yes. Democrats were unhappy with a provision in the bill that would stall the implementation of the new maps until November — a move seen to benefit Vos, who is facing a recall effort from constituents on the far right. Democrats also indicated a desire to let the state Supreme Court case play out. It was only six months ago that a new justice, Janet Protasiewicz, took office, tilting the court decidedly to the left. During her campaign, which she won in a landslide, she made it clear she would welcome the chance to review the constitutionality of the maps, flatly describing them as “rigged.” A day after her swearing-in ceremony, a maps case landed on the court’s doorstep, brought by 19 Democratic voters. For months after Protasiewicz’s election, Vos threatened to impeach her if she did not recuse herself from the case, claiming her remarks on the campaign trail made her biased. He later abandoned that tactic. On Dec. 22, the high court overturned the current maps and ordered the parties to propose new ones. The vote on the decision was 4-3, with Protasiewicz siding with the majority. The court hired two academic consultants to analyze the proposals and issue a report evaluating the plans for their conformity to standard districting requirements, including compactness and equal population distribution. The consultants found that plans offered by GOP lawmakers and by a conservative policy group constituted “partisan gerrymanders” and should not be considered. The four remaining proposals greenlit by the consultants were submitted by the plaintiffs, Evers’ office, a group of Democratic senators, and a team of mathematicians and data scientists. The consultants — from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the University of California, Irvine — determined that those four plans were “similar on most criteria.” Good-government groups applauded the possibility of a legislative agreement, largely because it brings about stability and a measure of political certainty until the next redistricting process, after the 2030 census. Besides, said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, “The governor’s maps are pretty darn good.” One of the key problems with the current maps, the court concluded, was that the districts had noncontiguous shapes. The state’s constitution stipulates that Assembly members must be elected from districts consisting of “contiguous territory.” Likewise, Senate districts, which are each made up of three Assembly districts, must consist of “convenient contiguous territory.” Fifty-five of the state’s 99 Assembly districts and 21 of 33 Senate districts contained “disconnected pieces of territory,” according to the petition presented to the Supreme Court. “A map can’t be fair if it doesn’t meet the requirements of the constitution,” said Debbie Patel, founder of North Shore Fair Maps, a group of suburban Milwaukee residents who have been fighting for statewide maps that are not skewed in favor of either party. The random islands or irregular blobs in the current maps are largely due to the annexation of land over time by cities and villages, resulting in disjointed municipal boundaries. The Evers maps and the others under consideration fix that problem. The 88th Assembly District, for example, which currently includes eastern portions of Green Bay, has a couple of islands and a hole that would be eliminated under Evers’ plan. The district’s current occupant, Republican Rep. John Macco, voted yes Tuesday, even though his home would no longer be within the district’s boundaries. “They literally carved me out by 581 feet. Intentionally,” he said. He expects to have to sell his house and move to compete again there. “I’ll do whatever I have to do to represent the people of the 88th District,” he said in an interview. In northwest Wisconsin, Democrats hope they can reclaim the 73rd District under a new map. All four maps under court consideration relegate the “T. rex” to fossil status. Under Evers’ iteration, the district would no longer stretch more than 100 miles south from the Minnesota border city of Superior. Instead, it would be more homogeneous, encompassing much of Douglas County, and reach farther east, embracing more of the coastal communities along Lake Superior. The current map, first, shows the 73rd “T. rex” Assembly District, while the new map, second, shows the district’s lines under the governor’s plan. District 73 is in yellow. (Maps by ProPublica using Daves Redistricting/Social Good Fund) “Historically, you’ll see from voting records, it’s always been blue up here right along the lake,” said Laura Gapske, a Democrat who narrowly lost in 2022 to the district’s current representative, Republican Angie Sapik. Gapske handily carried Douglas County, with 58% of the vote. She’s now running for the Superior School Board. Sapik, who wrote social media posts cheering on the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, has announced her reelection bid. She declined to speak to ProPublica but complained on Facebook in early February that the proposed maps “would make this district upwards of 65% Dem to 35% Republican. Does that sound like a ‘Fair Map’ to you?” One area where the four maps differed was in how they handled redistricting for territories aligned with Wisconsin’s federally recognized Native American tribes. The current GOP map divides four of 10 reservations into multiple Assembly districts, “disrespecting Tribal communities of interest,” according to a brief filed by the Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes and the Lac du Flambeau tribe in Wisconsin. Lawyers for the tribes have argued that dividing tribal members among different districts dilutes their voting power. The Lac du Flambeau tribe and the Midwest Alliance did not favor the governor’s plan, supporting instead a proposal put forward by the group of mathematicians, in which each tribe would have had its own Assembly voting district. In its brief, the alliance called the mathematicians’ proposal “hands down, the best map for all of Wisconsin, including Wisconsin’s Indian people and communities.” A spokesperson for Evers told ProPublica in an email that “the governor’s maps do unite tribal communities in several respects while still complying with constitutionally required criteria to minimize splitting community and county lines.” The Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition, while celebrating the prospect of new maps, is vowing to continue to push for a nonpartisan body, rather than politicians, to handle future redistricting plans. “The coalition isn’t done,” said Debra Cronmiller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, which is part of the coalition. “We still need a legislative fix. We need an independent commission. We need, likely, a constitutional amendment that would codify that. So our work is not done.”
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[l] at 2/16/24 3:00am
by Andy Kroll ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. More than two months after authorizing subpoenas for key figures in the Supreme Court’s ethics controversies, Senate Democrats have yet to issue them. The delay has caused outside activists to demand that Democrats press ahead with their investigation. On Nov. 30, the Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee voted to approve subpoenas for Republican donor Harlan Crow and conservative legal activist Leonard Leo after the two men had refused to voluntarily provide all the information requested by the committee about gifts for Supreme Court justices. “Both Leonard Leo and Harlan Crow are central players in this crisis,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said at the time. “Their attempts to thwart legitimate oversight efforts of Congress should concern all of us.” But in an interview last week, Durbin told ProPublica that he had not yet issued the subpoenas to Crow and Leo. Questioned about the timing or what issues remained to be worked out, he said only: “Still working on it.” The decision to authorize subpoenas came in response to stories by ProPublica that detailed how, for decades, Crow had paid for lavish vacations for Justice Clarence Thomas. In 2014, Crow purchased Thomas’ mother’s home in Georgia. Crow even paid private school tuition for Thomas’ nephew, whom the justice said he was raising “as a son.” Thomas did not disclose the vacations, real estate purchase and tuition assistance on his annual financial disclosure forms. After ProPublica’s reporting, the Supreme Court adopted its first-ever ethics code, though it’s not clear if and how it will be enforced. Thomas has said that he did not need to disclose the free vacations and that he didn’t report the real estate sale because he misunderstood the rules. Crow has said he has never tried to influence Thomas on any matters. ProPublica also revealed that Leo, the influential lawyer and Federalist Society co-chairman, arranged a luxury fishing trip to Alaska for Justice Samuel Alito in July 2008 that Alito also did not disclose. Alito flew to Alaska on a private plane provided by Paul Singer, a hedge fund billionaire and major conservative funder. Several years after the trip, one of Singer’s companies had a case before the Supreme Court that Alito ruled on. Singer’s company won by a near-unanimous ruling. Alito says he did not need to disclose the trip or recuse himself from the case. Singer has said he never discussed his business with the justice. Leo is considered one of the most powerful figures in U.S. politics, an architect of the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority and now the leader of a billion-dollar dark-money fund aimed at reshaping American culture and government. Leo and Crow did not respond to requests for comment. In the recent interview, Durbin would not give a reason for the delay in sending the subpoenas. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a Judiciary Committee member and vocal supporter of court reform, told ProPublica that the committee’s November authorization vote gave Durbin leverage to get information from Crow and Leo without legally issuing the subpoenas. “The authority to have the chairman issue those subpoenas has put him in a much-improved negotiating position,” Whitehouse said. “I’ll just leave it at that.” It’s not uncommon for congressional committees to authorize a subpoena and then ultimately obtain information voluntarily through negotiations, according to a Congressional Research Service analysis. However, Leo said in November that he would not cooperate with the Judiciary Committee’s efforts, which he called an “unlawful campaign of political retribution.” A Crow spokesperson said then that the committee’s inquiry was “invalid” but added that Crow had offered “extensive information” to the committee and “remains willing to engage with the committee in good faith, just as he has consistently done throughout this process.” Christina Harvey, executive director of the anti-corruption group Stand Up America, said that the Judiciary Committee’s efforts to address the Supreme Court’s ethics controversies would remain “incomplete” if the committee didn’t get all the information it requested. “Crow and Leo’s insistence that the law does not apply to them should not intimidate or deter Judiciary Democrats,” Harvey said. If Durbin’s committee did eventually issue the subpoenas to Crow and Leo and the two men still refused to comply, the Judiciary Committee could seek to enforce the subpoenas by filing suit in federal court. It could also make a criminal contempt certification to the Justice Department for the refusal to cooperate with a legal subpoena. A civil suit would require a vote in the Senate to approve the legal action, and the Democrats might not win it with their slim majority. The suit itself could take months or years to play out, as happened in other recent subpoena fights. Alex Aronson, executive director of the advocacy group Court Accountability and a former legal counsel to Whitehouse, told ProPublica that making a criminal contempt certification typically requires a majority vote in the House or Senate. But Aronson said that such a vote wasn’t legally required under his interpretation of the relevant statute, and that Durbin’s committee should consider all options to get the information it seeks. “There is too much at stake for Chair Durbin to capitulate to Republican stonewalling and bad faith now,” he said. “I’m hopeful and confident he will see this through.”
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[l] at 2/15/24 4:00am
by T. Christian Miller ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. In January, the Biden administration pledged to increase public access to a wide array of Medicare information to improve health care for America’s most sick and vulnerable. Some Medicare plans' lack of transparency “deprives researchers and doctors of critical data to evaluate problems and trends in patient care,” said Xavier Becerra, the secretary of health and human services, in a statement. So researchers across the country were flummoxed this week when the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced a proposal that will increase fees and diminish access to claims data that has informed thousands of health care studies and influenced major public health reforms. More than 300 academics — a who’s who of health economics researchers — have already signed a draft letter decrying the “catastrophic impact” the new proposal would have on health care research. Nearly half of all Americans are covered by Medicare, Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program. Medicare and Medicaid claims contain detailed information about payments for medical care, including diagnoses, treatments and patient demographics. The CMS data “is a national resource,” said Anirban Basu, a professor of health economics at the University of Washington. “It’s used for research that helps to develop public policy, that helps in health equality, that plays a role in legislation. Most importantly, such research translates to better health and access for the 160 million CMS beneficiaries.” CMS explained that the changes were aimed at better protecting people’s health care records, citing “an increase in data breaches across the healthcare ecosystem.” In its announcement, the agency did not cite any examples of unauthorized releases of information involving research organizations or universities. However, last year, hackers stole the personal medical information of more than 600,000 Medicare beneficiaries from a CMS contractor. “Expanding user-friendly, secure access to CMS data continues to be a priority for the agency,” said Jonathan Blum, the principal deputy administrator and chief operating officer of CMS, in a statement. He added that the agency “will carefully consider how to best meet stakeholders’ data needs while protecting beneficiary data.” Under the current system, academics are able to request claims data for a one-time fee of as little as $20,000 — a price that can increase depending on the amount of information requested. The data is stored on university computers that meet data protection requirements and that allow access to multiple users for a small additional charge. Researchers have used such data to conduct studies that influenced numerous public health care initiatives, including the development and evaluation of the Obamacare program. Just last month, Basu published a paper, using information from the CMS programs, that analyzed the cost-effectiveness of gene therapy treatment for sickle cell disease, a blood disorder that primarily affects people of African descent. Researchers have also used the data to discover potential abuse and fraud in Medicare and Medicaid — the two programs together account for more than $1.7 trillion in government spending. The new proposal, however, would force researchers to use a CMS-controlled computer platform to analyze data, instead of distributing it directly to universities and other institutions. Costs would start at an estimated $35,000 and would allow access to only one researcher and require annual renewal fees. Blum noted that researchers, however, would no longer have to bear the costs of storing and securing the data. Research teams on complex projects can include dozens of people and take years to complete. “The costs will grow exponentially and make access infeasible except for the very best resourced organizations,” said Joshua Gottlieb, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. He has used the data to show that when Medicare increases its fees, private insurance companies follow by hiking their own. One of the major concerns is that higher prices will shut down research by Ph.D. students and junior faculty, whose budgets typically wouldn’t cover a single user fee. “Some important research would be reduced” if the proposal is implemented, Basu said. Some researchers are also concerned about having to use a government-controlled system to conduct research that may be critical of CMS. Medicare Advantage — a program that allows private insurance companies to pay for health care services for the elderly — has come under increasing scrutiny for rising costs. Another unanswered question is how the CMS computer platform would accommodate additional requests from the thousands of researchers who now use data stored on their own computers. Academics often perform complex statistical analyses on data that require extensive computer time to process. “It seems crazy to me that given the value of human life and what we spend on healthcare as a country, that the administration would take a step to make research harder not easier,” said Zack Cooper, a professor of public health and economics at Yale. Do You Have Insights Into Dental and Health Insurance Denials? Help Us Report on the System.
