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    After working underground in the coal mines of southern West Virginia for almost 35 years, Steve Day thought it was obvious why he gasped for air, slept upright in a recliner, and inhaled oxygen from a tank 24 hours a day.

    More than half a dozen doctors who saw the masses in his lungs or the test results showing his severely impaired breathing were also in agreement.

    The clear diagnosis was black lung.

    Yet, when I met Steve in April 2013, he had lost his case to receive benefits guaranteed by federal law to any coal miner disabled by black lung. The coal company that employed the miner pays for these benefits, and, as almost always happens, Steve’s longtime employer had fought vigorously to avoid paying him. As a result, he and his family were barely scraping by, sometimes resorting to loans from relatives or neighbors to make it through the month.

    Like many other miners, he had lost primarily because of the opinions of a unit of doctors at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions that had long been the go-to place for coal companies seeking negative X-ray readings to help defeat a benefits claim. The longtime leader of the unit, Dr. Paul Wheeler, testified against Steve, and the judge determined that his opinion trumped all others, as judges have in many other cases.

    Today, however, there is final and overwhelming evidence that Wheeler was wrong: Steve’s autopsy.

    On July 26, what was left of Steve’s lungs gave out. He was 67 years old. The doctor who performed the autopsy found extensive black lung. With the permission of Steve’s family, I shared his autopsy report with three leading doctors who specialize in black lung and related diseases. Each said essentially the same thing: Steve had one of the most severe cases of black lung they had seen.

    “A majority of his lungs had been replaced by scar tissue with coal dust,” said Dr. Francis Green, a professor of medicine at the University of Calgary and one of the world’s top experts on the pathology of black lung.

    Dr. David Weissman, who heads a federal agency’s division that certifies doctors— including Wheeler — to read chest X-rays, said it was “very concerning” that a certified reader would fail to recognize a case as severe as Steve’s.

    Reached by phone, Wheeler said, “I’d love to talk to you, but the hospital has asked that everything be referred to the legal team.”

    A Johns Hopkins spokesperson would not comment on Steve’s case, but noted that the black lung X-ray reading program headed by Wheeler has been suspended, pending an internal review. The spokesperson refused to provide details about the review, saying only that it “is proceeding as rapidly as possible, and I can assure you that Johns Hopkins takes it very seriously.”

    Eight months before he died, Steve filed a new claim for benefits, presenting evidence that the masses in his lungs had grown and his breathing had worsened even further. He underwent an exam by a doctor of the company’s choosing, and even this physician found severe black lung.

    In late September, a Labor Department claims examiner issued an award of benefits. But this is only a first step in what is usually a protracted process of appeals. Indeed, Steve also had won at this initial level in 2005. Patriot Coal Corp., which now owns the company that employed Steve, appealed that decision, leading to the denial of the claim by a judge.

    The company refused to say whether it would continue to fight Steve’s current claim. “Patriot Coal follows set procedures in the handling of claims,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “We will continue to follow our procedures and will respond accordingly.”

    I asked whether, given the overwhelming autopsy evidence, the company would be willing to concede that Steve had a legitimate claim for benefits. “We have procedures we follow in reviewing a claim, and we will follow these procedures with this claim, as with all others,” a spokesperson responded. She would not say what those procedures are.

    Paul Frampton, an attorney at the firm Bowles Rice LLP, handles a large number of black lung cases on behalf of coal companies and defeated Steve’s previous claim. He is again representing Patriot Coal in the current claim. He did not respond to repeated voicemails and emails.

    Steve became the face of a series of investigative stories I wrote last year while at the Center for Public Integrity; the series logo featured an image of him holding his hardhat with tubes feeding oxygen through his nostrils. He freely shared his story, granted me access to deeply personal records, and became a symbol of the struggles many other miners face.

    Now, his autopsy report and his personal story highlight how Wheeler’s approach to reading chest films, applied in thousands of cases over decades, led to wrongful denials — with devastating consequences.

    'Superman'

    It was 1969 when Michael Steve Day arrived back home in Glen Fork, West Virginia, after a tour in Vietnam, where he had worked base security for the Air Force. He returned amid tumult in the Appalachian coalfields.

     A widespread strike had virtually shut down the coal industry in West Virginia, and tens of thousands of miners had descended on the state capitol in Charleston, demanding legislation to address a problem that had plagued miners for more than a century. It had gone by many names, but a movement had coalesced around a simple, descriptive term: black lung.

    Later that year, Congress would make a promise to the nation’s miners: Coal companies would be required to control levels of disease-causing dust, an approach meant to virtually eradicate black lung, and anyone who did get it would receive fair compensation.

    But at the time, Steve, 23, had romance on his mind. He met a girl named Nyoka Gayle Fortner. They spent afternoons taking walks, holding hands. They’d been together only weeks when Steve asked her to marry him.

    “Aw, Steve, you can do better than me,” Nyoka recalled telling him. “No, I want you,” he said. They eloped on July 25, 1969.

    Both Steve’s and Nyoka’s fathers had been coal miners. Nyoka had seen the physical toll of the job, and she asked Steve not to go underground. He said he wouldn’t.

    But options are limited in southern West Virginia, and the lure of the best paycheck around soon hooked Steve. He went to work for Eastern Associated Coal in September 1969, and he would work the rest of his roughly 33-year mining career for this company that’s now owned by Patriot Coal.

    He did the dustiest jobs: cutting coal with powerful machinery, hauling it in shuttle cars, or driving bolts into the roof of a freshly mined area to ensure it didn’t collapse. He’d work double shifts, extra days — whatever he could to earn more for his family.

    Steve and Nyoka had three children: a son, Michael Steve Day Jr., and two daughters, Stepheny and Patience. “My dad would come in from the mines, and he’d still be dirty, coal dust all over him. And he would stop and play,” Patience recalled. “I remember many a day when we would be out in the front yard, we would have ball gloves, and he would toss the baseball around with me.”

    Jobs came and went with the boom and bust of the coal industry. There’d be layoffs, and Steve would drive around day after day looking for work. And there were the inherent dangers of working in often-unstable caverns deep underground, surrounded by powerful equipment. Rocks slammed into Steve’s back and bruised and split open the skin on his elbows and knuckles. He sometimes worked in tunnels so low that he had to crawl for entire shifts. He’d come home with knees like balloons. “He would work and work and work,” Patience said, “and it was all for his family.”

    The more serious problem was less obvious. By the late 1990s, he began to notice coughing and labored breathing. In 2004, Steve’s doctor told him to get out of the mines; his lungs were shot. The man Nyoka had always seen as indestructible, “a superman,” had to retire.

    Negative readings, lost claims

    Steve’s case, which he filed in 2005, grabbed my attention for a simple reason: The judge’s 2011 decision denying benefits didn’t seem to make much sense. Continuing to read through thousands of decisions, I came to realize that nonsensical conclusions are surprisingly common in the arcane world of federal black lung benefits.

    When a miner files a claim, he is entitled to a medical exam conducted by a doctor approved by the Labor Department, but he also must submit to an exam by a doctor of the company’s choosing.

    Steve unwittingly selected a doctor who frequently testifies for coal companies to conduct his Labor Department-paid exam, but even this doctor found the most advanced form of black lung. The doctor chosen by the company also found black lung initially, but he changed his mind after being sent Wheeler’s reports on the chest films.

    A miner has to prove not only that he has black lung but also that it has rendered him totally disabled. In Steve’s case, every doctor agreed his lung function was so bad that he was totally disabled, and every doctor except Wheeler and his two Johns Hopkins colleagues saw black lung on the X-rays and CT scans.

