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- 12/19/14--02:00: _One-stop science sh...
- 12/19/14--06:50: _Tennessee GOP leade...
- 12/19/14--09:26: _American Future Fun...
- 12/19/14--12:52: _'I Can't Breathe' n...
- 12/19/14--15:59: _Coal ash no worse t...
- 12/22/14--02:00: _Good news on health...
- 12/24/14--06:52: _Federal politics fi...
- 12/26/14--06:52: _Health care finding...
- 12/27/14--02:00: _Environment stories...
- 12/28/14--04:57: _Finance findings yo...
- 12/29/14--02:00: _By the numbers: a 2...
- 12/30/14--02:00: _Juvenile justice fi...
- 12/31/14--02:00: _Broadband findings ...
- 01/01/15--02:00: _National security f...
- 01/02/15--06:23: _State politics find...
- 01/07/15--11:53: _Groups sue to force...
- 01/07/15--11:51: _Guess who's behind ...
- 01/08/15--02:00: _'Zombie' homes get ...
- 01/08/15--12:10: _Shumlin re-elected ...
- 01/13/15--02:00: _Liberal ‘dark money...
- 12/19/14--02:00: One-stop science shop has become a favorite of industry—and Texas
- 12/19/14--09:26: American Future Fund: No election, little cash
- 12/19/14--12:52: 'I Can't Breathe' now a federal super PAC
- 12/19/14--15:59: Coal ash no worse than everyday trash, EPA rules
- 12/22/14--02:00: Good news on health care in 2014, but we're still spending too much
- As the number of newly insured Americans reached an estimated 9.7 million this year, the percentage of Americans without coverage fell to the lowest level it’s been in years. That’s according to the National Center for Health Statistics, which released data last Thursday showing that the percentage of uninsured Americans dropped from 14.4 percent in 2013 to 11.3 percent in the second quarter of 2014. The White House Council of Economic Advisors says that’s the largest drop in at least four decades. The last time so many people gained coverage in a single year was when the Medicare and Medicaid programs began enrolling folks in 1966. The current gains were made possible by provisions of the Affordable Care Act that make it illegal for insurers to turn down applicants because of pre-existing conditions, as well as the availability of federal subsidies that help millions of Americans with their premiums and out-of-pocket spending.
- Health care inflation has been tamed—at least for the foreseeable future. The big accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) said earlier this year that health care inflation was expected to slow to 6.5 percent in 2014, a full point less than the 7.5 percent inflation rate for 2013. PwC attributes at least part of that decline to the Affordable Care Act and suggests the trend likely will continue throughout 2015 and probably longer. “Total spending will rise with the cost of caring for the newly insured,” the report said, “but the rate of growth, which is based on unit costs, should remain at some of the lowest levels since the government began measuring national health expenditures in 1960.”
- The health care disparity gap is finally narrowing. Research reported recently by the New England Journal of Medicine found that racial disparities were reduced in every one of 17 quality measures for heart attacks, heart failures and pneumonia between 2005 and 2010. Another study, by researchers at the Urban Institute, found that the health insurance disparity gap is also narrowing as a result of the Affordable Care Act. The Institute predicts the Hispanic uninsured rate will drop from 31 percent to 19 percent by 2016 while the uninsured rate for blacks will drop from 20 percent to 11 percent.
- Even with the slowing of health care inflation, the U.S. continues to spend far more per person than any other developed country. In fact, the U.S. spends two-and-a-half times more than the average of the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. No other country comes close to spending almost 18 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on health care, as we do. And numerous studies continue to show that America lags most of the other OECD countries in health care outcomes and metrics such as longevity and infant mortality.
- Even with the expansion of coverage, many Americans continue to face hurdles in accessing mental health services and dental care —despite the fact that Congress passed a mental health parity law six years ago. And while the ACA improves access to dental care for children, it does little for adults.
- Millions of Americans are still filing for bankruptcy because of medical debt, even though they have insurance. In 2015, families could be on the hook for $13,200 in out-of-pocket expenses before their coverage kicks in. That’s far more than many household budgets will allow.
- It’s not likely the ACA will ever get us to universal coverage. The government estimates that more than 30 million of us will still be uninsured even when the law is fully implemented.
