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    Editor’s note: The Center for Public Integrity is tracking political advertising in races for the U.S. Senate and state-level offices. Use these two, interactive features — with new data every Thursday — to see who is calling the shots and where the money is being spent.

    Though the Illinois state senate is long behind Barack Obama, the president has been a hot topic in state-level elections this year. 

    The president or his signature health care law have been mentioned in more than 1 out of every 10 television ads that have aired about elections for state-level political office so far in the run-up to Nov. 4, according to the latest Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from media tracking service Kantar Media/CMAG.

    Comparatively, more than one-third of political ads in U.S. Senate races have mentioned the president, according to the Center’s analysis.

    Combined, more than 300,000 ads have aired mentioning Obama or the health care law.

    While it’s not unusual for the president to be invoked in federal races, the focus on Obama at the state level is comparatively novel, according to Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. He attributes it, in part, to a growing partisan split among voters.

    “In a lot of these campaigns, the strategies are nationalized because parties think there are fewer voters that are willing to split their tickets,” Kondik said.

    Related: Big money is being spent in U.S. Senate elections, where three political ads run every five minutes in Iowa and North Carolina. 

    For state-level races ranging from governor to state board of education, ads have run more than 100,000 times that invoked the country’s chief executive or his policies, mostly in a negative light.

    An ad sponsored by Jeremy Oden, a Republican candidate seeking re-election to Alabama’s Public Service Commission, promises that Oden will “fight Obama and stop the EPA overreach.”

    Another, sponsored by Texas Attorney General candidate Ken Paxton attacked his Republican primary opponent Dan Branch for lobbying on behalf of unions that “backed Obama.”

    Overall, Republican candidates, and groups supporting Republicans, were responsible for sponsoring 90 percent of all ads that mentioned Obama or the health care law commonly dubbed Obamacare. None of those ads has mentioned the president positively.

    Democrats have invoked Obama far less frequently but, when doing so, they’ve been much more positive, with nine out of every 10 ads supportive of the president. In one ad, Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, touted his work helping to fix the rollout of the president’s health care law and the law’s beneficial effects.

    While state-level races might seem far removed from the Oval Office, Kondik notes that ads invoking Obama’s healthcare law are actually relevant to state races as many aspects of the law — including decisions about expanding Medicaid and creating health care exchanges — have been made at the state level.

    “It may be kind of beside the point to argue whether a gubernatorial candidate is close to Obama,” he said. ‘’It’s not beside the point to argue whether a candidate supports the Affordable Care Act.”

    A screenshot from an ad entitled 'Lobbyist Dan Branch' paid for by the Ken Paxton Campaign for Texas Attorney General.Ben Wiederhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/ben-wiederhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/02/15829/obama-takes-star-turn-state-political-ads

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    Editor’s note: The Center for Public Integrity is tracking political advertising in races for the U.S. Senate and state-level offices. Use these two, interactive features — with new data every Thursday — to see who is calling the shots and where the money is being spent.

    Three political ads every five minutes.

    That’s what television viewers in North Carolina and Iowa endured last week — and those are just the ads targeting the states’ hyper-competitive U.S. Senate races.

    In all, U.S. Senate campaigns and various non-candidate political groups aired about 6,200 ads each in North Carolina and Iowa from Tuesday, Sept. 23, through Monday, Sept. 29, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of preliminary estimates from Kantar Media/CMAG, an advertising tracking service.

    Across the country, U.S. Senate elections generated about 49,000 TV ads during the last week of September, the analysis concludes.

    The GOP must pick up at least six seats this year to win a U.S. Senate majority. Such a victory would all but ensure Republican control of Congress, as the GOP is widely expected to retain control of the U.S. House.

    Related: Big money is also being spent in elections for state-level positions, bankrolling scores of ads targeting down-ballot races that criticize President Barack Obama.

    In the Tar Heel State, embattled incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, is vying for re-election against Republican Thom Tillis, who currently serves as the state’s House speaker. North Carolina has long been a target for Republicans eager to oust Senate Democrats from power.

    In Iowa, meanwhile, a contentious open-seat race has more recently emerged in the wake of incumbent Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s plans to retire at the end of the term.

    There, Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley is running against Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst.

    In both states, Republicans and their allies held a slight edge over their liberal rivals in terms of ads aired during the final week of September.

    In Iowa, Ernst and groups supporting her Senate bid aired about 3,500 ads, or about 56 percent of the overall total.

    In addition to Ernst — who aired about 700 ads, or one ad every 15 minutes — her candidacy was boosted by groups including American Crossroads, the super PAC co-founded by GOP strategist Karl Rove, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

    Meanwhile, in North Carolina, Tillis and groups aligned with his campaign aired about 3,300 ads, or about 53 percent of the total — although the Tillis campaign itself was only responsible for airing about 600 ads, according to Kantar Media/CMAG.

    A range of conservative groups — including the NRSC, the National Rifle Association and a super PAC called the Freedom Partners Action Fund, which has ties to the conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch — accounted for the rest.

    Another notable conservative nonprofit active in North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race: Carolina Rising, which was formed in April by Dallas Woodhouse, the former North Carolina state director of Koch-supported nonprofit Americans for Prosperity.

    Carolina Rising has spent more than $3 million on pro-Tillis issue ads, according to filings in September submitted to the Federal Election Commission. It also aired a number of ads praising Tillis in August, but because the spots touted Tillis without overtly directing viewers to vote for or against him, the expenditures were not required to be reported to the FEC.

    The Democratic candidates in both Iowa and North Carolina have also been beneficiaries of air cover from other non-candidate groups, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and a super PAC known as the Senate Majority PAC, which is run by allies of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

    Since January 2013, more than 625,000 TV ads have aired in U.S. Senate races across the country, according to Kantar Media/CMAG.

    More than 70 percent of them — about 440,000— have aired in the nine most competitive Senate contests between Democrats and Republicans.

    Additionally, nearly 12,000 TV ads have aired in Kansas’ U.S. Senate race —an unexpectedly competitive contest where incumbent GOP Sen. Pat Roberts’ main challenger is wealthy businessman Greg Orman, who is running as an independent and has not committed to caucusing with either party.

    Through late September, the campaigns of both Orman and Roberts had sponsored about 4,600 ads— at an estimated cost of about $1.7 million, according to Kantar Media/CMAG.

    Recently, the Koch-connected Freedom Partners Action Fund super PAC has also boosted Roberts’ re-election bid, airing about 170 ads during the final week of September, according to Kantar Media/CMAG.

    Freedom Partners Action Fund has spent $260,000 in Kansas’ U.S. Senate race alone, according to reports filed with the FEC.

     Michael Beckelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/michael-beckelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/02/15832/eyeballs-burn-north-carolina-iowa-ahead-us-senate-elections

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    The Center for Public Integrity was honored for its exemplary use of technology as digital storytellers with the award for “General Excellence in Journalism” in the “small” category from the Online News Association (ONA).

    Launched in 2000, the Online Journalism Awards recognize excellence in digital journalism, with a focus on independent, community, nonprofit, academic and major media.

    Over the past year, the four-person digital team at the Center has worked feverously to bridge the gap between data-rich reporting and audience engagement, through a variety of multimedia and visual tools. Members of the digital team during the award submission period were Chief Digital Officer Kimberley Porteous, Web Developer Erik Lincoln, Engagement Editor Sarah Whitmire and News Developer Chris Zubak-Skees. The team has since grown to include Multimedia Editor Eleanor Bell, Digital Editor Jared Bennett and Engagement Analyst Emily Dufton.

    "We’re thrilled by this recognition from ONA, considering the increasingly outstanding competition. It’s a tribute to a small digital team big on talent and passion who work hard to deliver our long-form, data-rich investigations to new audiences,” said Porteous.

    “We’re excited to bring out more fantastic projects to reveal abuses of power and engage readers in their world in this, our 25th year."

    Other winners in this category were LA Times for large website operations and ProPublica for medium-sized website operations. The “General Excellence” award came with a $3,000 prize, courtesy of the Gannett Foundation. The Center, along with ICIJ, was a finalist for five other ONA Awards.

    It's been a banner year for awards at the Center; for a look at other projects that have been recognized, visit our Awards page.

    Center Engagement Editor Sarah Whitmire accepts OJA for "General Excellence in Online Journalism" at the 2014 ONA Awards Banquet in Chicago.Gita Millerhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/gita-millerhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/03/15846/center-wins-2014-online-journalism-award-general-excellence

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    A conservative telemarketer accused of flouting federal election laws — and spamming legions of people with unsolicited anti-Barack Obama text messages — has created a new super PAC.

    Gabriel S. Joseph III registered an Alexandria, Virginia-based super PAC known as The Survey Group PAC, on Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission, new documents show.

    It's unclear what Joseph, who did not immediately return requests for comment, intends to do with his new committee, which may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for and against political candidates.

    But companies Joseph has run have a history of pushing the limits of federal law on behalf of conservative clients intent on promoting political messages.

    Before the 2012 election, for example, Joseph's marketing firm, ccAdvertising, used money from a separate political action committee Joseph controlled — Americans in Contact PAC — to blast potential voters' cell phones with political messages.

    "Obama denies protection to babies who survive abortions. Obama is just wrong," said one of several messages that primarily targeted people in the Washington, D.C., area. "Obama supports homosexuality and its radical social agenda. Say No to Obama on Nov 6!" said another.

    The text messages contained no disclaimer and didn't easily identify who sent them.

    This prompted advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington to file a formal complaint with the FEC accusing Joseph of violating disclosure laws relating to election activity.

    Meanwhile, the Human Rights Campaign, which supports gay rights, complained to the Federal Communications Commission that the unsolicited text messages were costing cell phone users money, since some people don't have phone plans that feature unlimited texting.

    At the time, Joseph toldThe Hill: "The fact that some people are bothered by this doesn't offend me at all. It means what we're doing is working. It means it's effective."

    The year before, responding to questions about from the Washington Times about text messages in Virginia political races, Joseph said, "Everything that ccAdvertising does is legal, per the law of Virginia and the laws of the land."

    Joseph's ccAdvertising firm — which is based in Centreville, Virginia, and formally registered with the Virginia State Corporation Commission by the name FreeEats.com — is also known for providing clients with aggressive robocall services. Ahead of the 2007 Iowa caucuses, the National Reviewreported the firm did work both for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign — and a group advocating for Romney's Republican primary foe Mike Huckabee.

    In recent years, ccAdvertising has also been paid for work on behalf of clients including Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa; Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas; the Republican Party of Alaska; the National Organization for Marriage and the political action committee of the Family Research Council, according to FEC filings.

    The Survey Group PAC is the third political committee Joseph has formed, according to FEC records.

    One, a super PAC called Big Data PAC, formed in May 2013 and shut down five months later. During that time, it reported raising no money.

    Americans in Contact PAC, meanwhile, is a traditional political action committee created in October 2008. As of Tuesday, it reported having no money left in its account.

    But during the 2012 election cycle, Americans in Contact PAC spent more than $158,000 — the majority of its expenditures — on services from ccAdvertising, Joseph's own telemarketing firm. That includes about $10,000 worth of payments from the PAC to ccAdvertising to disseminate anti-Barack Obama "phone communication" messages, FEC recordsshow.

    It also made a $27,500 contribution to the Republican National Congressional Committee, which has also hired ccAdvertising on occasion.

    According to campaign finance records, small-dollar donors who gave $200 or less accounted for the bulk of Americans in Contact PAC's receipts.

    In its complaint to the FEC, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington slammed Americans in Contact PAC as a "scam" that "duped people into contributing money to a political committee they thought would support specific candidates."

    That complaint is still pending, the group's spokesman Derrick Crowe said.

    Dave Levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/dave-levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/03/15862/controversial-republican-telemarketer-forms-super-pac

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    Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series examining how financial companies charge high fees to the families of prison inmates. The second part, which will run Thursday, focuses on no-bid deals between Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase & Co. and the U.S. Treasury, under which they provide financial services to the federal Bureau of Prisons. This piece is part of a joint investigation with CNBC, whose coverage can be found here.

    JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Pat Taylor doesn’t believe in going into debt. She keeps her bills in a freezer bag under her bed, next to old photo albums, and believes in paying them on time religiously. For Taylor, living within your means is part of being a good Christian.

    Lately, Taylor, 64, has felt torn between that commitment and her desire to be a loving, supportive mother for her son Eddie.

    Eddie, 38, is serving 20-year prison sentence at Bland Correctional Center for armed robbery. He’s doing his time at a medium-security Virginia state prison located 137 miles northwest of Johnson City, across the dips and valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains here in the heart of Appalachia. The cost of supporting and visiting Eddie keeps going up, so Pat makes trade-offs.

    “I would send him money even if it broke me, because I do go without paying some bills sometimes to go see him,” Pat says.

    Between gas to make the trip and overpriced sandwiches from the prison vending machine, visiting Bland costs about $50, a strain on her housekeeper’s wages. So she alternates, visiting Eddie one week and sending him money the next.

    To get cash to her son, Pat used to purchase a money order at the post office for $1.25 and mail it to the prison, for a total cost of less than $2. But in March of last year, the Virginia Department of Corrections informed her that JPay Inc., a private company in Florida, would begin handling all deposits into inmates’ accounts.

    Sending a money order through JPay takes too long, so Taylor started using her debit card to get him funds instead. To send Eddie $50, Taylor must pay $6.95 to JPay. Depending on how much she can afford to send, the fee can be as high as 35 percent. In other states, JPay’s fees approach 45 percent.

    After the fee, the state takes out another 15 percent of her money for court fees and a mandatory savings account, which Eddie will receive upon his release in 2021, minus the interest, which goes to the Department of Corrections.

    Eddie needs money to pay for basic needs like toothpaste, visits to the doctor and winter clothes. In some states families of inmates pay for toilet paper, electricity, even room and board, as governments increasingly shift the costs of imprisonment from taxpayers to the families of inmates.

    “To give him $50, I have to send $70 off my card,” says Taylor, who moved to a smaller apartment on the outskirts of Johnson City in part because of the rising cost of supporting Eddie.

    “They’re punishing the families, not the inmates.”

    Price of prison

    JPay and other prison bankers collect tens of millions of dollars every year from inmates’ families in fees for basic financial services. To make payments, some forego medical care, skip utility bills and limit contact with their imprisoned relatives, the Center for Public Integrity found in a six-month investigation.

    Inmates earn as little as 12 cents per hour in many places, wages that have not increased for decades. The prices they pay for goods to meet their basic needs continue to increase.

    By erecting a virtual tollbooth at the prison gate, JPay has become a critical financial conduit for an opaque constellation of vendors that profit from millions of poor families with incarcerated loved ones.

    JPay streamlines the flow of cash into prisons, making it easier for corrections agencies to take a cut. Prisons do so directly, by deducting fees and charges before the money hits an inmate’s account. They also allow phone and commissary vendors to charge marked-up prices, then collect a share of the profits generated by these contractors.

    Taken together, the costs imposed by JPay, phone companies, prison store operators and corrections agencies make it far more difficult for poor families to escape poverty so long as they have a loved one in the system.

    Shifting costs to families

    “It’s not just the money transfer that’s the problem, it’s the system it enables to shift costs onto families,” says Lee Petro, an attorney who helped litigate for a national cap on some prison phone rates. Without companies like JPay, he says, “it would be much harder to take money from families and make families of inmates pay their own keep.”

    In 12 years, JPay says it has grown to provide money transfers to more than 1.7 million offenders in 32 states, or nearly 70 percent of the inmates in U.S. prisons.

    For the families of nearly 40 percent of those prisoners, JPay is the only way to send money to a loved one. Others can choose between JPay and a handful of smaller companies, most of them created by phone and commissary vendors to compete with the industry leader. Western Union also serves some prisons.

    JPay handled nearly 7 million transactions in 2013, generating well over $50 million in revenue. It expects to transfer more than $1 billion this year. (The company declined to provide any financial details; those included in this article are culled from public records and interviews with current and former employees.)

    “We invented this business,” said Ryan Shapiro, 37, the company’s founder and CEO, in a phone interview in June. “Everyone else tries to imitate what we did, and they don't do it as well.”

    Shapiro says working with corrections includes extra costs for security and software integration. He says he charges only as much as he must to maintain a razor-thin profit margin.

    But others provide similar services for less.

    NIC Inc., a competitor that helps states set up their websites, charges a flat fee of $2.40 in Maine to send money to inmates. Until recently, Arkansas charged 5 percent to send money through the state’s own Web portal. Floridians pay a fee of 3.5 percent to handle traffic tickets online.

    Despite its kudzu-like growth, JPay so far has avoided scrutiny by consumer regulators.

    In response to questions for this story, however, the New York Department of Financial Services’ consumer division is reviewing the company’s practices, according to a person familiar with the matter. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to discuss active investigations.

    JPay’s rapid rise stems in part from the generous deal it offers many prison systems. They pay nothing to have JPay take over handling financial transfers. And for every payment it accepts in these states — prisoners typically receive about one per month — the company sends between 50 cents and $2.50 back to the prison operator. These profit-sharing arrangements, which vendors offer as deal-sweeteners in contract negotiations, are known in the industry as “commissions.”

    JPay’s payments to Illinois last year came to about $4,000 a month, according to documents obtained under the state’s open records law.

    Jails often deduct intake fees, medical co-pays or the cost of basic toiletries first, leaving the account with a negative balance. This prevents inmates from buying “optional” supplies like stationery or sturdier shoes until they have paid down the debt.

    Such charges levied by jails for common items are not new. The practice began prior to the rise of JPay, mainly with phone companies and operators of prison stores. But by automating the process, prison bankers make it a lot easier.

    $100 underwear

    Negative account balances discourage cash-strapped people from helping relatives, says Linda Dolan, 58, a manager for a defense contractor in California. Last year, when her son was sentenced to 20 days in jail in St. Lucie County, Florida, for reckless driving, Linda wanted to buy him a second pair of underwear and socks. But the county’s intake fee and daily “rent” already had put the account about $70 in the red. Linda and her husband both were out of work and couldn’t afford to pay $100 for a pair of underwear.

    “If relatives are putting money on somebody’s books while they’re an inmate, it’s to help them buy necessities,” Linda says. “I didn’t think it was right that the county was stealing the money.”

    Capt. William Lawhorn of the St. Lucie County sheriff’s office said that inmates are charged a $25 initial booking fee, $3 a day for “subsistence” and medical co-pays, all of which can result in a negative balance. He said nobody is denied any type of needed service or care, and when inmates do have money, it’s used for candy and other junk food. Inmates in the county receive payments through Touchpay, a JPay competitor that often partners with foodservice giant Aramark.

    Funding prisons out of the pockets of families and inmates has non-financial costs too, says Brian Nelson, who spent 28 years in an Illinois state prison for murder. Nelson says he has “become an asset to society” since he was released four years ago because he stayed in touch with family and priests even when he was in solitary confinement. When inmates can’t afford to maintain contact with the outside world, he says, they are less equipped to transition smoothly to civilian life.

    The effect on poor families is especially harsh, Nelson says: “It’s a wife that has three children at home, and her husband is in jail, so now she has a choice: Do I send money to him so he can afford to stay in touch with the kids, or do I feed the kids?”

    Inmates’ need for money is inescapable, Nelson says. Those in northern Illinois are not issued cold-weather clothes, he says, leaving them vulnerable to frostbite unless they can get money to pay for prison-approved long underwear and boots.

    Razor thin margins

    JPay founder Shapiro is eager to tell his company’s story and how he believes it helps families. It’s not just about faster payments. Once an inmate gains access to the money, JPay offers several ways to spend it, including pay-per-page e-messaging, music downloads and MP3 players. When inmates in some states are released, they receive their remaining money on JPay-branded payment cards that carry higher fees than those on most consumer payment cards.

    Shapiro says that if his fees were any lower, his company would lose money. He declined to make the company’s financial details available and would not say how much he is paid.

    Shapiro serves on the board of a foundation that advocates for inmates and carries full-page ads for JPay in its newsletters. The foundation received an $85,400 gift directly from JPay’s corporate treasury in 2009.

    He lives on a tiny harbor island near the northern tip of Miami Beach in a home he bought for about a million dollars. Last year, through a company he controls called El Caballero LLC., Shapiro bought a custom powerboat, dubbed Sea Block, that retails for a half-million dollars.

    Heading to the company’s headquarters one July morning, he stopped first for CrossFit, a military-style training regime that he enjoys because it brings out his competitive side, then for daily prayer.

    Families who use JPay love the company, he says. He boasts of its well-trafficked Web forum and of the 174,000 “likes” on its Facebook page, where its marketers post cheery articles about incarceration. “The Jail Cats program at Gwinnett County Detention Center in Georgia is rescuing kittens and helping to rehabilitate incarcerated women,” one recent post read.

    “We go out of our way to make sure that they feel comfortable — that, you know, you’re spending money with a company that cares about you,” Shapiro says.

    If people don’t want to pay his fees, Shapiro says, they can always mail a money order, except in the “couple of states” that now charge fees for them.

    Nearly 400,000 people are imprisoned in states where there is no free deposit option, a fact Shapiro was unaware of during a series of interviews this summer.

    “When it’s up to us, it’s absolutely free,” he says.

    Slow-moving money orders

    For the first 14 years of Eddie’s sentence, Pat Taylor mailed money orders directly to the prison at no charge beyond the cost of the money order and a stamp. Then last year, she was instructed to make the money order out to JPay and send it to a Florida post office box. The company would credit it to Eddie’s account.

    Under the new system, she says, it would take weeks for Eddie to see funds sent via money order. So Pat, like nearly everyone else she knows, gave in and began paying $6.95 to send the money from her debit card.

    Across the country, delays and other obstacles make the “free option” inaccessible to many families, the Center found. More than a dozen families in five different states said that money orders have been credited much more slowly since JPay took over.

    Shapiro says he is “absolutely shocked” by the complaints that money orders are delayed because he had never heard of such problems before. Most money orders are processed within two to three days, he said, unless the person sending money fails to fill out the form properly. He said Virginia is especially efficient and processes money orders within 24 to 48 hours.

    “We are not slowing it down, there is no conspiracy,” he said.

    He said JPay does “want people to convert from a money order customer to a digital customer, absolutely,” but only because electronic payments are more efficient. “We’re not trying to make an extra dollar everywhere we can,” Shapiro said.