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[l] at 2/15/24 3:00am
by Stacy Kranitz, special to ProPublica, and Kavitha Surana When she got pregnant, Mayron Michelle Hollis was clinging to stability. At 31, she was three years sober, after first getting introduced to drugs at 12. She had just had a baby three months earlier and was working to repair the damage that her addiction had caused her family. The state of Tennessee had taken away three of her children, and she was fighting to keep her infant daughter, Zooey. Department of Children’s Services investigators had accused Mayron of endangering Zooey when she visited a vape store and left the baby in a car. Her husband, Chris Hollis, was also in recovery. The two worked in physically demanding jobs that paid just enough to cover rent, food and lawyers’ fees to fight the state for custody of Mayron’s children. In the midst of the turmoil in July 2022, they learned Mayron was pregnant again. But this time, doctors warned she and her fetus might not survive. The embryo had been implanted in scar tissue from her recent cesarean section. There was a high chance that the embryo could rupture, blowing open her uterus and killing her, or that she could bleed to death during delivery. The baby could come months early and face serious medical risks, or even die. But the Supreme Court had just overturned Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed the right to abortion across the United States. By the time Mayron decided to end her pregnancy, Tennessee’s abortion ban — one of the nation’s strictest — had gone into effect. The total ban made no explicit exceptions — not even to save the life of a pregnant patient. Any doctor who violated the ban could be charged with a felony. Women with means could leave the state. But those like Mayron, with limited resources or lives entangled with the child welfare and criminal justice systems, would be the most likely to face caring for a child they weren’t prepared for. After Mayron Hollis’ pregnancy became life-threatening, doctors had to make a vertical incision to deliver her baby and remove her uterus. And so, the same state that questioned Mayron’s fitness to care for her four children forced her to continue a pregnancy that risked her life to have a fifth, one that would require more intensive care than any of the others. Tennessee already had some of the worst outcomes in the nation when measuring maternal health, infant mortality and child poverty. Lawmakers who paved the way for a new generation of post-Roe births did little to bolster the state’s meager safety net to support these babies and their families. In December 2022, when Mayron was 26 weeks and two days pregnant, she was rushed to the hospital after she began bleeding so heavily that her husband slipped in her blood. An emergency surgery saved her life. Her daughter, Elayna, was born three months early. Afterward, photographer Stacy Kranitz and reporter Kavitha Surana followed Mayron and her family for a year to chronicle what life truly looked like in a state whose political leaders say they are pro-life. Chapter One: A New Life, in Limbo Mayron holds her 9-day-old daughter, Elayna. Born weighing less than 2 pounds and unable to breathe on her own, Elayna would need months in the neonatal intensive care unit. Her stay came with an estimated six-figure bill and was covered by the state-managed Medicaid program. On Dec. 21, days after Mayron was discharged from the hospital, she was arrested. She had thought the case related to leaving her daughter in the car was resolved when state child welfare officials closed the matter. But prosecutors had separately filed a felony criminal charge. The penalty is eight to 30 years in prison. (Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office) She paid a $6,000 bond to be released from jail and found a lawyer willing to represent her for a $6,000 fee by payment plan. The arrest had depleted any savings she and Chris had put aside to take off work for Elayna’s first weeks. Now they were in debt. Mayron, who was still recovering from a lifesaving surgery that removed her uterus, returned to work as an insulator apprentice two weeks later. During her breaks at work, Mayron called the hospital from her car to check on Elayna’s progress, jotting down notes. Her husband, Chris, also had to work. Neither of them had paid parental leave. Safety Net: Parental Leave Research indicates access to paid family leave is linked to a decrease in infant deaths and better economic, physical and mental health for new parents. Currently, 13 states have some form of paid parental leave to care for newborns. No states that banned abortion offer paid parental leave. There were no facilities equipped to handle Elayna’s needs in their county. So Elayna spent many of her earliest moments without her parents, in a hospital an hour away. Charities offer free housing near the hospital for parents of some children in the NICU. Mayron called nearly every day after her daughter was born, but none had any openings for weeks. After her 10-hour shifts, Mayron visited Elayna as often as she could, sometimes sleeping in her car in the hospital’s parking garage. While Elayna remained in the hospital, the family was eligible for disability payments from the federal government for having a child born weighing less than 2 pounds. They amounted to $30 a month. Mayron wasn’t sure how to access them — but they wouldn’t even cover a week of gas money to and from the hospital anyway. Chapter Two: Elayna Comes Home Mayron brought Elayna home in late February, on her daughter Zooey’s first birthday. But Elayna’s health was still fragile. Twice in the first month she was rushed back to the hospital because of lung infections. Once home, her medical needs were complex. She had a feeding tube, breathed with the help of a machine and needed to see a pediatrician, an eye doctor, a lung specialist and an occupational therapist. Mayron cleans Elayna’s feeding tube. Mayron quit her job to navigate Elayna’s care. Donations to Mayron’s GoFundMe after ProPublica wrote about her story helped the family keep up with rent, lawyer and court fees, debt, gas and baby supplies for a few months. Mayron filled out paperwork to get help to pay for her daughter’s needs. She knew Elayna should have been eligible for disability support, given her premature birth and developmental challenges. But none of the phone calls she made or forms she submitted seemed to lead to any aid. It would be almost a year before Mayron received a letter that said Social Security approved $914 per month in disability payments for Elayna. It retroactively covered February to August but was cut off after that with no explanation. The family has never received any of the money. Mayron knew she was supposed to qualify for at-home help from a nurse while Elayna was on the feeding tube, and she asked the hospital for assistance setting it up when she was going home. But she ran into issues getting her insurance to approve it. In the end, it was too late: A nurse finally showed up for a visit two days after Elayna was already taken off the feeding tube. Mayron decided not to apply for unemployment. She didn’t understand the rules and felt it would be too risky. She had applied for unemployment while she had to take leave for her high-risk pregnancy with Elayna, but a mistake on the paperwork later meant she had to pay back some of the money with fees. She also didn’t qualify for disability support because her complications from the surgery were considered short-term and partial. The new financial needs were crushing. By late spring, Mayron and Chris’ bank account balance was dwindling to the hundreds. They began to fall behind on their $1,400 monthly rent and $550 car payments. Their cars kept breaking down. Chris needed a reliable truck for the business he runs installing vinyl siding. They saw a special offer for financing, so they went to a dealership to see if they could get a new one. They had been using a $400 credit card to build up credit and Mayron’s score was above 700, but their history was too short and they didn’t qualify for a loan. More credit card offers kept arriving in their mailbox. The couple applied for them and other loans and bought used cars at double-digit interest rates so they could get to work. After Elayna came off the feeding tube in May, they decided Mayron needed to go back to work. She could make about $600 a week installing insulation. But first they had to figure out child care. Elayna was still too fragile for full-time day care. According to care.com, an experienced nanny in their city would cost about the same as Mayron’s weekly paycheck. On Facebook, they found a 24-year-old babysitter who charged $250 a week to watch the two girls. Safety Net: Child Care In 2019, nearly half of Tennesseans lived in a child care desert, an area that has three times as many children as licensed child care slots. In Mayron’s city, Clarksville, more than 3,000 children in 2023 qualified for government assistance for child care, but 941 were unable to access it. Between 2011 and 2020, 13 bills aimed at alleviating child care burdens were proposed in the Tennessee legislature. All of them failed. Mayron would leave for work at 4:45 a.m. Chris would watch the girls until the babysitter arrived, around 7 a.m. Then, he headed to work too. Mayron returned every night after 5 p.m., often covered in fiberglass, then launched into cleaning the house and the evening routine with her girls. Mayron eats dinner while bathing Zooey after work. After four months, Mayron got connected with an early intervention program that could provide free virtual therapy to support Elayna’s movement and development. Mayron does physical therapy with Elayna. Safety Net: Early Intervention Children born preterm are at risk for developmental delays and disabilities, and all states have free or reduced-cost programs to provide support. Yet researchers say not enough low-income families are able to access those programs. Many states don’t actively connect children with these services because their programs aren’t well-funded, they say. In Tennessee, less than 3% of eligible children in low-income families are enrolled in evidence-based home visiting programs, one of the lowest rates in the country. By summer, Elayna was getting stronger each day and Zooey was getting into everything. Mayron and Chris started dreaming of a house for their girls. One that didn’t have a rusted bathtub, mice infestations and heat that broke down in the winter. They also wanted to move away from neighbors who frequently overdosed, a stressful reminder of their past. Chapter Three: Gravitational Pulls Mayron was at work in June when she got a call from the babysitter. Sheriff’s deputies had arrived at the door with an arrest warrant. Mayron thought the case related to leaving Zooey in the car was still working its way through the courts. She didn’t understand why she was being arrested again. She was afraid things would escalate and drag her back into a costly legal battle. A conviction — or worse, a prison sentence — could mean losing the girls. Just fighting it could push them further into debt. That afternoon, she stopped at a bar for a drink. Alcohol was never her drug of choice, she said. She told herself she could handle a few drinks while she figured out her next step. After speaking to a lawyer, Mayron prepared to turn herself in, kissing her babies goodbye. She was told the arrest was necessary because the district attorney’s office had downgraded her charges to a misdemeanor. Sheriff's deputies booked her into jail and quickly released her. Mayron returned home to a sick baby: Elayna had another fever, so Mayron put her on the oxygen machine and waited for the doctor to call her back. When she returned to court a month later, Mayron’s lawyer had negotiated a deal. To stay out of jail, Mayron pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment in exchange for one year of probation. The outcome provided little comfort. Mayron knew any involvement with the criminal justice system could make it harder to provide for her family — she might need to miss work for probation check-ins and drug tests — and easier for her kids to get taken from her again if she made any more mistakes. She worried what authorities would think about delta-8, the legal cannabinoid she used to calm her nerves. To avoid it, she feared she’d end up turning more to alcohol. Then, summer brought more people to care for. After losing her housing in August, Mayron’s mother moved into the cramped two-bedroom house. Mayron’s mother shared a drafty second-floor room with Mayron’s father, her ex-husband, who also stayed with them. Health issues kept Mayron’s mother mostly bed-bound. Her father often spent his nights drinking with the neighbors. Tension led to fights. Mayron was struggling to cope with the pressure. She took medication to help with ADHD and suboxone for substance use disorder. In the past, she had tried some depression and anxiety medications prescribed by her doctors, but they made her feel sleepy and lethargic, so she didn’t continue. Other medications were off limits because of her addiction history. Mayron rests with Elayna while she recovers from a headache. She had once hoped to find a job helping other mothers with substance use disorder, volunteering to lead Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and even earning a peer recovery specialist certificate while Elayna was in the hospital. Now her own recovery was at risk. Chapter Four: A Family on the Edge Throughout the turmoil, Mayron and Chris had been able to keep a roof over their heads and put food on the table. By September, both were in peril. Their landlord threatened eviction for late payments. Their credit cards and loans were spiraling out of control. Besides paying off the cars for work, Chris sometimes used them to buy tools and to cover his workers’ salaries. Mayron used them to buy groceries and to make the house more comfortable. Soon they were nearly $40,000 in debt and their credit score had dropped about 200 points. Mayron was devastated when she finally realized the extent of it — there was no hope of achieving their dream to buy a house anytime soon, or even move. They also learned they were losing their food stamps — $972 a month. Since Mayron went back to work, their income one month put them above the eligibility limit of $39,000 a year, before taxes, for a household of four. Both their jobs were unpredictable, and the aid had been crucial to help them stay stocked with formula and baby food the past year. In her lowest moments, Mayron felt she was failing her daughters. “I felt like: I’m not good enough to have them,” she said. “Like, I can’t afford them, because I can’t get them the things I want them to have.” Safety Net: Government Assistance In Tennessee, a family of four making less than $39,000 a year should be eligible for food stamps if their current bank balance is under $3,001 and they share their household with a person over 60 or with a disability. Tennessee’s child poverty rate ranks among the worst in the nation, in part, because families who qualify for government help aren’t getting it. About 1 in 10 families eligible for food stamps aren’t receiving them. According to researchers, the program requirements are too punitive and complicated, leaving such families shut out. In 2019, the state was holding nearly $800 million in unspent federal funding designated for temporary assistance to needy families. Since then, monthly benefits for eligible Tennesseeans have barely risen, from $277 to $387 in 2021. That ranks among the lowest in the nation for temporary cash assistance. Mayron started meeting up with co-workers for drinks after work more often. Then, Mayron’s temporary insulation gig finished and she was out of work. She would have to reapply for food stamps for the new year and wait months to see if they would be reinstated. As fall closed in, Mayron started having panic attacks and her health declined. She lost weight and barely slept. Ever since her traumatic C-section, she noticed she no longer had any feeling when she went to the bathroom. Her stomach and back were sometimes numb or radiated pain. She knew doctors had removed her uterus, but she had never been totally clear about what had happened inside her body during the surgery or its long-term effects. Mayron had state Medicaid insurance after Tennessee expanded coverage to women for one year after giving birth in 2022. But she was so consumed with holding things together, she never made time to see a doctor. Mayron had a psychiatrist through a hospital research program for mothers in recovery for opioid addiction. When she could get an appointment, she talked with