- 12/24/14--06:52: Federal politics findings you may have missed
- 12/26/14--06:52: Health care findings you may have missed in 2014
- 12/27/14--02:00: Environment stories you may have missed
- 12/28/14--04:57: Finance findings you may have missed
- 12/29/14--02:00: By the numbers: a 2014 money-in-politics index
- 12/30/14--02:00: Juvenile justice findings you may have missed
- 12/31/14--02:00: Broadband findings you may have missed
- 01/01/15--02:00: National security findings you may have missed
- 01/02/15--06:23: State politics findings you may have missed
- 01/07/15--11:53: Groups sue to force EPA's hand on oil and gas emissions
- 01/07/15--11:51: Guess who's behind 2015's first super PAC?
- 01/08/15--02:00: 'Zombie' homes get facelift after Center report
- 01/08/15--12:10: Shumlin re-elected as Vermont governor
- 01/13/15--02:00: Liberal ‘dark money’ group could face IRS fine
Michael Dourson left the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 20 years ago to start a nonprofit consulting firm that—unlike the federal government—would move swiftly to evaluate chemical hazards.
Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment, or TERA, would be a sort of one-stop science shop, Dourson decided: It would estimate the risks of cancer and other diseases associated with exposures to certain chemicals. It would peer-review research and publish those findings in a database. It would organize conferences to educate government and industry officials.
Dourson’s organization filled a gap left by the EPA, which has evaluated the safety of only 558 of 84,000 chemicals on the market today. The EPA’s sluggishness has created major business opportunities for firms like TERA because few state agencies have the resources to conduct their own risk-assessment studies, which are time-consuming and complex.
Dourson, a toxicologist who spent 15 years with the EPA, describes TERA as an independent firm that aims to protect public health by bringing together scientists from government, academia and industry. Through TERA, he has created a self-sustaining network of supporters in which clients, regulators and peer-reviewers often overlap. The firm’s reach has helped make Dourson an influential figure in the field of risk assessment—a niche discipline that is used to determine how much of a particular chemical is acceptable in the environment. The results of these studies shape thousands of public health decisions around the country, including the setting of drinking water standards and air pollution guidelines.
“People come to us specifically because they want to build a collaboration,” Dourson, 62, said in a recent telephone interview from his office in Cincinnati.
But an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News shows the firm has close ties to chemical manufacturers, tobacco companies and other industry interests. More than 50 percent of the peer-review panels TERA has organized since 1995 were for studies funded by industry groups. TERA also runs a risk-assessment database that receives financial and in-kind support from many companies and government agencies. Some of those groups have also paid TERA to peer-review studies they hope will be included in the database.
A 2011 study on acrylamide—a possible carcinogen found in French fries and potato chips— shows the extent of overlapping interests.
The acrylamide study, which aimed to evaluate the chemical's oral cancer risk, was funded by Burger King, Frito-Lay and other food companies. Four of its eight authors were TERA scientists, with Dourson the lead. TERA also selected the panel that reviewed the study. The study’s finding—which is 10 times less protective than the EPA's cancer risk for acrylamide—is now posted on the TERA database. The identities of the study’s funders are buried in footnotes.
"TERA goes out of its way to describe itself as a nonprofit, to emphasize it works for government, not just industry…when in fact [Dourson] and his group engage in industry-funded activities all the time,” said Richard Denison, lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Dourson isn't fazed by such complaints. "We get criticized by everyone," he said. "But that doesn't change the fact that TERA is neutral."
No state has taken advantage of TERA’s services more than Texas, where a rush of oil and gas production has created air pollution problems that the Center and InsideClimate News have been investigating for 20 months.
Dourson is a close friend of Michael Honeycutt, who heads the toxicology division at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the primary enforcer of the Clean Air Act and other federal environmental laws in Texas. His department has evaluated the toxicity of 45 chemicals since 2007 through its risk assessment program. Two-thirds of the resulting guidelines are less protective than they used to be.
The TCEQ gave TERA a four-year, $600,000 contract to help review the agency's chemical evaluations. Texas has hosted three conferences put on by the Alliance for Risk Assessment– an affiliate of TERA. Honeycutt sits on the alliance's steering committee and his agency has petitioned the committee to peer-review the agency’s work.