    Before JPay, Virginia prisons credited money orders to inmates’ accounts in roughly three days, families say. Today, money orders can take more than a month to reach an inmate’s account, Marvin Rodriguez-Barrera, an inmate at Virginia’s high-security Red Onion State Prison, wrote in a letter to prisoners’ rights advocates in February.

    Faster to Guatemala

    “I am from Central America, and it is cheaper for my family, and easier, to send money to Guatemala than for my family to send me money from this very state!” Rodriguez-Barrera wrote. “The old way of using money orders was cheaper, easier and in many instances faster.”

    Those seeking to avoid the fees by sending a money order must print and fill out a JPay-provided form whose instructions are dwarfed by large print barking at them to “Put down your pen! Put away your car keys!” because “There’s a faster way to send money, go to JPay.com and sign up now!”

    The aggressive marketing has worked. One former marketing director for the company lists as a key accomplishment on his LinkedIn profile that he “Converted 78 percent” of money order users to online users, boosting the company’s annual revenue by $985,000.

    Shapiro said the information in the profile, including the former employee’s title, was inaccurate. He said he didn’t have data on how many money order users convert to electronic payments or how much revenue the company gains when they make the switch.

    Inside JPay’s secure, fishbowl-like money order processing room, reams of envelopes sit in postal bins on the shelves. Signs around the room remind the handful of workers employed there which states allow them to deduct a fee and which offer the service for free.

    In Pennsylvania, the first state where JPay accepted money orders by mail, executives were surprised to see the number of money orders plunge by two-thirds in the first two months, Chief Financial Officer Mark Silverman explained in a brief interview.

    Shapiro said that Missouri used to process 30,000 money orders a month before JPay came in.

    “With JPay, we drove that down to only 1,000 people sending money,” he says. “And that’s by choice.”

    JPay’s marketing materials urge customers to choose the higher-cost option. During her twice-monthly visits to Bland, an isolated work camp nestled between rolling, green hills, Pat Taylor now sees JPay-branded fliers warning of the misery awaiting anyone who tries to use the “free option.”

    On one side, a multi-ethnic lineup of models bury their faces in their hands and complain of what a “nightmare” it was to complete the money order, how it got lost or delayed.

    “There’s a better way,” the flier promises on the reverse side, which depicts an attractive young woman seated with her laptop computer. For “Faster, Easier, Next-Day Delivery,” families can choose from a menu of high-fee options.

    Tequila, cigars and lobbying

    To impress state corrections officials and gain their business, JPay spends heavily on industry conventions attended by agency heads with contracting authority. During a 2012 convention of the American Correctional Association, the company threw what it called an “END OF THE WORLD PARTY” at a Denver wine bar that bills itself as “about you, and your inalienable right to the unbridled enjoyment of food and wine.”

    The invitation, printed on a disposable beer coaster, promised “a bash, JPay-style: *fuerte* tequila, hand-rolled cigars, a live mariachi band.” Conventioneers could catch a JPay shuttle leaving from the hotel “ALL NIGHT LONG,” it said.

    For years, JPay has sponsored an award for former state corrections directors presented by the Association of State Correctional Administrators, paying for the recipient’s trip and a Wexford crystal bowl inscribed with the honoree’s name.

    JPay’s outreach extends to state legislatures as well, even though many of the company’s contracts forbid it from using fee revenue to lobby.  The company has hired registered lobbyists in at least seven states. Shapiro says JPay’s lawyers approved the use of company funds for that purpose.

    In Ohio, it tapped Thomas Needles, a former aide to President George H. W. Bush. Needles gives generously to Republican candidates and also lobbies for for-profit universities. In Maryland, JPay hired Bruce Bereano, one of the state's best-paid lobbyists, who was disbarred after a 1994 conviction for overbilling his clients and using the money for campaign donations.

    The company also sought to lobby Washington for access to the federal Bureau of Prisons’ 216,000 inmates — what Shapiro has called “the mother ship of all contracts,” which is now held by Bank of America.

    It spent $20,000 in 2012 to hire Park Strategies, run by former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato of New York, in an effort to obtain the contract. That effort was not successful.

    More inmates, smaller budgets

    JPay was founded in 2002, just as the U.S. prison population neared the apex of a three-decade climb that more than quadrupled the number of inmates in state prisons. Shortly thereafter, as the economy went into recession, state budgets were squeezed and officials looked more aggressively for ways to cut spending on prisons.

    Already, private vendors had stepped in with a solution: They would charge prisoners sky-high prices for phone services, snack foods, hygiene products and clothing, then return a large cut back to the prisons — often 40 percent or more.

    Shapiro was the first entrepreneur to see how financial services might provide another stream of revenue. For a fee, he offered to deliver cash in ways that saved time and effort for corrections agencies, and often to give them a portion of the proceeds, just as the phone and commissary companies were doing.

    “When we started, the states were very much saying to us, ‘There’s no need for procurement here because there’s no one else doing what you do,’ ” Shapiro said in a 2012 interview. Ten years later, he said, all of them were asking companies to submit bids for the work.

    That doesn’t mean the door is open to competitors. Most states, including Virginia, now contract with JPay or its main competitor under a master agreement negotiated by Nevada in 2011 on behalf of a multi-state consortium. Participating states can simply sign on to the deal with one or both of the companies without the hassle of separately determining the best company for the job.

    JPay is protected from other market forces, as well. When states offer its music players and tablet computers for sale to inmates, they often confiscate radios that people already own, according to inmates in Ohio. This leaves inmates dependent on JPay’s music downloads, which can cost 30 to 50 percent more than the same songs on iTunes, inmates say.

    The profit-sharing arrangements are at the core of JPay’s origin story, Shapiro said in 2012. A couple of years out of college, he spent months driving around upstate New York, pitching JPay to “every sheriff, whether they had five inmates or 100 inmates” — without success.

    Then someone in Passaic County, New Jersey, suggested that they offer the county 10 percent of their revenue, “so the jail would be less of a tax burden on the community.” The warden signed up on the spot.

    Critics including Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, an inmates’ advocacy group, says the profit-sharing amounts to a legal kickback. “They charge exhorbitant fees then kick back a percentage of their revenue. … The company doesn’t need that for profit,” Friedmann said.

    Shapiro says he prefers the term “commission” because “the word kickback has a negative connotation, and it seems like some person is making that money and pocketing it and buying a Chevrolet or something, when in fact it’s going to use for the benefit of inmates — basketball hoops, volleyball, whatever.”

    Most states put their share of the cash in an “Inmate Welfare Fund” that is supposed to be used for inmate benefits beyond what is guaranteed to them by law. As incarceration rates climbed, however, the definition of “inmate benefit” drifted, says Justin Jones, who was director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections until last year.

    “The Legislature allowed us to broaden the definition of inmate welfare and it got to the point, almost anything they would fund through appropriations could now be paid for as inmate welfare,” he says. “It ended up where we started using that money if an inmate went out to medical on an emergency and medical was end-of-year short,” he says. “We bought air conditioners, ice machines, X-ray machines.”

    Jones was not a fan of the system. If legislatures want to impose longer prison sentences or “if they create new crimes, then the legislature should appropriate dollars for that,” he says. “I should not have to go in and redefine and stretch the definition of inmate welfare accounts.”

    Double dipping

    Taken together, JPay and other prison vendors create a system in which families are paying to send the money, and inmates are paying again to spend it, says Keith Miller, who is serving 21 ½ years at Bland for a series of drug-related, violent crimes committed in his early 20s. The earliest he may be released is 2021, when his mother will be 87 years old.

    “The fact that [my mother] has to pay the fees to send the money and then the fact that [prison agencies] make a certain cut off it seems to me that [the prisons are] double-dipping into the money they’re sending,” he said in an interview at the prison. “It really doesn’t make sense to me that this should be allowed.”

    Shapiro is skeptical that JPay’s fees make much of a difference for inmates’ families. He says companies that provide other services to inmates, such as phones and commissary, are the real problem.

    “Compared to the commissary or phone revenue, we’re just a drop in the bucket,” he says.

    That may be changing.

    Last year, the Federal Communications Commission dusted off a 12-year-old petition filed by inmates’ families who argued that prison phone rates were unfairly high, preventing them from maintaining contact with loved ones. The commission capped rates for many calls under its authority to ensure that pay-phone rates are just, fair and reasonable.

    Mignon Clyburn, who was acting chairwoman of the FCC when it passed the rate cap and now serves as one of three commissioners, says the action was necessary because people are “making unspeakable sacrifices to stay in touch with their loved ones.”

    Vincent Townsend, president of Pay-Tel Communications, a major provider of phones for inmates, said his industry “abused the public.”

    ‘Ethical, right, moral’

    Other prison vendors “better pay attention to what’s ethical, right, moral,” he said. “Because if you don’t then some regulator’s going to step in, and you’re going to have to deal with it.”

    There is a crucial difference: The telephone industry is closely regulated by the FCC, which has explicit authority to set rates for pay-phone calls. Financial and consumer protection regulators have less power over pricing.

    The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can sue companies for offering unfair, deceptive or abusive financial services. The bureau declined more than a dozen requests to discuss specific issues related to prison financial services.

    The Federal Trade Commission, which has consumer-protection authority and the power to ensure that markets are competitive, declined to comment “on specific companies or conduct.”

    Regulators in seven states have levied fines totaling $408,500 against JPay for operating without a license. The actions were not designed to disrupt its business, according to the Conference of State Bank Supervisors, a trade group that represents these regulators in Washington.

    “State banking regulators are concerned with ensuring that businesses operating in their states are properly licensed and with enforcing applicable laws (including consumer protection laws),” the group’s spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.

    ‘Invent a better way’

    Shapiro says he understands the challenges faced by poor families of inmates since JPay’s startup days, when he would spend “hours on the phone with a grandmother, talking about her day at Wal-Mart.”

    He says he feels trapped by the structure of the industry he has come to dominate. He wishes the fees were lower, that states didn’t force him to charge more and give them a share and that he could “invent a better way” than asking people’s families to help pay for their imprisonment.

    Yet Shapiro says he is satisfied to compete within what he admits is a broken system, even if the system may be punishing some innocent family members.

    For many families, JPay has become that system. When Jewel Miller, 80, phoned JPay’s call center last month to ask why her payments are delayed, and why she must submit the same form every time she sends a money order to Keith, the operator hung up on her.

    In a series of interviews it became clear that Shapiro was unaware of some of the fees related to his business. He said he did not know, for example, that Florida now charges its own fee for money order deposits after JPay processes the payments.

    These fees are spelled out in JPay’s contracts with states, which Shapiro signed. Florida’s says it will charge a 50 cent “Money Order by Mail” fee.

    As of July, Shapiro was unaware of JPay’s own $1.95 fee to deposit money orders in Indiana, declaring, “If someone sends $100 with a money order to an Indiana inmate, that inmate gets $100. … I am positive.”

    Two days later, he called back to say, “We’re working with the states right now to get some of those fees taken off.”

    So far, the fees remain in place.

    Eleanor Bell contributed to this story.

    Pat Taylor holding a picture of her son, Eddie, who is serving 20-year prison sentence at Bland Correctional Center in Virginia. Daniel Wagnerhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/daniel-wagnerhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/09/25/15761/prison-bankers-cash-captive-customers

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    Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series examining how financial companies impose high costs on the families of prison inmates. Part One, which ran on Tuesday, focused on the explosive growth of JPay Inc., a private company that performs money transfers for 70 percent of U.S. offenders.

    On Wall Street, Bank of America plays a perpetual second fiddle to JPMorgan Chase & Co., the only U.S. bank that holds more assets.

    A few blocks north, however, at the New York Metropolitan Correctional Center, there exists a market that Bank of America has locked down, literally. For the 790 federal prisoners incarcerated at MCC, Bank of America controls the provision of money transfers, e-messaging and some telephone services.

    The bank’s monopoly extends across the federal Bureau of Prisons system — 121 institutions housing 214,365 inmates. Since 2000, Bank of America has collected at least $76.3 million for its work on the program.

    When inmates are released, JPMorgan steps in, issuing high-fee payment cards to distribute money from their prison accounts, which include earnings from jobs and money their families send them.

    The banks’ exclusive deals came not from the Bureau of Prisons, but from the U.S. Treasury.

    The agency awarded the contracts using a 150-year-old authority that allows it to sidestep the oversight, transparency and competition typically required for federal contracting. That means that for 14 years, Bank of America has never been required to compete with other vendors who might do the work better or for less money, according to Treasury documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

    JPMorgan’s no-bid deal to issue debit cards for various federal agencies began in 1998, was extended in 2008 and eventually expanded to include cards for federal prisons. Fees from former inmates make up most of the bank’s compensation for these cards, documents show. A separate Treasury document from 2013 said that about 50,000 released prisoners had been issued cards and listed fees of $2 for withdrawing money from an ATM and $1.50 for leaving an account inactive for three months.

    JPMorgan, Treasury and the Bureau of Prisons declined to provide a current fee schedule for the cards. Bank of America, JPMorgan and the Bureau of Prisons all declined numerous requests to discuss the banks’ deals inside U.S. prisons.

    The documents show how Treasury has expanded the scope of Bank of America’s contract — originally focused on managing accounts for inmates and tracking inventory at prison stores — to include an array of services for the nation’s largest prison system, from providing e-messaging to supplying the prison system with handheld scanners. The deal allows Bank of America to subcontract with other prison vendors, positioning it as a hub of prison services that are procured outside any government bidding process.

    The contract has been amended 22 times in the past 14 years.

    Lubricating the system

    Across the country, jails and prisons are hungry for ways to shift their operational costs onto inmates and their families. Inmates need money to pay for essentials like toiletries and court fines as well as extras like higher-quality food than what is served in prison cafeterias. Their families often pay high fees to send them the money. Inmates, in turn, pay marked-up prices for items sold at prison stores.

    The oil that lubricates this entire system is supplied by the prison bankers, vendors that collect all the inmates’ money in a pipeline of cash from which payments and fees can be pulled. Bank of America’s lock on federal prisons makes it a major player among prison bankers, many of which provide a range of high-cost financial services to inmates and their families and share their profits with the prison systems they work for.

    Providing services inside prisons is a growing business, but it’s not new. The first accounts for federal inmates were set up in 1930. Inmates’ families could no longer bring them food and clothing, the government decided, but instead would be allowed to send money into individual accounts. Until the early 2000s, most deposits were made by mail using postal money orders, a process that was nearly cost-free. Before Bank of America’s contract, the Treasury Department held inmates’ funds.

    Bank of America’s prison contract is an example of how the Treasury Department leans on a power granted during the Civil War to pick and choose its own bankers and allow other agencies to avoid procurement rules that might force a competitive bidding process.

    By hiding these deals from the public, Treasury “invites opportunities for waste and fraud,” said Neil Barofsky, who provided independent oversight of Treasury’s $700 billion bailout program after the 2008 financial crisis. He said Treasury’s expansive use of the authority reminds him of what he saw while working with the agency.

    “The reaction from Treasury when dealing with banks was to find a way to say no to being transparent,” said Barofsky, now a partner with the law firm Jenner & Block LLP.

    Treasury’s power to award the deals, known as financial agency agreements, was created in 1863 to support the nation’s first national banking system, around the time the greenback was introduced. Since then, the department’s broad use of this power has drawn criticism from lawmakers, auditors with the Government Accountability Office, federal appeals court judges and the department’s own inspector general. Treasury has said the selection process is competitive enough and the contracts are handled responsibly.

    In a 1975 report, however, government auditors said Treasury was reimbursing banks operating on overseas military bases for office parties and club dues, leaving them with “little or no incentive to operate the facilities profitably or efficiently.”

    Twenty years later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned Treasury’s selection of Citibank as a financial agent to deliver electronic benefits like Social Security, calling it “arbitrary.”

    And in 2008, the Government Accountability Office said a deal with JPMorgan to provide stored value cards on Navy ships was “at risk of delivering a system solution that falls short of cost, schedule and performance expectations.”

    Most recently, Treasury’s inspector general last spring criticized oversight of a program to deliver federal benefits on debit cards issued by Dallas-based Comerica Bank. The inspector general found that officials had failed to keep tabs on fees charged to consumers and did not justify the decision to pay Comerica an extra $32.5 million for work it had promised to do for free. Treasury agreed to rebid the deal, then quietly extended its partnership with Comerica for five years.

    Twenty-two amendments, no bidding

    Treasury has spent more than $5 billion in the past decade on financial agency agreements with a handful of banks, often without considering whether another company could do the work cheaper or more effectively, documents show.

    Consider how Bank of America’s prison deal has swelled in the 14 years since it was awarded.

    The original contract to hold and manage inmates’ accounts and track their purchases from prison stores, worth up to $14.4 million, was amended six months later, adding up to another $1.47 million to Bank of America’s compensation. In 2003, officials added telephone service to the deal, boosting the bank’s potential compensation to $25.8 million. Later, the work grew to include e-messaging for inmates.

    Bank of America’s contract has been amended 22 times since 2000 and the cost has swollen more than fivefold to $76.3 million, Treasury officials say. They say the Department of Justice, the parent agency of the Bureau of Prisons, has reimbursed Treasury for those costs.

    The contracts say these services might help the Bureau of Prisons reduce staff time spent opening letters or entering account deposits manually. Yet they never articulate why the work could not be procured directly by the Department of Justice using typical contracting procedures.

    Bank of America and Treasury designated two subcontractors to perform the work: DynCorp International, a major military contractor based just outside of Washington; and Advanced Technologies Group, a Kansas-based technology company that today shares a parent company with Keefe, the biggest operator of prison commissaries.

    Neither company would have been eligible to deal directly with Treasury because financial agents must be banks or credit unions that are insured by the federal government.

    Mother ship of contracts

    The bank’s power to choose which vendors provide money transfers and technology partners has rankled potential competitors including Ryan Shapiro, founder and CEO of JPay Inc., which provides prison banking services to most state inmates. He has called Bank of America’s deal “the mother ship of all contracts.”

    Shapiro spent years trying to break through the Bank of America stronghold and offer money transfers to federal prisons — a role explicitly reserved for Western Union and others chosen by Bank of America under the bank’s contracts with Treasury. He spent heavily on lobbying and involved his congresswoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., whose political action committee had received an $5,000 contribution from Shapiro in 2010. Still, he was unable to open the bidding process.

    “They hand-pick the vendor,” Shapiro said in 2012. “It’s a veiled way of basically just knighting the company you want.”

    The Center obtained contracts that covered the beginning of Bank of America’s deal through mid-2012 through a Freedom of Information Act request. Both Treasury and the Justice Department failed to fulfill more recent requests for records detailing more recent changes to the program.

    Bank of America’s role in the system is well hidden, says Jack Donson, a private prison consultant who spent 23 years working for the Bureau of Prisons. He was surprised to learn that Bank of America chooses the subcontractors and ultimately is responsible for systems that he dealt with on a daily basis before he left the agency in 2011.

    Programs like those operated by Bank of America don’t always deliver the efficiency they promise, Donson said, because they add a new layer of bureaucracy. “Now the profit is going to two places,” he says. “The profits should not go out to the private sector; it should remain within the agency.”

    Trust fund department

    The Bureau of Prisons has created a new office to manage inmate services like accounts and e-messaging since the vendors came in, Donson says. When he started in the 1980s, a prison’s inmate finance office was run by one or two people. Today there’s a whole Trust Fund Department. “People have to bid out those contracts, then people have to track those contracts,” Donson said.

    The money inmates spend on email and goods from prison stores is plowed back into a so-called inmate welfare fund that is supposed to be used for extra programs to benefit inmates. Yet in the federal system in 2010, more than 75 percent of that money went to inmate wages. About one half of one percent of the money was spent on psychological programs. Nineteen percent went to recreational activities.

    Donson said he was not surprised that money earmarked for programs to benefit inmates actually pays for staffing and other costs.

    By working with Treasury and Bank of America, the Bureau of Prisons has kept its preferred vendors in place without competition for nearly 15 years, something it could never do under normal contracting rules.

    Those rules were designed to prevent agencies from favoring certain contractors and abusing their discretion, said Kathleen Clark, a professor at the Washington University School of Law who studies government ethics. Treasury’s broad use of its authority presents “a risk to fairness,” she said.

    “It’s hard for me to understand what the justification is for circumventing these rules,” Clark said, "other than it’s convenient and it’s easier.”

    Eleanor Bell contributed to this report.

    Daniel Wagnerhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/daniel-wagnerhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/09/30/15812/megabanks-have-prison-financial-services-market-locked

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    NORDHEIM, Texas — School Superintendent Kevin Wilson tugged at his oversized belt buckle and gestured toward a field less than a mile from Nordheim School, where 180 children attend kindergarten through 12th grade.

    A commercial waste facility that will receive millions of barrels of toxic sludge from oil and gas production for disposal in enormous open-air pits is taking shape there, and Wilson worries that the ever-present Texas wind will carry traces of dangerous chemicals, including benzene, to the school.

    “Many of these students live outside of where they could be exposed,” said Wilson, a contemplative man with a soft Texas accent. “But we are busing them to the school, putting them in the direct path of something that could be harmful to them. It makes you think: Are we doing what’s best for the students?”

    Along with Nordheim’s mayor and other angry residents, Wilson is trying to stop the 204-acre facility, but he faces an uphill battle. In Texas, as in most states, air emissions from oil and gas waste are among the least regulated, least monitored and least understood components in the extraction and production cycle. Although the wastewater and sludge can contain the same chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing and other processes — chemicals known to affect human health —little has been done to measure waste emissions or determine their possible impact on nearby residents.

    This gap can be traced to decisions Congress and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made decades ago, when oil and gas producers lobbied hard to get most of their waste exempted from federal hazardous waste regulations.

    In 1988 they succeeded, even though a 1987 EPA study concluded that 23 percent of the waste samples the agency had collected contained one or more toxic compounds at levels 100 times higher than is considered safe for humans. The EPA estimated that without the exemption, 10 to 70 percent of oil and gas waste could be considered hazardous.

    Still, the report recommended granting the exemption. The expense of disposing of so much hazardous waste would slow U.S. oil and gas production, the authors said. And there weren’t enough hazardous waste facilities to handle that much waste.

    For the industry, and for people who live and work near commercial waste facilities, the distinction between hazardous and non-hazardous waste is critical when it comes to air quality.

    Pits at hazardous waste sites must be covered — open-air pits are not allowed. Even the transfer of the waste is done through pipes, so emissions don’t escape into the air. The EPA requires some type of air monitoring, too.