    But the reports and testimony from the Johns Hopkins doctors were the ones that counted. Deferring especially to Wheeler’s qualifications — multiple professional certifications, undergraduate and medical degrees from Harvard University, a long list of publications, four decades of teaching at a world-renowned institution — the judge found that Steve “did not have” black lung.

    There was no evidence that Steve had any of the illnesses Wheeler suggested as alternatives — tuberculosis, bird tuberculosis, or a fungal infection caused by exposure to bird or bat droppings. The judge made no determination about what was causing Steve’s obvious disability, just that it wasn’t black lung.

    Reading through other cases, I saw many instances of disabled miners who were being treated for black lung but who, according to judges who based their decisions in large part on the opinions of Wheeler and his colleagues, didn’t have the disease or couldn’t prove they had it. It was as if they had some mystery illness.

    In reading Steve’s X-rays and CT scans, all of the doctors more or less agreed about the white splotches they saw; the main difference was how they interpreted them. The most definitive way to determine if someone had black lung is an autopsy.

    Steve’s diseased lungs, then, provide a useful test of who was right and who was wrong.

    Of the reports by doctors who saw black lung on the images of Steve’s chest before his death, perhaps the most detailed was by Dr. John E. Parker, who, for the last decade, has been chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the West Virginia University School of Medicine and, before that, ran the X-ray-reading program at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which licenses physicians such as Wheeler to examine films for black lung and similar diseases. Parker teaches doctors to read X-rays on behalf of NIOSH and the American College of Radiology.

    In 2013, I asked him to review Steve’s X-rays and CT scans, telling him only Steve’s name, age, and mining experience, as well as the fact that the interpretation of the films was contested. With the exception of one CT scan, Parker evaluated all the films Wheeler reviewed, as well as some taken more recently. Considering only the earlier films — those also evaluated by Wheeler — his conclusion was clear: Even back then, Steve already had end-stage black lung.

    “Mr. Day’s history and findings are so characteristic that I am confident that Mr. Day has lung disease related to his coal mining,” Parker wrote in his report. “I am so confident, that I am indeed certain a biopsy or an autopsy, if performed, would confirm my diagnosis.”

    Wheeler, by contrast, had been asked during a deposition in 2009 whether the spots he saw were black lung. “They’re not,” he testified.

    How did Wheeler arrive at this conclusion? He has a strict set of criteria that he applies when reading films. Yet medical literature contradicts some of his opinions, and Steve’s autopsy report supports these texts and the reports of Parker and the other physicians who saw black lung.

    For example, evaluating a 2005 CT scan, Wheeler noted areas of dead tissue inside the masses in Steve’s lungs and said these are typical of an infectious disease but not black lung. This film was not available for Parker to review, but, in later CT scans, he also saw areas of dead tissue. Consistent with medical literature, Parker said that they could be characteristic of severe black lung. As the disease progresses, areas of lung tissue inside masses can die, become liquid, and sometimes rupture into the airway, causing miners to cough up black phlegm. This matches what Steve and Nyoka described experiencing, and the doctor who performed the autopsy confirmed that this is what was happening in Steve’s lungs.

    This pattern recurs in the reports. Wheeler and Parker saw essentially the same things. They more or less agreed on characteristics such as the location of the masses and the prevalence of smaller background spots. Yet Wheeler said these things pointed to tuberculosis or a fungal infection, while Parker said they pointed to black lung. The autopsy report shows that Parker was right and Wheeler was wrong.

    The criteria Wheeler applied in Steve’s case didn’t just contradict Parker and other doctors. Many of the standards Wheeler used when reading films are at odds with the definitive text, written by an expert panel of the College of American Pathologists and still in use today, on the appearance of black lung.

    Nonetheless, Wheeler has used these criteria in countless other cases. He has recited them in report after report, deposition after deposition. In a system with few attorneys willing to represent miners — and even fewer who know enough to challenge Wheeler’s views — his assertions have carried great weight and contributed to many miners being denied black lung benefits.

    In more than 1,500 cases decided since 2000, Wheeler has not found a single case of the most severe form of black lung, even as other doctors saw the advanced form of the disease in 390 of these cases. Overall during that time, which is as far back as digital records go, miners have lost more than 800 cases after other doctors saw black lung on an X-ray but Wheeler graded the film as negative.

    And that’s only counting the cases that made it to the second stage in the claims process — a hearing before an administrative law judge — and not cases that were denied at the initial level. Decisions at that early stage are not publicly available. The Labor Department recently contacted more than 1,000 miners who have filed claims since 2001 and were denied after negative readings by Wheeler, informing them that they could seek to reopen their claims or file new ones.

    Wheeler has been reading X-rays for black lung for at least 40 years.

    'They spent my husband's life'

    For hours one afternoon in April 2013, Steve and Nyoka sat side by side on the couch in their living room, describing to me the torturous routines that consumed their daily lives.

    Steve spent most of his day in a recliner next to his oxygen machine. Most physical activity was out of the question. So was lying down to sleep; if he tried, he’d start to feel suffocated. Every night, Nyoka would sleep lightly in the bedroom nearby, listening to Steve’s breathing. Often, she would hear him gasp or seem to stop breathing altogether. She’d jump out of bed and beat his back until he coughed something up.

    Nyoka struggled with debilitating pain from rheumatoid arthritis. Another disease that caused her body to retain too much iron sapped her strength. Also living in the four-bedroom, one-bathroom home with them were Stepheny, Patience, and Patience’s husband and two children.

    As we talked that day, Nyoka’s words rose in a crescendo over the steady hiss of Steve’s oxygen machine.

    “They spent my husband’s life and now don’t want to give him a penny for it and don’t care anything about the family that will be left behind,” she said, tears streaming down her cheek.

    Steve’s expression never changed, and he said nothing. He just reached out a hand and clasped hers.

    “To explain Steve is almost impossible,” Nyoka said recently. He was proud of his military service, but, unlike many people in the area, he never liked hunting — couldn’t bring himself to kill an animal. He rarely said much, but, if you pushed the right buttons, he’d become an engaging storyteller. He loved Chevy trucks and brooked no criticism of them, and he doted on a small gray cat, petting her as she purred or slept in his lap. “It was a little precious relationship that they had,” Patience, 30, said recently, laughing.

    He adored Patience’s two sons. The first, Eli, now 2, was his “Little Buddy.” The second, Demetrius, now 7 months old, became “Tiny Buddy.” Eli still sees his grandfather in household items. Recently, Patience was stocking the refrigerator with Dr. Pepper, the only soda Steve ever drank (and the one thing he asked for when I visited him in the hospital recently). Eli appeared. “Paw Paw?” he asked.

    As Steve pursued his new claim this year, his breathing continued to deteriorate. This July, he ended up in the hospital because of a gallbladder infection. Surgery to remove the organ was a success, but, after coming out of anesthesia, Steve had trouble breathing. For weeks, his family’s hopes rose and fell with a draining series of improvements and setbacks.

    July 25 arrived — Steve and Nyoka’s 45th wedding anniversary. For weeks, Nyoka’s rheumatoid arthritis had been so bad that she barely could get out of bed, so she gave Patience a long note to read to Steve.

    “She wanted me to wish him a happy anniversary, said that she loved him, she missed him terribly, and that, if her body would have let her, she would have been there,” Patience recalled.

    Steve’s eyes were closed, and the bed shook as he fought for each breath. “I was sitting beside the bed in a chair, and I had my arm up on the bedrail and my head bowed,” Patience said. His breathing was so labored, she said, that “my upper body was being shaken.”

    Steve died the next day.

    At his funeral, an American flag lay across his coffin, and a collage of pictures told the story of a military man, coal miner, and proud husband, father, and grandfather.