Luke Metzger, the director of Environment Texas, reacted strongly when told of the relationship between Honeycutt and the alliance by the Center and InsideClimate News. “If it’s not illegal, it certainly raises eyebrows about whether it’s proper,” he said.
Honeycutt is “supposed to be working on behalf of all Texans,” Metzger said. Steering taxpayer dollars toward a firm whose decisions Honeycutt influences “further erodes the quickly diminishing trust we have in him.”
In an email, TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson said Honeycutt receives no compensation from the Alliance for Risk Assessment and recuses himself from the steering committee whenever the TCEQ proposes a project.
Opportunities for bias
Risk assessment creates inherent opportunities for bias because scientists often make their decisions by extrapolating findings from animal studies to fit humans. Risk assessors decide which questions to ask and which studies to rely on, a process that environmentalists and industry sympathizers can both use to reach conclusions more favorable to their interests.
Scientists often have to "make assumptions, and make decisions at various points," said Maria Morandi, a consultant who once worked as a health scientist at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. "So there is a large potential for bias, depending on who's doing the assessment."
Dourson said he created TERA as a 501(c)(3) organization so he could host conferences that bring together representatives of government, academia and industry. He said he viewed conflict-of-interest rules that prevented EPA scientists from receiving money to attend industry events as an impediment to good science.
He points to the variety of groups TERA has worked with as evidence of the firm’s neutrality.
But Rena Steinzor, a law professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in public health regulation, accuses TERA of “whitewashing the work of industry.”
About one-third of TERA's business comes from assembling peer-review panels, Dourson said. In each case, TERA selects a group of experts, vets them for potential conflicts of interest and manages the meeting logistics. Having a study reviewed by a disinterested panel of experts is important because it can give legitimacy to a scientist’s work.
An InsideClimate News and the Center analysis of the 68 panels and workshops listed on TERA's website shows that most are fairly balanced with respect to the scientists' affiliations. Scientists who usually work for industry are often paired with an equal number of government and academic researchers.
But a further analysis shows that TERA repeatedly uses experts from a core group of companies and consulting firms. At the top of the list is Dourson himself, who sits on 69 percent of the panels that TERA has organized (other TERA scientists appear on an additional 11 percent). Dourson usually chairs any panel he is a part of.
Dourson said TERA has a short list of people with a general toxicology background that it trusts to lead its panels. He said that list happens to include him. According to TERA's latest federal tax filing, Dourson was paid $152,392 in 2012.
“We are not going to impact public health by choosing someone on a panel who is not a credible chair,” he said.
A review of the panels on TERA's website also shows that more than 50 percent of the studies reviewed were funded by the chemical industry. Of the 240 scientists who've served on TERA panels over the years, only a few came from the environmental community.
Ruthann Rudel is director of research at the Silent Spring Institute, a nonprofit research center in Massachusetts that focuses on breast cancer and other women’s health issues. Rudel served on the alliance steering committee until 2011 and on nine TERA panels from 1997 to 2007.
She said most risk assessors work for industry groups, and she sometimes felt like a lone stand-in for the environmental health perspective.
TERA's panels are "probably more polarized in reality than it looks" because TERA gets to select the individual scientists, she said. "Many people in government are very supportive of the industry points of view, and in universities also, there's a lot of privatization of the research."
"I struggled often" with whether to join the TERA panels, she said. "By participating, I was giving it some legitimacy. But at the same time, every time I went, I felt like the things I contributed changed the outcome in a material way, so if I wasn't there, it would have been worse."
It’s nearly impossible to keep up with the ever-expanding array of chemicals made and used in the United States. The EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System – IRIS – has evaluated less than one percent of the roughly 84,000 chemicals registered with the agency. Some of the assessments that have been delayed for more than a decade are for chemicals known to cause cancer, including arsenic, formaldehyde and hexavalent chromium.
In 2008, the Government Accountability Office said IRIS was in danger of becoming obsolete because the EPA was completing only a handful of chemical assessments each year, due in part to political interference. The Obama administration has failed to speed up the process, largely because of pressure from Congress and lobbying by the chemical industry.
The EPA’s inaction means that the only information about some chemicals comes from their manufacturers—and trying to absorb the flood of corporate-funded science is like "trying to stop Niagara Falls," Rudel said.