    Pits at non-hazardous facilities, in contrast, allow chemicals in the waste to evaporate directly into the atmosphere. States decide how and where facilities are built and what, if any, monitoring systems they must have. A recent EPA review of oil and gas waste regulations in 27 states, including Texas, Pennsylvania and Colorado, found that none had rules requiring regular air monitoring at commercial solid waste facilities.

    Nathan Richardson, an assistant professor of environmental law at the University of South Carolina who studies waste rules, said most states, including Texas, focus on safeguarding ground and surface water, protecting wildlife, keeping out trespassers and restoring land after pits are closed. “None of it that I remember has to do with air,” he said.

    Travis County Assistant District Attorney Patricia Robertson, the environmental crimes prosecutor for the Texas Environmental Enforcement Task Force, has been frustrated for years because the federal exemption makes it almost impossible to prosecute waste facilities for anything more serious than dust or foul odors, which are considered nuisances under Texas law.

    “Until the law is changed, people might be exposed to what ordinarily might be considered hazardous waste,” Robertson said.

    James Langhorne, chief operating officer of Inland Environmental, a disposal facility south of Houston, bristles when he hears criticism of waste disposal facilities: “We follow the standards set by the people elected to set those standards.” 

    Last year, U.S. Rep. Matthew Cartwright, a first-term Democrat from Pennsylvania, drafted a bill that would remove the industry’s hazardous waste exemption, which he said is based not on science but on the industry’s successful lobbying. But all of the bill’s 70 co-sponsors are Democrats, and the bill is stuck in the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy.

    “I don’t expect it will be an easy fight, but it’s the right thing to do,” Cartwright said.

    The hazardous waste exemption has saved oil and gas producers huge amounts of money.

    When the EPA was considering the exemption in 1987 it estimated that treating the waste as hazardous could result in $700 million to $4.5 billion in extra costs to consumers.

    An executive with a national waste disposal company said that disposing of hazardous waste can cost up to three times as much as disposing of non-hazardous waste, depending on the composition of the load and other factors.

    Bill Keffer, a visiting professor of law at Texas Tech University School of Law and a former state legislator, said that if the industry’s waste were re-classified, the ripple effects would be felt from industry boardrooms to the gas pumps.

    “What makes economic sense now to develop these new [shale] plays might not make economic sense once this new expense is factored in,” said Keffer, who once worked as a corporate lawyer for gasoline-producer ARCO. “So removing the exemption could have a chilling effect on future development.”

    Alex Mills, president of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, said local economies would suffer if production declined, and the cost of electricity produced by gas-powered generating plants would go up. “The unintended consequences would be very far reaching,” he said.

    But David Brown, a toxicologist and adjunct professor of applied ethics at Fairfield University in Connecticut, said using a standard cost-benefit analysis when people’s health may be at risk shows that society has lost its moral compass.

    “Someone is putting a value on human life and saying the benefit to the larger society justifies the risks to people,” Brown said.

    “We have to look deeply at why people’s lives place second in this analysis.”

    Little accounting for lots of waste 

    When the federal exemption for fossil fuel waste was approved in 1988, oil and gas production in the United States was dropping and finding more domestic supplies was a national imperative. The idea that reclassifying the industry’s waste as hazardous might further slow oil production was alarming.

    Today, however, domestic production is booming because of the development of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — the process of blasting water, chemicals and sand down a well to crack open bedrock and tap deeply buried fossil fuels. The United States has so much oil and gas, in fact, that the industry is lobbying Congress for permission to freely export it.

    It’s impossible to say exactly how much waste the oil and gas boom is generating, or how it’s being disposed of. Neither the EPA nor the federal Energy Information Administration collects those statistics. The American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group, estimated that 18 billion barrels of waste were produced in 1995, before fracking began, but an API spokesman said those numbers haven’t been updated.

    The bulk of the waste is dirty water from fracking, which contains salts, fracking chemicals and heavy metals from underground. After as much oil and gas as possible is removed from the water, it’s either used to frack new wells, or injected deep underground for permanent disposal. A handful of states — including Texas, Utah, and New Mexico — also allow it to be stored in open-air pits, called evaporation ponds.

    The industry’s solid waste — dirt, mud and watery sludge — is generally trucked to waste facilities and dumped into large open pits where it remains until it becomes a gooey sludge the consistency of cake batter. Then it might be spread on open plots of land and tilled into the soil, a practice called “land farming.” Or it might remain in the pits until they are filled and covered with dirt for permanent storage. Some waste may also be mixed with asphalt and used to pave roads. In many states, solid waste can also be buried at drilling sites.

    Each of the three solid waste disposal pits Pyote Reclamation Systems LLC wants to build near Nordheim School will be as large as nine city blocks and can hold 720,000 cubic yards of waste, enough to fill the Washington Monument 19 times.

    Pyote also wants to build a second, larger facility 3½ miles away. It will occupy 574 acres and, unlike the Nordheim site, will include two open evaporation ponds for wastewater. When filled to capacity, the facility will hold 10 million barrels of solid and liquid waste, enough to fill 62 Shamu tanks at San Antonio’s SeaWorld.

    'That just ain’t right'

    In September, about 30 Nordheim residents made the 230-mile round-trip drive to a state hearing in Austin to oppose the Pyote facility near the school. Although the final permit hasn’t been issued, Pyote has already bulldozed the land, put up a fence and built a power station.

    The hearing lasted two and a half days, with lawyers and expert witnesses speaking for both sides. Pyote’s attorney, John Soule, used the federal hazardous waste exemption as a drumbeat in his opening remarks, saying five times in the first two minutes of his presentation that the material going into the pits wouldn’t be hazardous.

    “The waste that will be received is ... exempt oil and gas waste — by definition nonhazardous,” he told the commission hearing officers a minute into his presentation. Twenty seconds later, he made the same point: “In other words, again, only nonhazardous oil and gas waste subject to the commission’s jurisdiction would be received and disposed of at this facility.”

    In the audience was 70-year-old Paul Baumann, who was born in Nordheim and graduated from Nordheim School. Baumann has never been much of an activist. But a few months ago, he grabbed an armful of protest signs emblazoned with a skull and crossbones and the words “Don’t Dump On Nordheim” and posted them on fences and gates near the Pyote site.

    “They want to poison our water and air with all this hazardous stuff they’re bringing in,” Baumann said. “That just ain’t right.”

    Also in the audience was state Rep. Geanie W. Morrison, a Republican who has represented Nordheim in the House since 1999 and last year received an 87 percent approval rating from the Texas Association of Business.

    “I fully recognize there is a need for the facilities that we are talking about at this hearing” Morrison told the crowd. “I am not naïve that we always be confronted with the ‘Not in my backyard” position. But this is truly in the backyard of the entire city of Nordheim.

    “It might make business sense. But I have yet to see that it makes logical sense for this community.”

    Murky emissions data stirs worry

    Because Texas, like most states, doesn’t require commercial facilities to monitor and collect data about their waste emissions, it’s impossible to know whether chemicals are drifting into the air at levels high enough to affect public health.

    Oil and gas waste includes volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene. Depending on the concentration and length of exposure, these chemicals can cause a range of ailments, from minor headaches to neurological damage and cancer. But there has been little or no research on how years of exposure to low doses of these chemicals might affect the general public, including children, the sick and the elderly.

    There’s also little information about what happens when people are exposed to many chemicals at once, said Stuart Batterman, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health. While the concentration of each chemical may meet current health guidelines, he said, “there might be an issue [when] taking the sum as a whole.”  

    A few small studies involving untreated drilling wastewater — the part of the waste stream that is usually found at drilling sites and has the highest concentration of chemicals — have produced data and anecdotal evidence that emissions can reach dangerously high levels.

    In 2011, Gabrielle Petron, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist working at the University of Colorado, was trying to determine whether emissions from two well sites in northeastern Utah were causing a rise in winter ozone, a major respiratory irritant. During the course of the work, Petron and her team of researchers discovered “out of this world” levels of benzene and toluene coming from small ponds of untreated wastewater near the well sites. At one point, the vapors were so thick that Petron felt nauseous and moved her team out of the area.

    “You had to go upwind of the ponds,” she said. “You could not stand to be in the downwind emission stream.”

    The lack of health data, plus the EPA’s decision to classify oil and gas production waste as non-hazardous, makes it almost impossible for residents to use air emissions as grounds to object to oil and gas waste operations.

    In Texas, a bifurcated regulatory system adds to the confusion.

    Construction permits for commercial waste facilities are issued by the state’s Railroad Commission, the primary regulator for the oil and gas industry. The agency considers the projects’ effects on water, but not on air quality. That responsibility rests with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

    The TCEQ allows some facilities to self-audit air quality under a special category of rules called “permits by rule,” which means the agency might not even know the facilities exist.

    Other facilities have somewhat stricter air permits, which require them to register with the TCEQ. The permits limit annual emissions. But because they don’t require the companies to regularly monitor their emissions or report them to the TCEQ, it’s impossible to verify that the limits are being met.

    For residents, determining what kind of permit a particular facility has is almost impossible, because the agency has a backlog of air permit applications and paperwork. Of the state’s 67 largest commercial surface waste facilities, only 10 are listed on the TCEQ’s website as having permits. Of those, four have or have applied for the stricter permits. The other six have permits by rule.

    TCEQ spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said the agency’s focus is on dust and nuisance odors.

    “In most cases the liquids have very small concentrations of volatiles or sulfur, thus evaporative emissions are very insignificant but in no case may they cause a nuisance,” Morrow said in an email exchange with InsideClimate News.

    Morrow said waste pit operators also must comply with the Texas Administrative Code, which prohibits anything that could “adversely affect human health or welfare.” 

    The TCEQ measures general air quality “rather than pollutants from specific sources,” Morrow said. To do that, she said the agency oversees “one of the most extensive air toxics monitoring networks in the country.” In 2013, she said it loaded data from more than 200 monitoring sites statewide into the TCEQ database.

    But an 18-month investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News revealed that the agency’s program is severely limited in some oil and gas production areas. For example, the Center and InsideClimate News reported in February that the TCEQ had only five permanent air monitors in the heavily drilled Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, an area roughly twice the size of Massachusetts. The agency recently announced it will add another monitor in the area.

    Because waste facilities fall under the jurisdiction of two Texas regulatory agencies, people are often confused about where to turn for help.

    About 50 miles southwest of Houston, officials at the Rice Consolidated Independent School District, which serves more than 1,100 students on six campuses, want to know more about emissions from a commercial oil and gas waste facility that sits within a couple miles of two schools.

    But Michelle Morris, the district’s lawyer, said a TCEQ official claimed the agency has no jurisdiction over the emissions, and the Railroad Commission said the same thing. The district has contacted the EPA but hasn’t gotten a response.

    “I’m sure there is an agency responsible for monitoring the air,” Morris said, “but we can’t figure out what that agency is.”

    Ilan Levin, associate director of the Environmental Integrity Project’s chapter in Austin, thinks the state’s regulatory process is intentionally ambiguous and confusing.

    “All of the rules are vague enough that it allows the industry to game the system,” Levin said. “They can interpret the rules for their benefit.”

    Former EPA Regional Administrator Al Armendariz, who resigned in 2012 amid criticism of his hardline stand against lax oil and gas rules in Texas, said the TCEQ’s permitting system shows that “in their mind they have already made a determination that such facilities will not have a human health impact.”  

    Armendariz now leads the Beyond Coal campaign for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

    Health concerns not enough for regulators

    In 2010, people living downwind from a waste facility in Cleburne, Texas complained to the TCEQ “about the odor causing headache and nausea and forcing them to discontinue their outdoor work and to move indoors,” according to a TCEQ report obtained under the Texas Public Information Act.

    A TCEQ investigator confirmed the odor was coming from pits containing oil field waste, according to the report. He could smell a natural gas odor, but said his breathing wasn’t affected.

    The inspector took an air sample that disclosed trace amounts of benzene, toluene and ethylbenzene, but in concentrations below levels Texas considers a health hazard. The TCEQ determined there had been no violations.

    A Borden County couple, Joel and Betty Dennis, had a similar experience when they complained to the TCEQ between 1995 and 2003 about foul odors coming from a Westex Systems disposal facility three miles from their house.

    Sometimes the odors were so bad that the Dennises said they felt nauseous and stayed indoors. But when the TCEQ investigated, it found no violations.

    On another occasion, the couple complained to the Railroad Commission about a foul smell characteristic of hydrogen sulfide, a potentially lethal gas. Again, there was an investigation. But the commission’s only recommendation was that the company should erect some sort of cover over the pits to keep birds out.

    In 2008, the Dennises discovered that Westex had applied to the Railroad Commission for a permit to build an additional pit on the site. The fifth pit—375 feet long, 135 feet wide and 18 feet deep—would hold 163,000 barrels of oil and gas waste, according to commission documents.

    Outraged, the Dennises drove almost 700 miles round trip to a commission hearing in Austin to oppose the new pit. Despite their plea, the company’s application was approved.

    “Concerns about odor and adverse health effects as a result of operation of the facility do not provide a basis for the Commission’s denial of the application of an additional pit at the facility,” the examining officers said in their recommendation to the commission.

    The Westex Systems facility closed last year, not because of complaints but because its five pits were filled to capacity with 1.1 million barrels of waste.

    “Against an industry that is so much of the Texas economy, we didn’t count,” Betty Dennis said.

    Tiny notice sparks huge protest

    The lack of scientific information about oil and gas waste emissions, plus the lack of regulations, leaves residents and local officials who object to gas and oil waste sites with few options.

    Kathy Payne discovered that in April 2013 when she got to her office just around the corner from Oralia’s beauty shop to begin another uneventful day as mayor of Nordheim, population 307.

    After settling into her worn leather chair, she opened the latest edition of the local weekly newspaper. Starting at the front, she read about a standout high school track star and an upcoming community potluck.

    But it was a tiny notice at the back of the paper that caught her attention: an announcement that an application had been filed with the Railroad Commission for a permit to build a waste facility on the outskirts of Nordheim. At 204 acres, it would be nearly the size of her town.

    “Oh, holy hell! What’s this?” Payne remembers shouting.

    Texas law requires companies that want to build waste facilities to notify adjacent landowners. City officials also must be notified—but that requirement didn’t apply in this case because the facility sits outside Nordheim’s city limits.

    Paul Baumann and other landowners whose properties adjoin the Pyote site received thick blue binders from the company, filled with schematics and technical data about the proposed facility. They formed a grassroots opposition group called Concerned About Pollution, or CAP, and held their first meeting under the gazebo in Nordheim’s Jubilee Park.

    CAP now has about 400 members and has raised roughly $20,000, most of it already spent on attorney and consultant fees.  

    As the group coalesced, Baumann said Pyote took notice and made some alterations in its plans for the facility. But CAP wants the application denied, not adjusted, and he worries the company will simply outlast them.

    “We have the determination but they have all the money,” he said.

    George Wommack is CEO of Petro Waste Environment LP, whose Pyote Reclamation Systems is building the Nordheim facility. He points to the federal hazardous waste exemption as proof that the sludge his company will be receiving at the Nordheim site is harmless. If school superintendent Wilson or Mayor Payne or anyone else has a gripe, Wommack said, they should take it up with the EPA.

    “Most of what we’re dealing with here is dirt,” he said.

    In its application to the Railroad Commission for a construction permit, Pyote said it didn’t need a TCEQ air permit. But in a recent interview, Wommack said the company will hire consultants to determine whether a permit is needed.

    Nationwide, rules begin to tighten

    As oil and gas development spreads across the United States, more communities are raising concerns about the industry’s waste.

    At least 20 towns, districts, counties or states have passed laws regulating various parts of the waste disposal process.

    Longmont, Colo., Pelham, Mass. and Buffalo, N.Y. have banned the storage, treatment and disposal of fracking wastewater within their borders. Ohio has banned new wastewater ponds, and Pennsylvania is trying to ban them. In 2012 Vermont became the first state to indefinitely prohibit the collection, storage and treatment of fracking waste. Connecticut passed a three-year ban this year and a waste ban bill is pending in Massachusetts.

    But some places are resistant to change — and some have even reversed strict waste rules.

    New Jersey’s legislature has twice rejected legislation that would keep fracking waste from entering its borders.

    New Mexico passed some of the nation’s strictest waste pit and pond rules in 2008 under Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson. But in 2013, under a Republican administration, they were weakened. The New Mexico Environmental Law Center has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project challenging the slimmed-down rule.

    At the national level, Matt Cartwright, the Pennsylvania congressman who is trying to repeal the industry’s hazardous waste exemption, campaigned on a promise he would fight to make sure that fracking doesn’t pollute air and water. Cartwright says he isn’t opposed to drilling, but wants it done safely.

    “I think requiring responsible regulation of the fracking industry and responsible handling of hazardous waste is the least we should be doing,” he said.

    So far, Cartwright’s bill — the Closing Loopholes and Ending Arbitrary and Needless Evasion of Regulations Act, or CLEANER — has gone nowhere. But in August, he scored a small victory when Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson became CLEANER’s 70th co-sponsor.

    Johnson, whose North Texas district includes part of the Barnett Shale, declined to be interviewed but said in a written statement that “oil and natural gas companies should be held to the same standard as other industries.”

    “If we are going to ask the EPA to effectively protect the public health and the environment, we should not make special exceptions for an industry that has a long history of polluting the environment,” Johnson said.  

    In May, more than 50 Texas community leaders urged Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett, whose district includes Austin, to co-sponsor the bill.

    Their letter notes that open pits of drilling mud waste contaminated four family water wells in Montague County in 2011 and pleads: “With the state of Texas failing to protect us, we need the federal government to act to protect communities in Texas from fracking.”

    As of Wednesday, Doggett had not signed as a co-sponsor. His office did not respond to requests for comment.

    A question of common sense

    School Superintendent Wilson, who wears a burgundy polo shirt with a yellow embroidered Nordheim Pirates logo, is still struggling to understand the logic of putting a waste facility so close to his school.

    As he speaks, the trees rustle in a persistent and predictable wind that swirls across the playground after sweeping across the Pyote site. It blows almost every day and is as much a part of life in this small South Texas community as 4-H shows and rodeos.

    “There is a lot of area out here for things like this,” Wilson said. “Common sense says you don’t put something like this so close to a community and a school. Just think about it.”

    Like so many others in Nordheim and across the Eagle Ford, Wilson doesn’t oppose oil and gas development. It has brought prosperity to his town, which last year approved a $3.7 million bond for renovations to his 65-year-old school.

    But with that good fortune comes responsibility, Wilson said: “Doing the right things can’t get lost.”

    The Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News have been investigating oil and gas air emissions in Texas for 18 months. This story, written by David Hasemyer and Zahra Hirji of InsideClimate News, was produced in partnership with Inside Energy and its public radio affiliates. Lisa Song, Hannah Robbins, Jim Morris, David Martin Davies and Eleanor Bell contributed to the reporting.

    A protest placard hangs on a fence a few hundred feet from where a 204-acre commercial waste facility is being developed. Signs voicing the discontent of the community pepper the landscape around the site and in the town of Nordheim.David Hasemyerhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/david-hasemyerZahra Hirjihttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/zahra-hirjihttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/02/15826/open-pits-offer-cheap-disposal-fracking-sludge-health-worries-mount%20

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    Editor’s note: The Center for Public Integrity is tracking political advertising in races for the U.S. Senate and state-level offices. Use these two, interactive features — with new data every Thursday — to see who is calling the shots and where the money is being spent.

    Though the Illinois state senate is long behind Barack Obama, the president has been a hot topic in state-level elections this year. 

    The president or his signature health care law have been mentioned in more than 1 out of every 10 television ads that have aired about elections for state-level political office so far in the run-up to Nov. 4, according to the latest Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from media tracking service Kantar Media/CMAG.

    Comparatively, more than one-third of political ads in U.S. Senate races have mentioned the president, according to the Center’s analysis.

    Combined, more than 300,000 ads have aired mentioning Obama or the health care law.

    While it’s not unusual for the president to be invoked in federal races, the focus on Obama at the state level is comparatively novel, according to Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. He attributes it, in part, to a growing partisan split among voters.

    “In a lot of these campaigns, the strategies are nationalized because parties think there are fewer voters that are willing to split their tickets,” Kondik said.

    Related: Big money is being spent in U.S. Senate elections, where three political ads run every five minutes in Iowa and North Carolina. 

    For state-level races ranging from governor to state board of education, ads have run more than 100,000 times that invoked the country’s chief executive or his policies, mostly in a negative light.

    An ad sponsored by Jeremy Oden, a Republican candidate seeking re-election to Alabama’s Public Service Commission, promises that Oden will “fight Obama and stop the EPA overreach.”

    Another, sponsored by Texas Attorney General candidate Ken Paxton attacked his Republican primary opponent Dan Branch for lobbying on behalf of unions that “backed Obama.”

    Overall, Republican candidates, and groups supporting Republicans, were responsible for sponsoring 90 percent of all ads that mentioned Obama or the health care law commonly dubbed Obamacare. None of those ads has mentioned the president positively.

    Democrats have invoked Obama far less frequently but, when doing so, they’ve been much more positive, with nine out of every 10 ads supportive of the president. In one ad, Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, touted his work helping to fix the rollout of the president’s health care law and the law’s beneficial effects.

    While state-level races might seem far removed from the Oval Office, Kondik notes that ads invoking Obama’s healthcare law are actually relevant to state races as many aspects of the law — including decisions about expanding Medicaid and creating health care exchanges — have been made at the state level.

    “It may be kind of beside the point to argue whether a gubernatorial candidate is close to Obama,” he said. ‘’It’s not beside the point to argue whether a candidate supports the Affordable Care Act.”

    A screenshot from an ad entitled 'Lobbyist Dan Branch' paid for by the Ken Paxton Campaign for Texas Attorney General.Ben Wiederhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/ben-wiederhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/01/15829/obama-takes-star-turn-state-political-ads

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    Editor’s note: The Center for Public Integrity is tracking political advertising in races for the U.S. Senate and state-level offices. Use these two, interactive features — with new data every Thursday — to see who is calling the shots and where the money is being spent.

    Three political ads every five minutes.

    That’s what television viewers in North Carolina and Iowa endured last week — and those are just the ads targeting the states’ hyper-competitive U.S. Senate races.