him about her ADHD medication over video calls, but she feared confiding in him about her stressors or the alcohol. She felt he would be too busy anyway. Alcohol became a more frequent escape. Sometimes it triggered her worst impulses. Chris bore the brunt of her outbursts, especially over money. Some days she raged from morning until night. Chris had been dealing with his own mood swings and depression from not being able to provide for the family since Elayna’s birth. He usually kept quiet and retreated inside himself, but sometimes the stress broke through and he yelled back. As the holidays approached, Mayron told Chris she wanted a separation. Chris started to spiral. Two days before Thanksgiving, he relapsed. The next week he checked into an inpatient mental health and rehab facility and stayed for a week. “This all broke me,” he wrote as his reason for admission, after recounting the events of the past year. “None of this is my fault but I’ve got to deal with it all. I try not to be resentful with my wife. I have trouble paying attention to my family, I space out.” Chris sleeps off his high the morning after his relapse. While Chris was in inpatient care, one of the neighbors offered to help Mayron around the house. She started to spend more time with him. By the end of the week, she had slept with him. When Chris came home the next week, he could see Mayron was unraveling. The volatility reminded him of the times before they got serious about their recovery four years ago. The family was supposed to go to church the next morning, but Mayron disappeared that night and no one knew where she was. Chris took the girls anyway and tried to find a moment of peace as a family amid the chaos. Mayron came home with a black eye. She couldn’t remember how she got it. On Elayna’s first birthday, Dec. 13, Mayron and Chris fought all morning. Mayron wanted Chris to go to work, since the family debt had grown while he missed jobs and was getting treatment. He didn’t want to leave her alone with the kids in her current state. Chris took the kids to the babysitter’s house. That triggered her memories of other children who had been removed from her custody, years earlier. Mayron exploded at him in the front yard. Neighbors showed deputies a video of Mayron hitting Chris. She was arrested. Chris knew Mayron had been planning to do something special to mark Elayna’s first year. She had already bought a tablecloth, sparklers and some toys from the dollar store. Despite the turmoil of the year, it felt significant to recognize her daughter had come a long way: From less than 2 pounds, hooked up to breathing machines, to a curious infant, cuddling with her older sister and trying to figure out how to walk. With Mayron in jail, the celebration fell to Chris. As the sun began to set, he cleaned the living room and kitchen, then went to Big Lots and chose gifts: a Stack and Play Rainbow Cloud and a Fisher-Price toy telephone. He picked up his daughters from the babysitter’s house, then took them to Publix to get dinner: hot dogs, mac and cheese, french fries, two cakes — one with Elayna’s name on it and one to smash — and a “Happy Birthday” balloon. At home, he cooked dinner and wrapped the presents, then searched everywhere for a special candle of the number 1 he remembered Mayron had bought. He never found it. It was past 8 by the time Chris set Elayna up on her high chair so they could sing, making sure to have his phone ready to take videos so Mayron could watch them later. Mayron’s father joined to celebrate and Zooey danced to the music and played with the balloons. Then Chris set off a sparkler and let Elayna smash her cake. Mayron sat up all night behind bars, on a hard bench, begging for an extra phone call home to wish her daughter a happy birthday. Editor’s Note Last year, ProPublica reported the story of how Mayron Hollis faced a life-threatening pregnancy under Tennessee’s abortion ban. Photographer Stacy Kranitz and reporter Kavitha Surana continued to follow the family for a year. The family shared medical records, court records, bank statements, receipts, bills and letters from state authorities and their landlord with ProPublica journalists and let them shadow their everyday lives. ProPublica fact-checked the details of the story with the family before publication. Mayron said she let journalists document her life in intimate detail because she wanted people to “see for themselves and feel it in their own lives” her family’s struggles in raising two babies after a traumatic pregnancy and while recovering from a history of addiction. “They forced me, basically, to have a child,” she said of the state after the abortion ban. But then, “they didn’t help me take care of that child.” At the time of publication, the family was still struggling. Photography by Stacy Kranitz Written and reported by Kavitha Surana Additional reporting by Stacy Kranitz Project editing by Andrea Wise and Ziva Branstetter Photo editing by Andrea Wise Additional photo editing by Anna Donlan Story editing by Alexandra Zayas and Ziva Branstetter Additional editing by Boyzell Hosey and Tracy Weber Design and development by Anna Donlan and Allen Tan Research by Mariam Elba Copy editing by Diego Sorbara Audience editing by Kassie Navarro, Sophia Kovatch and Grace Palmieri
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by Tony Schick and Conrad Wilson, Oregon Public Broadcasting This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with Oregon Public Broadcasting. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published. It's a scene police say plays out all too frequently in downtown Portland. An officer hands someone a $100 ticket for possessing the deadly narcotic fentanyl and a card with a treatment hotline number. Call this number, the officer says, and the ticket goes away. The person caught with fentanyl never calls. The ticket goes unpaid. “We’ve talked to exactly two people that have actually called that number," said Sgt. Jerry Cioeta of the Portland Police Bureau. He said last year his bike squad handed out more than 700 tickets “and got absolutely nowhere with it.” This is the day-to-day reality of Oregon’s unusual experiment in decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and fentanyl. Ballot Measure 110, approved by voters in 2020, created a new role for law enforcement in Oregon. While there’s evidence people living with addiction in the state are increasingly finding their way into treatment, the failure to turn police encounters into successful on-ramps to rehab has been cited by critics as prime evidence the measure isn’t working. Oregon lawmakers, noting an ongoing rise in overdose deaths, are now looking to restore jail time for drug possession. But Oregon’s political leaders themselves played central roles in failing to deliver on the potential for law enforcement to connect people with lifesaving services under the new measure, documents and interviews with a wide array of people involved in the system indicate. The Legislature, the court system and the bureaucracy under two governors ignored or rejected proposed solutions as seemingly straightforward as designing a specialized ticket to highlight treatment information. They declined to fund a proposed $50,000 online course that would have instructed cops how to better use the new law. They took no action on recommendations to get police, whose leaders campaigned against the ballot measure, talking with treatment providers after decriminalization passed. Leaders involved in the process pointed to the rapid timeline for implementing the measure amid the pandemic, among other developments, as a factor hindering what they could accomplish. Both a leading critic of Measure 110 and its most prominent supporter agree that leadership failures took away any chance for Oregon to truly test the measure’s potential. Tera Hurst, of Oregon’s Health Justice Recovery Alliance, a nonprofit that represents many of the addiction service providers the measure now funds, said law enforcement and providers needed to be brought together to talk in order to translate its vision into reality. “The people who are literally on the ground were not really engaged in the beginning to say, ‘How do we make this work?’” Hurst said. Mike Marshall, director of the rehab and prevention advocacy nonprofit Oregon Recovers, said he considered the threat of jail an important motivator and didn’t want voters to pass Measure 110. But once they did, he was dismayed that state officials didn’t step forward to fulfill the measure’s goals. “They didn't see that the voters gave them this really imperfect tool but were committed to reducing substance use disorder rates and increased access to treatment,” Marshall said. “Instead,” he said, “they simply tried to do the least amount of work to administer it to the letter of the law.” Voters made the broad intent of Measure 110 clear when 58% approved it in November 2020. “People suffering from addiction are more effectively treated with health care services than with criminal punishments,” the ballot measure declared. The measure emphasized that this new health care approach for people living with addiction “includes connecting them to the services they need.” A patient going through detox, left, hugs Christine Massingale, clinical supervisor of the detox center at Recovery Works Northwest, a facility near Portland. Recovery Works is a medication-assisted treatment program, focusing on opioid dependency, that opened a new detox facility last fall, funded in part by Measure 110. (Kristyna Wentz-Graff/Oregon Public Broadcasting) The measure earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars for treatment and replaced criminal penalties with $100 fines, which would be voided if the recipient underwent an assessment of their rehab needs. Further details were left to the Legislature and the governor. Hurst, whose group had campaigned for Measure 110, had ideas. Three days before the measure took effect in February 2021, Hurst emailed the office of then-Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat in a state where Democrats also dominate the Legislature. Hurst’s email contained a “blueprint” for Measure 110 implementation, capturing what her coalition of service providers believed the governor’s staff had agreed to in previous conversations. The blueprint called for the state agency in charge of training and certifying police to issue a bulletin to all departments laying out how Measure 110 would affect the way officers work. It called for the state judicial department to print up a specialized new ticket for drug possession, replacing Oregon’s generic “uniform citation” that is used for speeding and other traffic offenses. This one would prominently feature a treatment hotline number and say the fine could be waived after a screening to determine the person’s needs for social or medical services. And the blueprint said hotline operators should be responsible for notifying the court when a person completed a screening for treatment. None of those items in the blueprint came to pass. Police hit the streets with the old traffic citation that said nothing about treatment making the ticket disappear. Hurst kept trying. She said she had weekly meetings with Brown’s staff in which she urged the governor’s advisers to convene law enforcement, state agencies and treatment providers to figure out how to make the $100 citations work. She recalled raising the issue at least five times, to no avail. If a collaborative group couldn’t be convened, then Hurst wanted Brown’s office at least to direct the police on the role they needed to play in implementing the law. For example, she recommended informing officers where to find detox beds, peer counseling or other services, and how to guide people to those services. Brown’s office told The Oregonian/OregonLive in October 2021 that she was “exploring” options such as new police training. But Oregon’s Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, which trains law enforcement, confirmed in February that it has offered police no instruction on how Measure 110 works other than to update information for new recruits on when drug possession is a violation, misdemeanor or felony. The Oregon Health Authority, the agency that voters required to “administer and provide all necessary support to ensure the implementation of ” Measure 110, developed no programs to inform police of the expanded services available to people they ticketed. The agency told OPB and ProPublica its role was limited to “technical and logistical support” for the citizens’ panel that decided how to spend treatment funding. The agency said that under legislation fleshing out details of the citation system after the measure passed, “there is no role for OHA to coordinate with law enforcement.” Brown addressed the troubled Measure 110 rollout in a 30-minute interview with the news organizations last week. The former governor said she supported the initiative but that many factors limited her administration’s options when it took effect in 2021. Oregon was recovering from its deadliest wildfire season on record. Law enforcement was emerging from violent Portland street clashes that followed the murder of George Floyd and coping with calls for police reform that ensued. COVID-19 vaccinations were finally on their way, and her office chose to focus on supplying shots and reopening schools. “This initiative, happening when it did, was the perfect storm," she said. In addition, Brown said, the measure’s authors didn’t provide Oregon elected officials an adequate framework to make implementation successful. “This was a theory that was put into practice in a state that was probably one of the least prepared to be successful,” Brown said, noting that before Measure 110 passed Oregon was rated among the worst states for treatment access. Brown recalled — and Hurst did not dispute — that Measure 110 supporters asked her not to be involved in selecting a citizens’ panel that would decide how new treatment funding should be spent. But she also confirmed her staff met weekly with the measure’s proponents to discuss other aspects of the rollout. Asked about the specific steps advocates said they urged her to take on the citation system and whether these would have helped, Brown said, “I can’t speak to that.” Outgoing Gov. Kate Brown greets people as she arrives for the inauguration of Tina Kotek as Oregon governor in Salem in 2023. (Kristyna Wentz-Graff/Oregon Public Broadcasting) In January 2023, the month Brown left office, the Oregon Secretary of State released an audit critical of the Measure 110 rollout. It said the citizens’ panel overseeing new treatment funding had been far too slow in delivering the money and the health authority had not provided the panel with adequate support. The audit also flagged inconsistencies in how law enforcement issued tickets and a lack of communication with treatment providers. It said “steps to unify the statewide process for issuing class E citations and promoting the hotline should also be taken.” Gov. Tina Kotek, the Democrat who took over from Brown, defended Measure 110 forcefully during her 2022 campaign and vowed to fix problems with how the measure was implemented. The health authority under Kotek managed to speed up funding to treatment providers as promised, according to a December 2023 audit by the Secretary of State. But the same audit found that the problems with the citation and hotline system persisted. Hurst, of the Health Justice Recovery Alliance, said she gave Kotek the same recommendations as her predecessor. A spokesperson for Kotek, Elisabeth Shepard, declined to address why these steps weren’t followed. Instead, she pointed to expanded funding and oversight for treatment. Kotek approaches the podium at a press conference in Portland, where a 90-day state of emergency was declared to address the fentanyl crisis in the city, in January. (Kristyna Wentz-Graff/Oregon Public Broadcasting) Unlike Brown, the new governor did propose new funding to train police about Measure 110. The online course was tucked into Kotek’s first budget at a cost of $50,000. Lawmakers declined to fund it. They believed any new money should go toward treatment instead, a spokesperson for the Senate Democratic leadership office said recently. It wasn’t the only time the Legislature rebuffed some of the same ideas passed over by Oregon’s governors for making decriminalization work. According to a summary of comments from a series of 2021 meetings on how to implement the measure, a working group of leading lawmakers, law enforcement, health officials and Measure 110 advocates at least briefly discussed additional training for law enforcement. “Yes to training,” the summary quotes a member from the state Department of