"They have lots of resources and lots of bright people, but fundamentally what they want and need to do is limit liability and limit the cost of complying with regulations,” she said.
The flaws in this system became apparent when an estimated 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM—a chemical used by the coal industry —leaked from storage tanks into West Virginia’s Elk River in January. As 300,000 people were ordered not to use their tap water, regulators scrambled to figure out a safe exposure level for the public. They had little information to work with: The Material Safety Data Sheet created by manufacturer Eastman Chemical used the phrase “no data available” 152 times, including in a section on whether the chemical causes cancer.
In the aftermath of the spill, TERA was hired by a state contractor to convene a panel of health experts. The panel's job was to review the MCHM exposure thresholds set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which based its analysis on information provided by Eastman Chemical. TERA selected four government and university scientists and made Michael Dourson the panel chair.
Though Dourson later conceded that he had previously done work for Eastman Chemical, the conflict of interest screening report for the panel did not disclose this.
The panel recommended a short-term exposure level eight times more stringent than the CDC's. Despite that outcome, Denison, of the Environmental Defense Fund, raised questions about Dourson’s role in the process.
TERA is “often chosen because of the perspective and approach they take, which is decidedly pro-industry,” he said.
Dourson said TERA’s relationship with state governments proves the firm is independent and neutral—a claim its clients are then able to tout.
In 2003, when Michael Honeycutt became section manager of the TCEQ’s toxicology department, he began overhauling the outdated system Texas was using to review the toxicity of chemicals released into the air and water by polluters. The TCEQ hired TERA in 2005 to review its methodology. And TERA later endorsed TCEQ values for the carcinogens arsenic and hexavalent chromium that were much looser than those used in California or by the EPA. Texas pointed to TERA’s review as a scientific stamp of approval.
Working for Big Tobacco
When Dourson launched TERA, one of his first projects was to create a database of risk values. Dubbed the International Toxicity Estimates for Risk Assessment, or ITER, it was described by Dourson as an expansion of the EPA’s limited IRIS database.
“The ITER database is not intended to replace IRIS but to supplement it with a more extensive data set that has been independently peer reviewed,” Dourson said, according to minutes of a 1995 meeting of the American Industrial Health Council, a now-defunct trade group funded by the tobacco industry.
From its inception, TERA’s work caught the attention of that industry, which was in desperate need of image rehabilitation.
In 1997, TERA received funding from the Center for Indoor Air Research to study the health impacts of secondhand smoke. A 1999 study lists Dourson as one of the co-authors.
But the center sprang from the tobacco industry’s deep pockets and was later discovered to primarily fund research that played down the effects of secondhand smoke. It was disbanded in 1998 by a judge who saw it as a tool to bolster the credibility of tobacco products. Philip Morris revived the group a few years later.
Dourson defended his decision to work with the tobacco industry. "Jesus hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors. He had dinner with them,” he said. “We're an independent group that does the best science for all these things. Why should we exclude anyone that needs help?”
Dourson eventually stopped working for the industry because, he said, “they should not be selling cigarettes.”
Meanwhile, TERA continued to expand its ITER database. TERA claims it is the only website where risk-assessment values from multiple government agencies are displayed in tables that allow for easy comparison, along with detailed explanations of their methodologies. Scientists say this feature is useful because agencies often come up with different toxicity values for the same chemical based on different studies and analytical methods.
In the two decades since its conception, the database has gained some credibility: the National Library of Medicine links to it, just below the library’s link to the EPA’s IRIS database.
But the website also publicizes industry-funded studies. For a fee, TERA will organize a peer-review panel for groups that want their results displayed on ITER. Those clients have included Dow Chemical, Frito-Lay and the International Copper Association. If the study passes TERA's review, then the value is entered onto ITER next to the government numbers.
Dourson describes the project as a public service. “If we don’t publish those values then the public won’t see them,” he said.
TERA's critics say the database is misleading and creates a conflict of interest, especially since some of the groups that have paid for ITER reviews—including the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s main trade association —have also supported ITER through monetary or in-kind donations.