    In all, U.S. Senate campaigns and various non-candidate political groups aired about 6,200 ads each in North Carolina and Iowa from Tuesday, Sept. 23, through Monday, Sept. 29, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of preliminary estimates from Kantar Media/CMAG, an advertising tracking service.

    Across the country, U.S. Senate elections generated about 49,000 TV ads during the last week of September, the analysis concludes.

    The GOP must pick up at least six seats this year to win a U.S. Senate majority. Such a victory would all but ensure Republican control of Congress, as the GOP is widely expected to retain control of the U.S. House.

    Related: Big money is also being spent in elections for state-level positions, bankrolling scores of ads targeting down-ballot races that criticize President Barack Obama.

    In the Tar Heel State, embattled incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, is vying for re-election against Republican Thom Tillis, who currently serves as the state’s House speaker. North Carolina has long been a target for Republicans eager to oust Senate Democrats from power.

    In Iowa, meanwhile, a contentious open-seat race has more recently emerged in the wake of incumbent Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s plans to retire at the end of the term.

    There, Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley is running against Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst.

    In both states, Republicans and their allies held a slight edge over their liberal rivals in terms of ads aired during the final week of September.

    In Iowa, Ernst and groups supporting her Senate bid aired about 3,500 ads, or about 56 percent of the overall total.

    In addition to Ernst — who aired about 700 ads, or one ad every 15 minutes — her candidacy was boosted by groups including American Crossroads, the super PAC co-founded by GOP strategist Karl Rove, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

    Meanwhile, in North Carolina, Tillis and groups aligned with his campaign aired about 3,300 ads, or about 53 percent of the total — although the Tillis campaign itself was only responsible for airing about 600 ads, according to Kantar Media/CMAG.

    A range of conservative groups — including the NRSC, the National Rifle Association and a super PAC called the Freedom Partners Action Fund, which has ties to the conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch — accounted for the rest.

    Another notable conservative nonprofit active in North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race: Carolina Rising, which was formed in April by Dallas Woodhouse, the former North Carolina state director of Koch-supported nonprofit Americans for Prosperity.

    Carolina Rising has spent more than $3 million on pro-Tillis issue ads, according to filings in September submitted to the Federal Election Commission. It also aired a number of ads praising Tillis in August, but because the spots touted Tillis without overtly directing viewers to vote for or against him, the expenditures were not required to be reported to the FEC.

    The Democratic candidates in both Iowa and North Carolina have also been beneficiaries of air cover from other non-candidate groups, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and a super PAC known as the Senate Majority PAC, which is run by allies of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

    Since January 2013, more than 625,000 TV ads have aired in U.S. Senate races across the country, according to Kantar Media/CMAG.

    More than 70 percent of them — about 440,000— have aired in the nine most competitive Senate contests between Democrats and Republicans.

    Additionally, nearly 12,000 TV ads have aired in Kansas’ U.S. Senate race —an unexpectedly competitive contest where incumbent GOP Sen. Pat Roberts’ main challenger is wealthy businessman Greg Orman, who is running as an independent and has not committed to caucusing with either party.

    Through late September, the campaigns of both Orman and Roberts had sponsored about 4,600 ads— at an estimated cost of about $1.7 million, according to Kantar Media/CMAG.

    Recently, the Koch-connected Freedom Partners Action Fund super PAC has also boosted Roberts’ re-election bid, airing about 170 ads during the final week of September, according to Kantar Media/CMAG.

    Freedom Partners Action Fund has spent $260,000 in Kansas’ U.S. Senate race alone, according to reports filed with the FEC.

     Michael Beckelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/michael-beckelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/01/15832/eyeballs-burn-north-carolina-iowa-ahead-us-senate-races

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    A conservative telemarketer accused of flouting federal election laws — and spamming legions of people with unsolicited anti-Barack Obama text messages — has created a new super PAC.

    Gabriel S. Joseph III registered an Alexandria, Virginia-based super PAC known as The Survey Group PAC, on Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission, new documents show.

    It's unclear what Joseph, who did not immediately return requests for comment, intends to do with his new committee, which may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for and against political candidates.

    But companies Joseph has run have a history of pushing the limits of federal law on behalf of conservative clients intent on promoting political messages.

    Before the 2012 election, for example, Joseph's marketing firm, ccAdvertising, used money from a separate political action committee Joseph controlled — Americans in Contact PAC — to blast potential voters' cell phones with political messages.

    "Obama denies protection to babies who survive abortions. Obama is just wrong," said one of several messages that primarily targeted people in the Washington, D.C., area. "Obama supports homosexuality and its radical social agenda. Say No to Obama on Nov 6!" said another.

    The text messages contained no disclaimer and didn't easily identify who sent them.

    This prompted advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington to file a formal complaint with the FEC accusing Joseph of violating disclosure laws relating to election activity.

    Meanwhile, the Human Rights Campaign, which supports gay rights, complained to the Federal Communications Commission that the unsolicited text messages were costing cell phone users money, since some people don't have phone plans that feature unlimited texting.

    At the time, Joseph toldThe Hill: "The fact that some people are bothered by this doesn't offend me at all. It means what we're doing is working. It means it's effective."

    The year before, responding to questions about from the Washington Times about text messages in Virginia political races, Joseph said, "Everything that ccAdvertising does is legal, per the law of Virginia and the laws of the land."

    Joseph's ccAdvertising firm — which is based in Centreville, Virginia, and formally registered with the Virginia State Corporation Commission by the name FreeEats.com — is also known for providing clients with aggressive robocall services. Ahead of the 2007 Iowa caucuses, the National Reviewreported the firm did work both for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign — and a group advocating for Romney's Republican primary foe Mike Huckabee.

    In recent years, ccAdvertising has also been paid for work on behalf of clients including Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa; Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas; the Republican Party of Alaska; the National Organization for Marriage and the political action committee of the Family Research Council, according to FEC filings.

    The Survey Group PAC is the third political committee Joseph has formed, according to FEC records.

    One, a super PAC called Big Data PAC, formed in May 2013 and shut down five months later. During that time, it reported raising no money.

    Americans in Contact PAC, meanwhile, is a traditional political action committee created in October 2008. As of Tuesday, it reported having no money left in its account.

    But during the 2012 election cycle, Americans in Contact PAC spent more than $158,000 — the majority of its expenditures — on services from ccAdvertising, Joseph's own telemarketing firm. That includes about $10,000 worth of payments from the PAC to ccAdvertising to disseminate anti-Barack Obama "phone communication" messages, FEC recordsshow.

    It also made a $27,500 contribution to the Republican National Congressional Committee, which has also hired ccAdvertising on occasion.

    According to campaign finance records, small-dollar donors who gave $200 or less accounted for the bulk of Americans in Contact PAC's receipts.

    In its complaint to the FEC, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington slammed Americans in Contact PAC as a "scam" that "duped people into contributing money to a political committee they thought would support specific candidates."

    That complaint is still pending, the group's spokesman Derrick Crowe said.

    Dave Levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/dave-levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/03/15862/controversial-telemarketer-forms-super-pac

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    Correction, Oct. 6, 2014: An earlier version of this story reported that IS fighters used oxy-acetylene torches to obscure serial numbers on weapons. According to the Conflict Armament Research report, "unidentified parties" removed the original serial numbers.

    An independent arms monitoring group has collected evidence that fighters in the Middle Eastern extremist group known as the Islamic State, labeled a “network of death” by President Obama, are using weapons and ammunition manufactured in at least 21 different countries, including China, Russia, and the United States.

    The group’s report, released Oct. 6, indicates that the Islamic State’s relatively newly-formed force has had little difficulty tapping into the huge pool of armaments fueling the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, supplied not only by the world’s big powers but also by up-and-coming exporters such as Sudan.

    Much of the Islamic State arms and ammunition were captured on the battlefield, but intelligence reports have suggested that the group’s income from oil sales and other sources is high enough to finance purchases of additional weapons directly from the companies and dealers that routinely profit from strife in the Middle East.

    Experts say the fact that the armaments have such disparate sources — some were even made at a major U.S. munitions plant in Missouri — provides a cautionary note as Washington prepares to undertake expanded shipments of military supplies, including small arms, to rebel groups in Syria and to a revived Iraqi Army force.

    “We faced an enormous [monitoring] challenge when we, in effect, owned Iraq and had many bases where we could do this type of training,“ said Joseph Christoff, who directed international affairs and trade issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office between 2000 and 2011, when the GAO repeatedly identified shortcomings in controlling the use of U.S. weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    “I don’t know how we’re going to do it securely in this new program” meant to arm Western-allied rebel forces in Syria, Christoff said.

    The new data were collected by a three-year-old, London-based group called Conflict Armament Research, which sends investigators into conflict zones to identify the types and origins of weaponry used in the fighting. Its latest report, financed by the European Union, lists the origins of more than 1700 cartridges collected last July and August in northern Iraq and northern Syria by investigators working alongside Kurdish forces that had fought the forces of the Islamic State, generally known as ISIS or ISIL.

    The cartridges they found after four battles were manufactured for machine and submachine guns, rifles and pistols. One Soviet-manufactured cartridge dated from 1945, a grim testament to how the production of such weaponry can impact many generations hence. 

    Manufacturers in Russia and the former Soviet Union made a total of 492 of the recovered shells, according to the report. Russia has been a major arms supplier to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, whose forces also have been battling the Islamic State. (article continues below)

    The presence of such weapons in ISIS’s hands makes clear that its fighters seized substantial stocks not only from Iraqi troops, but from Syrian troops as well. Another 26 of the recovered shells were made in Iran, an ally of Assad’s, and 18 were made in Syria itself, the report states.

    The next-biggest country of manufacture was China, the origin of 445 of the cartridges recovered from Islamic State forces.

    The third-highest supplier was the United States, with 323, the report said. Some of these shells, meant for M16A4 assault rifleswere made at the U.S. Army’s huge munitions factory in Independence, Missouri, the report said. The plant sprawls over nearly 4,000 acres and has recently produced a staggering 4 million rounds of small caliber ammunition every day, mostly for U.S. forces.

    A promotional video for the Army factory, uploaded to YouTube in 2009, quotes an unidentified worker there saying, “I feel good because I do the best that I can, because I know that they’re fighting for me, overseas, and no junk comes out of here.” Justine Barati, a spokeswoman for the Army's joint munitions command, confirmed that the plant makes the 5.56-mm ammunition depicted in the report, but said she could not comment further until the report was released publicly.

    According to the monitoring report, the trademarked emblem of a California-based firm, Sporting Supplies International Inc., was found on many shells, which it said were evidently manufactured in Russia for the firm. “Significant quantities” of the firm’s WOLF brand 7.62 x 54R mm cartridges for machine guns and rifles are used by Islamic State forces, the report states.

    The privately-owned Sporting Supplies firm does not appear to have a public website. But it made at least 14 separate ammunition sales to the Department of Defense between 2007 and 2010, worth more than $5.7 million, according to the Federal Procurement Database System.

    A lawyer for Sporting Supplies, Michael Faucette, did not respond to questions about the company’s ownership or its work for the Pentagon. But he said, “There are many United States businesses, including wholesalers and manufacturers, that supply ammunition and other products to the U.S. Government. Unfortunately, we are aware that ISIS forces have overrun ammunition and equipment depots in Iraq … Accordingly, it is entirely possible that those depots contained U.S. provided ammunition that have been repurposed against Iraqi Government forces.”

    Faucette added that the company “does not own a trademark to the WOLF-brand in Russia. Therefore, if various plants in Russia manufacture and distribute ammunition with WOLF-brand head stamps, it would be without Sporting Supplies International, Inc.'s knowledge or approval.”

    Ten percent of the cartridges documented in the Conflict Armament Research report were produced between 2010 and 2014, according to the report, with Bulgaria and China accounting for more than half of these new items.

    Exemplifying the shifting nature of ownership on a battlefield, the monitoring group reported that many of the Islamic State weapons and armaments it found and examined were later used by Kurdish forces from Iraq and Syria in new fighting.

    When the investigators reached a Kurdish base in northern Syria on July 13, for example, soldiers paused from digging trenches to show off some of their recently captured bullets. “They laid out the ammo on a blanket in front of us, very politely, but also urgently, like, ‘We kind of need this back now,’ while we photographed each piece,” said Damien Spleeters, a field investigator with the group. When the documentation was complete, Spleeters said, the fighters put the ammunition in a car and whisked it back to the front line.

    report released earlier by the monitoring group identified additional small arms captured by the Kurdish fighters from Islamic State forces, including — surprisingly — five M16 rifles. An M16 rifle and other U.S.-manufactured weapons were captured in northern Syria roughly two weeks after Islamic State fighters took control of the Iraqi city of Mosul, demonstrating the group’s “logistical competence,” that report said.

    Ammunition for the M16 rifle is not readily available in Syria, Spleeters said, so “when you use that type of weapon in a battle, it means you’re confident that you can sustain a fight consistently over long periods with the ammunition it requires, and that you have a robust supply chain to bring it there.”

    Fitful U.S. efforts to track where its weapons go

    On Sept. 18, Congress passed a law authorizing the Defense Department not only to re-equip Iraqi forces that lost territory and abandoned their weaponry to ISIS, but also to provide arms to “appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition.” The law requires the department to develop a plan with the State Department to monitor where the weapons wind up and, eventually, to mitigate their misuse by unauthorized combatants. Lawmakers are supposed to review the monitoring plan two weeks prior to new exports.

    But Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work told the Center for Public Integrity on Sept. 30 that these measures are still being developed. Joshua M. Paul, a former U.S. embassy officer in Iraq who is now a spokesman for the State Department bureau that oversees weapons exports, said not only that he could he not be quoted speaking about the issue, but that he could not be quoted speaking about any other issue if the Center’s policy is to attribute his comments to him.  

    The Islamic State, meanwhile, has said it welcomes fresh opportunities to get its hands on additional Western-supplied munitions.

    "Look how much money America spends to fight Islam, and it ends up just being in our pockets," says Abu Safiyya, the jubilant narrator of an Islamic State propaganda video uploaded onto YouTube on June 29. Gesturing at a Ford F-350 truck parked in an Iraqi police base captured by the extremist militants over the summer, Saffiya said, "They will lose in Syria also, inshallah, when they come. We will be waiting for them, inshallah, to take more money from them."

    U.S. law is supposed to guard against the diversion of arms that the U.S. ships abroad. The Arms Export Control Act has long required that Congress be notified of large exports of small arms and light weapons, and be given a chance to review them in advance.

    Between 2003 and 2013, the senior Senate staff member in charge of that review process was Thomas Moore on the Foreign Relations committee, who said the experience made him wary about what Washington is about to do now. He said the military’s Central Command repeatedly tried to skip the usual foreign military sales procedures and “just start handing things out to people, with the justification that ‘we’re at war, so we need to get these things out the door.’ ”

    Under normal circumstances, he noted, government-to-government sales of defense goods and services — weapons and training — are coordinated by the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency. When a weapon is sold or given by the Defense Department to a foreign government, the agency oversees everything from the initial contract with a weapons supplier to the end-use tracking of the weapon.

    The export leaves a paper trail in its wake, which includes a “letter of acceptance” or “LOA” from the foreign recipient authorizing the Defense Department to periodically monitor the weapon and make sure nothing unauthorized has occurred. But in the mid-2000s, Moore said, the agency started to use something it officially called a “pseudo-LOA,” with weaker end-use monitoring requirements, to keep the arms flowing into Iraq quickly.

    “You have limited accountability even when you have an acquiescent government that will let you send in monitors,” Moore said. “But we are dealing with rebel groups, and the notion that you can have a pseudo-LOA with a rebel group is strange to just plain silly.”

    Over the past decade, Washington spent nearly $30 billion training and equipping Iraqi security forces, and a sizable chunk of the small arms and other weapons systems it handed over is now unaccounted for, in the wake of ISIS’s seizure of the cities of Mosul, Fallujah, and Tikrit, as well as surrounding territory.

    Even at the outset of the U.S. occupation, U.S. commanders on the ground kept sparse records of where U.S.-supplied weapons wound up; a 2007 Government Accountability report said that 190,000 weapons could not be located then.

    John Holly, a retired Marine colonel who served as director of reconstruction logistics for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Iraq from 2003 to 2008, said that during this period, he struggled to catalog all Pentagon-funded arms shipments, which arrived in the country in a disorganized state. Some lacked serial numbers or other appropriate data but nonetheless had to be shipped onward immediately to Iraqi defense or security forces.

    “The most fatal Shakespearean flaw was: There was no centralized database of what we had procured for the Iraqis,” Holly said in an interview with the Center. “I was delivering weapons and ammunition to police stations through their backdoors while they were having gunfights out the front door — and trying to get a receipt from the chief [Iraqi] officer, who was real enthusiastic about it, I can tell you.”

    Eventually, at the end of the Bush administration, monitoring was put into place for the most sensitive gear, but officials say it did not encompass simple weapons like M16s. “You gotta accept some risk in this,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, who directed the training and equipping of Iraqi police and army security units from 2009 to 2011 and now favors rearming the Iraqis. “It’s gonna happen. It’s combat. You get tactically defeated, you lose equipment.”

    Stuart Bowen, who served as the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction between 2004 and 2013, warned that even though U.S. monitoring became better during this period, the U.S. forces in Iraq could only keep track of most equipment until it passed into Iraqi hands. End-use monitoring after that point was "the real challenge,” he said.

    "It's one thing to say whether we have a serial number tracking system; it's quite another to say whether the Iraqi army had the capacity to be aware of whether weapons went missing," Bowen said. "I suspect they did not have that full capacity."

    Islamic State fighters may have anticipated that the Pentagon will make a renewed effort to track whether its future arms shipments stay in the right hands. According to the Conflict Armament Research group, unidentified parties have been using oxy-acetylene torches to remove the original serial number from some of the weapons captured from IS. On some other weapons, they added a secondary serial number.

    Obscuring the original serial numbers, Spleeters explained, is a way for those involved to hide the point at which the weapon was diverted and who its original intended user was.

    The Center's data researcher Alex Cohen contributed to this article.

    Ammunition found in Iraq and Syria. Top, left to right: China, made in 2009; Syria, made in 1960; Russia, made in 2012; US, made in 2006. Bottom, left to right: U.S. casing, made in 2004; Turkey, made in 2013; Sudan, made in 2012; Iran, made in 2006.Julia Hartehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/julia-harteR. Jeffrey Smithhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/r-jeffrey-smithhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/05/15827/investigators-find-islamic-state-used-ammo-made-21-countries-including-america

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    A senior U.S. Senator is questioning the Treasury Department’s decision to award Bank of America Corp. an exclusive contract to provide technology and financial services in all federal prisons.

    In a letter sent Friday, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, asked Treasury how the deal can protect taxpayers from fraud and conflicts of interest, given that it was awarded without the competitive bidding and transparency required for most federal contracts.

    Competitive bidding is “meant to give taxpayers the most bang for the buck,” Grassley said in a statement to the Center for Public Integrity. “Any time the government avoids competitive bidding, the practice needs exploration.”

    The Center first reported Thursday that Bank of America has been paid at least $76.3 million dollars to manage inmates’ accounts and oversee e-messaging and phone services inside the 121 facilities managed by the Bureau of Prisons, which house more than 214,000 prisoners.

    The deal has been amended 22 times since it was awarded in 2000. Treasury granted it under a 150-year-old authority that allows the agency to sidestep the oversight, transparency and competition typically required for federal contracting.  The contracts are known as financial agency agreements.

    “It is concerning that these [oversight] requirements do not apply to financial agency agreements such as the one with Bank of America,” Grassley wrote. “The Treasury Department’s decision to repeatedly amend rather than competitively bid this arrangement raises significant questions.”

    Grassley is the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Justice Department. He could become chairman of the committee if Republicans gain a majority in the Senate after this fall’s election.

    Prisons account for more than one-fourth of the Department of Justice’s discretionary budget through fiscal 2018, Grassley said, so “we must be sure that the BOP [Bureau of Prisons] is operating as efficiently as possible.”

    A Treasury spokesman said the department had received Sen. Grassley's letter and will respond. The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.

    In the letter, which was addressed to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, Grassley asks Treasury to detail all payments by Treasury and DOJ to Bank of America or its subcontractors. He also asks Treasury to disclose the 22 amendments, only 17 of which were provided to The Center under a Freedom of Information Act request.

    The Center’s report also noted that JP Morgan Chase & Co. issues high-fee payment cards to federal inmates when they are released. The cards contain inmates’ earnings from prison jobs and any leftover money sent by their families. JP Morgan holds a similar financial agency agreement with Treasury to provide the cards.

    JP Morgan and Bank of America are the two biggest U.S. banks by asset size. Both have declined to comment on their deals with the Treasury Department.

    The Center’s report was the second in a two-part series about prison bankers, companies that profit from inmates’ families through exclusive deals with prisons. The first part of the series detailed how JPay Inc., a Miami-based technology company, has gained access to 70 percent of U.S. offenders, and holds a monopoly on transferring money into prisons that house about 450,000 inmates.

    &nbspSen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, left, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Justice Department, at an oversight hearing in January, 2014.Daniel Wagnerhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/daniel-wagnerhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/03/15866/impact-senator-questions-bank-america-s-no-bid-prison-deal

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    Although there is no shortage of critics of the Affordable Care Act — on the far left as well as the right — it’s hard to dispute that the law has benefited millions of Americans. And not just those who have become newly insured over the past year.

    President Barack Obama cited some of the impressive statistics last Thursday, the day after the one-year anniversary of the turbulent debut of the Obamacare-created online health insurance exchanges.

    "In just the last year, we’ve reduced the share of uninsured Americans by 26 percent," he said. "That means one in four uninsured Americans — about 10 million people — have gained the financial security of health insurance in less than one year."

    Approximately 8 million people were finally able to sign up for coverage on the exchanges after the many technical problems were fixed. Many others were able to enroll in health plans on private exchanges or by working directly with an insurance company or agent. As a consequence, the rate of uninsured Americans dropped from 21 percent in September 2013 to 16.3 percent this past April.

    Even though open enrollment for the Obamacare exchanges ended in April, people have still been joining the ranks of the insured since then. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the number of newly insured Americans will grow to 12 million by the end of this year.

    A significant percentage of those folks were not able to find affordable coverage in the past, and many were not able to buy health insurance at any price because of insurance industry business practices that were outlawed by the ACA. Before Obamacare, insurance companies were able to declare you “uninsurable” if you had a preexisting condition, even conditions you might have been born with.