    There are many things about Steve I’ll always remember, perhaps most of all a conversation we had last November. It was a Friday evening, two days after the story featuring Steve had come out, and Johns Hopkins had just announced that it was suspending its black lung X-ray reading program that Wheeler headed.

    I called Steve and told him. He let out a hoot of elation unlike anything I’d heard from him before. He gathered his family around the phone. As I gave details, he excitedly relayed them.

    Within minutes, though, his restrained tone returned. He asked, “I guess maybe I helped some people?”

    Chris Hamby, a former reporter with the Center for Public Integrity, now works for BuzzFeed.

    Retired miner Steve Day at his West Virginia homeChris Hambyhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/chris-hambyhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/08/15898/how-coal-miners-autopsy-proved-top-doctor-wrong

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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/2014/10/02/15812/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

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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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    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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    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/2014/10/06/15866/senator-questions-bank-america-s-no-bid-prison-deal

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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/2014/10/07/15871/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/2014/10/08/15861/life-and-death-struggle-asylum-america

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    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/2014/10/08/15887/sunshine-state-uses-fees-prevent-sun-shining-judicial-records

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    With roughly a month to go before Election Day, roughly $430 million has been spent airing television ads to influence the elections for state offices. While this is just a midterm year for federal elections, it’s a pivotal year on the state level with more than 6,300 seats at stake, including 36 governorships, 30 attorneys general, and legislative seats in 46 states. Here are some facts you should know about who is trying to shape the races.

    • An estimated $712 million has been spent airing television ads about the elections for U.S. Senate and state-level offices combined, according to preliminary data through Oct. 6 from Kantar Media/CMAG. But more money has been spent airing ads in governors’ races than in U.S. Senate races— $332.6 million on gubernatorial hopefuls compared with $282.6 million on Senate races.
       
    • More money has been spent airing ads in the governors’ races in Florida ($54.9 million), Illinois ($44 million) and Pennsylvania ($41.3 million) than on any U.S. Senate race. North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race clocks in with an estimated $39.8 million spent on ads.
       
    • If you exclude the top-of-the-ticket battles for U.S. Senate and governor, the races for Texas’ lieutenant governor and attorney general are the most expensive state-level elections, costing an estimated $13 million and $10.5 million respectively.
       
    • The Republican Party of Florida has spent more to air its TV ads than any candidate, party or political group for state-level elections nationwide with $26 million in ads as of Oct. 6. Along with the Florida Democratic Party, the Sunshine State’s two major parties have spent $43.6 million. That’s more than has been spent on ads to influence state elections in all but four states.
       
    • At least 13 out of about 200 outside groups airing ads this election cycle have been active in both state-level and U.S. Senate races. The top three are Americans for Prosperity ($9.4 million), NextGen Climate Action ($8.5 million) and the National Rifle Association ($3.4 million).

    Want to know more? Explore our findings with our ad trackers for state-level offices and the U.S. Senate.

    Source:Center for Public Integrity analysis of preliminary data through Oct. 6 from Kantar Media/CMAG

    &nbspRachel Bayehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/rachel-bayeKytja Weirhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/kytja-weirhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/09/15897/money-talks-key-dollar-amounts-behind-tv-ad-wars-state-elections

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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.

    When it comes to winning U.S. Senate races’ television ad wars, Team Blue has seized the advantage a month before Election Day.

    Democratic candidates and their liberal allies last week aired more TV ads than their conservative opponents in seven out of nine top battleground states, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of preliminary estimates from Kantar Media/CMAG, an advertising tracking service.

    Democrats proved particularly dominant in the U.S. Senate races being waged in Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana and Michigan, where they bested Republicans by sponsoring hundreds more TV spots throughout each state, the analysis indicates.

    At the beginning of September, Democrats were producing more TV ads than Republicans, overall, in key Senate battleground states​​. As September wore on, however, the GOP ate away at those leads. Last week represents a dramatic shift in that dynamic back toward a Democratic advantage. Whereas the Democrats' lead in TV spots during most of the election cycle have been relatively modest, the left’s ad buys last week created a large gulf with its conservative opponents.

    Non-candidate committees —party organizations, super PACs and nonprofit groups — led the early October advertising spree.

    The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee alone sponsored about 6,300 ads last week across nine states — from Alaska to North Carolina — buoyed by a nearly $25.3 million cash reserve and $5.1 million in debt going into September. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, at more than 2,400 ads across five states, placed a distant second. The NRSC reported several million dollars less on hand heading into September — about $19.9 million— but no debt.

    Liberal super PAC Senate Majority PAC, at about 2,000 TV ads across five Senate races, last week led all super PACs and nonprofits, which each may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for or against candidates. The group's largest donors this year include billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, media mogul Fred Eychaner and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

    That a super PAC supporting Democrats is trouncing other non-candidate groups in political messaging illustrates how intimately liberal politicos have embraced the political spending freedoms created by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision of 2010, said John Carroll, a mass communications professor at Boston University and media analysis for Public Radio International’s “Here and Now” show.

    While Republicans grabbed an early and clear spending advantage over Democrats immediately after the Citizens United ruling, Democrats are now “beginning to beat Republicans at their own game,” Carroll said.

    And they’re not conserving resources until the very end of the election to make a splash, given that Republicans have a good chance of capturing the six seats they need to win a Senate majority.

    “It’s a concession to reality — they can be holier than thou and poorer than thou, and they’re not willing to do that,” Carroll said. “Being against big money was good for rallying the faithful, but [Democrats] are now in for a dime, in for a dollar.”

    Related: Big money is also being spent in elections for state-level positions, including millions from groups that need not disclose their donors.

    In both Alaska and Louisiana in particular, embattled Democratic senators continued to leverage their vast campaign war chests to their advantage.

    About 3,700 TV ads aired last week in Louisiana, and Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s campaign accounted for nearly two-thirds of that sum. Her primary challenger is GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy, who has led in recent polls.

    In Alaska, meanwhile, about 60 percent of the 3,000 TV ads aired last week were sponsored either by Democratic Sen. Mark Begich or groups supporting his candidacy, such as a super PAC called Put Alaska First and the DSCC. Polls there show a tight race between Begich and Republican Dan Sullivan.

    The GOP can take solace in two U.S. Senate races — those in Arkansas and Kentucky— where conservatives last week edged liberals in overall TV ads, according to the analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data.

    In Arkansas, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tom Cotton and groups supporting his candidacy aired about 25 percent more TV ads than Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor and his allies. Overall, about 4,100 ads aired in Arkansas and Team Cotton accounted for about 57 percent of them —  about one pro-Cotton or anti-Pryor ad every 4 ½ minutes.

    Conservative groups such as super PACs American Crossroads and Freedom Partners Action Fund were responsible for about one of every three ads aired on TV in Arkansas last week – about the same number of ads as Pryor’s campaign aired.

    Meanwhile, in Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell battled Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes. The state ranked No. 2 last week among all U.S. Senate races in terms of TV ads, with about 6,400 aired, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data.

    The North Carolina race, where incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan faces GOP state House Speaker Thom Tillis, ranked No. 1, attracting about 7,300 TV ads last week. That amounted to more than seven ads every 10 minutes for viewers in the Tar Heel State.

    Along with McConnell and Hagan, Democratic Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana ranked tops among Senate candidates nationwide in terms of total TV ads aired by their own campaign committees, Kantar Media/CMAG data shows. In each case, the four candidate’s own committee ran between 1,600 and 2,000 TV ads last week.

    In a sign of what could be Republican Terri Lynn Land’s waning U.S. Senate fortunes, the Michigan candidate’s campaign committee ran just 425 TV ads last week. That’s less than nearly 600 ads super PAC Ending Spending Action Fund ran in support of her candidacy. But it’s more than her own party sponsored: no GOP party committees aired TV ads on her behalf last week.