"The whole thing is self-reinforcing," said Sheldon Krimsky, a Tufts university professor who studies corruption in science. "It stinks. I would view this [ITER] as being full of conflicts and not worthy of being taken seriously."
Of the 28 ITER panels listed on TERA's website, half were convened for industry groups such as Dow Chemical. Most of the rest were done for Health Canada, the Canadian national health agency.
Unlike the industry studies whose funders are not clearly identified on ITER, the Health Canada studies that pass TERA's review are conspicuously labeled as Health Canada products.
Dourson says TERA does not publish every study it is asked to review for the database. He said TERA only considers studies that have been published in peer-reviewed journals.
But getting something published in a peer-reviewed journal doesn’t necessarily validate the work, said Adam Finkel, executive director of the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Program on Regulation and a former director of health standards programs for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
He said there is a difference between peer reviewers who closely scrutinize the science—EPA's IRIS studies, for instance, pass through layers of internal, external and public review—and others who say, “I laughed, I cried, I ate the popcorn.”
Finkel cited Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, on whose editorial board Dourson sits, as an example of a publication that is “very clubby and provides an outlet for a certain one-sided part of the spectrum.”
The journal has published many industry-backed studies that minimize the risk of bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical used in food packaging that's been linked to a variety of health problems, including cancer, asthma, heart disease and reproductive problems.
According to PubMed, a site that tracks scientific publications, 19 of the 33 studies Dourson has co-authored in his career were published in Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology. Krimsky says that's not necessarily a problem. "But when you see a substantial number" of studies by a board member published in his own journal, "you start to wonder if the peer review is just a rubber stamp."
In 2002, more than 40 health experts from academia, government and environmental groups wrote to the journal’s editors expressing concern over its apparent conflicts of interest and lack of editorial independence. Among other things, they cited the fact that the journal receives financial support from a number of corporations and trade groups, including Dow AgroSciences, Proctor & Gamble and the American Chemistry Council.
Tracey Woodruff, a former EPA scientist who is now a professor at the University of California-San Francisco Medical School, said TERA's actions show it's "too conflicted."
"I would not be on one of their committees," she said.
Dourson said the only conflict of interest that bothers him is a financial one. “If there's a financial conflict of interest, you're out,” he said. That, he said, is different than having a bias, which is unavoidable.
No paper trail
As TERA’s reputation grew, Dourson helped found the Alliance for Risk Assessment in 2007. It’s a loosely organized group created by TERA and two other nonprofits: Noblis, a research firm, and Concurrent Technologies Corporation, which helped TERA expand ITER back in the 1990's.
Although Dourson says the alliance is an independent entity, he dominates its leadership. He has been a permanent fixture on the alliance’s steering committee since its inception, just as he is a permanent board member—and president—of TERA.
The alliance displays a long list of sponsors on its website, including the American Petroleum Institute, the TCEQ and Georgia Pacific. But there is no paper trail for the group. No corporate filing exists, and TERA’s nonprofit tax filings don’t mention the alliance.
A joint agreement between the three groups that run the alliance wouldn't require a separate filing, said attorney Marcus Owens, a former director of the Internal Revenue Service’s tax-exempt division. But that means "it's virtually impossible to figure out how much money is involved in the activity," Owens said. "It would be buried in the financial statements."
Tax records show founding members Noblis and Concurrent Technologies each earned revenues of approximately $200 million in 2012. TERA took in just over $2 million.
One of the alliance’s most significant projects is a series of conferences it organized shortly after the alliance was conceived.
The purpose of the meetings, according to the alliance, was to expand upon the findings of a 2009 report on risk assessment science from the National Academy of Sciences. Dourson said the request came from the TCEQ, which has hosted three of the eight conferences at its Austin headquarters.
Rudel, the former alliance steering committee member, said workshop participants did discuss the report’s findings but also spent a lot of time criticizing sections unfavorable to industry.
The National Academies’ report, dubbed the Silver Book, was "a very mobilizing event" in the TERA community, said Woodruff, the UCSF scientist. The alliance’s conferences were "essentially formed to respond to ... the things they didn't like."
Rudel said one the biggest points of contention was the report’s recommendation for evaluating non-carcinogens. The traditional approach held that they all have a threshold—a value below which the chemical is completely safe. But the report said scientists shouldn't assume all non-carcinogens have thresholds that will protect everyone, partly because individuals have different reactions to chemical doses.