    During the months that health care reform was being debated in Washington, I met many young people who told me they had not been able to buy an insurance policy because of congenital heart defects and other conditions they had had since birth.

    Now they can.

    That provision and other parts of Obamacare that force insurance companies to be more consumer-friendly benefit all of us, but those sections of the law are rarely mentioned these days, probably because many of them went into effect long before the exchanges were up and running. Here’s a partial list:

    • Insurers can no longer “rescind” our policies when we get sick just to avoid paying our medical expenses;

    • They must allow our children to stay on our policies until they turn 26 if they can’t find jobs that offer coverage;

    • They can’t devote more than 20 percent of our premium dollars to overhead and profits;

    • They can no longer charge women more than men; and

    • They can’t charge older folks more than three times as much as they charge young people for the exact same policy.

    The law also benefits seniors on Medicare by closing the donut hole in the prescription drug benefit and by covering preventive care, including screenings, and it is saving the Medicare program billions of dollars by gradually reducing the extra amounts the government has been paying private insurers to participate in the Medicare Advantage program.

    All that said, the law falls short in many ways. While it is reducing the rate of uninsured Americans, it doesn’t get us anywhere close enough to the universal coverage that residents of other developed countries enjoy. While the ACA will cut the number of uninsured by half in the coming years, the CBO estimates that 31 million of us will still be uninsured in 2024.

    Many of the newly insured are also finding that their choices of health care providers is severely limited in some of the health plans being offered on the exchanges. “Narrow networks” are not new — they were common in the managed care plans of the 1990s — but insurers gradually began to broaden their networks after widespread complaints. Now they’re making a comeback.

    The ACA also allows insurers to sell plans with very high deductibles. They can appear at first glance to be good deals because their premiums generally are lower than plans with more modest deductibles. But many people who enroll in high-deductible plans find out after they get sick or injured that they can’t afford to pay their share of their medical bills. Although the ACA does put a limit on out-of-pocket expenses, it still will not prevent many insured families from filing for bankruptcy after a serious illness.

    And while the law apparently is helping to keep medical costs in check, it doesn’t go far enough. We still spend more per capita on health care than any other country. In that sense, I agree with my former colleagues in the insurance industry: the law doesn’t do enough to address the “real cost drivers” of medical inflation. That will require taking on the hospital companies, physician organizations and drug makers in ways the White House and members of both parties in Congress were not willing to do in 2009 because of the political clout they have in Washington. Consequently, much more reform will have to be undertaken in years to come.

    Wendell Potter is the author of Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans and Obamacare: What’s in It for Me? What Everyone Needs to Know About the Affordable Care Act.

    Wendell Potterhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/wendell-potterhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/06/15867/obamacare-helps-millions-falls-short-many-ways

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    Kitchen cabinet magnate Tom Wolf has tapped his own considerable wealth to help blanket Pennsylvania's airwaves with more than $11 million worth of television ads, surging ahead of a crowded Democratic primary field and opening up a lead in the general election polls against incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

    His bid is also getting help from two political groups, PA Families First and NextGen Climate Action Committee, which have already aired an unprecedented $3 million in ads themselves, 10 times more independent spending than occurred statewide in 2010.

    Fueled in part by Wolf and also the political groups empowered by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Pennsylvania is on top of the heap for ad spending so far in state-level races in 2014, with more than $37 million already spent, followed by Texas ($36.8 million), Florida ($33.7 million), Illinois ($26.4 million) and New York ($14.5 million).

    Through Sept. 8, one day before the final five state primary elections, more than $280 million nationwide was spent on television ads promoting and attacking candidates running for state political office in 2014.

    The total is actually a third less than at a comparable point in 2010, but more money was provided by independent groups like those in Pennsylvania, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from media tracking service Kantar Media/CMAG.

    More than 90 of these non-candidate organizations have spent $55 million to shape state-level races in 30 states, accounting for roughly 19 percent of state-level political ad dollars. Four years ago, such groups spent $50 million and made up only 12 percent of spending. That translates to about 30,000 more ads this cycle from such groups.

    The top spending independent groups so far are the Republican Governors Association at $11.4 million, Florida’s conservative Let's Get to Work political committee ($10.8 million), the Democratic Governors Association ($5.1 million), the union-backed Illinois Freedom Political Action Committee ($4.9 million) and the aforementioned NextGen Climate Action Committee ($2.3 million), created by California hedge fund manager and environmentalist Tom Steyer.

    The increase in spending by non-candidate committees can be traced in part to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, decided early in 2010. The ruling gave the green light to unions and corporations to spend unlimited funds on ads supporting or opposing candidates.

    Such spending is significant because contributions from corporations and labor unions to candidates in most states are either limited or banned altogether.

    Citizens United and a separate lower-court decision led to the creation of super PACs and political nonprofits, which collect such donations and spend the money on advertising and other election materials. The decision forced 24 states including Pennsylvania, which limited such spending, to change their laws.

    Even in some states, where the decision had no legal impact, there has still been an increase in spending from such groups. In Nebraska, independent groups upended the traditional dynamic by helping push political outsider and tea party favorite Pete Ricketts ahead of establishment candidate Attorney General Jon Bruning to win the GOP nomination for governor in the May primary.

    “Nebraska has never seen the kind of third-party spending like it saw in 2014 from a state perspective,” said Jordan McGrain, the former executive director of the state’s Republican Party who led Bruning’s campaign. “The parties play a role, but at least in Nebraska, it’s no longer a kingmaker role.”

    While it’s a midterm cycle for federal elections, more than 6,300 political seats are at stake in the states — the most in four years.

    Though television ads are not the only campaign tool used in politics, they do indicate which races are the most competitive and expensive.

    Ads inundate voters in state races

    Political television ads trying to influence state-level races in the 2014 elections have run more than 540,000 times in 44 states starting in June 2013, according to the analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data, sucking up the equivalent of 195 days of airtime if run continuously.

    Though Pennsylvania has seen the most spending on political television ads for state races overall, a Rhode Islander has likely seen far more ads.

    With roughly $5.8 million spent on advertising, the small state led the country with the most spent per eligible voter thanks to an especially fierce Democratic primary contest on Sept. 9 for the seat opened up by Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who is not seeking re-election.

    Gina Raimondo defeated and outspent Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and the largely self-funded Clay Pell to win the Democratic nomination, despite opposition from public employee unions because of pension reforms Raimondo initiated as the state’s general treasurer. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung emerged from a comparatively tame Republican primary, in which both candidates combined spent one-fifth the amount on television ads that Raimondo did alone.

    In total, an estimated $7.77 was spent per possible voter — enough for coffee and half a dozen donuts, with change to spare, at the famed Allie’s Donuts in North Kingstown, Rhode Island.

    That’s too many donuts for one person to eat, said shop owner Anne Drescher, and too much money spent on ads that could instead fund scholarships or fix roads.

    “It’s unnecessary for it to be so over the top,” Drescher said. “If there’s any way they can take some of that money and invest it in the state, that would be the best PR plug to win any office.”

    Pennsylvania, at $3.99 spent per eligible voter, was second, followed by Maryland ($3.48), Nebraska ($3.12) and Illinois ($2.94). Spending in all five states is significantly higher than what it was at this point in 2010, fueled largely by contested governors’ races.

    Spending is down in 24 of 44 states where political advertisements have aired so far this cycle. And spending on gubernatorial contests — the biggest ticket race at the state level — is 60 percent of what it was at this point in 2010.

    Four years ago, there were fewer incumbent governors, meaning there were more competitive races and thus a lot more spending on ads. Twenty-nine sitting governors are seeking re-election in 2014 compared to 13 in 2010.

    At the same point in 2010, for example, the open gubernatorial contest in California alone had accounted for more than $100 million in estimated advertising spending. This cycle, with favored Democrat Jerry Brown seeking re-election, less than $2 million has been spent.

    “The playing field is very different this year,” said Tyler Johnson, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma. “You have 20-plus governors running for re-election, so you’re immediately sort of eliminating in most of those races one competitive primary.”

    The lack of a compelling top-of-the-ticket race in so many states appears to have led to a lower voter turnout. At least 28 states showed lower primary turnout rates than in 2010, according to numbers from state election officials across the country.

    Top ticket races dominate the airwaves

    But even at diminished levels, the 36 governors’ races across the country have fueled more than $208 million, or nearly three-quarters of all the estimated state-level advertising spending this cycle.

    The top five most expensive races overall have been gubernatorial races, with Pennsylvania ($35.5 million), Florida ($31.8 million) and Illinois ($26 million) leading the pack. Andrew Cuomo’s bid to remain the Democratic governor of New York put the Empire State fourth, with $13.2 million in spending, while blue-leaning Maryland came in at fifth ($12.1 million) thanks to a heated Democratic primary for the open seat being vacated by Gov. Martin O’Malley due to term limits.

    Florida has the second-most expensive governor’s race in the country despite the fact that incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the Democratic nominee, former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, faced minimal competition in the Aug. 26 primaries.

    Heavy spending there by the parties and other non-candidate groups — one closely associated with Scott — was geared toward the November general election from the beginning.

    Non-candidate groups have spent more on that contest than any other state race nationwide. Unlike in other states, Florida’s campaign finance laws allow candidates to work closely with seemingly outside groups, rendering candidates’ own campaigns less relevant.

    Illinois’ gubernatorial contest, like the one in Pennsylvania, features a wealthy businessman who has spent millions to fund a challenge against the unpopular incumbent — in this case a Democrat, Gov. Pat Quinn.

    Illinois venture capitalist Bruce Rauner narrowly secured the GOP nomination after spending 40 times more on television ads than his closest opponent, state Sen. Kirk Dillard, in the state’s March 18 Republican primary.

    Winning the television ad war is no guarantee of victory at the ballot, however.

    In Texas, the heated primary for lieutenant governor helped make that seat the sixth-most expensive race overall through Sept. 8 at $11.9 million, eclipsing even the state’s own gubernatorial race. Incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst spent nearly half of that in the four-way race, with 70 percent more spots airing than his closest challenger, state Sen. Dan Patrick. Yet Dewhurst still lost in the primary runoff for the state’s No. 2 office.

    Patrick was able to secure endorsements from influential conservative groups such as Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, a nonprofit chaired by oil executive Tim Dunn. The group typically does not air many television ads but uses direct mail and online messaging to energize conservative voters, according to Texas political consultant Ray Sullivan, who helped run Gov. Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign.

    “Candidates in the Republican primary who secured those endorsements generally won, and they usually won over better-funded opponents,” Sullivan said.

    A third-wheel joins the race

    In this election cycle, more than 90 non-candidate organizations have run ads some 126,000 times, sometimes dueling against each other.

    The groups vary from small, seemingly state-specific groups, such as the Campaign for Maine political action committee, to sprawling national political machines with franchises in multiple states.

    In six states, such outside groups purchased the majority of the political television ads. And in at least 17 races, the groups spent more than the candidates themselves.

    The top independent spender nationally has been the Republican Governors Association, which along with its state-level subsidiaries has spent $11.4 million on ads to help elect Republican governors.

    The GOP governors’ group has also been the biggest donor to the second highest spender nationwide, Florida’s Let's Get to Work, which has spent more than $10 million in ads to boost the re-election of Scott, the Republican governor.

    The organization functions differently than most so-called “outside” groups, having been initially seeded by a trust belonging to Scott’s wife. The ads often feature Scott speaking directly to the camera, a level of coordination between the group and the candidate that would be illegal in most states.

    The Democratic Governors Association, which along with the Republican Governors Association advocates for the election of their parties’ gubernatorial candidates, took the third spot, with $5.1 million spent so far on TV ads when including its state-level subsidiaries.

    Union-backed Illinois Freedom PAC spent $4.9 million attacking wealthy Republican gubernatorial nominee Rauner.

    NextGen Climate Action Committee, the group funded by deep-pocketed environmentalist Tom Steyer, has sponsored $2.3 million in ads criticizing the policies of incumbent Republican governors in Florida and Pennsylvania, sometimes widening its scope beyond environmental issues to hit hot-button topics such as education.

    Already active in 14 states combined, the two governors’ associations have covered the most ground nationwide. The groups, referred to as 527 committees based on the section of the federal tax code under which they are organized, can accept unlimited donations from individuals, corporations and unions.

    They can give directly to candidates in some states. In Pennsylvania, for example, the RGA has donated $1.8 million to Corbett’s campaign.

    But they also often air their own ads, a strategy that frees them to spend unlimited amounts in states where contributions to candidates are limited — or where union or corporate funders are not allowed to give to candidates directly.

    Like puppet masters pulling strings from Washington, D.C., they also sometimes fund satellite groups that have different names. On occasion, they finance front groups.

    In Connecticut, the two groups are using such proxy organizations to help prop up gubernatorial candidates who have accepted public funds for their campaigns. By accepting the handouts, the candidates are limited in how much they may raise, but the groups are circumventing those restrictions, and have increased total ad spending by 18 percent.

    The newly formed independent group Grow Connecticut Inc. has so far spent roughly $375,000 to air TV ads attacking Democrat and incumbent Gov. Dannel Malloy. The group received at least 94 percent of its money from the Republican Governors Association.

    On the other side, the Democratic Governors Association recently fired back by pouring more than $1.2 million into Connecticut Forward, an independent organization which has aired an estimated $425,000 worth of ads attacking Malloy’s rival, GOP nominee and former ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley.

    Playing the bad cop

    Subject to varying state laws, outside spending groups often don’t have to disclose as much as candidates do about who funds them or where they spend their money, effectively masking who is really calling the shots.

    Arizona gubernatorial hopeful Christine Jones was on the receiving end of such a group — the Virginia-based 60 Plus Association, which has been connected to the vast network of conservative nonprofits overseen by billionaires Charles and David Koch.

    After the secretive group ran attack ads against her, she lost the GOP primary. She now feels such groups ought to disclose who funds them.

    “It’s important for democracy, because in the end, everybody has a motivation,” said the former executive of website domain giant Go Daddy Group.  “You might be motivated by money, you might be motivated by power, you might be motivated by getting a pet project put through. Everybody’s motivated by something.”

    Citizens United did away with Arizona’s ban on the use of corporate and union money to influence elections, according to a tally by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

    It’s not uncommon for such groups to be the ones slinging mud while the candidates they support keep it clean. More than two-thirds of ads aired by such groups attacked a candidate. By comparison, candidates were far more positive, with only 14 percent of their ads criticizing opponents.

    For candidates, independently sponsored ads that bash their opponents have long provided the “best of both worlds,” according to Johnson, the University of Oklahoma professor.

    “They get outsiders who are willing to attack and get those messages out there, but then there’s the sort of plausible deniability of, you know, ‘That’s not our ad’ and ‘We didn’t approve of that,’ ” Johnson said.

    A turning tide?

    The groups have made significant advances in the television ad wars since 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates.

    Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, has watched the spread of these organizations from the federal level to the states.

    “That phenomenon is growing,” Trippi said. “It was in its infancy in 2010, and so I think that actually more groups exist today.”

    But it’s not clear if the greater role such third-party ads are playing on the airwaves this election cycle is a trend that will continue beyond this year — or is just a byproduct of lower spending by incumbent candidates, according to Ken Goldstein, a University of San Francisco politics professor and expert on political advertising who advises Kantar Media/CMAG on its data.

    “If you have outside groups who are raising a fixed amount of money in an election year, they’re going to spend it no matter what,” Goldstein said. “And so, by definition then, they’re going to comprise a greater proportion of the spending.”

    Still, such groups have expanded their reach and moved beyond just the marquee governors’ races to spread their resources down the ballot this cycle, airing more ads than four years ago in races for state school superintendent and state supreme court justice.

    Lower on the ballot, but not in cash

    The contest for Oklahoma education superintendent is the 25th most expensive state-level race nationwide in terms of television advertising spending. With $2.1 million spent to air ads more than 4,400 times, the race has surpassed the amount spent to elect governors in at least 14 states.

    Incumbent Superintendent Janet Barresi lost the Republican primary despite outspending her opponents on television ads by more than a 2-1 ratio.

    An independent group, Oklahomans for Public School Excellence, ran an attack ad against Barresi just a handful of times, but it reinforced the mounting criticism of Barresi’s past support of the Common Core curriculum. Opposition from both the right and the left has grown against the Obama Administration-endorsed education initiative for an array of reasons, including the fear that it removes curriculum control from local decision-makers.

    Johnson, the University of Oklahoma professor, said criticism of Barresi’s position on the policy ultimately turned the tide of the race.

    Nationwide, state supreme court races have attracted more money spent on TV ads this cycle than in 2010 by a 3-1 ratio, with roughly $3.1 million spent to air ads in six states.

    Races to retain three Tennessee justices clocked in as the most expensive with about $1.4 million in ads, followed by a North Carolina primary for a single seat that topped $1.1 million. Independent groups dominated the races in those states and also in an election in Arkansas as they tried to sway voters in those nonpartisan elections.

    The independent groups haven’t all been victorious. North Carolina State Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson is advancing to the November general election despite an estimated $689,000 the group Justice for All NC spent attacking her on the airwaves, saying she “sides with child predators.” She had dissented against applying electronic monitoring provisions to sex offenders whose crimes had occurred before the provisions were enacted.

    Three Tennessee Supreme Court justices won retention elections — in which judges ran unopposed and voters decided whether they got to keep their seats — after their campaigns and an outside group fought off attacks from two other outside groups.

    But in Arkansas, spending by the Law Enforcement Alliance of America had a particularly outsized influence in the state’s sole contested Supreme Court race between candidates Tim Cullen and Robin Wynne. The group spent nearly $320,000 on TV ads, accounting for nearly $9 out of every $10 spent in the race.

    One ad claimed that Cullen had called child pornography a “victimless crime” while representing a convicted sex offender who was appealing his sentence. Cullen disputed the claims, and his campaign countered with its own TV ad that aimed to set the record straight. But ultimately Cullen was outspent, and he told the Center for Public Integrity the group’s ads were a major factor in his 4-percentage-point loss.

    It’s not clear why the Virginia-based group was active in the Arkansas race. As a nonprofit regulated under section 501(c)(4) of the federal tax code, the LEAA does not have to publicly reveal its donors. In the past, the group has been backed by the National Rifle Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The LEAA did not respond to calls requesting comment.

    The outside spending was unprecedented for an Arkansas judicial race, and according to former state Supreme Court Justice Annabelle Imber Tuck, the secrecy surrounding the LEAA’s funders could be particularly problematic if the funders of the ads were ever to come before the court.

    “They influenced the election, or tried to, and now they’re parties in a case, but you don’t know that,” Tuck said. “There’s no accountability.”

    More ads coming in the final stretch

    After the primaries nailed down which candidates will compete in the general election, such outside groups started to assume an even greater role, rising from 16 percent of the ads before primary elections to 26 percent of ads afterward.

    In Pennsylvania, for example, NextGen Climate Action Committee and the Democratic Governors Association-backed PA Families First only jumped in after the May 20 primary. Both groups have attacked the Republican incumbent, Corbett, for cutting education spending.

    Corbett, in response, upped his spending after his uncontested primary, buying more than $5 million worth of ads since July to defend his record and attack Wolf, his Democratic challenger.

    If the past is any guide, the bulk of political spending is almost certainly still to come. In 2010, 55 percent of the overall spending came in the final two months. But outside groups represented a diminished share of the ads as state and local parties upped their spending.

    Even if advertising spending in all state races doesn’t reach the 2010 total of $921 million, some states and races are poised to blow past their levels from four years ago.

    Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race has already topped the amount of ad spending made in all of 2010. A continued barrage of advertising aided by outside groups could push the race to record levels of spending.

    “It's sort of like we've opened the doors,” said William Rosenberg, a political science professor at Drexel University who has been following the race. “Money is an expression of free speech, and if you have more of it than someone else, you might have a bigger voice, a bigger megaphone."

    A screenshot from an ad attacking Tom Wolf, the Democratic nominee in the Pennsylvania governor race, paid for by Tom Corbett for Governor.Rachel Bayehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/rachel-bayeReity O'Brienhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/reity-obrienKytja Weirhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/kytja-weirBen Wiederhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/ben-wiederhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/09/19/15551/non-candidate-spending-increases-state-elections

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    A military scientific adviser whose pay and security clearances were suspended after he exposed the Marine Corps’ disinterest in building lifesaving, heavily-armored, troop carriers settled his employment dispute with the Corps on Sept. 25, after reaching an agreement that he and his attorney described as a victory.

    Under the terms of the settlement, Franz Gayl, whose complaints about the Corps attracted wide attention on Capitol Hill and the support of Joseph Biden before he became Vice President, will be appointed to a Marine Corps commission assigned to develop new policies for handling Marine whistleblowers. Gayl also was assured that he can keep working for the Marines, although his clearances were not fully restored.

    In a Sept. 25 statement issued through his lawyer, Gayl said “this resolution not only vindicates me but also my loyalty and dedication to the Marines, which never wavered.” The attorney, Tom Devine at the nonprofit Government Accountability Project in Washington, D.C., said that since “team members must exercise sound judgment and work with integrity,” the commission appointment affirms that Gayl possesses those qualities.

    It is unprecedented for a whistleblower to be appointed to help a government agency develop policy for whistleblower rights, according to Devine, who has worked with government whistleblowers since 1979.

    The dispute was resolved with the help of of the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that protects government whistleblowers and initially intervened to block the Marine Corps’ decision to cut off Gayl’s pay in 2011. Nick Schwellenbach, a spokesperson for the office, called the two and a half year mediation the most complex undertaken by the Office under its current head, Carolyn Lerner.

    In a prepared statement, Lerner, who Obama appointed to the post, commended both sides for reaching the agreement, and said “Mr. Gayl’s experiences as a whistleblower as well as being a former uniformed Marine and current civilian employee will make him an important contributor to the new team’s work.”

    Gayl incurred the wrath of the Corps after he called attention in 2007 to the Corps’ failure to act on a request by U.S. officers in Iraq for a troop carrier that would afford better protection against roadside bombs. Had such vehicles been available to troops in 2005, when they were first requested, Gayl alleged, hundreds of soldiers’ lives could have been saved.

    The adverse publicity he provoked caught the attention of then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who ordered the military to rapidly build costly Mine-Resistant, Armored-Protected vehicles, commonly known as MRAPs.