    Overall, more than 56,000 TV ads ran from Tuesday, Sept. 30, through Monday, Oct. 6, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of Kantar Media/CMAG data. Nearly three-fourths of them aired in nine battleground states that could determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the U.S. Senate next year.

    No single television station aired more U.S. Senate-specific ads than WMUR-TV 9 in New Hampshire — an ABC affiliate and the Granite State’s lone network affiliated outlet.

    With an estimated 757 such ads last week, WMUR easily surpassed runners-up WHO-TV 13 in Des Moines, Iowa; KUSA-TV 9 in Denver; and KTUU-TV 2 in Anchorage, Alaska.

    Incumbent Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen accounted for 220 of WMUR’s Senate-focused ads, while Republican challenger Scott Brown accounted for about 200, including more than two dozen produced in conjunction with the NRSC.

    Granite State viewers were also blitzed by Democratic super PAC Senate Majority PAC, the DSCC, conservative super PAC Ending Spending Action Fund and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

    “The dynamic is unique and different and the number of third-party ads in this race also adds a new layer of intensity and exposure, which is unprecedented,” said Scott Spradling, a New Hampshire public relations and political consultant who spent 12 years at WMUR as a news anchor and political director.

    Hearst Corporation-owned WMUR — like any television station or media group experiencing an influx of political ads — is probably all too happy to receive them, Spradling added.

    “A contested election year with so many well-funded candidates and groups does nothing but benefit the bottom line financial situation of media,” he said.

    Dave Levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/dave-levinthalMichael Beckelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/michael-beckelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/09/15899/democrats-seize-air-supremacy-senate-battlegrounds

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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.

    Of the millions of dollars worth of ads aired in Kansas’ competitive gubernatorial race, most have not been paid for by the campaigns of Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, or his Democratic opponent, Paul Davis.

    Instead, two vaguely named entities have dominated television airwaves there, spending more than $3 million to saturate commercial breaks from Topeka to Wichita with roughly 7,000 ads that boosted or bashed the incumbent governor.

    Who funds these groups remains largely a mystery. The groups, nonprofits exempt from paying taxes, are not required to disclose their donors in Kansas and most other states.

    One group called the Alliance for Freedom, a Virginia-based conservative nonprofit, sponsored ads touting Brownback’s accomplishments as governor. Kansas Values Institute, a group run by two former Republican state legislators but backed in part by a teacher’s union, began airing ads attacking Brownback’s record on education and economic policy soon after the August primary election. Neither group responded to requests for comment.

    Four years ago, the last time Brownback ran, no such groups purchased ads in the governor’s race in Kansas, and only $713,000 was spent on TV ads overall. This cycle, non-disclosing groups paid $3.3 million of the $6.3 million spent on ads run in the state so far. And Kansans have seen more ads for state-level elections produced by these secretive groups than voters in any other state.

    Since 2010, a year when the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision loosened restrictions on third-party political spending, such secretive groups have gained traction in state politics even beyond Kansas.

    With less than a month to go until Election Day, more than two dozen of these political nonprofit groups have aired at least $9.3 million worth of ads to influence state elections in 16 states across the country this cycle. It’s a small slice of the $430 million spent on TV advertising overall for state-level offices, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of preliminary data through Oct. 6 from media tracking service Kantar Media/CMAG. But it has already surpassed the $8.4 million spent by such groups during the entire 2010 election cycle, when a comparable number of governors’ seats were up for election.

    Related: Big money is being spent in U.S. Senate elections, and Democrats have an edge in the ad wars. 

    Yet given the buffet of options donors can access to influence an election —including contributions to candidates, parties or political action committees — why have these secretive groups that are supposed to promote “social welfare,” not politics, become more active in the states?

    “It’s because they can,” said Kenneth Mayer, a professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies campaign finance.

    Groups such as Kansas Values Institute may attract donors who seek the anonymity provided by many of these nonprofits.

    “People believe that there is an important constitutional right to engage in anonymous spending,” Mayer said, referencing the view articulated by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in the 2010 Citizens United case. “If you don’t have to disclose, there might be some reasons why you would find it in your interests.”

    However the ability of these nonprofit organizations to engage in political spending predates Citizens United by about 30 years, according to Marcus Owens, an attorney and former director of the IRS’s Tax Exempt Organizations Divisions.

    Since 1981, groups such as the National Rifle Association, AARP and Planned Parenthood — sometimes referred to as “501(c)(4)’s” in shorthand for the section of Internal Revenue Code under which they are regulated —  have been legally permitted to purchase “issue ads,” which may name candidates but not urge viewers to “vote for” or vote against” a specific politician. Groups could engage in this narrow kind of election activity, without disclosing the source of their funds, so long as such politicking was not the group’s “primary purpose.”

    Citizens United, combined with another 2010 ruling from a lower federal court, freed corporations and unions to spend limitlessly to directly advocate for the victory or defeat of candidates. For the nonprofit groups, which are technically corporations, the court rulings provided both new legal freedom and a symbolic boost.

    “The rules were already there,” Owens said. Citizens United signaled to these groups that, “the sort of psychological impact of federal election law was lessened and the way was clear for more corporate-oriented money to flow in.”

    Attempts by the IRS to regulate this new kind of political spending — and allegations that the agency was disproportionately targeting conservative groups with its audits — resulted in the resignation of a high-ranking  IRS official a year ago. Hobbled from the brouhaha, the IRS has been limited in its supervision of these groups, as the Center for Public Integrity has previously reported.

    This election cycle, more than 65 percent of the ads by such groups have been negative attacks on candidates for the top-of-the-ticket gubernatorial races.

    Leaving the negative message to outside players, especially those groups that can shield the identity of their donors, allows candidates to insulate themselves from the public backlash that can come with a negative campaign, according to Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

    “It’s preferred to have the outside group doing the really brutal stuff,” Kondik said.  “Because the candidate can really disavow it or they don’t have to claim responsibility for it.

    Some entities active during 2010 have reappeared in 2014. For example, American Future Fund, a conservative group based in Iowa, aired ads in attorneys general races in Ohio, Iowa and Kansas in 2010 and returned to spend more than $360,000 to boost Republican candidates in the Nebraska gubernatorial and Arkansas attorney general contests this cycle. The Law Enforcement Alliance of America, another Virginia-based nonprofit was active in Michigan’s state supreme court and attorney general races in 2010. This time, it spent nearly $165,000 to attack one candidate for the Arkansas Supreme Court.

    Less is known about newer entities. Arizona Save Our Future Now, a Phoenix-based nonprofit that formed in 2012, aired more than $1 million in television ads attacking Vernon Parker, a Republican candidate for Arizona’s corporation commission this election. The five-member board sets utility rates.

    Including spending by Arizona Save Our Future Now, Arizona has seen roughly $2.6 million in secretive spending in its state-level elections this year, the most in the country apart from Kansas, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis.

    Arizona Save Our Future Now and four other nonprofit groups active in Arizona triggered an audit from the secretary of state’s office in July compelling the organizations to prove they spend more funds on “social welfare” than on influencing elections, or else register as political committees and disclose their donor lists.

    None of those five groups disclosed its donors to Arizona election regulators, but the groups did reply to audits with evidence of nonpartisan get-out-the-vote activity that they argued adequately offset their political advertisements.

    In some states, these politically active groups have had to disclose their donors. In North Carolina and Georgia, for example, some of these groups airing political ads have revealed their funders despite their federal tax status.

    But in other states, such entities that apply for income tax exemptions don’t need to file an annual report to the IRS disclosing their officers and financial information until more than a year after they form and long after Election Day, further obscuring who controls the message voters see on television ads, according to Owens.