Woodruff and Rudel said that recommendation could lead to stricter regulations. "That's the thing that's looming that's really freaking everybody out," Rudel said.
Finkel, the Penn professor, attended the first three alliance conferences but quit because he felt participants were using his reputation and viewpoint to help legitimize the group. Finkel was part of the National Academies team that wrote the Silver Book.
The alliance presents itself as a neutral group representing diverse interests, Finkel said. But during his time there, he found that it was overly critical of government risk-assessment methods while assuming "that any 'data', no matter how half-baked, emerging from one of their favored private-sector labs or think-tanks, must be correct."
"After a while, one [starts to] wonder why it always comes out that way," he said.
A leading Tennessee lawmaker —concerned that kids have been shackled and improperly jailed—is drafting legislation to ensure that accused truants receive prompt appointment of legal counsel when facing prosecution in the state’s court.
Sen. Mark Norris, the State Senate Republican majority leader, has been active in national campaigns to promote alternatives to school suspensions and juvenile detention through the Council of State Governments, a legislators’ policy group he chairs.
Norris was motivated to act in part by a Center for Public Integrity investigation into how truants in Tennessee’s Knox County were shackled and taken to juvenile hall to be confined in cells—without first having the benefit of defense attorneys who could have raised questions about kids’ unaddressed special learning needs or mental-health problems.
The measure to ensure counsel, Norris said, “is in process. It’s not soup yet.” But he’s drafting it for the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January.
The move reflects a mounting national debate over inconsistent protections —which vary state by state, sometimes even county by county— for ensuring that children have the immediate benefit of a lawyer in court, even when facing minor infractions.
The costs of Norris’ proposal will have to be assessed by the legislature’s fiscal review committee. A similar initiative proposal in 2012, sponsored by former Tennessee legislator Andy Berke, now the Democratic mayor of Chattanooga, stalled after a study found it might cost the state indigent defense fund an additional half million dollars yearly.
Since that bill faltered, however, the influential Council of State Governments and other think tanks have stepped up national efforts to promote research on how detention actually increases risks that kids who have committed minor indiscretions will subsequently get into more serious trouble and end up in costly adult confinement.
In response to the Center story this spring about jailed truants, Norris said in June that truants “should be provided proper notice and counsel at the front end” of court before entering their pleas.
“How can that plea be a knowing plea without representation — especially with a child?” Norris said.
University of Tennessee law professor Dean Rivkin, who directs the Education Law Practicum on the university’s Knoxville campus, praised Norris’ efforts to draft a bill.
Rivkin has represented Knox truants after they were jailed. He argued for them to receive evaluations for special needs and individual learning plans back in their schools. He also fought an unsuccessful lawsuit all the way to the Tennessee State Supreme Court in an effort to get a court order requiring prompt counsel for prosecuted truants statewide.
More than 9,600 truants were prosecuted in Tennessee in 2012. Providing kids with counsel, Rivkin said, would be a “win-win for at-risk children the state of Tennessee.”
“This legislation is in step with best practices advocated by a number of prestigious national organizations, including the Council of State Governments,” Rivkin said in a statement. “Trained attorneys will advocate for educational, health and mental health and other community services designed to stabilize a student in education and to assure that all students have a full opportunity to become productive workers. “
Rivkin disclosed in November that he and state representatives of the Children’s Defense Fund also quietly filed a civil rights complaint against Knox County schools with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office on Civil Rights. The complaint asks for an investigation and intervention to respond to disproportionate suspensions and arrests of black and special-education students in the county’s public schools. The civil rights office declined to comment other than to confirm that officials are currently looking into a case to determine if a student or students suffered discrimination based on disability.
The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Office is already investigating allegations that due process rights were violated when truants and other kids in Knox County faced court without lawyers. The Justice Department did not respond to requests for information on the status of the investigation.
In most states, truancy is not a crime. It is a “status offense,” an infraction that only a minor can commit. Kids accused of truancy are not covered by the constitutional right to appointed attorneys—if kids can’t afford to hire one—as soon as prosecution begins.