Justice as saying. A department spokesperson said the member was Kimberly McCullough, the agency’s legislative director. “Training is important for officers to have trust in the system,” McCullough said, according to the summary. “I think the more they learn about the purpose of the law and the importance of their role in getting people to an assessment, the better.” But the group working on the bill to implement Measure 110 ultimately decided against a training proposal, the summary document shows, partly because of cost and partly because members believed law enforcement agencies were already planning their own Measure 110 training. The next year, 2022, a Senate committee overseeing Measure 110 implementation heard testimony from addiction and drug policy experts at Stanford and Oregon Health & Science universities that the state’s ticketing system was failing to get people into treatment and needed an overhaul. But the committee didn’t take action in response. Hurst said members of the same committee in 2023 briefly considered granting advocates’ requests to gather service providers and police to develop a better citation system, but that it didn’t happen. Legislation passed that year mainly focused on speeding up the rollout of treatment services. It also authorized promotional campaigns to raise the visibility of the hotline number, but it did not mandate that police use citations with the phone number printed on them. To this day, the Oregon Judicial Department — the state’s third branch of government that includes the courts — has not created a specialized Measure 110 ticket. Phil Lemman, deputy state court administrator, said in an email that a new ticket design is a lengthy process and requires state Supreme Court approval. Court officials were also concerned the hotline number might change, he wrote. The 2023 bill intended to smooth out the implementation of Measure 110 called for state auditors to assess the kind of training law enforcement was getting. It did not offer money for training. Bike squad officers David Baer, left, and Donny Mathew, center, confer before heading out on patrol in downtown Portland with Sgt. Jerry Cioeta, right. (Kristyna Wentz-Graff/Oregon Public Broadcasting) Lawmakers had delivered one change to the ticketing system that advocates sought. A bill passed in 2021 eliminated any penalty for failure to either obtain treatment or pay the $100 fine. The combined result of all the legislative efforts on Measure 110 was to leave Oregon with no carrot and no stick to steer people into treatment. “Hindsight always gives you a better view of what has come before you,” said Sen. Floyd Prozanski, the Senate judiciary chair who led the legislative effort to implement Measure 110, when asked why he and other lawmakers didn’t take further action. He said lawmakers should have taken more time to set up both outreach and proper incentives for treatment at the outset. Oregon could have avoided the problems that ensued, he said, if he and others had acknowledged “We’re not ready for opening up this concept without building the infrastructure that’s needed.” In the absence of a ticketing system that made sense, the outcome was predictable. In the first 15 months after Measure 110 took effect, state auditors found, only 119 people called the state’s 24-hour hotline. That meant the cost of operating the hotline amounted to roughly $7,000 per call. The total number of callers as of early December of last year had only amounted to 943. Part of the bottleneck was that police were not eager to issue citations for drug possession. “Why would I do that?” one officer told researchers from Portland State University in 2021. Another criticized the $100 fine as being low. “Lower than somebody failing to use a turn signal,” the officer was quoted as saying. Police gave out only about 2,500 citations a year, compared with the roughly 9,500 arrests they made annually in years before Measure 110. The problem, Marshall believes, is that nobody told the police why they remained relevant to addressing drug use after Measure 110 passed. “We never trained the cops on ‘Look, this is the value of we're going to go from prosecuting people who use drugs to intervening on people who use drugs,’” Marshall said. “‘This ticket system is a process for that. And so let’s get as many tickets out there as possible, and then let’s use that ticket and that interaction to connect people to the services they need.’” Treatment providers wanted to ensure that when officers issued the occasional citation, they at least had some way to tell recipients about treatment — even if the information wasn’t on the ticket. Lines For Life, the hotline operator, printed its phone number on thousands of wallet cards for the police. It didn’t go smoothly. When officials at the Portland Police Bureau placed an order with Lines For Life for 5,000 wallet cards, the organization told them the cards had been sent five months before. The police bureau later found them sitting unused. The Oregon Health Authority has touted a continuous and substantial increase in people accessing treatment for substance abuse disorder in each quarter from 2022 to 2023. Other state and federal treatment statistics from before and after Measure 110 passed seem to show a less consistent rise over a longer period of time, and a health authority spokesperson did not address how to interpret the other data when asked. But regardless of the bigger picture on treatment, critics began to cite hotline phones that seldom rang and ignored citations as evidence that decriminalization had failed. By late last year, the backlash gained momentum. Wealthy business owners put $700,000 behind a new ballot initiative to make drug possession the highest level of misdemeanor, punishable with up to a year in jail. With polls showing public sentiment turning against Measure 110, the governor and lawmakers who’d previously opposed recriminalization warmed to the idea. They developed legislation with a variety of sweeteners for attending treatment while restoring the threat of jail time as further incentive. Kotek has signaled she would sign a bill reinstating criminal penalties. “People need to be able to walk down the street and make sure people aren't using drugs in front of them,” Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber told OPB in January. “There has been a change in the mood of the electorate,” Lieber said. “They realize that things are not working.” Measure 110 supporters point to research that says data does not support the idea that recriminalizing drugs would have an effect on Oregon’s rise in fentanyl overdoses. Deaths have been on the same high trajectory as in neighboring states before and after Measure 110 took effect. Many people suggest that Oregon could create other consequences for skipping out on treatment, short of jail. Or Oregon leaders could implement Measure 110 the way backers say they’ve always wanted. It might look like the pilot program between police and health workers that was on display in December on a downtown Portland sidewalk. Cioeta, the Portland sergeant who’s been frustrated by how few people have called for help after getting a ticket, was a big part of the effort. “If we have one person that actually goes into treatment today, that’s one more than the 700 that we’ve had not going to treatment at all,” he said as he set out in a police cruiser to support Portland’s bicycle patrol on the project’s firstday. The patrol soon encountered a man who gave his name as Joseph, who lay curled in a sleeping bag, sick from fentanyl withdrawal. (The man asked OPB and ProPublica not to publish his full name to protect his medical privacy.) First image: Joseph, a man sick from fentanyl withdrawal, lies on a sidewalk in downtown Portland as Ryan Hazlett, center, and Patrick Smith, right, outreach workers from local nonprofit groups, offer him treatment options. Second image: After nearly an hour trying to find a treatment bed and juggling insurance issues, Smith prepares to take Joseph to a detox facility. An officer asked if he was interested in treatment, and Joseph said yes. The officer called a nearby outreach worker from the nonprofit Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon, who arrived and sat down on the sidewalk. “How’s it going, Joseph? My name’s Ryan.” “I feel terrible, and I’m really cold,” Joseph told him. The outreach worker placed a call while the police officer stood by watching. “Ryan, we’ll be right here if you need something,” the officer told the outreach worker. Within an hour, Joseph buckled himself into a blue sedan that would drive him to detox. He completed it and, about a month later, was continuing his recovery in an intensive outpatient program in Portland. If you have information to share about how police, treatment providers and others are approaching Oregon’s drug crisis, please contact OPB reporter and ProPublica distinguished fellow Tony Schick at aschick@opb.org or 503-977-7784. We take your privacy seriously and will contact you if we wish to publish any part of your story.
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by Jessica Lussenhop, ProPublica, and Joey Peters, Sahan Journal 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 collaboration with Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota’s immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for Sahan’s free newsletter to receive stories in your inbox. The excitement that Abdinoor Igal felt after buying a five-bedroom house in a new development in a suburb south of the Twin Cities was short-lived. At the time, it was the realization of a long-held dream — a spacious, modern home for his wife and seven children to call their own. And Igal, a 37-year-old long-haul trucker, had saved for a house for years. But like many practicing Muslims, he had avoided paying or profiting from interest as a matter of faith, and therefore did not want to get a traditional mortgage. So in 2022, when he heard there was a new, interest-free way to buy a house using a financial instrument called a contract for deed, he jumped at the chance. But less than two years later, Igal’s dream collapsed. After struggling to make the nearly $5,000 payments each month, last fall he put the family’s belongings in storage and handed the keys to the house, which he had agreed to pay more than $700,000 for, back to the seller. He sent his family to live temporarily in Kenya, where he owns another home and the cost of living is much lower. Meanwhile, he sleeps in the cabin of his semitruck. Igal said he lost everything he put into the deal, one made directly between a buyer and seller without a bank’s involvement. The total: $170,000, including a $73,000 down payment. He walked away with nothing. “They really took a very big advantage of me and my family,” said Igal, who first shared his story with ProPublica and Sahan Journal anonymously in 2022. “They make us, like, homeless.” This week, two Minnesota state lawmakers are introducing legislation that would overhaul contract-for-deed law in the state to try to prevent the same dramatic loss from happening to other homebuyers. State Sen. Zaynab Mohamed and Rep. Hodan Hassan, both Democrats representing parts of south Minneapolis, are behind the legislation. Mohamed introduced her bill on Monday, while Hassan expects to introduce hers later this week. The legislation follows the introduction of a federal contract-for-deed reform law by Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., and Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., this month. Together, the state measures would enact a raft of new requirements for “investor sellers” using contracts for deed and provide buyers more ways to recoup their losses in the case of a default or bad faith on the part of the seller. Both Mohamed and Hassan are Somali and said they had heard stories of contracts for deed going wrong for constituents and members of their community. “It could be my mother, it could be my sister,” said Hassan. “Those people are from my community, and some of them are vulnerable because they don’t understand the system and they don’t speak the language.” The legislation is in part a response to a 2022 Sahan Journal and ProPublica investigation about potentially predatory uses of contracts for deed in Minnesota’s Somali community. The news organizations found a rising market in Minnesota for home sales using contracts for deed and complaints from buyers that they’d agreed to unfavorable terms they didn’t understand. In recent years, real estate investors have promoted contracts for deed as an interest-free purchase agreement by first buying houses using traditional mortgages, then reselling them to contract buyers — often for tens of thousands of dollars above market price in place of any interest. The deals were frequently fast-tracked and conducted without the involvement of a lawyer and without an inspection or appraisal of the property. Despite being marketed as interest free, deals like the one Igal signed also ultimately included interest payments at rates higher than the market, according to the contract. If a buyer defaults on a payment, they can be evicted in as little as 60 days. Proponents of contracts for deed say the arrangements are a way for someone who otherwise couldn’t be approved for a mortgage to become a homeowner. Mohamed agreed that, when promoted honestly, contracts for deed can be “a beautiful process,” but she emphasized that too many sellers are taking advantage of buyers in the Somali community. “You have to make sure that they have integrity in that process and an understanding that you can’t take advantage of these communities,” Mohamed said. The bills, if approved by the state Legislature and signed by the governor, would impose regulations on investor-sellers — people that, for at least a year, have not owned or lived in the home they are trying to sell. The bill would prohibit investor-sellers from “churning” properties, or rapidly entering and canceling contracts with multiple buyers, a tactic that unscrupulous sellers can use to collect large down payments without ever losing ownership of the property. Homeowners who bought their home through a contract for deed from someone found guilty of churning or failing to make any of the new required consumer protection disclosures can recover the payments they made, minus the “fair rental value” of the home, as well as the cost of any improvements they made. The bill gives homebuyers 10 days after receiving all disclosures to cancel their contract. And homeowners who cancel their contract within four years of buying their home can recover a portion of their down payment. If they default, they must receive a 30-day notice from the seller and have 90 days to catch up on their payments before eviction. Hassan said she was surprised by the balloon payments, which can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, that are common to contracts for deed. “That was the shocker for me, the amount of money that goes as a down payment that people are expected to come up with, and then comes the balloon payments that are expected to be paid. I’m like, this makes no sense,” she said. “That’s setting up people for failure.” The proposed law would require not only that the balloon payment schedule be included in the paperwork, but also that all disclosures must be written in the language that was used to negotiate the deal; if a Spanish-speaking real estate broker set up the sale, for instance, the disclosures must be written in Spanish. The bill is expected to be first heard in the Minnesota Senate’s Housing and Homelessness Prevention Committee this month. Igal said in an interview from the road in North Dakota that he had hoped he could get out of the contract with his seller, a company called Banken Holdings LLC, without losing everything. Chad Banken, the company owner, did not respond to a request for comment. According to his contract, if Igal had managed to make it to the end of his five-year term, he still would have owed over $500,000 for the balloon payment. But Igal said this payment schedule had never been explained to him properly before he signed the contract. Now, Igal said he hopes to save enough money to send for his family before the beginning of the next school year. If he can accomplish that, he said they will go back to living in a rental apartment. Even though it’s been decades since he first came to the U.S. as a refugee, Igal said he feels like he is starting over from “zero.” Still, he said he feels good that his story may prevent other families from suffering a similar fate. “My family already broke down. We are already separate, living in two countries,” he said. “If what I started helps families stay together, I’m happy with that.”