    Sometimes the groups can set up shop, air ads during an election then dissolve as soon as the polls close, without registering with the IRS or state agencies. With a two-year lag before a group reaches the top of the IRS audit pile and a three-year statute of limitations, Owens said he suspects many politically-active nonprofits are playing “audit roulette,” hoping to run down the clock before disclosure requirements kick in.

    “There seems to be a sense generally that secret money flowing into state elections is potentially corrupting, potentially in violation of particular state laws,” he said. “You certainly don’t know who’s funding political campaigns, and it might be useful information for voters to know.”

     

    Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, answers a question while his Democratic challenger, Paul Davis, right, listens during their first debate in September 2014, at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson, Kansas. Reity O'Brienhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/reity-obrienhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/09/15896/secretive-groups-spend-millions-influence-state-elections

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    Average people don't seem to care about the Federal Election Commission, and the FEC, in its insularity, doesn't seem to care much about such people.

    That's Vice Chairwoman Ann Ravel's dour assessment about her often bedraggled agency's state of affairs — a state she's bent on changing through a one-woman public relations gambit that will criss-cross the country and begins tonight in Denver.

    On most of the issues before the FEC, the agency receives input from a small set of election lawyers, political practitioners and special interest groups, Ravel notes. The agency, which only has a physical presence in Washington, D.C., must work harder to connect with people outside the Beltway who nevertheless care about how federal campaigns are waged.

    "I've been surprised with the FEC and how insular it," said Ravel, who became a commissioner in October 2013 and vice chairwoman in January. "There's no mechanism for this commission to listen to people's questions on campaign finance issues, so my response is to do this."

    Ravel's outreach tour, which also includes stops Tuesday in Chicago and in Atlanta on Oct. 23, likely foreshadows how she'll conduct business in 2015, when she's slated to assume the FEC's rotating chairmanship. Ravel confirmed she will travel to at least several other cities upon becoming chairwoman.

    Ravel says she's mostly interested in soliciting people's opinions and ideas about campaign finance matters, regardless of their political persuasions. Her staff, she said, has invited tea party faithful, civic groups and campaign money reformers alike to weigh in at her events. Anyone else is welcomed to attend as well.

    But Ravel, who until last year led the California Fair Political Practices Commission as an outspoken political disclosure advocate, acknowledged she won't be shy about her concerns that "dark money" — cash used by politically active groups that don't reveal their funders — is souring public elections.

    "I'm not setting out with a hope that people will conform with or just accept how I feel," she said. "But yes, there's no question that disclosure, it's in my mind ... I'm concerned about the money spent in campaigns that's not disclosed, and I think that it's a problem. Maybe people don't agree with me. We'll see.

    How this effort will play with Ravel's FEC colleagues is an open question.

    While current Republican FEC Chairman Lee Goodman and Ravel are often at ideological odds, and not immune to bickering, they've been cordial with one another during their 10 months as chairman and vice chairwoman. They've co-hosted several public events and forums about the FEC and political campaign issues, ending months of personalacrimony between the previous FEC Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, and Republican Vice Chairman Don McGahn. 

    And today, Goodman and Ravel struck a compromiseover theobjections of Weintraub and Commissioner Steven Walther — to approve a perfunctory but long-awaited measure that aligns FEC regulations with the Supreme Court's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision. (A similar measure addressing the more recent McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision passed unanimously — with the understanding that the FEC will conduct a formal public hearing at some future date.)

    Ravel also split with her left-leaning colleagues to cobble together a 4-2 ruling, requested by both the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee, that will allow the two committees to raise an extra $32,400 from wealthy donors to put toward political party conventions. This move earned Ravel the ire of good-government advocates.

    Ravel said that her out-of-town events are solo affairs by design. Her colleague, Goodman, declined to comment on her travels.

    Federal Election Commission Vice Chairwoman Ann RavelDave Levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/dave-levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/09/15926/fecs-top-democrat-takes-show-road

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    Reporters here at the Center often spend weeks, months and sometimes years investigating a single subject, but when that topic is complex, no amount of time feels like it’s enough to truly cover all sides of an issue.

    This was abundantly clear to us after we started reading comments on the ‘Profiting from Prisoners’ series we released last week.

    Reporters Daniel Wagner and Eleanor Bell focused on layers of fees that come alongside money transfers to prison inmates from their families, but based on some readers’ remarks, these fees are merely a snapshot of what can happen to captive customers.

    Below, we’ve culled responses from across the Internet: some were thankful for the story, some added dimension to our reporting and some weren’t fans of the piece at all.

    (We’ve edited these responses for length, clarity and appropriateness for a PG-13 audience. Where possible, we’ve linked through to the original quote.)

    reddit user xcubbinx, who used to fill vending machines in visiting rooms:

    “The amount of money made off of inmates families is ludicrous … When a family comes to visit an inmate, they load up their money cards, since actually cash isn't allowed inside, and they spend upwards of $20 to $30 on soda and snacks. The prison gets 40% of that as per the contract with the vendor. My machines made about $12k a week. Now, the inmates work jobs during their stay and they get paid for their work, although it's minimal. The inmates can also get money put into their accounts by their families. This is where it gets bad. The people giving them this money are usually living paycheck to paycheck themselves. The inmate usually doesn't just have one family though, they have multiple families, friends, and significant others giving them this money.”

     

    Yahoo! user stulaw11:

    “Does any one consider that these people are in JAIL. they broke the law- stole, robbed, rape, murdered, etc. Why the hell should tax payers foot their bills while themselves and their families get off? 

    And before you say that the families are innocent, crime is due to nurture not nature. No one is born a criminal … This is a result of the upbringing by that very family who now wants to complain why they have to pay their kid's jail bill …

    I do not feel one bit bad for this women in the story or any others who pay for their spouse, son, daughter, parent, brother, sister, etc in jail. That is your choice to help them. This is just the cost of "doing business." Why should tax payers, like myself who has never even had a ticket in 33 years, literally pay for your relatives' crimes? We need to spend taxes on education, healthcare etc.”

     

    reddit user MmmBra1nzzz, a former Virginia Department of Corrections inmate:

    “… [Prisoners] are given necessities, but they suck. And you practically have to beg for them. They don't just hand them out … You are given 3 underwear, jeans, t-shirts, button up shirts, socks, 1 jacket, a pair of the most uncomfortable boots in the world, shower shoes, 2 sheets, 1 blanket, and a used mattress and used pillow. During the winter, I spent close to $300 on a sweatshirt, thermal underwear and shirt, wool socks, and boots that were actually fit for outdoor use. Without these, I couldn't have made it outside in the snow for meals.”

     

    Facebook user Richard Lingo:

    “They also confiscate those ridiculously overpriced commissary items if you transfer to another facility, and definitely don't bother telling you when or if you will be transferred. I spent $90 on commissary (items that would total about $25 on the outside) and two days later they transferred me to work release. Even though they were the same exact items I could buy at the new facility, they confiscate it anyway. They won't let you take it with you. Then when you get there, they make you buy it all again. This sucks even worse due to the fact that a small box of laundry soap was 13 f****** dollars and I had just bought it and it was supposed to get me through a month but no, they take it away and I have to buy more. The same f****** brand and item. Doesn't matter that it was never opened they steal it and make you buy a new one.”

     

    Email from Spencer:

    “My son was recently placed in Hillsborough County jail in Tampa. He is 28 going on 12 from a physical and mental state and he make many poor decisions. He has been there before and I experienced much of what you addressed in your article in trying to stay in touch via the phone and being supportive. My home is in Michigan so I cannot visit and would like to stay in touch via the phone. I am not indigent, but I may be if he stays there much longer and I spend more time trying to be reassuring and supportive. He suffers from anxiety, depression. ADD, etc.