    Gayl was subsequently accused by the Marines of improperly placing a thumb drive into a sensitive office computer, and eventually assigned to a desk in a hallway at the Marine Corps headquarters in Quantico, Va. “He was like a man in stocks,” said Devine. “It was about ongoing personal humiliation on a daily basis, and a symbol to others who worked alongside him.”

    Although a copy of the settlement was not released, one of those familiar with it said it does not require the Corps to relocate him, and his superiors can still require that he be accompanied when visiting rooms with classified materials.

    This photo provided by Franz Gayl, a retired Major, shows Gayl in 2006 as a civilian science adviser in Iraq.Julia Hartehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/julia-hartehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/09/25/15763/marine-corps-settles-dispute-whistleblower

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    NORDHEIM, Texas — School Superintendent Kevin Wilson tugged at his oversized belt buckle and gestured toward a field less than a mile from Nordheim School, where 180 children attend kindergarten through 12th grade.

    A commercial waste facility that will receive millions of barrels of toxic sludge from oil and gas production for disposal in enormous open-air pits is taking shape there, and Wilson worries that the ever-present Texas wind will carry traces of dangerous chemicals, including benzene, to the school.

    “Many of these students live outside of where they could be exposed,” said Wilson, a contemplative man with a soft Texas accent. “But we are busing them to the school, putting them in the direct path of something that could be harmful to them. It makes you think: Are we doing what’s best for the students?”

    Along with Nordheim’s mayor and other angry residents, Wilson is trying to stop the 204-acre facility, but he faces an uphill battle. In Texas, as in most states, air emissions from oil and gas waste are among the least regulated, least monitored and least understood components in the extraction and production cycle. Although the wastewater and sludge can contain the same chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing and other processes — chemicals known to affect human health —little has been done to measure waste emissions or determine their possible impact on nearby residents.

    This gap can be traced to decisions Congress and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made decades ago, when oil and gas producers lobbied hard to get most of their waste exempted from federal hazardous waste regulations.

    In 1988 they succeeded, even though a 1987 EPA study concluded that 23 percent of the waste samples the agency had collected contained one or more toxic compounds at levels 100 times higher than is considered safe for humans. The EPA estimated that without the exemption, 10 to 70 percent of oil and gas waste could be considered hazardous.

    Still, the report recommended granting the exemption. The expense of disposing of so much hazardous waste would slow U.S. oil and gas production, the authors said. And there weren’t enough hazardous waste facilities to handle that much waste.

    For the industry, and for people who live and work near commercial waste facilities, the distinction between hazardous and non-hazardous waste is critical when it comes to air quality.

    Pits at hazardous waste sites must be covered — open-air pits are not allowed. Even the transfer of the waste is done through pipes, so emissions don’t escape into the air. The EPA requires some type of air monitoring, too.

    Pits at non-hazardous facilities, in contrast, allow chemicals in the waste to evaporate directly into the atmosphere. States decide how and where facilities are built and what, if any, monitoring systems they must have. A recent EPA review of oil and gas waste regulations in 27 states, including Texas, Pennsylvania and Colorado, found that none had rules requiring regular air monitoring at commercial solid waste facilities.

    Nathan Richardson, an assistant professor of environmental law at the University of South Carolina who studies waste rules, said most states, including Texas, focus on safeguarding ground and surface water, protecting wildlife, keeping out trespassers and restoring land after pits are closed. “None of it that I remember has to do with air,” he said.

    Travis County Assistant District Attorney Patricia Robertson, the environmental crimes prosecutor for the Texas Environmental Enforcement Task Force, has been frustrated for years because the federal exemption makes it almost impossible to prosecute waste facilities for anything more serious than dust or foul odors, which are considered nuisances under Texas law.

    “Until the law is changed, people might be exposed to what ordinarily might be considered hazardous waste,” Robertson said.

    James Langhorne, chief operating officer of Inland Environmental, a disposal facility south of Houston, bristles when he hears criticism of waste disposal facilities: “We follow the standards set by the people elected to set those standards.” 

    Last year, U.S. Rep. Matthew Cartwright, a first-term Democrat from Pennsylvania, drafted a bill that would remove the industry’s hazardous waste exemption, which he said is based not on science but on the industry’s successful lobbying. But all of the bill’s 70 co-sponsors are Democrats, and the bill is stuck in the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy.

    “I don’t expect it will be an easy fight, but it’s the right thing to do,” Cartwright said.

    The hazardous waste exemption has saved oil and gas producers huge amounts of money.

    When the EPA was considering the exemption in 1987 it estimated that treating the waste as hazardous could result in $700 million to $4.5 billion in extra costs to consumers.

    An executive with a national waste disposal company said that disposing of hazardous waste can cost up to three times as much as disposing of non-hazardous waste, depending on the composition of the load and other factors.

    Bill Keffer, a visiting professor of law at Texas Tech University School of Law and a former state legislator, said that if the industry’s waste were re-classified, the ripple effects would be felt from industry boardrooms to the gas pumps.

    “What makes economic sense now to develop these new [shale] plays might not make economic sense once this new expense is factored in,” said Keffer, who once worked as a corporate lawyer for gasoline-producer ARCO. “So removing the exemption could have a chilling effect on future development.”

    Alex Mills, president of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, said local economies would suffer if production declined, and the cost of electricity produced by gas-powered generating plants would go up. “The unintended consequences would be very far reaching,” he said.

    But David Brown, a toxicologist and adjunct professor of applied ethics at Fairfield University in Connecticut, said using a standard cost-benefit analysis when people’s health may be at risk shows that society has lost its moral compass.

    “Someone is putting a value on human life and saying the benefit to the larger society justifies the risks to people,” Brown said.

    “We have to look deeply at why people’s lives place second in this analysis.”

    Little accounting for lots of waste 

    When the federal exemption for fossil fuel waste was approved in 1988, oil and gas production in the United States was dropping and finding more domestic supplies was a national imperative. The idea that reclassifying the industry’s waste as hazardous might further slow oil production was alarming.

    Today, however, domestic production is booming because of the development of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — the process of blasting water, chemicals and sand down a well to crack open bedrock and tap deeply buried fossil fuels. The United States has so much oil and gas, in fact, that the industry is lobbying Congress for permission to freely export it.

    It’s impossible to say exactly how much waste the oil and gas boom is generating, or how it’s being disposed of. Neither the EPA nor the federal Energy Information Administration collects those statistics. The American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group, estimated that 18 billion barrels of waste were produced in 1995, before fracking began, but an API spokesman said those numbers haven’t been updated.

    The bulk of the waste is dirty water from fracking, which contains salts, fracking chemicals and heavy metals from underground. After as much oil and gas as possible is removed from the water, it’s either used to frack new wells, or injected deep underground for permanent disposal. A handful of states — including Texas, Utah, and New Mexico — also allow it to be stored in open-air pits, called evaporation ponds.

    The industry’s solid waste — dirt, mud and watery sludge — is generally trucked to waste facilities and dumped into large open pits where it remains until it becomes a gooey sludge the consistency of cake batter. Then it might be spread on open plots of land and tilled into the soil, a practice called “land farming.” Or it might remain in the pits until they are filled and covered with dirt for permanent storage. Some waste may also be mixed with asphalt and used to pave roads. In many states, solid waste can also be buried at drilling sites.

    Each of the three solid waste disposal pits Pyote Reclamation Systems LLC wants to build near Nordheim School will be as large as nine city blocks and can hold 720,000 cubic yards of waste, enough to fill the Washington Monument 19 times.

    Pyote also wants to build a second, larger facility 3½ miles away. It will occupy 574 acres and, unlike the Nordheim site, will include two open evaporation ponds for wastewater. When filled to capacity, the facility will hold 10 million barrels of solid and liquid waste, enough to fill 62 Shamu tanks at San Antonio’s SeaWorld.

    'That just ain’t right'

    In September, about 30 Nordheim residents made the 230-mile round-trip drive to a state hearing in Austin to oppose the Pyote facility near the school. Although the final permit hasn’t been issued, Pyote has already bulldozed the land, put up a fence and built a power station.

    The hearing lasted two and a half days, with lawyers and expert witnesses speaking for both sides. Pyote’s attorney, John Soule, used the federal hazardous waste exemption as a drumbeat in his opening remarks, saying five times in the first two minutes of his presentation that the material going into the pits wouldn’t be hazardous.

    “The waste that will be received is ... exempt oil and gas waste — by definition nonhazardous,” he told the commission hearing officers a minute into his presentation. Twenty seconds later, he made the same point: “In other words, again, only nonhazardous oil and gas waste subject to the commission’s jurisdiction would be received and disposed of at this facility.”

    In the audience was 70-year-old Paul Baumann, who was born in Nordheim and graduated from Nordheim School. Baumann has never been much of an activist. But a few months ago, he grabbed an armful of protest signs emblazoned with a skull and crossbones and the words “Don’t Dump On Nordheim” and posted them on fences and gates near the Pyote site.

    “They want to poison our water and air with all this hazardous stuff they’re bringing in,” Baumann said. “That just ain’t right.”

    Also in the audience was state Rep. Geanie W. Morrison, a Republican who has represented Nordheim in the House since 1999 and last year received an 87 percent approval rating from the Texas Association of Business.

    “I fully recognize there is a need for the facilities that we are talking about at this hearing” Morrison told the crowd. “I am not naïve that we always be confronted with the ‘Not in my backyard” position. But this is truly in the backyard of the entire city of Nordheim.

    “It might make business sense. But I have yet to see that it makes logical sense for this community.”

    Murky emissions data stirs worry

    Because Texas, like most states, doesn’t require commercial facilities to monitor and collect data about their waste emissions, it’s impossible to know whether chemicals are drifting into the air at levels high enough to affect public health.

    Oil and gas waste includes volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene. Depending on the concentration and length of exposure, these chemicals can cause a range of ailments, from minor headaches to neurological damage and cancer. But there has been little or no research on how years of exposure to low doses of these chemicals might affect the general public, including children, the sick and the elderly.

    There’s also little information about what happens when people are exposed to many chemicals at once, said Stuart Batterman, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health. While the concentration of each chemical may meet current health guidelines, he said, “there might be an issue [when] taking the sum as a whole.”  

    A few small studies involving untreated drilling wastewater — the part of the waste stream that is usually found at drilling sites and has the highest concentration of chemicals — have produced data and anecdotal evidence that emissions can reach dangerously high levels.

    In 2011, Gabrielle Petron, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist working at the University of Colorado, was trying to determine whether emissions from two well sites in northeastern Utah were causing a rise in winter ozone, a major respiratory irritant. During the course of the work, Petron and her team of researchers discovered “out of this world” levels of benzene and toluene coming from small ponds of untreated wastewater near the well sites. At one point, the vapors were so thick that Petron felt nauseous and moved her team out of the area.

    “You had to go upwind of the ponds,” she said. “You could not stand to be in the downwind emission stream.”

    The lack of health data, plus the EPA’s decision to classify oil and gas production waste as non-hazardous, makes it almost impossible for residents to use air emissions as grounds to object to oil and gas waste operations.

    In Texas, a bifurcated regulatory system adds to the confusion.

    Construction permits for commercial waste facilities are issued by the state’s Railroad Commission, the primary regulator for the oil and gas industry. The agency considers the projects’ effects on water, but not on air quality. That responsibility rests with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

    The TCEQ allows some facilities to self-audit air quality under a special category of rules called “permits by rule,” which means the agency might not even know the facilities exist.

    Other facilities have somewhat stricter air permits, which require them to register with the TCEQ. The permits limit annual emissions. But because they don’t require the companies to regularly monitor their emissions or report them to the TCEQ, it’s impossible to verify that the limits are being met.

    For residents, determining what kind of permit a particular facility has is almost impossible, because the agency has a backlog of air permit applications and paperwork. Of the state’s 67 largest commercial surface waste facilities, only 10 are listed on the TCEQ’s website as having permits. Of those, four have or have applied for the stricter permits. The other six have permits by rule.

    TCEQ spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said the agency’s focus is on dust and nuisance odors.

    “In most cases the liquids have very small concentrations of volatiles or sulfur, thus evaporative emissions are very insignificant but in no case may they cause a nuisance,” Morrow said in an email exchange with InsideClimate News.

    Morrow said waste pit operators also must comply with the Texas Administrative Code, which prohibits anything that could “adversely affect human health or welfare.” 

    The TCEQ measures general air quality “rather than pollutants from specific sources,” Morrow said. To do that, she said the agency oversees “one of the most extensive air toxics monitoring networks in the country.” In 2013, she said it loaded data from more than 200 monitoring sites statewide into the TCEQ database.

    But an 18-month investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News revealed that the agency’s program is severely limited in some oil and gas production areas. For example, the Center and InsideClimate News reported in February that the TCEQ had only five permanent air monitors in the heavily drilled Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, an area roughly twice the size of Massachusetts. The agency recently announced it will add another monitor in the area.

    Because waste facilities fall under the jurisdiction of two Texas regulatory agencies, people are often confused about where to turn for help.

    About 50 miles southwest of Houston, officials at the Rice Consolidated Independent School District, which serves more than 1,100 students on six campuses, want to know more about emissions from a commercial oil and gas waste facility that sits within a couple miles of two schools.

    But Michelle Morris, the district’s lawyer, said a TCEQ official claimed the agency has no jurisdiction over the emissions, and the Railroad Commission said the same thing. The district has contacted the EPA but hasn’t gotten a response.

    “I’m sure there is an agency responsible for monitoring the air,” Morris said, “but we can’t figure out what that agency is.”

    Ilan Levin, associate director of the Environmental Integrity Project’s chapter in Austin, thinks the state’s regulatory process is intentionally ambiguous and confusing.

    “All of the rules are vague enough that it allows the industry to game the system,” Levin said. “They can interpret the rules for their benefit.”

    Former EPA Regional Administrator Al Armendariz, who resigned in 2012 amid criticism of his hardline stand against lax oil and gas rules in Texas, said the TCEQ’s permitting system shows that “in their mind they have already made a determination that such facilities will not have a human health impact.”  

    Armendariz now leads the Beyond Coal campaign for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

    Health concerns not enough for regulators

    In 2010, people living downwind from a waste facility in Cleburne, Texas complained to the TCEQ “about the odor causing headache and nausea and forcing them to discontinue their outdoor work and to move indoors,” according to a TCEQ report obtained under the Texas Public Information Act.

    A TCEQ investigator confirmed the odor was coming from pits containing oil field waste, according to the report. He could smell a natural gas odor, but said his breathing wasn’t affected.

    The inspector took an air sample that disclosed trace amounts of benzene, toluene and ethylbenzene, but in concentrations below levels Texas considers a health hazard. The TCEQ determined there had been no violations.

    A Borden County couple, Joel and Betty Dennis, had a similar experience when they complained to the TCEQ between 1995 and 2003 about foul odors coming from a Westex Systems disposal facility three miles from their house.

    Sometimes the odors were so bad that the Dennises said they felt nauseous and stayed indoors. But when the TCEQ investigated, it found no violations.

    On another occasion, the couple complained to the Railroad Commission about a foul smell characteristic of hydrogen sulfide, a potentially lethal gas. Again, there was an investigation. But the commission’s only recommendation was that the company should erect some sort of cover over the pits to keep birds out.

    In 2008, the Dennises discovered that Westex had applied to the Railroad Commission for a permit to build an additional pit on the site. The fifth pit—375 feet long, 135 feet wide and 18 feet deep—would hold 163,000 barrels of oil and gas waste, according to commission documents.

    Outraged, the Dennises drove almost 700 miles round trip to a commission hearing in Austin to oppose the new pit. Despite their plea, the company’s application was approved.

    “Concerns about odor and adverse health effects as a result of operation of the facility do not provide a basis for the Commission’s denial of the application of an additional pit at the facility,” the examining officers said in their recommendation to the commission.

    The Westex Systems facility closed last year, not because of complaints but because its five pits were filled to capacity with 1.1 million barrels of waste.

    “Against an industry that is so much of the Texas economy, we didn’t count,” Betty Dennis said.

    Tiny notice sparks huge protest

    The lack of scientific information about oil and gas waste emissions, plus the lack of regulations, leaves residents and local officials who object to gas and oil waste sites with few options.

    Kathy Payne discovered that in April 2013 when she got to her office just around the corner from Oralia’s beauty shop to begin another uneventful day as mayor of Nordheim, population 307.

    After settling into her worn leather chair, she opened the latest edition of the local weekly newspaper. Starting at the front, she read about a standout high school track star and an upcoming community potluck.

    But it was a tiny notice at the back of the paper that caught her attention: an announcement that an application had been filed with the Railroad Commission for a permit to build a waste facility on the outskirts of Nordheim. At 204 acres, it would be nearly the size of her town.

    “Oh, holy hell! What’s this?” Payne remembers shouting.

    Texas law requires companies that want to build waste facilities to notify adjacent landowners. City officials also must be notified—but that requirement didn’t apply in this case because the facility sits outside Nordheim’s city limits.

    Paul Baumann and other landowners whose properties adjoin the Pyote site received thick blue binders from the company, filled with schematics and technical data about the proposed facility. They formed a grassroots opposition group called Concerned About Pollution, or CAP, and held their first meeting under the gazebo in Nordheim’s Jubilee Park.

    CAP now has about 400 members and has raised roughly $20,000, most of it already spent on attorney and consultant fees.  

    As the group coalesced, Baumann said Pyote took notice and made some alterations in its plans for the facility. But CAP wants the application denied, not adjusted, and he worries the company will simply outlast them.

    “We have the determination but they have all the money,” he said.

    George Wommack is CEO of Petro Waste Environment LP, whose Pyote Reclamation Systems is building the Nordheim facility. He points to the federal hazardous waste exemption as proof that the sludge his company will be receiving at the Nordheim site is harmless. If school superintendent Wilson or Mayor Payne or anyone else has a gripe, Wommack said, they should take it up with the EPA.

    “Most of what we’re dealing with here is dirt,” he said.

    In its application to the Railroad Commission for a construction permit, Pyote said it didn’t need a TCEQ air permit. But in a recent interview, Wommack said the company will hire consultants to determine whether a permit is needed.

    Nationwide, rules begin to tighten

    As oil and gas development spreads across the United States, more communities are raising concerns about the industry’s waste.

    At least 20 towns, districts, counties or states have passed laws regulating various parts of the waste disposal process.

    Longmont, Colo., Pelham, Mass. and Buffalo, N.Y. have banned the storage, treatment and disposal of fracking wastewater within their borders. Ohio has banned new wastewater ponds, and Pennsylvania is trying to ban them. In 2012 Vermont became the first state to indefinitely prohibit the collection, storage and treatment of fracking waste. Connecticut passed a three-year ban this year and a waste ban bill is pending in Massachusetts.

    But some places are resistant to change — and some have even reversed strict waste rules.

    New Jersey’s legislature has twice rejected legislation that would keep fracking waste from entering its borders.

    New Mexico passed some of the nation’s strictest waste pit and pond rules in 2008 under Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson. But in 2013, under a Republican administration, they were weakened. The New Mexico Environmental Law Center has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project challenging the slimmed-down rule.

    At the national level, Matt Cartwright, the Pennsylvania congressman who is trying to repeal the industry’s hazardous waste exemption, campaigned on a promise he would fight to make sure that fracking doesn’t pollute air and water. Cartwright says he isn’t opposed to drilling, but wants it done safely.

    “I think requiring responsible regulation of the fracking industry and responsible handling of hazardous waste is the least we should be doing,” he said.

    So far, Cartwright’s bill — the Closing Loopholes and Ending Arbitrary and Needless Evasion of Regulations Act, or CLEANER — has gone nowhere. But in August, he scored a small victory when Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson became CLEANER’s 70th co-sponsor.

    Johnson, whose North Texas district includes part of the Barnett Shale, declined to be interviewed but said in a written statement that “oil and natural gas companies should be held to the same standard as other industries.”

    “If we are going to ask the EPA to effectively protect the public health and the environment, we should not make special exceptions for an industry that has a long history of polluting the environment,” Johnson said.  

    In May, more than 50 Texas community leaders urged Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett, whose district includes Austin, to co-sponsor the bill.

    Their letter notes that open pits of drilling mud waste contaminated four family water wells in Montague County in 2011 and pleads: “With the state of Texas failing to protect us, we need the federal government to act to protect communities in Texas from fracking.”

    As of Wednesday, Doggett had not signed as a co-sponsor. His office did not respond to requests for comment.

    A question of common sense

    School Superintendent Wilson, who wears a burgundy polo shirt with a yellow embroidered Nordheim Pirates logo, is still struggling to understand the logic of putting a waste facility so close to his school.

    As he speaks, the trees rustle in a persistent and predictable wind that swirls across the playground after sweeping across the Pyote site. It blows almost every day and is as much a part of life in this small South Texas community as 4-H shows and rodeos.

    “There is a lot of area out here for things like this,” Wilson said. “Common sense says you don’t put something like this so close to a community and a school. Just think about it.”

    Like so many others in Nordheim and across the Eagle Ford, Wilson doesn’t oppose oil and gas development. It has brought prosperity to his town, which last year approved a $3.7 million bond for renovations to his 65-year-old school.

    But with that good fortune comes responsibility, Wilson said: “Doing the right things can’t get lost.”

    The Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News have been investigating oil and gas air emissions in Texas for 18 months. This story, written by David Hasemyer and Zahra Hirji of InsideClimate News, was produced in partnership with Inside Energy and its public radio affiliates. Lisa Song, Hannah Robbins, Jim Morris, David Martin Davies and Eleanor Bell contributed to the reporting.

    A protest placard hangs on a fence a few hundred feet from where a 204-acre commercial waste facility is being developed. Signs voicing the discontent of the community pepper the landscape around the site and in the town of Nordheim.David Hasemyerhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/david-hasemyerZahra Hirjihttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/zahra-hirjihttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/01/15826/open-pits-offer-cheap-disposal-fracking-sludge-health-worries-mount

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    Correction, Oct. 6, 2014: An earlier version of this story reported that IS fighters used oxy-acetylene torches to obscure serial numbers on weapons. According to the Conflict Armament Research report, "unidentified parties" removed the original serial numbers.

    An independent arms monitoring group has collected evidence that fighters in the Middle Eastern extremist group known as the Islamic State, labeled a “network of death” by President Obama, are using weapons and ammunition manufactured in at least 21 different countries, including China, Russia, and the United States.