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by Stephen Engelberg ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. The photographs are arresting. Leaking roofs. Classrooms set up in closets and stairwells. Charred electrical outlets that short out when students plug in a laptop. The images document the devastating story of public school infrastructure in Idaho, a state where voters have repeatedly rejected bond issues needed to pay for new schools and repair old ones. The idea of shining a spotlight on the crumbling schools was proposed by the state’s biggest newspaper, the Idaho Statesman, as a project for our Local Reporting Network. Working in partnership with Statesman reporter Becca Savransky, ProPublica engagement reporter Asia Fields recruited students, teachers, parents and more than 90% of the state’s superintendents to collect the undeniable evidence. The story appeared in mid-December, just as students were preparing for their winter break. Within weeks, Gov. Brad Little announced his plan to spend $2 billion rebuilding Idaho’s schools. “We’ve all seen the pictures and the videos of some Idaho schools that are neglected — crumbling, leaking, falling apart,” Little told Idaho’s Legislature as he shared with lawmakers the photos we had gathered. “In one school I visited, raw sewage is seeping into a space under the cafeteria,” he said. “Folks, we can do better.” Little’s response to our investigation was hardly the norm, but it’s not unique. In the past few months, our reporting has prompted a startlingly broad array of institutions, businesses and political leaders to vow to “do better.” The surge in impact is coming at a particularly tenuous moment for journalism, with for-profit and nonprofit organizations rocked by layoffs and declining revenue. Inevitably, news organizations’ attention will turn to what promises to be a long and exhausting presidential campaign. Investigative reporting has a role to play in electoral politics. But it’s worthwhile to keep in mind what can be accomplished when it’s focused on issues that aren’t being discussed every night on CNN. At ProPublica, we’ve seen a surprising number of such stories in the early weeks of 2024. In January, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Denis McDonough, flew to Chico, California, to meet directly with front-line workers at a clinic that failed two veterans who sought help with acute mental health crises. Both went on to kill their mothers in shootings in the first days of January 2022. Our reporting revealed serious lapses in the mental health care both veterans received. We learned that the clinic had not had a full-time, on-site psychiatrist for five years and that staffers had long expressed concerns about its inability to provide care. McDonough said the VA has to make sure that its resources are growing as fast as the local number of veterans so that “they can get the timely access to care and the timely access to benefits that they have earned. We’re making progress on that, but there’s still more work to be done, and we will not rest until we get it done.” Although we put out regular reports on impact, it’s not always precisely clear how much of a role our journalism played in triggering reform. Sometimes, our stories are revelatory, bringing to light a problem that no one knew existed such as when we reported on the hidden biases of algorithms used to predict future criminality. Other times, our work brings a broader public understanding of issues already well understood by the affected communities. One of the best examples of the latter came in our reporting on the failure of museums across the country to follow a federal law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, requiring the return of ancestral remains and sacred objects. The law was widely ignored by leading museums and universities; more than 30 years after its passage, the remains of over 210,000 Native Americans had yet to be returned. Institutions faced little or no consequences for their failure to comply with the statute. And so we created a NAGPRA database that allowed anyone — museum practitioners, tribal representatives, reporters, interested readers — to identify the more than 600 federally funded institutions that were still holding remains and other objects. Because the database included so many smaller, regional institutions, we trained journalists to use it to report on this issue in their local areas. More than 70 news organizations have used our data in their reporting. That pressure brought results. Nearly 19,000 remains were returned last year, more than in any previous year. In January, the American Museum of Natural History in New York announced that it was shuttering exhibits that include items from tribes in Montana, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. “While the actions we are taking this week may seem sudden, they reflect a growing urgency among all museums to change their relationships to, and representation of, Indigenous cultures,” the museum’s director, Sean Decatur, wrote in an email to staff. “The Halls we are closing are vestiges of an era when museums such as ours did not respect the values, perspectives, and indeed shared humanity of Indigenous peoples.” Last month, medical device giant Philips Respironics announced that it had agreed to stop selling sleep apnea machines and other respiratory devices in the United States after a series of stories by ProPublica and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Questions about the safety of the devices have been widely known since 2021, when the company launched a massive recall. Philips publicly acknowledged that the foam used to make the machines quieter could break down and emit carcinogenic fumes. Our reporting took the story much further. We revealed that the company had known of problems with the foam for more than a decade and had withheld thousands of complaints from regulators despite a federal law that requires reporting. Since the recall, Philips has promised to fix the problem by sending out millions of safe replacement machines, but reporters discovered that there was evidence those machines were releasing dangerous chemicals as well. The Food and Drug Administration was alerted to the problem more than two years ago but has provided little information to the public about whether the replacement machines are safe. Philips has said that the new foam in its latest devices is not dangerous. The FDA said more tests are needed. The ebb and flow of public attention is difficult if not impossible to handicap. We wrote about TurboTax for years before the federal government began to investigate whether it was cheating customers. In 2022, the company settled a lawsuit brought by 50 state attorneys general and the District of Columbia and agreed to pay $141 million to 4.4 million people who had been enticed into paying fees for tax preparation that had been advertised as “free.” This year, the Federal Trade Commission ordered the maker of TurboTax to stop misleading consumers in what it termed a “deceptive ad campaign” that was “broad, enduring, and willful.” (In a statement, Intuit said it planned to appeal the order in federal court.) The last few months have been brutal for the American media, punctuated by layoffs at some of journalism’s most storied newsrooms. The problems are real, particularly with the business models of for-profit companies that aren’t headquartered in New York. But there are glimmers of hope. The worrying trends of 21st-century American life, from the division of the country into red and blue enclaves to the tendency of social media algorithms to create self-confirming bubbles of like-minded people, have not eliminated the power of great journalism to catalyze changes. The potential to spur impact won’t fix the industry’s broken business model, but it’s a sign of health in our democracy, something worth noting amid all of this year’s worrying headlines.
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[l] at 2/12/24 3:00am
by Melissa Sanchez and Maryam Jameel Leer en español. 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. The inability of police to communicate with immigrants who don’t speak English has long created problems, sometimes with tragic consequences. Those obstacles can inhibit crime victims from calling law enforcement for help and make it difficult for investigators to solve crimes. But as part of an initiative by the Biden administration, the U.S. Department of Justice is pushing law enforcement agencies to better serve people who don’t speak proficient English. Last week, for example, the King County Sheriff’s Office in Washington agreed to appoint a manager for a language-access program, restrict the use of children and others who aren’t qualified to serve as interpreters to narrowly defined situations, and develop a training program and complaint process. In December 2022, the Justice Department agreed to similar measures with the city and county of Denver and the Police Department there in response to complaints that officers had failed to provide language assistance to Burmese- and Rohingya-speaking residents, including during arrests. And in Dane County, Wisconsin, the Justice Department is now working with the sheriff’s office on its first-ever written policy on how to respond to incidents involving people with limited English proficiency. This development follows a ProPublica report last year about the flawed investigation into the death of a Nicaraguan boy on a dairy farm in the county. A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment on its work in Dane County but referred reporters to its law enforcement language access initiative, launched in December 2022. Under the initiative, law enforcement agencies can get help improving how they respond to people with limited English proficiency, including technical assistance, resources and training. “We have seen that a failure to provide such meaningful access can chill reporting of crimes, leave victims and witnesses with [limited English proficiency] vulnerable to flawed investigations and even wrongful arrest, and threaten the safety of officers and the general public alike,” Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s civil rights division, wrote in a December letter to law enforcement agencies. Under the federal Civil Rights Act, agencies that receive federal funding are prohibited from discriminating against people because of their national origin; as a result, they must provide meaningful language assistance to people with limited English proficiency. ProPublica had found that, due to a language barrier, the Dane County Sheriff’s Office wrongly concluded that the boy’s father, José María Rodríguez Uriarte, was operating a piece of farming equipment that killed 8-year-old Jefferson. The sheriff’s deputy who questioned Rodríguez made a grammatical error in Spanish that contributed to her misunderstanding of what had happened. Jefferson’s death was ruled an accident, but Rodríguez was publicly blamed. At the time of Jefferson’s death, the sheriff’s office lacked any written policies on what officers should do when they encounter people who speak a language other than English or when they should bring in an interpreter. The sheriff’s office also relied on employees to self-report their proficiency in foreign languages. As a general practice — though not a rule — patrol deputies are supposed to ask if any of their colleagues speak that language and, if none are available, seek help from other agencies, the sheriff’s office said previously. On the night Jefferson died, the deputy who interviewed the father was the only Dane official on the scene who self-reported speaking any Spanish. In response to our findings, the sheriff’s office has said that its goal is to conduct thorough and factual investigations, and that it would welcome any new information from any witnesses or parties who wanted to come forward. After our story was published, the sheriff’s office drafted a proposed policy on how to respond to incidents involving residents with limited English proficiency. It establishes a testing process to determine employees’ foreign language skills, breaks down how deputies are supposed to identify what language somebody speaks and commits to providing training so employees know when and how to access professional interpreters. Elise Schaffer, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, told ProPublica in an email that the draft policy was created based on the Justice Department’s standards and had been written “prior to any inquiries from DOJ.” Schaffer said the draft policy has been “submitted to the DOJ for their input and any recommendations they may have.” In our reporting in Wisconsin, we found that workers on dairy farms routinely encounter language barriers in their interactions with law enforcement. Records showed that police officers and sheriff’s deputies responding to incidents on farms often rely on workers’ supervisors, co-workers, relatives and sometimes even children to interpret. During traffic stops, officers routinely turn to Google Translate on their phones rather than professional interpreters. Mariah Hennen, the program manager of the Farmworker Project at the nonprofit Legal Action of Wisconsin, said language gaps can lead to serious consequences for immigrant farmworkers when they are victims of crimes. “Farmworkers want to be able to report what happened to them,” she said. “But often [they] are not able to do that fully when they cannot communicate clearly with law enforcement.” Rodríguez said his experience led him to believe that, because he’s an immigrant, authorities weren’t concerned about figuring out what happened to his son. “I am Hispanic and so, of course, they didn’t care about trying hard to do their job,” he said in Spanish in a recent interview. He said he hopes federal attention to language access in Dane County will help other immigrants who encounter law enforcement. “When police feel like they’re required to do so,” he said, “maybe they’ll try harder.” Mariam Elba contributed reporting.
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[l] at 2/9/24 11:25am
by Becca Savransky, Idaho Statesman This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with the Idaho Statesman. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published. Idaho Republican leaders introduced a bill Thursday that would provide $1.5 billion in new funding over 10 years for school districts to repair and replace their aging and overcrowded school buildings — a proposal they said would mark the largest investment in school facilities in state history. The bill would create the School Modernization Facilities Fund, which districts could use for construction and maintenance needs. It would also provide money through an existing fund to help school districts pay off their bonds and levies, which are used to finance school facilities and district operating costs. School districts across Idaho have for decades faced challenges to fixing or replacing their aging, deteriorating schools and to building new ones to accommodate growth. Last year, an Idaho Statesman and ProPublica series showed how the state’s restrictive school funding policies and the Legislature’s reluctance to make significant investments in school facilities have challenged teachers and affected student learning. Some students have had to learn in schools with leaky ceilings, discolored water, failing plumbing and freezing classrooms. During Gov. Brad Little’s State of the State address earlier this year, he announced he wanted to make funding for school facilities “priority No. 1.” He proposed putting $2 billion toward school facilities over 10 years, or $200 million per year. The new bill, which has about 40 co-sponsors and was crafted by the governor’s office and Republican lawmakers, would redirect $500 million from other programs in addition to providing new funding, bringing the total value to $2 billion over 10 years. The bill included compromises needed to get it introduced and passed through the heavily Republican Legislature. During his address, Little, a Republican, cited the two news organizations’ reporting and used photos from a recent article, in which students, teachers and administrators shared visuals and stories about the conditions they deal with on a daily basis. Idaho has long ranked last or near last among states in spending per pupil, and it spends the least on school infrastructure per student, according to the most recent state and national reports. Districts across the state struggle to pass bonds — one of the few ways they can get funds to repair and replace their buildings — because doing so in Idaho requires support from two-thirds of voters. Most other states require a simple majority or 60%. Many superintendents told the Statesman and ProPublica that reaching Idaho’s threshold has been nearly impossible in their communities, and some have given up trying. Idaho lawmakers have also discussed a proposal that would start the process to lower the two-thirds threshold for bonds. That proposal hasn’t been introduced yet this legislative session, but Republican Sen. Dave Lent said it is written and could be introduced next week. The bill introduced Thursday would provide the money from the School Modernization Facilities Fund to school districts based on average daily attendance, meaning larger school districts would get more funding. “If we’re going to spend money for buildings, that money needs to go to where those children are at,” Republican House Speaker Mike Moyle told the House Revenue and Taxation Committee Thursday. During a virtual public forum last week with the Statesman, Republican Rep. Stephanie Mickelsen said that basing the allocation on attendance was a concern for some legislators and smaller districts, but that it was “the only way they could get the bill across the finish line.” This could leave smaller, rural districts that have long struggled to pass bonds without enough money to build new schools. Assistant Majority Leader Jason Monks, R-Meridian, said it was the fairest way to distribute the funding. “We’re always worried about making sure that it’s fairly distributed to everybody. And I can’t think of a better way to do it than just by how many students you have,” Monks said. “If you have more students, you get more money.” The program would be funded with $125 million in state sales tax revenue each year over 10 years, which would be used to issue a bond for $1 billion. Each school district would have the option to get the funding via a lump sum now or get a portion of it annually. West Ada, the largest district in the state, could get over $100 million, while the Salmon School District in Central Idaho could get about $2.4 million. Salmon has tried around a dozen times to pass a bond over the past few decades but has never reached the two-thirds threshold. (Those sums don’t include money districts would get from the other portion of the bill to pay off existing bonds and levies.) The money is intended to be used for facilities “directly related to the school district’s core educational mission” and can’t be spent on athletic facilities that are not primarily used for gym class, lunch or other educational purposes, according to the bill. The bill also includes elements designed to appeal to more lawmakers in Idaho’s Legislature, which is dominated by conservatives. The second part of the proposal would redirect about $50 million from the state lottery and an estimated $25 million more per year into a reserve created last year that was intended to lower property taxes by helping districts pay off their bonds and levies. Districts with money remaining from this allocation could put that money toward construction, renovation and maintenance or save it for future needs. The state would phase out a different program that provides some state support for districts that have passed bonds. The bill would also lower the individual and corporate income tax rate from 5.8% to 5.695%, which the sponsors said would give residents more money so they could better support local bonds and levies. And it would eliminate the August election — one of the three dates on which school districts can run proposals for bonds and levies. Republican leaders say that given the new money, there will be less of a need for districts to ask their communities for funding. “I made it no secret. I would love for school districts never to have to bond because we provided the resources that they need,” Monks told the Statesman and ProPublica. “That’s the objective from me.” This bill doesn’t accomplish that, he said, but it gets closer. To be eligible for the modernization fund, school districts also must submit a 10-year facilities plan to the state Department of Education that includes their anticipated construction, renovation and maintenance needs. A spokesperson from the Idaho Education Association said this bill addresses a problem that has long been ignored and has the potential to create better learning environments for students. “Idaho is finally looking for a solution to this challenging problem, thanks to Gov. Little’s leadership,” the spokesperson, Mike Journee, said in a message to the Statesman. The bill will now need a public hearing before it heads to the House floor.