    The cost to provide $20.00 of phone access at their high rate per minute cost is $31.00. I can add more to the account and I am not sure what it costs. If money is left in the account when he is released there is an additional charge and if I leave it there if disappears after six months.”

     

    reddit user 17th_knight:

    “Correctional Officer here … You really think politicians and corporate big wigs wouldn't rape every penny from every human on this planet given the opportunity? And what can prisoners do about it? Who's going to take their side?

    In the past year we had to go from a fee-free system to using a f***-terrible private company. To give people back their money, we now put it on goddamn disposable debit cards (imagine the waste in plastic that is), they charge HUGE fees for you to withdraw at an ATM, and if you don't spend it in 2 days they take whatever's on there still.”

     

    YouTube user BigSy1977:

    “This crap is a joke, These families are not victims. The people they stole from, Killed, raped, beat are the real victims. This is obviously a slanted piece with an agenda. Can someone please tell me of a service provider that gives away it's services for free? I like how the quotes from all the people they're bashing have been sliced and diced to fit their agenda. Anyone with a brain understands that there is cost associated with providing services and this is recouped by charging a rate to the customer base … i have no sympathy for criminals. And if someone thinks that they should choose between sending an inmate money or feeding their kids ... they shouldn't have custody of kids to begin with because they're obviously not making good life choices!!!”

     

    Facebook user Mike Regan:

    “Crony capitalism at work. JPay lobbies elected officials for the contract with campaign contributions. State recoups funds from the families of these convicts. Sorry but I don't feel bad for them. Don't do the crime and you will not have to do the time.”

     

    Email from Kate:

    "Kudos to you for calling JPay and other companies out in your article! I live in Florida and my husband is incarcerated in the Florida Department of Corrections. It is very expensive to have a loved one in prison. I send him $50.00, it costs me $7.95 through Jpay, we have no other option! When I go to visit him, you are allowed to bring $50 into visitation, trust me it gets spent! And please do not get me started on our recent purchase of clothing items, or the cost of phone calls. I hope your article draws some attention to these companies and someone does something about it!”

     

    reddit user humboldter, on an inmate's opportunity to buy amenities:

    “That is f***** up--because it creates a system where:

    The more money you have, the easier your sentence is, and

    The less money you have, the more doomed your family is to suffer financially during your incarceration.

    If you are sentenced to jail, there should be no amenities. This is America. I'm not advocating no toothpaste for everyone: just the opposite. Our laws are supposed to be applied equally, regardless of money, race, etc. I know they aren't, but to create a whole banking empire to promote inequalities--that's insane.”

    Jewel Miller calls JPay’s customer service center from her home in Swords Creek, Virginia. Sarah Whitmirehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/sarah-whitmirehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/10/15930/these-families-are-not-victims-readers-react-our-prison-bankers-investigation

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    Unlike former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, Democrats in Congress decided as they worked on health care reform that providing coverage to the estimated 11.5 million undocumented residents in the U.S. would not be a good idea. 

    Actually, it would be more accurate to say that many of them were unwilling to vote for a reform bill enabling undocumented residents to buy coverage on the state health insurance exchanges out of fear that doing so might jeopardize their re-election chances. The bill that became Obamacare contains language singling out the undocumented as ineligible.

    Schwarzenegger wasn’t as worried about his political future when he proposed a plan in January 2007 that was similar to the one enacted in Massachusetts under then-Governor Mitt Romney. Schwarzenegger’s plan had one notable difference: it would have required every Californian—including all of the state’s 2.6 million undocumented residents—to have health insurance (The Massachusetts law does allow the undocumented to receive state-funded care through the Health Safety Net program for low-income persons).  Schwarzenegger was feeling pretty secure politically at the time. Just two months earlier he had been re-elected in a landslide, winning 56 percent of the vote to Democrat Phil Angelides’ 38.9 percent.

    Schwarzenegger’s reasoning was that undocumented immigrants who went to hospital emergency rooms for care but couldn’t pay their bills were taking advantage of the state’s taxpayers.

    “In California, the cost of emergency room care for undocumented immigrants is nearly a billion dollars a year,” Schwarzenegger’s Health and Human Services Secretary, Kim Belshe, told PBS NewsHour’s Gwen Ifill back then.  “We are required under federal law—hospitals are required, I should say—under federal law to provide services through emergency rooms, which is appropriate and humane. But emergency rooms are the least appropriate, most costly setting. And that is a huge tax burden that California taxpayers are experiencing.”

    Like Romney’s reform plan—and Obamacare—Schwarzenegger’s proposal was based on the largely Republican concept of “shared responsibility.”

    “This is not a proposal that looks only to government to fix the problem, only to employers, only to any one sector,” Belshe told Ifill. “It is shared responsibility, beginning with the individual, but supported by government, by employers, by health plans and health providers.”

    Schwarzenegger’s $12 billion reform plan had bipartisan support, as did Romney’s, but not quite enough, thanks to an unholy alliance between big insurance companies and employer groups and liberal activists and lawmakers who wouldn’t settle for less than a single-payer bill.  Insurers didn’t like the bill because it would have required them to spend at least 85 percent of  their policyholders’ premiums on medical care. Single payer advocates were upset with Schwarzenegger for vetoing a bill the year before that would have made California the first state to establish a single-payer system. They reasoned that their chances would be better in the future if Schwarzenegger’s proposal went nowhere. A year after the governor unveiled his blueprint, it died in a Senate committee.  Lawmakers did pass another single-payer bill in 2008, but Schwarzenegger vetoed that measure too.

    Fast-forward six years, and the state’s lawmakers are once again considering expanding coverage to the undocumented. And, according to a poll released last week, a majority of Californians want it to happen.

    The poll, commissioned by The California Endowment, a private health foundation that supports community-based organizations—and the Center for Public Integrity as well—found that 54 percent of voters favor allowing undocumented residents to either enroll in the state’s Medicaid program or buy private insurance.

    State Rep. Ricardo Lara (D-Long Beach) said he plans to introduce a bill during the next legislative session that would give low-income undocumented California residents access to Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program, and create a dedicated insurance exchange for others who earn more than 138 percent of the federal poverty level. A similar bill was put on hold by a state Senate committee earlier this year because sponsors hadn’t included a plan to pay for the coverage expansion. Lara says a financing plan is now being developed. 

    Almost a quarter of the nation’s undocumented residents call California home, and many of the state’s businesses depend on them. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that about one in ten workers in the state is undocumented. Many of them are construction workers and farm laborers. And they pay taxes. The California Immigrant Policy Center recently estimated that these folks pay $2.7 billion in state and local taxes and contribute $302 billion to the state economy annually.

    Among the many businesses and organizations supporting Lara’s bill is Health Access California, a statewide health care consumer advocacy coalition.

    "Immigrants are central to California’s economy and our communities, and they need to be fully included in our health system, too,” Health Access executive director Anthony Wright told me. “This (expanding coverage to include undocumented residents) is a way to invest in prevention and primary care, improve our health system and lower costs in the long term for everybody.”

    He added: “It's harder to steer a boat with folks hanging off the sides of the ship."

    Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks about his health care reform proposal during a news conference in February 2007, in Sacramento, Calif. Wendell Potterhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/wendell-potterhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/13/15936/california-coverage-plan-undocumented-echoes-earlier-call-schwarzenegger

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    A sweeping lawsuit filed in Kern County, Calif., late last week alleges that African-American and Latino high school students suffer discrimination from disciplinary practices that remove them at disproportionate rates from regular school and place them in inferior alternative settings.