    The group’s report, released Oct. 6, indicates that the Islamic State’s relatively newly-formed force has had little difficulty tapping into the huge pool of armaments fueling the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, supplied not only by the world’s big powers but also by up-and-coming exporters such as Sudan.

    Much of the Islamic State arms and ammunition were captured on the battlefield, but intelligence reports have suggested that the group’s income from oil sales and other sources is high enough to finance purchases of additional weapons directly from the companies and dealers that routinely profit from strife in the Middle East.

    Experts say the fact that the armaments have such disparate sources — some were even made at a major U.S. munitions plant in Missouri — provides a cautionary note as Washington prepares to undertake expanded shipments of military supplies, including small arms, to rebel groups in Syria and to a revived Iraqi Army force.

    “We faced an enormous [monitoring] challenge when we, in effect, owned Iraq and had many bases where we could do this type of training,“ said Joseph Christoff, who directed international affairs and trade issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office between 2000 and 2011, when the GAO repeatedly identified shortcomings in controlling the use of U.S. weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    “I don’t know how we’re going to do it securely in this new program” meant to arm Western-allied rebel forces in Syria, Christoff said.

    The new data were collected by a three-year-old, London-based group called Conflict Armament Research, which sends investigators into conflict zones to identify the types and origins of weaponry used in the fighting. Its latest report, financed by the European Union, lists the origins of more than 1700 cartridges collected last July and August in northern Iraq and northern Syria by investigators working alongside Kurdish forces that had fought the forces of the Islamic State, generally known as ISIS or ISIL.

    The cartridges they found after four battles were manufactured for machine and submachine guns, rifles and pistols. One Soviet-manufactured cartridge dated from 1945, a grim testament to how the production of such weaponry can impact many generations hence. 

    Manufacturers in Russia and the former Soviet Union made a total of 492 of the recovered shells, according to the report. Russia has been a major arms supplier to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, whose forces also have been battling the Islamic State. (article continues below)

    The presence of such weapons in ISIS’s hands makes clear that its fighters seized substantial stocks not only from Iraqi troops, but from Syrian troops as well. Another 26 of the recovered shells were made in Iran, an ally of Assad’s, and 18 were made in Syria itself, the report states.

    The next-biggest country of manufacture was China, the origin of 445 of the cartridges recovered from Islamic State forces.

    The third-highest supplier was the United States, with 323, the report said. Some of these shells, meant for M16A4 assault rifleswere made at the U.S. Army’s huge munitions factory in Independence, Missouri, the report said. The plant sprawls over nearly 4,000 acres and has recently produced a staggering 4 million rounds of small caliber ammunition every day, mostly for U.S. forces.

    A promotional video for the Army factory, uploaded to YouTube in 2009, quotes an unidentified worker there saying, “I feel good because I do the best that I can, because I know that they’re fighting for me, overseas, and no junk comes out of here.” Justine Barati, a spokeswoman for the Army's joint munitions command, confirmed that the plant makes the 5.56-mm ammunition depicted in the report, but said she could not comment further until the report was released publicly.

    According to the monitoring report, the trademarked emblem of a California-based firm, Sporting Supplies International Inc., was found on many shells, which it said were evidently manufactured in Russia for the firm. “Significant quantities” of the firm’s WOLF brand 7.62 x 54R mm cartridges for machine guns and rifles are used by Islamic State forces, the report states.

    The privately-owned Sporting Supplies firm does not appear to have a public website. But it made at least 14 separate ammunition sales to the Department of Defense between 2007 and 2010, worth more than $5.7 million, according to the Federal Procurement Database System.

    A lawyer for Sporting Supplies, Michael Faucette, did not respond to questions about the company’s ownership or its work for the Pentagon. But he said, “There are many United States businesses, including wholesalers and manufacturers, that supply ammunition and other products to the U.S. Government. Unfortunately, we are aware that ISIS forces have overrun ammunition and equipment depots in Iraq … Accordingly, it is entirely possible that those depots contained U.S. provided ammunition that have been repurposed against Iraqi Government forces.”

    Faucette added that the company “does not own a trademark to the WOLF-brand in Russia. Therefore, if various plants in Russia manufacture and distribute ammunition with WOLF-brand head stamps, it would be without Sporting Supplies International, Inc.'s knowledge or approval.”

    Ten percent of the cartridges documented in the Conflict Armament Research report were produced between 2010 and 2014, according to the report, with Bulgaria and China accounting for more than half of these new items.

    Exemplifying the shifting nature of ownership on a battlefield, the monitoring group reported that many of the Islamic State weapons and armaments it found and examined were later used by Kurdish forces from Iraq and Syria in new fighting.

    When the investigators reached a Kurdish base in northern Syria on July 13, for example, soldiers paused from digging trenches to show off some of their recently captured bullets. “They laid out the ammo on a blanket in front of us, very politely, but also urgently, like, ‘We kind of need this back now,’ while we photographed each piece,” said Damien Spleeters, a field investigator with the group. When the documentation was complete, Spleeters said, the fighters put the ammunition in a car and whisked it back to the front line.

    report released earlier by the monitoring group identified additional small arms captured by the Kurdish fighters from Islamic State forces, including — surprisingly — five M16 rifles. An M16 rifle and other U.S.-manufactured weapons were captured in northern Syria roughly two weeks after Islamic State fighters took control of the Iraqi city of Mosul, demonstrating the group’s “logistical competence,” that report said.

    Ammunition for the M16 rifle is not readily available in Syria, Spleeters said, so “when you use that type of weapon in a battle, it means you’re confident that you can sustain a fight consistently over long periods with the ammunition it requires, and that you have a robust supply chain to bring it there.”

    Fitful U.S. efforts to track where its weapons go

    On Sept. 18, Congress passed a law authorizing the Defense Department not only to re-equip Iraqi forces that lost territory and abandoned their weaponry to ISIS, but also to provide arms to “appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition.” The law requires the department to develop a plan with the State Department to monitor where the weapons wind up and, eventually, to mitigate their misuse by unauthorized combatants. Lawmakers are supposed to review the monitoring plan two weeks prior to new exports.

    But Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work told the Center for Public Integrity on Sept. 30 that these measures are still being developed. Joshua M. Paul, a former U.S. embassy officer in Iraq who is now a spokesman for the State Department bureau that oversees weapons exports, said not only that he could he not be quoted speaking about the issue, but that he could not be quoted speaking about any other issue if the Center’s policy is to attribute his comments to him.  

    The Islamic State, meanwhile, has said it welcomes fresh opportunities to get its hands on additional Western-supplied munitions.

    "Look how much money America spends to fight Islam, and it ends up just being in our pockets," says Abu Safiyya, the jubilant narrator of an Islamic State propaganda video uploaded onto YouTube on June 29. Gesturing at a Ford F-350 truck parked in an Iraqi police base captured by the extremist militants over the summer, Saffiya said, "They will lose in Syria also, inshallah, when they come. We will be waiting for them, inshallah, to take more money from them."

    U.S. law is supposed to guard against the diversion of arms that the U.S. ships abroad. The Arms Export Control Act has long required that Congress be notified of large exports of small arms and light weapons, and be given a chance to review them in advance.

    Between 2003 and 2013, the senior Senate staff member in charge of that review process was Thomas Moore on the Foreign Relations committee, who said the experience made him wary about what Washington is about to do now. He said the military’s Central Command repeatedly tried to skip the usual foreign military sales procedures and “just start handing things out to people, with the justification that ‘we’re at war, so we need to get these things out the door.’ ”

    Under normal circumstances, he noted, government-to-government sales of defense goods and services — weapons and training — are coordinated by the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency. When a weapon is sold or given by the Defense Department to a foreign government, the agency oversees everything from the initial contract with a weapons supplier to the end-use tracking of the weapon.

    The export leaves a paper trail in its wake, which includes a “letter of acceptance” or “LOA” from the foreign recipient authorizing the Defense Department to periodically monitor the weapon and make sure nothing unauthorized has occurred. But in the mid-2000s, Moore said, the agency started to use something it officially called a “pseudo-LOA,” with weaker end-use monitoring requirements, to keep the arms flowing into Iraq quickly.

    “You have limited accountability even when you have an acquiescent government that will let you send in monitors,” Moore said. “But we are dealing with rebel groups, and the notion that you can have a pseudo-LOA with a rebel group is strange to just plain silly.”

    Over the past decade, Washington spent nearly $30 billion training and equipping Iraqi security forces, and a sizable chunk of the small arms and other weapons systems it handed over is now unaccounted for, in the wake of ISIS’s seizure of the cities of Mosul, Fallujah, and Tikrit, as well as surrounding territory.

    Even at the outset of the U.S. occupation, U.S. commanders on the ground kept sparse records of where U.S.-supplied weapons wound up; a 2007 Government Accountability report said that 190,000 weapons could not be located then.

    John Holly, a retired Marine colonel who served as director of reconstruction logistics for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Iraq from 2003 to 2008, said that during this period, he struggled to catalog all Pentagon-funded arms shipments, which arrived in the country in a disorganized state. Some lacked serial numbers or other appropriate data but nonetheless had to be shipped onward immediately to Iraqi defense or security forces.

    “The most fatal Shakespearean flaw was: There was no centralized database of what we had procured for the Iraqis,” Holly said in an interview with the Center. “I was delivering weapons and ammunition to police stations through their backdoors while they were having gunfights out the front door — and trying to get a receipt from the chief [Iraqi] officer, who was real enthusiastic about it, I can tell you.”

    Eventually, at the end of the Bush administration, monitoring was put into place for the most sensitive gear, but officials say it did not encompass simple weapons like M16s. “You gotta accept some risk in this,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, who directed the training and equipping of Iraqi police and army security units from 2009 to 2011 and now favors rearming the Iraqis. “It’s gonna happen. It’s combat. You get tactically defeated, you lose equipment.”

    Stuart Bowen, who served as the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction between 2004 and 2013, warned that even though U.S. monitoring became better during this period, the U.S. forces in Iraq could only keep track of most equipment until it passed into Iraqi hands. End-use monitoring after that point was "the real challenge,” he said.

    "It's one thing to say whether we have a serial number tracking system; it's quite another to say whether the Iraqi army had the capacity to be aware of whether weapons went missing," Bowen said. "I suspect they did not have that full capacity."

    Islamic State fighters may have anticipated that the Pentagon will make a renewed effort to track whether its future arms shipments stay in the right hands. According to the Conflict Armament Research group, unidentified parties have been using oxy-acetylene torches to remove the original serial number from some of the weapons captured from IS. On some other weapons, they added a secondary serial number.

    Obscuring the original serial numbers, Spleeters explained, is a way for those involved to hide the point at which the weapon was diverted and who its original intended user was.

    The Center's data researcher Alex Cohen contributed to this article.

    Ammunition found in Iraq and Syria. Top, left to right: China, made in 2009; Syria, made in 1960; Russia, made in 2012; US, made in 2006. Bottom, left to right: U.S. casing, made in 2004; Turkey, made in 2013; Sudan, made in 2012; Iran, made in 2006.Julia Hartehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/julia-harteR. Jeffrey Smithhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/R-Jeffrey-Smithhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/01/15827/investigators-find-islamic-state-used-ammo-made-21-countries-including-america

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    Backed by results of a new air-quality study along with mounting pressure from local officials and the simmering discontent of local residents, Texas regulators have decided to install an air monitor in the heart of the Eagle Ford Shale.

    The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) will install the monitor in Karnes County, the epicenter of one of the fastest-growing drilling regions in the nation. More than 10,000 oil and gas wells have been sunk since 2008, and residents have complained of breathing difficulties and other health problems.

    In February, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel showed that the TCEQ knows almost nothing about air quality in the area. The series, “Big Oil, Bad Air,” found that from September 1, 2009, through August 31, 2013, there was a 100-percent increase statewide in unplanned, toxic air releases associated with oil and gas production and that companies were rarely fined, even when inspections revealed they were operating equipment improperly.

    Although the TCEQ conducts sporadic mobile monitoring and operates five permanent monitors at the edges of the 20,000-square mile Eagle Ford, little monitoring has been conducted in areas with the heaviest drilling activity.

    State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat whose district includes Karnes County, said data from the new monitor will help the TCEQ "be better informed. We need to know what is happening before there are any problems.

    "We are reaping the benefits of the Eagle Ford, but at the same time we have to protect the people and the environment," Zaffirini said. "The two should go hand in hand."

    Zaffirini said TCEQ officials raised the issue of additional air monitoring in the county with her in February. She said the TCEQ then conducted mobile monitoring in Karnes County in April and May.

    The senator said TCEQ officials told her that the data didn't show anything of concern. Because of all the production activity in the county, however, it was decided that installing a permanent monitor would be prudent.

    The device is expected in place by the end of October, Zaffirini said. One of the locations being considered is the grounds of the Karnes County courthouse complex in Karnes City.

    John Bosch, a retired air monitoring expert with more than 30 years' experience at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the new monitor is "a very general thing that's intended to measure the general exposure of people in the area.

    “It's not going to solve any of the … immediate, localized health problems caused by major leaks of toxic gases from emitting sources [in the] petroleum industry," he said.

    TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson said the monitor will take continuous measurements of 46 volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These chemicals are released during all stages of oil and gas operations; some, like benzene, can cause cancer after sustained exposure.

    The monitor will cost about $12,000 to build and $135,000 per year to operate, Clawson said in an email.

    Clawson cited a mobile monitoring study by University of Texas at Austin scientist David Sullivan as a factor in the agency's decision to place the monitor in Karnes County.

    Sullivan's study, conducted over 12 days in May and June, was not intended to focus on local air quality within the county. Instead, he collected data on the fringes of the Eagle Ford — an area almost twice as large as Massachusetts — to determine whether oil field emissions were migrating upwind or downwind of the shale play.

     

    Long-time TCEQ critic Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat who is serving out the last few months of his term in the Texas House of Representatives, dismissed the TCEQ’s action as disingenuous.

    “It’s simply tokenism on their part,” he said. “I think they felt the pressure to look like they are doing something.”

    If the agency were serious about tackling oil and gas emissions, Burnam said, it would develop stricter pollution limits and conduct more studies to try to understand the health effects.

    “This is Texas and the TCEQ — too little, too late,” he said.

    Jeanne Shepherd, a Karnes County resident whose rural home is surrounded by wells, said she would have preferred that the agency test the air in multiple places. "But one place is better than no place."

    Shepherd said the disruption caused by industry-related noise, lights and fumes have made her home unlivable. There were times last summer when "you couldn't breathe outside and you couldn't breathe inside."

    Groundswell for more monitoring

    Local elected officials have also called for improved air monitoring in the Eagle Ford.

    Karnes County Judge Richard Butler, the county’s top executive, said TCEQ officials told him in March that they were considering installing a monitor in the county because of increased attention on emissions.

    A few weeks ago, he said, TCEQ confirmed it would do so.

    “It will hopefully give us an accurate, realistic, factual analysis of the quality of the air we are breathing,” Butler said. “We need to know what is going on so that if there is a problem due to emission totals we can take steps to correct it and protect our citizens.”

    The monitor is long overdue, he said. But “there is no time like the present.”

    “It will either give us reassurance or it will give direction and knowledge that will help us correct any deficiencies,” Butler said.

    Shelby Dupnik, one of four Karnes County commissioners, said he began to think seriously about the air pollution implications after he saw an online Weather Channel documentary that accompanied the CPI and InsideClimate News investigation. In June, he and Butler approached the TCEQ to further discuss monitoring in the county. They also reached out to Zaffirini.

    "It was a group effort," Dupnik said.

    During his meetings with the TCEQ, Dupnik said, he has emphasized the need to move swiftly and to "get the most accurate data we could find" about how oil and gas activity is impacting the air.

    Those impacts could extend far beyond the Eagle Ford.

    In recent years, rising levels of ozone, a major respiratory hazard, have prompted San Antonio to study the extent to which emissions from the Eagle Ford are contributing to the problem. The city, which is about 50 miles northwest of Karnes City, is now at risk of being declared out of compliance with federal ozone standards.If that happens, the city could be subject to additional air quality regulations.

    The study by David Sullivan, which helped the TCEQ decide to install the new monitor in Karnes County, found that certain hydrocarbon emissions in many cases were higher downwind — toward San Antonio — than upwind, a finding he described as statistically significant. Some of the hydrocarbons he detected contribute to ozone pollution.

    Sullivan said the new monitor could help validate ozone studies. As scientists develop computer models to project how the Eagle Ford activity is affecting San Antonio's air quality, they will be able to check their models against the real-life data, he said.

    In early September, Judge Nelson Wolff of Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, wrote a letter to TCEQ Chairman Bryan Shaw after reading a series in the San Antonio Express-News in August that detailed air pollution in the Eagle Ford from natural gas flaring.

    Shaw responded three weeks later, saying the agency's monitoring and surveillance effort showed that problematic air emissions from oil and gas operations "are sporadic and localized in nature rather than area-wide and typically occur as the result of some mechanical or operational error."

    Wolff wrote back, saying Shaw's conclusion "provides comfort" but that "we both could cite examples where lives have been lost and property destroyed due to a sporadic and localized mechanical or operational error."

    In the end, Wolff said he is "really pleased" by the agency's decision to add a monitor. "I think the TCEQ is starting to respond now," he said. "I think we're on the right track."

    Lynn Buehring, who lives a few miles outside of Karnes City with her husband Shelby, is also cautiously optimistic. At least 50 oil and gas wells and nine processing plants have been built within 2.5 miles of the Buerhings' single-story ranch house, and they've been complaining for years that emissions are making them sick.

    “I think it’s a good idea they are doing this, [installing the monitor]," Lynn Buehring said. “I hope they see what this monitor tells them backs up what we have been telling them — that things are bad around here ... But they seem to be on the side of the producers, so I don't know if they will really want the truth."

    Omar Garcia, president and CEO of the South Texas Energy & Economic Roundtable, an industry group, said in a written statement that the monitor will give the TCEQ a better understanding of the air emissions from all sources.

    "Industry will continue working with regulators and within their companies to employ programs and equipment to lower, capture and eliminate emissions," Garcia said.

    Gunnar Schade, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, said that while the monitor is "good for science," it won't do much to track health impacts from the Eagle Ford Shale. "The Eagle Ford is so huge. One monitor is not going to tell you what your [chemical] exposure is, if you live very far away from that."

    But Schade said the monitor could have an indirect "watchdog effect" on the industry. "Once there's a monitor in place, people might get a little more careful," he said, and do more to reduce emissions from their operations.

    This article is part of an ongoing investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News into air emissions created during oil and gas production. Lisa Song and David Hasemyer are reporters with InsideClimate News. The Center's Jim Morris contributed to this report.

    A large flare emits black smoke in Karnes County, Texas.Lisa Songhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/lisa-songDavid Hasemyerhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/david-hasemyerhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/06/15871/new-air-monitor-planned-heavily-fracked-south-texas-county

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    Editors' note: This story was reported in collaboration with The California Report, a production of KQED Public Radio.

    LOS ANGELES — While other kids enjoyed summer break, a teenager with more on her mind slipped into her only dressy jacket and traveled south to Anaheim, to a nondescript building housing the local office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

    Lithe and athletic, the girl knew she’d be less than a mile from Disneyland, “the happiest place on Earth.” But for Maria, a pseudonym, fun was a luxury she couldn’t afford that day in June.

    At the tender age of 15, she faced an interview to plead, essentially, for her life — to ask for refuge from violence so chilling her family thought it better to smuggle her to the United States in the spring of 2013.

    “Two years ago a friend of mine died in a very cold-blooded way. She died cut to pieces. My best friend,” Maria said in Spanish, beginning to recount what she told a U.S. asylum officer.

    As she recalled the story again, Maria’s soft voice trembled, and tears spilled down her cheeks.

    She said police in El Salvador asked her to identify body parts pulled from a bag dumped in a river. She recognized a birthmark on her friend’s leg. She said she also witnessed a boy shot and dragged off, after a soccer game — a boy later found hanged. And before she fled, Maria said, she’d been asking her father, a U.S. truck driver, for more and more money so she could pay murderous MS-13 gangsters $60 a month to leave her alone.

    “I was traumatized,” Maria sobbed. “I still am from seeing that body split apart. That dismembered head. Those arms … As time went by, I didn’t want to go out, or eat, or do anything. The only thing I wanted to do was to die. I told myself that the same thing could happen to me.”

    After the 90-minute interview, the asylum officer told Maria she might know the outcome of her request in two weeks. More than three months later, after starting 11th grade this fall at an L.A. public high school, she was still waiting for an answer.

    A test for U.S. asylum

    In coming months, the American asylum system’s treatment of young people like Maria will be tested as never before — on U.S. soil and in Central America as well.

    The challenge to the system’s integrity and humanitarian obligations follows an 88 percent increase in “unaccompanied minors” seized at the border this year. More than 66,000 kids traveling without parents were apprehended by the Border Patrol between October 2013 and the end of August.

    News footage showed minors from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala simply walking up to agents to be taken in. Now a record number are expected to apply for asylum based on gang persecution, a basis for refugee status that’s becoming more common  and is a highly debated area of law.

    The White House on Sept. 30 also approved a plan to allow a limited number of minors to apply for refugee status — the equivalent of asylum — from inside those three Central American countries if their parents are in the U.S. with legal status, including, potentially, parents with temporary legal status.

    The plan echoes in-country refugee screenings in the past inside Haiti and Vietnam.But just like Maria, who crossed the border illegally in 2013, children in home countries will face eligibility requirements for asylum refugee status that go beyond experiencing fear.

    The asylum application system for minors on U.S. territory has been designed, over time, to be deliberative and compassionate, yet it is by no means a sure thing for kids like Maria.

    In the court of U.S. public opinion, some have already reacted with unvarnished hostility to the flood of teens and preteens and their claims to be seeking a haven from relentless violence. “They’re going to be sucking us dry,” Cape Cod resident Mary Woodruff said, as Boston’s WBUR radio taped public debate over a proposal to shelter detained kids at a National Guard base in the popular vacation region.

    Yet the public writ large seems to be conflicted. Fifty-two percent of respondents in an Associated Press-GfK opinion poll in late July said children claiming to be fleeing gang violence shouldn’t be treated as refugees in need of asylum. Yet a survey by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute the same month found 69 percent support for allowing minors to stay if U.S. authorities decided it was unsafe for them to be deported.