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[l] at 2/9/24 3:30am
by Debbie Cenziper, ProPublica, and Michael D. Sallah and Michael Korsh, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. In the winter of 2021, with its stock price plunging, lawsuits mounting and popular breathing machines pulled from the shelves, Philips Respironics made a surprise public announcement. The company said the sleep apnea devices it had recalled only months earlier had undergone new safety tests and did not appear to pose a health threat to the millions of patients who relied on them to breathe. It was a remarkable reversal for the global manufacturer, which had drawn headlines after admitting that an industrial foam placed inside the devices could break apart in heat and humidity and send potentially toxic and carcinogenic particles and fumes into the masks worn by users. The new results, Philips said, found the machines were not expected to “result in long-term health consequences.” But a series of emails obtained by ProPublica and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette show the Food and Drug Administration quickly rejected those safety claims, telling Philips that the new tests failed to account for the impact on patients who had used the devices for years. The FDA also said it still considered the machines a significant health threat that could inflict severe injury or even death. “These tests are preliminary,” the agency told Philips. “Definitive conclusions cannot yet be drawn in support of reduction in hazards.” The FDA did not publicize its assessment, even though patients across the country were at risk and an untold number continued using their recalled machines while they waited on Philips to send replacements. At the time, the FDA made only one public reference to the dispute — on the fourth page of a 14-page letter to Philips in May 2022. To see it, customers would have had to find it on the agency’s website and then wade through scientific language about “cytotoxicity failure,” “novel continuous sampling” and other complex concepts. Philips went on to publicize more test results, all playing down the potential health dangers. To this day, the FDA has said little about its ongoing disagreement with the company over whether the machines were safe. The emails over the course of 2022 were obtained by ProPublica and the Post-Gazette through a public records lawsuit filed by the news organizations against the FDA. Taken together, the exchanges reveal a startling lack of transparency by both Philips and the government while patients and their doctors struggled to make sense of one of the largest and most tumultuous medical device recalls in years. “The bottom line is that lives were at risk,” said Dr. Bob Lowe, a former emergency room physician and public health advocate in Oregon who used one of the recalled machines. “People have a right to know and providers have a right, or really an obligation, to be fully informed. As a physician, if I don’t know what the dangers are, then I can’t protect my patients.” Dr. Robert Lowe, a former emergency room physician and public health advocate in Oregon, used a recalled device. (Liz Moughon/ProPublica) In the emails to Philips, the FDA described a litany of concerns, notably that the company’s analysis did not consider the “real world” use of the devices, which send air directly into the noses, mouths and lungs of patients for hours at a time. Philips had brought on independent testing labs to assess whether the chemicals and particles released into the masks of patients reached dangerous levels, but the government in its emails said the testing program was “limited in its utility and does not fully assess or account for all risks.” “FDA has not accepted the data or Philips Respironics’ conclusions,” Denise Hampton, with the FDA’s Office of Health Technology, wrote to the company in one of the emails. It wasn’t until October 2023 — nearly two years after Philips started promoting the favorable test results — that the FDA released a public statement about its concerns, saying that testing and analysis were not “adequate” and that Philips had agreed to conduct additional studies. Richard Callender, a former mayor in Pennsylvania who used his sleep apnea machine for six months after the recall, said patients should have been given details far earlier. “We deserve that. If they had concerns they should have at least informed the public,” he said. “Don’t let everybody walk around saying, ‘Hey, I’m OK because [Philips] told me they think it’s all right.’” The FDA defended its handling of the matter, saying it released the statement in October after completing an analysis of the company’s test results. “Any health determination made by the FDA is science-driven and based on thorough analysis of the information presented to the agency,” it said. The agency said it “has been clear” about the government’s concerns with the foam in public alerts and other communications and has maintained its position about the potential health risks. Lowe, however, said the FDA waited far too long to publicly challenge Philips as the company repeatedly told patients that the devices were safe. “It’s not full disclosure,” he said. Philips did not respond to specific questions from ProPublica and the Post-Gazette, but it has previously said that the tests found the foam caused no “appreciable harm” to patients and that the company would continue to carry out additional tests. In its emails to the FDA, Philips said that the favorable findings were based on the “worst-case chemical release” and that testing had found particles from the foam did not exceed safety levels. While Philips continues to defend the safety of the devices, the company late last month announced it would not sell any new sleep apnea machines and other respiratory devices in the United States under an agreement with the federal government. Days later, the FDA said it had received 561 reports of deaths associated with the machines since 2021. From the outset of the recall, there was little debate that Philips had a serious problem: Noise-reducing foam that the company had fitted inside the devices years earlier was crumbling. Both Philips and the FDA at the time described potential health risks for patients exposed to the material, including respiratory tract illnesses, headaches, nausea, and toxic and carcinogenic effects. Philips, however, began to walk back its warnings in December 2021, six months after the recall began. And by the following year, the company made multiple announcements about the new test results. In email exchanges, the FDA challenged the “significant limitations” of the company’s testing program as well as efforts to change an earlier evaluation of the health risks conducted by about a dozen company officials. The 2021 internal assessment was damning, describing the deteriorating foam and dangerous chemicals and declaring the risk to patients who used the machines “unacceptable.” Months later, Philips turned in a modified evaluation to the FDA, lowering the threat level from “crucial” to “marginal.” Inside Philips, scientists and others were also alarmed, criticizing the company for minimizing the health risks without carrying out comprehensive testing to determine whether the machines could inflict serious harm, according to interviews and internal communications obtained by ProPublica and the Post-Gazette. The dispute reached the company’s highest levels. Medical director Hisham Elzayat broke ranks and refused to sign the evaluation that downgraded the risk level, according to court testimony and the internal communications. “I haven’t seen or heard anything that makes me decide acceptable risk,” he wrote at the time. In another message, he noted about the evaluation, “There is nothing I can do about it.” He also wrote, “If only all this effort is steered towards fixing the problem instead of hiding it.” Elzayat, a cardiothoracic surgeon who still works for Philips and whose differences with the company were described in a federal court hearing in October, declined to comment. According to the court testimony, after Elzayat refused to endorse the new evaluation, he was removed from the team inside Philips that was handling the crisis and stripped of his access to data about the foam. Another company supervisor also raised concerns, complaining about the company’s push to change the evaluation, internal communications show. “They desperately want to make changes,” the supervisor wrote. “I am trying to limit what they are doing.” ProPublica and the Post-Gazette are withholding the supervisor’s name because of fear of reprisals. Another official at Philips cited similar concerns, writing about the actions by a company manager to ensure that a testing lab reported favorable results. “You wouldn’t believe the magic he worked to ensure that compound was labeled a non-risk,” the official wrote. The debate was captured in internal communications, some of which have been turned over to the Department of Justice. The DOJ has been carrying out a criminal investigation, according to sources familiar with the probe and a document reviewed by the news organizations. Philips, which has said it is cooperating with authorities, declined to answer questions about Elzayat’s role in the controversial evaluation of the foam. ProPublica and the Post-Gazette have reported that the company held back more than 3,700 complaints about the foam degradation from customers and the government before announcing the recall. The news organizations recently obtained more records from the FDA that identified an additional 1,100 complaints that Philips did not turn over to the government before the recall. Federal law requires medical device makers to submit reports about malfunctions, patient injuries and deaths to the FDA within 30 days. Philips has said the company reviewed the complaints on a case-by-case basis and gave them to the FDA after the recall out of an “abundance of caution.” The private debate about whether the machines were safe played out as hundreds of thousands of people were left to decide whether to continue using their recalled devices while waiting for a replacement from Philips. Many reached out to members of Congress, who forwarded a series of complaints to the FDA, records show. “Having to choose whether to continue using a life-saving device and risk further health complications or to stop using them altogether and risk death is an unthinkable decision to make,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., wrote to the agency in 2022. “It is imperative that patients and healthcare providers have the best guidance.” The back-and-forth between federal regulators and Philips also unfolded as longtime users of the devices and their relatives stepped forward to report illnesses, including throat, lung, esophageal and nasal cancers. Some described deaths of wives, husbands and other family members. ProPublica and the Post-Gazette previously identified reports that described nearly 2,000 cases of cancer, 600 liver and kidney illnesses, and 17,000 respiratory ailments. Medical experts interviewed by ProPublica and the Post-Gazette say that it may take years to determine the health consequences but that early findings are worrisome. The devices tested positive numerous times for genotoxicity, the ability of a chemical to cause cells to mutate, a process that can lead to cancer, company records show. The biggest challenge, they said, is conducting more comprehensive testing, including an epidemiological analysis that tracks the health of people who used the machines over years. “You would want more than lab tests to really confirm that these devices are safe,” said Kushal Kadakia, a public health researcher at Harvard Medical School who has written about the recall. “You’d want data from patients over multiple years.” Mike Wereschagin of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette contributed reporting.