    The Center for Public Integrity in 2011 reported that Kern County, in the Golden State’s Central Valley, had the highest rate of student expulsion in California, not just on a per capita basis, but actually numerically higher than populous Los Angeles County.

    In 2013, the Center and KQED radio reported that Kern County kids, among them Hispanic children of farmworkers, were removed from regular school for minor reasons and placed in alternative schools so far from home — as much as 40 miles away — that many kids dropped out or were told to perform independent study at home.

    Hundreds of expelled kids, including English-as-second-language learners, were placed on independent study while officially enrolled full-time on alternative campuses, records showed. Because Kern resident Mario Ramirez was unable to get his daughter to a distant alternative school, he sent the 14-year-old to Mexico just to get her in a classroom for a few months during a year-long expulsion.

    The lawsuit filed Thursday names Ramirez and other kids and parents featured in Center stories as plaintiffs; the suit alleges that in spite of parents’ meetings in recent months with the local school board to urge changes, officials “have failed to take any effective action to require that Kern High School District develop and implement discipline and school assignment plans that ameliorate the rampant racial and ethnic disparities in the district.”

    Black and Latino students “routinely assigned” to independent study receive “only minimal interaction with school personnel and other students,” according to the suit, and fall behind academically.

    The suit was filed in Kern County Superior Court in the Kern city of Bakersfield, which is north of Los Angeles in an area of oil drilling and some of the world’s most productive agribusiness fields.

    Groups filing the suit demanding adoption of alternative discipline and student transfer practices include California Rural Legal Assistance, or CRLA, a nonprofit that has represented Kern kids in school disputes; the nonprofit Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF; the nonprofit Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance, Inc.; the Dolores Huerta Foundation, a Kern County group that organizes parents; Faith in Action Kern County, a multi-faith group that also works with families; and the Equal Justice Society, a nonprofit concerned with racial equity that is based in Oakland.

    The suit was filed against the 35,000-pupil Kern High School District, California’s second largest high school district. Its student body is 62 percent Latino and 6 percent black. The suit also names as defendants the district’s trustees; the Kern County Office of Education, which runs alternative campuses; and the California Department of Education.

    Lisa Krch, the district’s public information and communications manager, said the Kern High School District “cannot comment on pending litigation.”

    In September 2013, Mike Zulfa, the district’s associate superintendent of human resources, told the Center that the district “continues to examine our practices and look for ways to improve. By providing professional development, having honest conversations about our practices, and trying to meet the needs of our students and the community, the district has shown improvement in our expulsion rate over the past three years.”

    But the suit accuses the Kern High School District of failing to comply with new state discipline policies and adopt alternative practices designed to diffuse problems without resorting to kicking kids out.

    The suit also accuses the district of labeling students that its regular campuses kick out as “involuntary” or “voluntary transfers” instead of expulsions that must be reported to state and federal databases.

    The suit notes that the district — under scrutiny after media reports — did cut its expulsions from 2,040 in 2011 to 256 students in 2013. But the groups argue that enrollment has not declined at alternative schools because of continuing transfers of students that parents — many of them limited English speakers — agree to authorize without fully understanding other options. 

    The district, the suit alleges, “has implemented a ‘waiver’ system, under which students and parents are convinced through intimidation, coerced or tricked into waiving the due process protections accompanying formal discipline and accepting immediate placement in alternative schools.”

    The suit also argues that stark ethnic disparities persist among kids officially expelled from Kern’s high schools.

    During the 2012-2013 school year, according to the suit, 67 percent of black students who were expelled were kicked out for infractions that did not include physical injury, possession of drugs or weapons. Only 42 percent of white students expelled were removed for similarly less serious infractions.

    Eva Paterson, president of the Equal Justice Society, attributed the disproportionate rate of harsh discipline levied against Latino and black students on “implicit biases of students of color.” The U.S. Department of Education has urged schools to examine discipline policies and the impact on children who are ethnic minorities or suffer from disabilities.

    Kern’s rate of suspension of students — the path leaving to eventual transfer out of regular school — was three times the state of California’s average in 2013, the suit also says.

    Martha Gomez, a MALDEF staff attorney, said: “Kern High School District hurts itself and the state of California by making Latino and African-American students second-class citizens in the educational system.”

    Sahar Durali, a CRLA staff attorney in the Kern farm town of Delano, said parents and various organizations have met with Kern education officials this past year to request that they improve teacher training and alternative discipline practices that are being embraced by other California districts.

    “The district has the money to do this,” Durali said. She noted that the district is receiving nearly $18 million in supplemental money as part of a statewide funding program to help disadvantaged kids.

    On Sept. 9, Brenda Lewis, the district’s assistant superintendent for instruction, told KBAK news station in Bakersfield that a number of schools are trying “positive behavioral” intervention methods.

    One of the plaintiffs in the suit is Patricia Crawford, an African-American Bakersfield mother the Center interviewed in 2011, after her daughter was expelled in 2010 for a fight in a gym witnesses agreed she didn’t start. Crawford’s daughter was later cleared, but for weeks, her mother said, her daughter fell behind as teachers declined requests for homework to do at home.

    Although the girl was fully exonerated, the suit notes, she was placed on probation when admitted back into to her school and forbidden from participating in volleyball, a sport at which she excelled. The suit alleges that the girl, who has since graduated, “was identified in her school records as a problem student” and that her record “impacted school administrators’ and teachers’ treatment of her.”

    Another set of parents and student interviewed by the Center are also plaintiffs in the suit. Antonio M., as the student is identified, was expelled from Arvin High School in Kern County for an alleged fight he denied being involved in. Antonio’s parents, who do not read English, said they were given paperwork in English they thought authorized a five-day suspension. In reality, according to the suit, the parents signed a waiver to an expulsion hearing.

    The boy was transferred to an alternative school 30 miles away. When the parents said they had no way to get the boy there, “school personnel suggested that Antonio take the bus, which requires three transfers, or in the alternative, ride a bicycle.”

    After a year without any schooling, “Antonio’s educational path has been delayed, and continues to be undermined,” the suit alleges.

    The Jack O. Schulze Auditorium at Arvin High School in Kern County, Calif.Susan Ferrisshttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/susan-ferrisshttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/14/15938/suit-against-kern-county-schools-alleges-disproportionate-discipline-minorities

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    Government auditors are investigating exclusive contracts held by Bank of America Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. to provide financial services inside federal prisons.

    Treasury’s inspector general, Eric Thorson, will audit Treasury’s “awarding and administration” of the contracts with Bank of America and JPMorgan “in response to recent media reports concerning the selection of and high fees charged by these two financial agents,” the watchdog's general counsel, Rich Delmar, told The Center for Public Integrity.

    The Center first reported this month that the banks have exclusive access to the more than 214,000 federal inmates under contracts awarded by the U.S. Treasury Department about 15 years ago. The deals, called financial agency agreements, lack the competitive bidding or transparency requirements for most federal contracts.

    Bank of America has been paid at least $76.3 million by Treasury to manage inmates’ accounts, money transfers, email service and other technology inside the 121 facilities managed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The contract has been amended 22 times since it was awarded without competitive bidding in 2000.

    The accounts hold the money inmates earn from prison jobs paying as little as 12 cents an hour and supplemental funds sent by family and friends. Inmates use the money for clothing, phone calls, food and other expenses.

    Treasury says the payments to Bank of America were reimbursed by the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Prisons’ parent agency.

    JPMorgan issues debit cards to inmates when they are released that contain the balance remaining in their prison accounts. JPMorgan’s original contract was awarded in 1998 and amended at least 14 times. It was re-upped in 2008 and amended at least four times since then.