    Unaccompanied minors have an indisputable right to request an immigration hearing and seek asylum, but immigration skeptics want these kids to be treated more like adults who are subjected to rapid “credible fear” tests that can lead to their “expedited deportation.” Refugee rights advocates, meanwhile, are trying to make sure these kids — who have no right to appointed counsel — have help from attorneys.

    As federal officials rush to prioritize resolution of minors’ applications, members of Congress are aggressively attacking the current asylum system as well as children’s claims they actually face mortal threats. Meanwhile, pro bono lawyers are struggling to document horrors some teens have faced — while line-level asylum officers face decisions about matters children tell them could mean life or death.

    Truth about terror not enough

    To win asylum, or refugee status, even children have to go beyond simply proving that they’re being truthful about terrifying experiences.

    “While age should be taken into account in making the persecution determination,” says an asylum officers’ training guide, “not all harm to a child, including physical mistreatment and detention, constitutes persecution.”

    The Department of Homeland Security declined a request to speak with an active asylum officer. But Christopher Manny, a former asylum officer in Chicago and Miami, explained the constraints of the law.

    “As traumatic as it is seeing your friend or family member executed by a gang for refusing recruitment or refusing an extortion demand,” Manny said, “generally speaking that would not be considered grounds for a refugee definition.”

    Officers must also be convinced, Manny said, that children’s suffering had a “nexus,” or was rooted in a persecutor’s intent to harm them because of one or more of five reasons: religious or political persuasion, race, nationality or because they belong to an identifiable “social group” that’s persecuted and unprotected.

    Since minors, like adults, have no right to the appointment of counsel in deportation or asylum proceedings, they largely depend on nonprofit and pro bono attorneys who often need crash courses from colleagues because they’ve never studied asylum law.

    State bar associations have put out calls for members to volunteer — beginning with initial appearances the kids make before immigration judges. Minors are also showing up for help at advocacy groups like Los Angeles’ Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, Chicago’s National Immigrant Justice Center and Washington D.C.’s Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, among others.

    Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit in the nation’s capital, is scrambling to match Central American minors with counsel from a pool of 8,000 potential pro bono lawyers nationwide that the group has developed at law firms, corporations and law schools.

    In September, as part of the budget process, Congress rejected a White House request for $64 million to hire more immigration judges to clear backlogs that delay cases for years and to provide other legal support, including $15 million in direct representation for kids.

    The Justice Department, though, is pressing ahead with $1.8 million in grants to groups to bolster legal representation for kids under 16. The Department of Health and Human Services, which runs shelters for the minors, announced in late September that it’s providing $9 million in grants for two years to fund nonprofit legal aid groups that provide counsel.

    It’s unclear exactly how many kids will get counsel, but it can clearly make a difference. A recent analysis of a decade’s worth of immigration court records showed that 43 percent of about 100,000 juveniles in the courts had counsel. About half of those kids were ultimately allowed to stay for various reasons, asylum among them. Only one in 10 without counsel was successful, according to researchers at Syracuse University.

    “An attorney is so, so central,” said Lisa Frydman, managing director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

    “How does a child begin to understand what kinds of evidence they have to put together,” Frydman said, “or begin to understand what the definition of a refugee even means?”

    Comprehending the intricacies of the law is just one challenge; lawyers also face the daunting task of figuring out how to gather statements and relevant evidence from foreign countries where people are often terrified to hand over records.

    Under current federal law — laws some in Congress now want changed — minors who arrive on their own must be released from Border Patrol custody and placed in shelters within 72 hours. They receive basic child-friendly legal briefings. And if they are from “non-contiguous” countries, like those in Central America, they must be given a date to appear before an immigration judge before they can be deported.

    If a child decides to seek asylum, immigration judges transfer their cases for judgment to the U.S. Asylum Office system, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

    If asylum officers don’t subsequently find children eligible for asylum, their cases return to immigration courts, where they can again argue for asylum in a hearing that can be more adversarial, with a government attorney cross-examining them.

    Sorting it out

    As images of minors crossing the border began to dominate news programs and talk shows, the issue quickly morphed into a political football laced with confusing accusations and misleading statistics.

    Between October and the end of June, more than 1,500 asylum requests were filed by unaccompanied minors. They added up to only 4 percent of all asylum applications nationally during that time. But minors’ requests did more than double in less than a year. By the end of June, about 2,180 cases — including Maria’s, in Anaheim — were pending resolution nationwide, according to data provided by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

    During the first nine months of the 2014 fiscal year, 65 percent of kids interviewed by asylum officers were granted refuge — a rate criticized as excessive in a widely covered press release issued in July by House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who opposes federal expenditures on counsel for unaccompanied minors. He declined to comment further. 

    Goodlatte’s July release alleged that too many kids were being rushed to undeserving asylum status on the basis of “proven or possible fraud,” citing an internal report from the Department of Homeland Security.

    What the release didn’t say was that the overall numbers of kids approved during that time frame was modest: just 108 minors.

    About 60 other cases were sent to immigration judges for what amounts to an appeal. Thirty-eight additional cases were closed for reasons that included failure to appear. Only two of the 108 minors approved were new arrivals who came in during the nine-month time frame; the rest were kids who had arrived earlier.

    U.S. government reports on brutal gangs

    In that recent nine-month period, some 90 percent of the kids interviewed by asylum officers were represented by counsel. On average, up to now, most minors have taken more than 300 days to file formal application forms. Because kids are kids, and are frightened, lawyers say, it can take weeks, even months, to fully understand what happened to them.

    Asylum officers attempt to resolve cases within a few months of receiving an application. Kids’ lawyers say the process is accelerating now that the Department of Homeland Security, the umbrella agency handling border and immigration matters, has made minors’ cases a priority.

    To help frame minors’ stories, lawyers say they routinely submit, with applications, U.S. government reports acknowledging the pervasive, brutal control organized-crime rings now exert in Central America. 

    In 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the notorious MS-13 gang — which Maria said preyed on her — as a “transnational crime organization” involved in global narcotics smuggling and other crimes. A U.S. State Department report also warned in 2006 that kids as young as 8 were targets for gang recruitment, extortion and retaliation in some countries.

    Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have some of the highest per capita murder rates in the world.

    Congressional Research Service paper issued in July took note of a United Nations survey of about 400 Central American minors in U.S. custody in the fall of 2013. About half said they had experienced “serious harm or threats by organized criminal groups or state actors,” references to gangs and to corrupt police. 

    But these claims are controversial. San Diego-area GOP Rep. Darrell Issa, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, downplayed the role of gang violence in creating the recent surge among children.

    “What you’re seeing is a flood of illegals coming here prepped to say whatever they need to say to get to stay here because the President of the United States has told them, in no uncertain terms: If they get here, he won’t enforce the law,” Issa said at a June congressional hearing. Reports of “cheat sheets” composed by smugglers hired by parents fueled the idea that kids were making stories up.

    Maria said it was her idea in 2013 to flee El Salvador, not her father’s, and she implored him to help her. 

    “The majority of my friends that have stayed in El Salvador are terrified. Some tolerate beatings; others, threats. Others are in the gangs now. Waiting to see when it’s their day to die,” Maria said, her voice shaking.

    “It’s a country where no one can even play safely, nor think. Nothing,” she said. “The police are dominated by the gangs. You go to complain about a gangster and a little while later, they know about it.”

    Lawyers have argued with mixed success that girls who face rape and servitude to notorious criminal bands in Central America constitute a persecuted social group.

    They’ve also argued that kids who resist gang recruitment and face brutal retaliation are a social group, along with kids who witness crimes where police are either incapable or too corrupt to protect them from retaliation.

    Lawyers for Maria at the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project submitted a legal memo arguing that the teenager is a witness to crime who requires protection because she is vulnerable to retaliation.

    Patricia Ortiz, Esperanza’s managing attorney, is confident that the kids whose cases she’s taken are truthful.

    “Just because all of them are telling similar stories does not mean that they are lying,” she said. “It just means that they’re living in a country where they are not safe, and they’re in a country where they can’t walk out into the street without being afraid of being murdered or hurt or facing some kind of harm.”

    Former asylum officer Manny said officers are trained to spot stories that raise suspicions. They receive bulletins if details in multiple applicants’ stories seem oddly similar.

    “What to look for,” he said of children, “is basically the consistency of their testimony, whether they seem like they believe it or whether they seem to be speaking vicariously through someone else.”

    Gang refusal a reason for asylum?

    The outcome of a case may also depend on how higher-level federal courts have ruled on asylum cases.

    In 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, based in Richmond, Virginia, upheld an immigration board’s denial of an asylum claim based on arguments that young Honduran males who had refused to join a gang — and reported harassment to police — were a distinct persecuted group.

    Opposition to gangs and resisting recruitment is too much of an “amorphous characteristic,” the court said, for determining group membership.

    But in 2013, the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco, reversed an asylum denial for a young girl based on arguments she lacked status within an obviously persecuted social group.

    The case involved a 12-year-old who had testified in open court in El Salvador that she saw gang members assault her father and heard shots that killed him. She also said she was threatened for testifying and fled to the United States.

    Her case had previously reached the Board of Immigration Appeals, the BIA, the highest review body within the immigration system. The BIA rejected the argument the girl, as a witness to crime, met the threshold of “social visibility” needed for a social group argument.

    The Ninth Circuit disagreed, finding that witnesses to crimes were a distinct social group, even if they were not visible to “the naked eye.”

    In Chicago this summer, lawyers for a 15-year-old from Guatemala framed his asylum bid by describing him as a member of two social groups: minors who resist gang recruitment and kids who are witnesses to crime.

    Francisco, as he asked to be called, came north more than a year ago and was interviewed by an asylum officer in August. His voice still sounds like a young boy’s.

    In detail, Francisco recounted what he told an asylum officer. Gangsters gave him and a friend messages warning them to join up, or die. Francisco’s friend mocked the gangsters, who were also children, when he tossed a written message he’d been given to the ground. His friend was shot in an ambush on the street that sent Francisco running for his life. “I saw a bullet hit near me,” he said.

    Francisco said he spoke to a police detective at his friend’s wake, and he and his mother tried to shield themselves from reprisal by moving. But Francisco said hoods younger than he found them, and his father in Chicago, fearing his son would be killed, arranged to have him smuggled up to the United States.

    The asylum officer asked Francisco details about various parts of his story, and showed particular interest in his interactions with the detective and concerns about retaliation, the boy’s lawyers said.

    The social group “rubric” is one of “the most common types of asylum claims nowadays — and it’s also one of the most complex,” said Ashley Huebner, managing attorney of the National Immigrant Justice Center’s Immigrant Children’s Protection Project, which represents Francisco.

    Huebner said she can’t imagine minors without lawyers trying to sort out what parts of their story are more relevant than others. Former asylum officer Manny agreed. “An attorney’s brief can shed light on a lot of things that may not be expressed clearly by the child.”

    Huebner said she doesn’t expect an answer on Francisco’s request for months.

    Lawyers’ quests to find documents

    Gladis Molina, a nonprofit attorney in Phoenix, Arizona, said she feels an awesome responsibility taking on kids’ cases. But she says she’s also had to turn away kids whose stories simply don’t meet the threshold for asylum or some other type of relief from deportation.

    A first-generation Salvadoran-American, Molina, 34, manages the children’s program for the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Program. Her father left El Salvador during its bloody civil war in the 1980s and received amnesty in 1986, during the Reagan administration.

    She warns her clients that they must expect “for their story to be turned upside, downside, inward and outward because you get asked so many details.”

    Some kids’ stories are so horrible, Molina said, she weeps as she listens. She’s also had agonized clients call her in the middle of night and say, “Lawyer, I don’t feel like living anymore. Life is just not worth living. I’m not happy. I feel lonely.”

    Molina recently prepared a complex case on behalf of a Salvadoran girl, who was 17 when she filed her application. She recently turned 18. In mid-September she underwent an interview with an asylum officer for 2 ½ hours.

    The girl claims she was raped by a gangster in what may have been an initiation rite. The girl’s mother, who lived in Fresno, California, is now deceased. The young woman came north to join relatives, was detained and is now terrified to return to El Salvador because the alleged rape was reported to child-welfare services. The rapist is in jail, but like many behind bars in El Salvador, the girl says, he has the ability to order a hit on her.

    Up until the girl’s interview, Molina was trying to get child-welfare records from El Salvador to bolster her argument that the girl qualifies as a member of a social group — women exploited by gangs — who would face deadly retaliation if deported.

    “I want those records,” Molina said.

    Molina and another attorney called and emailed a child-welfare administrator and were told the girl would need to give someone in El Salvador power of attorney to release the records. Molina tried her own family connections as well to see if she could get someone on the ground to get the documents.

    “I remembered that a cousin of mine knew a doctor whose wife worked for the government agency that oversees real estate taxation,” Molina said. “So I sent her an email and said, ‘I’m an American attorney. You don’t know me, but my cousin knows your husband. Can you please help me get these documents?’ ”

    If her client is rejected by the asylum officer and has to go on to an immigration court hearing, Molina said, she intends to redouble efforts to get the records.

    Asylum officers will not reject a child’s claim solely because adults failed to generate documentation of abuses. But officers can ask to see certain documents, and lawyers must provide a reason, in writing, why records could not be obtained.

    If you can obtain them, Molina said, records can show that a child’s terrible story is “in fact what happened and not something that she’s just conveniently recounting in America to avoid deportation.”

    “An unbelievable story”

    In 2009, Damion Robinson was just two years out of the University of California at Los Angeles’ law school and a young L.A. business attorney when his firm took on an asylum case, pro bono, that required extraordinary effort — and money — to pursue, and ultimately win in November 2010. Robinson led the effort, and among the key pieces of evidence he chased down was a trove of records related to a Guatemalan girl’s story of sustained abuse at the hands of a local crime boss.

    Robinson got involved when Kids In Need of Defense, or KIND, approached the firm he worked for at the time, Sullivan & Cromwell LLP. The firm enthusiastically embraced the case as a pro bono service, Robinson said.

    Today, at 31, Robinson handles clients that run the gamut from start-up companies to Fortune 500 firms at Van Vleck Turner & Zaller, also in L.A. He’s eager to represent another minor.

    “It was hard to say no, frankly,” the Seattle native said when he began to gather facts about the Guatemalan for what turned out to be a nearly 18-month case.

    A Spanish-speaking female assistant helped Robinson slowly unravel the history of the girl, who was living with a relative in L.A. after release from a shelter. At times, Robinson would have to leave the room to let the girl first disclose privately to the woman assistant details of being repeatedly raped, held captive, giving birth at 14, held captive again and beaten and threatened with weapons.

    “Her story was unbelievable in a way,” Robinson said. “It was just something I couldn’t even imagine happening … There was a long, long history of sexual assault and violence, physical violence, against her that was just horrifying.”

    The girl said she was first kidnapped by an older man when she was 12 years old. She said the man ran a gang with impunity in a small city. Robinson was amazed to learn that the girl’s mother had persistently filed criminal and civil complaints and obtained restraining orders that local justice officials did not enforce.

    The girl’s mother finally sent her daughter out of Guatemala with a smuggler to remove her from the clutches of the man.

    A tale that initially felt like it might be exaggerated became vividly real after Robinson and others labored four months to track down copies of the civil and criminal complaints and restraining orders.

    “In the U.S., you would just call the clerk and have them send over the court records,” Robinson said, spreading on a table copies of documents in Spanish emblazoned with official stamps.

    It was a struggle, he said, with some hired hands demanding exorbitant rates — and then failing to come through. His firm eventually spent at least $9,000 locating and hiring various law groups and services in Guatemala that work to retrieve documents from archives and agencies.

    His teen client, he said, “wouldn’t have been able to pay to have that happen. And I think it was pretty instrumental to our case to have those records and have that proof, rather just being her word about what happened.”

    And Robinson ultimately went even further.

    At the suggestion of Kids In Need of Defense, he contacted Patrick Atkinson, an American who works with exploited minors in Guatemala. Eventually Atkinson, who runs a children’s welfare group called God’s Child, flew up on his own dime for the girl’s hearing in 2010.

    Robinson’s client turned 18 after filing for asylum. At that time, the assigned asylum officer said the law didn’t grandfather her into the asylum office as a minor — it would now — so her case was sent back to a judge.

    She ended up having a trial-like hearing, testifying for more than two hours with a government attorney opposing her claim for asylum. At one point, Robinson said, the government lawyer argued that the restraining orders showed law enforcement was capable of protecting the girl back in Guatemala. 

    Atkinson, the expert witness, said he testified at the hearing because he was convinced the gangster would have seized the girl immediately had she been deported back and killed her with impunity.

    “The mother did a number of reports about rape, about assault, about domestic violence, and the police reports are there,” Atkinson said. But it’s common, he said, for authorities to be frightened into doing nothing.

    “There’s different ways of blackmailing the judges and the police,” he said. “Fear is by far the most powerful.” 

    That’s the kind of scenario that frightens the Salvadoran girl Maria and her father, who asked to be called Miguel.

    Miguel has lived and worked legally in the United States since 2001. That’s when natural disasters that devastated Central America led to the U.S. government to grant temporary protected status, still in effect today, to undocumented immigrants from the region: about 212,000 Salvadorans and 64,000 Hondurans.

    Miguel speaks fluent English now and has a good job driving long-distance trucks. His temporary legal status provides stability. But it’s officially temporary. And it didn’t allow him to rescue Maria from El Salvador by sponsoring her to come here legally.

    Miguel felt Maria was at risk for being killed in El Salvador, and he feared the local thugs extorting her would demand ever-increasing payments until he simply couldn’t afford it.

    So he scraped together $7,500 with help from family and paid it to a smuggler to get Maria out. He didn’t intend for her to get caught. But he was overjoyed when a Border Patrol agent called and said she was in custody after a harrowing raft ride over the river in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.

    Maria spent months in a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services-run shelter in Houston, Texas, after her detention. Then she was transferred to a foster family in Los Angeles while federal officials vetted Miguel. 

    Now father and daughter live together in a South Central Los Angeles bungalow, where they’re getting to know each other. He always had a long-distance relationship with her but left when she was an infant. Maria’s mom is in El Salvador. Miguel has a new wife and a young son in Los Angeles. 

    To strengthen Maria’s asylum claim, attorneys were able to persuade teachers and a pastor in El Salvador to provide written statements about her character and history. Lawyers also submitted a news article about her friend’s killing, and United Nations and U.S. government reports about dangers in El Salvador.

    “Gang intimidation and violence against witnesses contributed to a climate of impunity from criminal prosecution,” said the State Department’s 2013 El Salvador Human Rights Report

    Lawyers were also hoping to submit Maria’s murdered friend’s death certificate. But when Miguel persuaded a relative in El Salvador to approach the dead girl’s father to obtain the confidential report, the father declined.

    “He said, ‘No, I can’t help you guys because I have more kids in my house, and I don’t want them to get killed like my daughter,’ ” Miguel said.

    Miguel said he doesn’t fault the father for refusing to help.

    Dissolving into tears, Miguel said, “I can’t even imagine how he is suffering now or the kind of life he is living because he’s afraid for his other kids and knowing he cannot search for justice for his daughter.”

    The Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project has turned away other Central American minors who’ve asked if for help in obtaining asylum. The attorneys won’t take on cases they don’t believe have merit, managing lawyer Patricia Ortiz said. But their work is exploding, with more than 60 cases involving minors seeking asylum.

    The responsibility, Ortiz, 30, said, “is a little bit terrifying.”

    At dusk in Los Angeles, Maria, 15, waits for word on her plea for asylum from extortion and gang threats in El Salvador.Susan Ferrisshttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/susan-ferrissAmy Isacksonhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/amy-isacksonhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/02/15861/life-and-death-struggle-asylum-america

    0 0

    When the Center for Public Integrity last summer requested records from Florida’s 17th judicial circuit regarding the procedures and policies surrounding foreclosure cases, officials were more than happy to comply — for a price.

    A price of $132,348, to be exact.

    Alexandra Rieman, general counsel for the circuit that includes Fort Lauderdale and Broward County, said the public records request would require staff to sort through 149,000 emails. That, in turn, would require 2,500 staff member hours at rates of either $45 or $53 an hour, which added up to the $132,348 figure.

    And whatever records the court system did provide would cost another 15 cents a page, Rieman added, without including estimates of staffer hours and hourly rates.

    The Center for Public Integrity refused to pay the amount, arguing that the fees were excessive.

    Charging high fees for access to public information can undermine public records laws and serve as a back-door way for government agencies to avoid releasing information they want kept private. Florida’s laws and the state courts’ rules allow, but don’t require, the courts to charge for such records searches.

    “The problem we have with Florida is that they all claim they have to review emails for exempt information,” said Barbara Peterson, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a group that advocates for open government in Florida. “If you’re asking for information on policies and procedures in an email, what could possibly be exempt?”

    Peterson said Florida law requires any fees charged for public records to be reasonable.

    "It's a rather transparent attempt to block any kind of practical access to the records," said Thomas Ice, a Florida foreclosure defense lawyer who has tried to get similar records from other Florida counties. 

    The Center for Public Integrity on July 15 requested documents related to how judges in the county were directed to handle foreclosure cases after the state implemented a new plan to cut a backlog of pending cases. The Center for Public Integrity's report on Florida foreclosures found that many judges were rushing cases to judgment at the expense of homeowners. 

    The court system’s response — three weeks later — suggested court employees would have to review every email that included the word “foreclosure.” They requested a $66,000 deposit to begin work.

    When the Center for Public Integrity limited the scope of the search only to emails among judges, the court's general counsel brought the fees down to $7,322, plus the per-page charge. 

    The Center for Public Integrity still considered this price too high.

    Broward’s fees were far higher than those quoted by several other court systems in the state where the Center for Public Integrity made similar requests.

    The 14th Circuit, which encompasses part of the Florida panhandle, said an identical request would carry $436.87 in fees, not including per-page charges. The 3rd District charged $148.11. The 2nd Circuit, which includes the state capital, Tallahassee, estimated the search would costs $76.65.

    The chief judge of the 8th Circuit simply called back to tell us he had no such emails. When his records custodian determined there were a few items that might apply, he forwarded them at no cost.

    The Center for Public Integrity has asked Broward court officials to waive the fees arguing the records are in the public interest. We are still awaiting records from several other districts.

    The Sunshine StateAlison Fitzgeraldhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/alison-fitzgeraldhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/07/15887/sunshine-state-uses-fees-prevent-sun-shining-judicial-records

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