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[l] at 2/9/24 3:00am
by Stephen Engelberg Leer en español. ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. Almost every weekday at 7 a.m., Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador holds a press conference known in Spanish as “la mañanera,” or, loosely translated, the morning show. He takes questions from reporters, but his purpose is to control the news, recounting his achievements and bashing his enemies, real and perceived — especially those in the media. Since last week, López Obrador has focused much of his ire on an article we published on Jan. 30 about allegations that drug traffickers contributed $2 million to his first, unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2006. He dismissed the story as “completely false” and “slander.” The president has been aggressive in attacking the story’s reporter, Tim Golden, calling him “a mercenary in the service” of the Drug Enforcement Administration, a tool of the U.S. State Department and “pawn,” among other things. “As far as I’m concerned, they should give him the prize for slander,” he said of Golden, who has twice shared the Pulitzer Prize. On Wednesday, López Obrador challenged Golden to come to the National Palace in Mexico City to answer questions about the origins of the story, why we wrote it and the identity of his sources in the United States and Mexico. Although Golden might enjoy the debate, he won’t be appearing on the morning show. He made extensive efforts to include López Obrador’s views before the piece ran. We contacted the president’s chief spokesperson more than a week before publication and provided a detailed summary of the story’s findings along with a series of questions. After numerous requests, the spokesperson promised a reply, but we never received one. ProPublica has requested an interview with López Obrador about the story and the questions it raises, and we would speak with him as we would any other head of state — not for an episode of the regular mañanera segment he calls “Who’s Who in the Lies?” I do think it’s useful to engage the president on the legitimate questions he has posed about why we are doing this reporting and how we went about it. To recap: Our story, which was based on interviews with current and former officials and a review of government documents, disclosed the existence of a previously secret investigation by the DEA into reported donations to López Obrador’s 2006 presidential campaign by traffickers working with the so-called Sinaloa Cartel. The case began when a Mexican drug lawyer working as an informant for the DEA reported in 2010 that he had participated in the meeting at which the donations were first negotiated, officials said. He reported having given most of the agreed-on funds to an operative in López Obrador’s 2006 campaign, Mauricio Soto Caballero. The informant then enticed Soto to come in on a small-time cocaine deal. DEA agents arrested Soto in McAllen, Texas, and he agreed to work undercover for the Americans to stay out of federal prison. Ultimately, three other witnesses, including Soto, confirmed the drug lawyer’s account to the DEA, officials said. To gather more evidence for a possible corruption case, the DEA had Soto surreptitiously record two conversations with the man to whom he said he had given most of the traffickers’ money, Nicolás Mollinedo Bastar, one of López Obrador’s closest aides. Justice Department prosecutors reviewed the tapes and found them incriminating but not decisive, people familiar with the case said. DEA agents wanted to go forward with a more elaborate sting operation inside Mexico, but DOJ officials rejected that plan in late 2011, in part over concerns that even a successful prosecution would be viewed by Mexicans as egregious American meddling in their politics. The case was closed and, to our knowledge, no further investigation of López Obrador or his inner circle’s possible links to drug traffickers was pursued by U.S. investigators. (Soto did not respond to our repeated questions about his role in the U.S. investigation, but he denied in recent interviews that he acted as a confidential source or taped his friend and colleague Mollinedo. In an interview, Mollinedo told us he never received donations from drug traffickers, disputed that López Obrador would ever tolerate such corruption and said he knew nothing of any U.S. investigation involving his friend Soto.) López Obrador was elected president in 2018 after promising a turn away from confrontation with Mexico’s powerful crime groups. He called the policy “Hugs, not bullets” and immediately began to scale back counterdrug cooperation with the United States. Some critics of our reporting have asked why we pursued an allegation of corruption that dates back to 2006. It’s a fair question. We viewed this as a case study of the conflicting pressures faced by U.S. officials when they learn of possible corruption in Mexico. While some American officials feel that policing government corruption should be a Mexican responsibility, others note that government collusion has been a crucial element (along with a porous 2,000-mile border and a vast illegal drug market in the United States) fueling the drug gangs’ rise as a global criminal force. The power of those gangs, which lord over large swaths of Mexican territory and extort businesses across the economy, has become a growing national security problem for both countries. In the United States, annual deaths from drug overdoses have surged over 100,000 in recent years. Hugs notwithstanding, criminal violence in Mexico remains at historic levels. After more than 15 years and $3.5 billion dollars in U.S. aid, bilateral efforts to overhaul Mexico’s criminal justice system have faltered badly. Washington officials’ ambivalence in the face of Mexico’s corruption problem has become even more acute as immigration has taken center stage in American politics: U.S. officials understand that López Obrador’s administration could react to criminal charges against its officials by easing efforts to stop migrants at the border. While it might disappoint López Obrador, we do not reveal the identities of the present and former government officials who speak with us for these stories. But we can offer some context on the latest article. This was not an orchestrated leak; the Biden administration officials with whom we spoke were uniformly dismayed that it was going to appear. A spat with a Mexican president — much less any threat of conflict on the immigration front — is not a backdrop they’d like to see for a 2024 presidential election. López Obrador’s attacks from the palace podium have been personal and vituperative. So here are a few facts. Golden has been reporting on Mexico for three decades, first as The New York Times bureau chief in Mexico City and then as an investigative reporter for the Times and ProPublica. He began working on this story months ago, and the details emerged only from dozens of interviews and internal documents. López Obrador has advanced multiple theories about how this story came to be. This week, he suggested that Golden was somehow in cahoots with the discredited former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, whom he covered in the early 1990s. While Golden did have good sources inside the government in those days, he also produced dozens of deeply reported stories about the explosion of the drug trade under Salinas, the growing shadow of Mexican corruption and the failure of the United States to deal effectively with either problem. That work continued during the tenure of Salinas’s chosen successor, Ernesto Zedillo, whose administration also complained about stories that exposed allegations of high-level corruption. Some in Mexico have speculated around the fact that similar stories about drug traffickers’ contributions to the 2006 campaign appeared in three foreign outlets simultaneously. Surely, they argue, that is clear circumstantial evidence of a coordinated U.S. campaign to leak information that might undermine the Mexican government. The truth, as it so often is, is far more mundane. Early in our reporting, we realized that a respected U.S. news organization, InSight Crime, was pursuing the same allegations. Sometimes we collaborate — or compete — in such circumstances. In this case we agreed with Insight Crime that we would each work independently to produce the most thorough and careful stories we could, but coordinate our publication date. We delayed publication and rewrote our stories in order to address a request from the DEA that we not name any confidential government sources. As sometimes happens, though, a Mexican reporter who writes for the German outlet Deutsche Welle published her own account of the donations and named Soto as a DEA source. With that information public, InSight Crime and ProPublica went ahead and included it in our stories. Within hours, López Obrador was assailing all three reporters as “vile slanderers.” The tactic of attacking reporters who reveal uncomfortable truths is as old as democracy itself. But the advent of social media has taken the power of attacks on journalists to new heights. Politicians like López Obrador can now use their platforms to say whatever they want about a reporter and then stand back as armies of friends and bots amplify the message across the internet. That experience can be difficult for American reporters. But it is a deadly serious business in Mexico, where journalists who investigate organized crime and official corruption are killed with impunity. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 100 Mexican reporters, editors and photographers have been killed just since 2010. The 13 killed in 2022 represented an all-time high. We hope López Obrador will grant us an interview, but we will continue to write about Mexican corruption and U.S. policy either way.
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[l] at 2/8/24 6:00am
by Molly Parker and Beth Hundsdorfer, Capitol News Illinois This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with Capitol News Illinois. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published. Kaleigh Rogers was in crisis when she checked into a state-run institution on Illinois’ northern border two years ago. Rogers, who has cerebral palsy, had a mental health breakdown during the pandemic and was acting aggressively toward herself and others. Before COVID-19, she had been living in a small group home; she had been taking college classes online and enjoyed going out with friends, volunteering and going to church. But when her aggression escalated, she needed more medical help than her community setting could provide. With few viable options for intervention, she moved into Kiley Developmental Center in Waukegan, a much larger facility. There, she says she has fewer freedoms and almost nothing to do, and was placed in a unit with six other residents, all of whom are unable to speak. Although the stay was meant to be short term, she’s been there for two years. The predicament facing Rogers and others like her is proof, advocates say, that the state is failing to live up to the promise it made in a 13-year-old federal consent decree to serve people in the community. Rogers, 26, said she has lost so much at Kiley: her privacy, her autonomy and her purpose. During dark times, she cries on the phone to her mom, who has reduced the frequency of her visits because it is so upsetting for Rogers when her mom has to leave. The 220-bed developmental center about an hour north of Chicago is one of seven in the state that have been plagued by allegations of abuse and other staff misconduct. The facilities have been the subject of a monthslong investigation by Capitol News Illinois and ProPublica about the state’s failures to correct poor conditions for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The news organizations uncovered instances of staff who had beaten, choked, thrown, dragged and humiliated residents inside the state-run facilities. Advocates hoped the state would become less reliant on large institutions like these when they filed a lawsuit in 2005, alleging that Illinois’ failure to adequately fund community living options ended up segregating people with intellectual and developmental disabilities from society by forcing them to live in institutions. The suit claimed Illinois was in direct violation of a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision in another case, which found that states had to serve people in the most integrated setting of their choosing. Negotiations resulted in a consent decree, a court-supervised improvement plan. The state agreed to find and fund community placements and services for individuals covered by the consent decree, thousands of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities across Illinois who have put their names on waiting lists to receive them. Now, the state has asked a judge to consider ending the consent decree, citing significant increases in the number of people receiving community-based services. In a court filing in December, Illinois argued that while its system is “not and never will be perfect,” it is “much more than legally adequate.” But advocates say the consent decree should not be considered fulfilled as long as people with disabilities continue to live without the services and choices that the state promised. Across the country, states have significantly downsized or closed their large-scale institutions for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities in favor of smaller, more integrated and more homelike settings. But in Illinois, a national outlier, such efforts have foundered. Efforts to close state-operated developmental centers have been met with strong opposition from labor unions, the communities where the centers are located, local politicians and some parents. U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman in Chicago is scheduled in late summer to decide whether the state has made enough progress in building up community supports to end the court’s oversight. For some individuals like Rogers, who are in crisis or have higher medical or behavioral challenges, the state itself acknowledges that it has struggled to serve them in community settings. Rogers said she’d like to send this message on behalf of those in state-operated developmental centers: “Please, please get us out once and for all.” “Living Inside a Box” Without a robust system of community-based resources and living arrangements to intervene during a crisis, state-operated developmental centers become a last resort for people with disabilities. But under the consent decree agreement, the state, Equip for Equality argues, is expected to offer sufficient alternative crisis supports to keep people who want them out of these institutions. In a written response to questions, Rachel Otwell, a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Human Services, said the state has sought to expand the menu of services it offers people experiencing a crisis, in an effort to keep them from going into institutions. But Andrea Rizor, a lawyer with Equip for Equality, said, “They just don’t have enough to meet the demand.” Rebekah Zienty, an active treatment administrator, helps Rogers play a piano, one of the few activities she enjoys, at Kiley Developmental Center. (Taylor Glascock, special to ProPublica) For example, the state offers stabilization homes where people can live for 90 days while they receive more intensive support from staff serving the homes, including medication reviews and behavioral interventions. But there are only 32 placements available — only four of them for women — and the beds are always full, Rizor said. Too many people, she said, enter a state-run institution for short-term treatment and end up stuck there for years for various reasons, including shortcomings with the state’s discharge planning and concerns from providers who may assume those residents to be disruptive or difficult to serve without adequate resources. That’s what happened to Rogers. Interruptions to her routine and isolation during the pandemic sent her anxiety and aggressive behaviors into overdrive. The staff at her community group home in Machesney Park, unsure of what to do when she acted out, had called the police on several occasions. Doctors also tried to intervene, but the cocktail of medications she was prescribed turned her into a “zombie,” Rogers said. Stacey Rogers, her mom and legal guardian, said she didn’t know where else to turn for help. Kiley, she said, “was pretty much the last resort for us,” but she never intended for her daughter to be there for this long. She’s helped her daughter apply to dozens of group homes over the past year. A few put her on waitlists; most have turned her down. “Right now, all she’s doing is living inside a box,” Stacey Rogers said. A housing unit at Kiley Developmental Center (Taylor Glascock, special to ProPublica) Although Rogers gave the news organizations permission to ask about her situation, IDHS declined to comment, citing privacy restrictions. In general, the IDHS spokesperson said that timelines for leaving institutions are “specific to each individual” and their unique preferences, such as where they want to live and speciality services they may require in a group home. Equip for Equality points to people like Rogers to argue that the consent decree has not been sufficiently fulfilled. She’s one of several hundred in that predicament, the organization said. “If the state doesn’t have capacity to serve folks in the community, then the time is not right to terminate this consent decree, which requires community capacity,” Rizor said. Equip for Equality has said that ongoing safety issues in these facilities make it even more important that people covered by the consent decree not be placed in state-run institutions. In an October court brief, citing the news organizations’ reporting, Equip for Equality said that individuals with disabilities who were transferred from community to institutional care in crisis have “died, been raped, and been physically and mentally abused.” Over the summer, an independent court monitor assigned to provide expert opinions in the consent decree, in a memo to the court, asked a judge to bar the state from admitting those individuals into its institutions. In its December court filing, the state acknowledged that there are some safety concerns inside its state-run centers, “which the state is diligently working on,” as well as conditions inside privately operated facilities and group homes “that need to be addressed.” But it also argued that conditions inside its facilities are outside the scope of the consent decree. The lawsuit and consent decree specifically aimed to help people who wanted to move out of large private institutions, but plaintiffs’ attorneys argue that the consent decree prohibits the state from using state-run institutions as backup crisis centers. In arguing to end the consent decree, the state pointed to significant increases in the number of people served since it went into effect. There were about 13,500 people receiving home- and community-based services in 2011 compared with more than 23,000 in 2023, it told the court. The state also said it has significantly increased funding that is earmarked to pay front-line direct support professionals who assist individuals with daily living needs in the community, such as eating and grooming. In a statement to reporters, the human services department called these and other improvements to the system “extraordinary.” Lawyers for the state argued that those improvements are enough to end court oversight. “The systemic barriers that were in place in 2011 no longer exist,” the state’s court filing said. Among those who were able to find homes in the community is Stanley Ligas, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that led to the consent decree. When it was filed in 2005, he was living in a roughly 100-bed private facility but wanted to move into a community home closer to his sister. The state refused to fund his move. Today, the 56-year-old lives in Oswego with three roommates in a house they rent. All of them receive services to help their daily living needs through a nonprofit, and Ligas has held jobs in the community: He previously worked in a bowling alley and is now paid to make public appearances to advocate for others with disabilities. He lives near his sister, says he goes on family beach vacations and enjoys watching professional wrestling with friends. During an interview with reporters, Ligas hugged his caregiver and said he’s “very happy” and hopes others can receive the same opportunities he’s been given. First image: Stanley Ligas, 56, lives with three roommates at his home in Oswego, Illinois. Second image: Ligas’ clinical mentor, Nicholas Czech, helps prepare snacks. (Taylor Glascock, special to ProPublica) While much of that progress has come only in recent years, under Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration, it has proven to be vulnerable to political and economic changes. After a prolonged budget stalemate, the court in 2017 found Illinois out of compliance with the Ligas consent decree. At the time, late and insufficient payments from the state had resulted in a staffing crisis inside community group homes, leading to escalating claims of abuse and neglect and failures to provide routine services that residents relied on, such as help getting to work, social engagements and medical appointments in the community. Advocates worry about what could happen under a different administration, or this one, if Illinois’ finances continue to decline as projected. “I acknowledge the commitments that this administration has made. However, because we had so far to come, we still have far to go,” said Kathy Carmody, chief executive of The Institute on Public Policy for People with Disabilities, which represents providers. While the wait for services is significantly shorter than it was when the consent decree went into effect in 2011, there are still more than 5,000 adults who have told the state they want community services but have yet to receive them, most of them in a family home. Most people spend about five years waiting to get the services they request. And Illinois continues to rank near the bottom in terms of the investment it makes in community-based services, according to a University of Kansas analysis of states’ spending on services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Advocates who believe the consent decree has not been fulfilled contend that Illinois’ continued reliance on congregate settings has tied up funds that could go into building up more community living options. Each year, Illinois spends about $347,000 per person to care for those in state-run institutions compared with roughly $91,000 per person spent to support those living in the community. For Rogers, the days inside Kiley are long, tedious and sometimes chaotic. It can be stressful, but Rogers told reporters that she uses soothing self-talk to calm herself when she feels sad or anxious. “I tell myself: ‘You are doing good. You are doing great. You have people outside of here that care about you and cherish you.’”