    It is unclear how much money JPMorgan has made on the cards because the bank’s compensation comes from fees charged directly to former inmates. 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, the Bureau of Prisons and Treasury declined to provide a current list of fees charged to former inmates.

    “As always, the Treasury Department will support the inspector general’s review of this program,” an agency spokesman said. JPMorgan and Bank of America declined to comment on the probe.

    Delmar said the investigation was launched on Oct. 3, a day after The Center for Public Integrity published a report on the contracts.

    Bank of America’s deal also drew questions from Capitol Hill. In a letter to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew sent Oct. 3, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, asked how Treasury can protect taxpayers from fraud and conflicts of interest if the agency sidesteps the oversight, transparency and competition typically required in federal contracting.

    Grassley applauded the probe, calling it “just the kind of job inspectors general are set up to do — to take an independent look at whether the government is getting the best deal for taxpayers.”

    In his letter, Grassley asked Treasury to detail all payments by Treasury and Justice to Bank of America or its subcontractors. He also asked Treasury to disclose the 22 amendments, only 17 of which were provided to The Center under a Freedom of Information Act request.

    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.

    The audit may expand to encompass other financial agency agreements, a sign that Treasury’s inspector general is broadening his scrutiny of the deals. In an audit this spring, Thorson criticized an unrelated financial agency agreement with Dallas-based Comerica Bank. Treasury paid Comerica an extra $32.5 million for work the bank had promised to do for free, the audit found.

    Treasury has spent more than $5 billion in the past decade on financial agency agreements often with the same handful of banks, documents show.

    The Center’s report about federal prisons was the second in a series about prison bankers, financial 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.

    Eric M. Thorson, Inspector General, Department of the Treasury, at a legislative hearing in June 2011.Daniel Wagnerhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/daniel-wagnerhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/15/15939/center-report-spurs-investigation-bank-america-jpmorgan-prison-deals

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    Federal officials need to do a better job ferreting out billing errors and overpayments to Medicare Advantage plans — mistakes which are estimated to cost taxpayers billions of dollars every year, a top government researcher says.

    Medicare pays the privately-run Advantage health insurance plans, which cover more than 15 million elderly and disabled Americans, using a complex formula called a “risk score.” Sicker patients command higher rates than healthier ones, but the industry has been criticized for allegedly overstating how sick some patients are to boost Medicare revenue, a practice known as “upcoding.”

    Researcher Richard Kronick, director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, said officials should consider tightening audit standards with an eye toward cutting payments to health plans that seem to diagnose much higher-than-expected rates of patient illness.

    Medicare Advantage plans that have been “significantly more aggressive than average in reporting diagnoses (of illness) should receive a special [risk score] adjustment,” Kronick said in response to questions posed by the Center for Public Integrity. (Kronick required that questions be submitted in writing and responded to by email.)

    Kronick co-authored a government study in July that showed some health plans reported unusually high levels of illness, suggesting they might be overpaid under the risk score formula. Though little known to the public, the federal research agency that employs Kronick is influential in advising policy makers on ways to make health care safer and more affordable.

    Medicare expects to pay the privately run insurance plans — an alternative to traditional Medicare — some $160 billion this year. The plans are popular with seniors because they often provide extra benefits and can cost them less out-of-pocket than standard Medicare.

    The industry also enjoys wide bipartisan support in Congress and in recent years has successfully lobbied to kill or scale back planned pay cuts to the health plans. America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s primary trade group, spent nearly $5 million lobbying on a variety of issues, including Medicare Advantage, from January through June of 2014, according to the Senate records.

    But critics argue that some health plans exaggerate how sick their patients are to snag higher payments, costs government can ill afford as Medicare faces severe financial stress. At least three whistleblower lawsuits pending in federal courts have accused Medicare Advantage plans of “upcoding” by overstating how sick patients are to boost profits. The health plans have denied the allegations.

    “Inflating Medicare Advantage risk scores is a perfect scam,” said Patrick Burns, co-director of Taxpayers Against Fraud in Washington. “You simply systematically up-code conditions and that results in massive profits across a population over time.”

    A Center for Public Integrity investigation published in June found that Medicare made nearly $70 billion in “improper” payments — mostly overcharges from inflated risk scores — to Medicare Advantage plans from 2008 through 2013 alone. The Center’s investigation also found that risk scores rose much faster in some health plans than others and that federal officials have largely stumbled in trying to recoup overpayments.

    Clare Krusing, director of communications for America’s Health Insurance Plans, did not respond directly to a question about the payment controversy. In an email statement, she said that Medicare Advantage plans treat the “whole person,” adding: “That means identifying patients' health status and needs early on and making sure they get the right treatment. The evidence is clear that this approach leads to improved delivery and better care overall.”

    Despite the huge federal spending involved, the Medicare Advantage payment dispute is the sort of issue in Washington that barely registers outside of a small circle of policy wonks and industry lobbyists, who often rule the day in influencing government policy. In a Washington meeting last week, executives of the two biggest Medicare Advantage plans, UnitedHealth Group and Humana, vowed to fight any further rate cuts. The two insurers control about 40 percent of the Medicare Advantage market.

    For their July study, Kronick and HHS colleague W. Pete Welch used government data never before made public to show wide variations in levels of diseases in some health plans, from complications of diabetes to serious depression. The study concluded that “further policy changes will likely be necessary,” but offered no specific recommendations.

    Kronick said via email that some health plans may be more thorough in documenting patients’ health conditions than others, which could account for some of the variation. But the aggressive coding of diseases means that the same patient costs the government more money in Medicare Advantage than in the standard Medicare plan, without any added health benefits, he said.

    “It is difficult to imagine how this would have much effect, either positively or negatively, on health care quality,” Kronick told the Center for Public Integrity.

    Kronick said that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the arm of HHS that oversees Medicare Advantage, had proposed as far back as 2008 that payments to some high-coding plans be cut, but did not follow through.

    Kronick said the researchers were “unable to determine” whether health plans were coding “more completely…or whether they are engaging in fraud and reporting diagnoses that do not exist.”

    CMS had no comment. “We can’t discuss what may or may not be coming down the road,” said spokesman Raymond Thorn. (The Center for Public Integrity in May sued CMS under the Freedom of Information Act to compel the agency to release risk score data filed by Medicare Advantage plans. The lawsuit, which is pending, does not ask for patient records.) 

    The accuracy of risk scores also is of growing importance in health care because the Affordable Care Act expands the payment system. Under the law, plans that sell policies will divide up a pool of money based on how sick their patients are.

    Edwin Park, a health policy expert with the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said federal officials should be alert for health plans that are “outliers” because they report abnormally high levels of codes for some diseases. “That should trigger a higher level of scrutiny,” Park said.

    The billing process remains all but invisible to patients, who aren’t told their risk scores and aren’t likely to recognize if they accurately reflect the state of their health.

    “We would love to see patients have access to that information. If they saw coding and had an opportunity to provide feedback it would be a help,” said Mark L. Graber, a physician and president of the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine.  “Patients don’t have any idea how they are being coded.”

    Graber said that “risk” based payments, if not closely monitored, may compound worries that errors can creep into a patient’s medical chart and be hard to fix. He said little is known about implications that could have for a person’s health care.

    Graber said that how behavioral issues or other sensitive diagnoses, such as drug or alcohol dependence, are coded may influence a patient’s treatment for years. “There are subtle effects on how serious people will take you. You’ve been labeled and everybody's going to believe it,” he said.

    Seth Chandler, a professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center and Obamacare critic, noted that people need to pay more attention to their medical records and what they contain.

    “People know credit scores but don’t know how the government thinks about their health. You should be able to know your score,” he said.

    Fred Schultehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/fred-schultehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/10/15/15942/call-more-scrutiny-private-medicare-advantage-plans

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