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[l] at 2/8/24 4:00am
by Lexi Churchill and Lomi Kriel 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 produced in collaboration with The Texas Tribune and the PBS series FRONTLINE. Sign up for newsletters from The Texas Tribune and from FRONTLINE. After a teenage gunman killed 10 people at Santa Fe High School in 2018, Texas lawmakers mandated that all school police officers receive training to better prepare them for the possibility of confronting a mass shooter. The law, which required that such training occur only once, didn’t apply to thousands of state and local law enforcement officers who did not work in schools. Four years later, officers who descended on Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School, a vast majority of whom were not school police, repeatedly acted in ways that ran contrary to what active shooter training teaches, waiting 77 minutes to engage the gunman. An investigation published in December by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and FRONTLINE revealed that about 30% of the 116 state and local officers who responded in May 2022 did not get active shooter training after graduating from police academies. Of those who had, many received such instruction only once in their careers, which at least eight police training experts say is not enough. As part of the investigation, the news organizations conducted a nationwide analysis to examine active shooter training requirements and found critical gaps in preparedness between children and law enforcement. While at least 37 states require active shooter-related drills in schools, typically on a yearly basis, no states mandate such training for officers annually. Instead, decisions about active shooter training are often left to individual school districts and law enforcement departments, creating a patchwork approach in which some proactively provide such instruction and others do not. The month after the news organizations’ investigation was published, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s office released a scathing report that detailed a slew of failures during the Robb Elementary response. While visiting Uvalde, he told reporters that law enforcement agencies should immediately prioritize active shooter training. The federal report recommended that officers receive eight hours of such instruction annually. Only Texas, however, comes close to meeting the Department of Justice’s suggested standards, according to the newsrooms’ nationwide analysis. Last year, the state mandated that all officers, not just school police, take 16 hours of active shooter training every two years. About a dozen states also increased training requirements after the Uvalde shooting, but many continue to fall short of what police training experts say is needed. The gaps in training requirements begin before officers’ first day on the job. While police academies in nearly every state require some form of active shooter training, five states — California, Georgia, Ohio, Washington and Vermont — do not require it for all recruits. A spokesperson for the police standards agency in Washington did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Vermont police standards agency said the police academy curriculum is being reviewed but she could not comment on whether it will expand active shooter training to all officers. Officials with police standards agencies in the other three states said they are considering adding active shooter training to their police academy curriculum. Once officers graduate from police academies, the lack of training requirements becomes more pronounced. Only two states — Texas and Michigan — have laws that require active shooter training for all officers once on the job. While Texas requires recurring instruction, training in Michigan is given once after officers graduate from police academies. Some states mandate active shooter training one time in a particular year, leaving out officers who were not employed at the time. Other states require training only for school police, as Texas did before the Uvalde shooting, and only two of them — Illinois and Mississippi — require it more than once. Source: State laws and regulations compiled by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and FRONTLINE. While a majority of states require frequent active shooter-related drills in schools, 13 don’t require such instruction. They include Colorado and Connecticut, which had two of the worst mass shootings in history: the 1999 Columbine school massacre and the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Spokespeople for the school safety departments in both states said districts are conducting drills despite the absence of a state mandate but did not provide records that confirm their assertions. Active shooter training can be expensive, but state lawmakers should commit to providing the necessary instruction if they want law enforcement to be better prepared for a mass shooting, police training experts said. John Curnutt, assistant director at Texas State University’s Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center, said Uvalde is a “horrible example” of when training was needed but hadn’t been practiced enough. “There’s a higher price that’s paid than the one that we probably could have paid upfront to get ready for it,” Curnutt said. The table of information below is best viewed on our website. View the rest of this table on our website. Source: State laws and regulations compiled by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and FRONTLINE. Information is current as of December 2023. About This Research To confirm the most up-to-date active shooter training requirements for law enforcement and schools across the country as of 2023, we contacted education departments and law enforcement standards agencies in every state. We examined both state laws and regulations. In our analysis of schools, we included all mandated lockdown and active shooter drills, though some education departments said other types of drills can help prepare students and staff as well. In addition to the 37 states that explicitly require active shooter-related drills, we noted several others that have laws mandating safety drills but allow districts to decide which types of drills to conduct. We did not include those in our total count because the options could range from active shooter drills to earthquake drills. For law enforcement, we collected information about how many hours of active shooter training are required for recruits going through police academies and for officers once they are on the job. We also asked for statewide data showing how many officers had taken such courses, but few states could provide that information. While we included only states’ current training mandates, four states — Alabama, North Carolina, Maine and Pennsylvania — required officers to train in a particular year but then not again, meaning that only those who were employed at that time received the one-time instruction.
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[l] at 2/7/24 3:00am
by Seth Freed Wessler ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published. Despite the blaring siren from a security guard’s phone, Rogelio Ramon was still half asleep just after 6 on a January morning, sitting where he’d slept on a red chair in an East Flatbush, Brooklyn, church. Across from him in the crowded sanctuary, a half-dozen West African men recited the Quran on the chancel and a man from China talked with a woman on WhatsApp. Ramon, who is from Venezuela, put on the snug-fitting winter parka he’d found in a donation bin and walked out into the biting cold to figure out where to pass the day. It would be nearly 14 hours until another church, an hour and a half away by subway in Harlem, would take him in. Ramon had already spent a week crisscrossing the city in search of a safe place to lay his head. During his first month in New York he lived in a shelter, but he couldn’t stay. The city recently began limiting single adult migrants to a 30-day stay with an option to reapply for another 30 days, though the wait to get back in can be lengthy. New York hastily launched its new migrant reception system in the spring of 2022, and since then more than 170,000 people have passed through it. As with Ramon, some of them came on free buses from Texas, ending up in New York not because it was their chosen destination but because they had no other option. Many were part of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s initiative to funnel people entering the country into liberal cities and to export the stresses and tensions of the southern border into farflung parts of the country. New York is an attractive landing place because it is the only major U.S. city that’s required, pursuant to a four-decade-old consent decree, to provide a shelter to anyone in need. But the arrival of more and more newcomers, often with no family or community waiting to absorb them, has taxed its shelter system, and it has forced a conflict over the future of the long-contested right-to-shelter rule, raising questions about how generous the city can and should be as migrants continue to arrive. “The unfortunate reality is that we’ve been getting hundreds of people a day every day for nearly two years,” Kayla Mamelak, a spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams, said. “We’re out of space and we’re out of money.” Officials recently estimated that the arrival of migrants will cost the city more than $10 billion over three years, and Adams has repeatedly called on the state and federal government to send more aid. The 30-day limits on an initial stay (60 days for families) have been a “success story,” Mamelak says, as a way to “nudge people into the next phase of their journey.” She said that only about a quarter of people who reach the shelter limit end up reapplying. “The goal is always self-sufficiency.” Newly arrived immigrants come to a Brooklyn shelter where they will be housed for a month. (Christopher Gregory-Rivera, special to ProPublica) But immigration and housing advocates say the system has left people waiting in untenable conditions for a new bed. “The city is using the 30-day-limit and the reticketing process to make people miserable and hope they go away,” said Kathryn Kliff, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project, which is in mediation with the city over the shelter requirement. Kliff acknowledges that the spike in recent arrivals has created new challenges for the city. But in years of city efforts to modify the requirements of the consent decree, single adults have never before been subjected to 30-day limits or left to wait for days on end in chairs or church pews to be assigned another bed. According to the city, the average wait time for single adults to be reassigned a shelter bed is eight days. Some wait weeks. New York City has taken measures to limit the number of people who end up sleeping on the streets and in trains while they wait for a bed, subcontracting a handful of churches and mosques to provide floor space or a pew to hundreds of people each night. Ramon slept in four different houses of worship, scattered on the edges of the vast city. He says that because he now spends his days waiting to be told where he can sleep that night, looking for food and riding the train from one church to another, he hasn’t had time to find work. “I can’t get a job because I have to go to the place to find out where to sleep,” Ramon said of his daily cycle. “You can’t get out of it.” Ramon had arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in early December. His niece and her children, who’d crossed with him into El Paso, Texas, took a bus to Chicago, where they had a friend. Ramon told border authorities that he, too, would be going to Chicago, and they assigned him a court date there in September. But the only free bus he was able to board in Texas was to New York. The city has offered to pay the costs to transport migrants elsewhere. But Ramon has come to realize that Chicago might be worse. “I can’t get to Chicago because I wouldn’t have a place to live there,” Ramon said. “Here at least there’s something.” To reapply for a stay in a shelter, migrants travel to a city building in Manhattan’s East Village. The processing center issues each person a number that’s written on a wristband. When their number comes up, they’re supposed to get a bed. One night during a snowstorm, soon after he’d reached the 30-day limit, Ramon tried to sneak back into the shelter after a fight at a church left him rattled. But, he says, the shelter told him that he had to leave. Ramon tipped over an orange road construction drum and pushed his long, skinny torso in as far as he could. He stayed there until morning. On his fourth night out of the shelter, Ramon left the processing center carrying a small drawstring bag packed with a blanket, an extra T-shirt, a toothbrush and a worn manila envelope of immigration papers. Though he knew the next church wouldn’t accept anyone until 8 p.m., he didn’t know what else to do after riding the train aimlessly for hours, so he tried the church anyway. He plodded along the snowy sidewalk, climbed up a flight of stone church stairs and peered through the padlocked metal gate into a row of cloisters. Nobody was there or at the next gate that led into an old cemetery. He decided to ride the train for a few more hours. Ramon returned just before 8 p.m. Behind him in line, a Guinean man named Omar who’d spent 30 days in shelter and 11 nights in churches and mosques, said in French: “We don’t really bathe. We get to these churches at 8 p.m. and we stay until 6 a.m. when they kick us out, and we don’t wash.” A 64-year-old Peruvian man said sleeping on the hard floor made his back hurt but was better than sleeping on the train or on the street, which he’d done for several nights. Ramon found a spot on the floor and lay on the blue blanket that a man at the Randall’s Island shelter had given him a few weeks before. Migrants wait in line at a church in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. (Christopher Gregory-Rivera, special to ProPublica) A church in East Flatbush offers a place for people to sleep. (Christopher Gregory-Rivera, special to ProPublica) In the morning, after the church turned the lights on and as he prepared to leave again, Ramon met another Venezuelan man, a 46-year-old former customs officer named Giovanni Larez, who seemed to have a handle on how to get food and find a place to shower. The two men left the church before sunrise. Ramon followed Larez to the Port Authority bus terminal, where Larez had learned they could wash in a bathroom. They sat on the floor against the wall in the terminal for an hour until an officer started telling others sitting nearby to leave, so they rode the train downtown to the city’s processing center in the East Village. The worker gave them the address of a different church, the one in East Flatbush. They walked in circles and then rode the train for several more hours until they arrived at the new church. Larez, who has braces from the days when he had money and time for an orthodontist, showed me a video of himself riding on top of a Mexican freight train, passing through the desert on his way north, and a photo of his hands and knees covered in bandages from when he jumped off a train to run from Mexican authorities who chased him and others off the trains. “This is not the hardest thing I’ve been through,” he said of his shuffle through the shelters and churches. He explained that he expects to be able to pay rent soon, when it warms up and he can get some real employment (he worked two days clearing debris on a construction site but hasn’t found anything since). He also said he plans to get through his court date in June and then move to Phoenix with a work permit. Ramon, left, and Giovanni Larez, both Venezuelans who arrived recently in New York City, met in a church where they were sleeping on the floor while they waited for city shelter beds to become available. (Christopher Gregory-Rivera, special to ProPublica) On a Sunday morning, the two men rode the train to a corner in central Brooklyn where someone from a church drops a bag of sandwiches on the sidewalk every afternoon. Then they went in search of the next church where they’d sleep. The following Wednesday afternoon, the men returned to the East Village processing center. The city had still not reached the numbers written on their wristbands. They stood in the rain in the park with a hundred or so other men and women, many wearing cheap plastic ponchos they’d gotten inside. Someone from a nearby bakery delivered a paper bag of end-of-the-day baguettes and other baked goods. Men bounded toward the bag and took what they could. As they did, the bag broke, wet from the rain, and cookies and pastries fell to the ground. The men backed up, most returning to the lampposts and trees they rested on. And then, one after another stepped forward to pick up the cookies from the ground. Larez wears a wristband with the number he was assigned to mark his place on the waiting list for a shelter bed. (Christopher Gregory-Rivera, special to ProPublica) By Thursday, Ramon and Larez’s numbers had reached the front of the queue, but they were told there were no available shelter beds. They came back the next day and were told the same thing. They went back to the corner for sandwiches and then to a church to sleep. They came back to the processing center on Saturday and Sunday and were again told there were no beds. Though city officials say that wait times for adult men seeking readmission to shelters for migrants averaged around eight days, it had already been 13 days for Ramon and 12 for Larez. On Sunday afternoon, nine days after they started traveling the city together, Ramon and Larez got separated on the train. Larez looked for Ramon at the East Village center but didn’t find him. “I guess he decided to go his own way,” Larez said. Every day since losing his spot in the shelter, Larez traverses the city looking for a place to sleep. (Christopher Gregory-Rivera, special to ProPublica) Three days later, the city’s processing center finally assigned Ramon a new bed for 30 more days. He put his winter coat back on and rode the train to a shelter.

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