Under federal law, accused truants or other status offenders, such as runaways, are not supposed to be jailed directly as a punishment for their infraction. However, federal law does include a loophole allowing status offenders to be jailed if—once they’ve appeared before a judge—they fail to follow court orders the judge gave them in response to their infraction.
A judge might, for example, order a child not to miss any more school and complete a counseling program, at the family’s expense, or pass drug tests, as kids in Knox County were ordered to do. A judge might also order a child to pay fines or perform community service. Before status offenders can be jailed for failure to obey orders, however, federal law does require that they first be clearly offered the appointment of legal counsel.
But waiting to provide counsel to kids until they are on the brink of being confined, Rivkin said, is too late in the process to effectively help children who often have complicated reasons for refusing to go to school.
As the Center’s “Juvenile Injustice” story recounted, months before Rivkin began representing a Knox County student identified as A.G., the 15-year—old girl was summoned to juvenile court to answer for continuing truancy. She suffered from bullying and other problems and would freeze up and refuse to go into school. Her parents say school staff advised them to call police to force A.G. to go to classes.
The first day A.G. appeared in court, she was taken out in leg shackles and ordered to spend the night in a juvenile detention cell, according to witnesses and court documents obtained by the Center. The next morning A.G.’s parents found her so distraught they took her to a doctor and she was placed in a mental-health facility for a week. A.G. had never been evaluated for special needs at school until Rivkin intervened months after her jailing. Her confinement, he said, violated federal law and due process.
A.G. was also slapped with a delinquency record—meaning, a criminal record—that would have remained on file in court permanently if Rivkin’s practicum had not discovered it and petitioned to have it expunged. A.G. had never committed a delinquent act and had no idea she had been labeled a delinquent.
Other Knox County truants in court with no lawyers included a 13-year-old boy with diagnosed mental-health problems who was jailed twice for several days each time. Another was a 15-year-old girl, K.P., who was arrested and handcuffed while she was actually in school and then taken to jail.
Knox County Juvenile Court Judge Tim Irwin, who jailed A.G. and others, declined to discuss court proceedings with the Center. In legal documents, Knox County prosecutors argued that truants Rivkin eventually represented were verbally informed of the right to request appointed counsel when they first entered court; however, parents of some jailed kids disputed that this was disclosed to them. The kids’ files contained no proof that they had agreed not to have legal representation, according to Rivkin.
The Knox County District Attorney’s Office did not respond to a request for comment on Norris’ proposal to require truants to have counsel appointed promptly.
Knoxville native Andre Canty, 29, who serves with the rights group 100 Black Men of Greater Knoxville, has publicly spoken out about his support for the recently disclosed civil rights complaint regarding suspensions and arrests of students.
He hopes it will lead to more support for teachers to obtain training in discipline and counseling methods that can be employed as an alternative to suspensions and calling police.
“They’re being criminalized at a very young age,” Canty said of some of Knox’s black students. “A lot of special-needs kids are being affected as well.”
The complaint says the district’s own 2012 data—which was submitted to the U.S. Department of Education—shows that “African American students are almost three times more likely to be suspended, and over four-and-a-half times more likely to be referred to law enforcement, than their white peers. African American students with disabilities are over six times more likely to be referred to law enforcement than their white, disabled peers.”
Additional information that Rivkin and others submitted to the Department of Education claims that at least 60 Knox students in less than a year have been arrested for disorderly conduct—including 29 kids who were between 12 and 14 years old. Thirty-six, more than half of the kids arrested for disorderly conduct, were black. Yet black children represent only 14 percent of Knox County’s students.
Some students, both black and white, were arrested in incidents involving “stop and frisk” policies and resisting arrest, according to the document submitted as part of the complaint.
Portions of the complaint that were made public note that a community task force was convened in Knox County eight years ago to study concerns over school discipline. That task force issued a report in 2007 urging reforms because discipline was not being applied “equitably and consistently,” according to the complaint Rivkin filed.
The task force urged educators to more sharply define what constituted “conduct prejudicial to good order,” an accusation frequently used to suspend students. The community group recommended “cultural competency training” for educators. But the recommendations the task force suggested do not seem to have taken root, the complaint argues.
The Center asked Knox County School District Superintendent James McIntyre to comment on the complaint. The district’s spokeswoman, Melissa Ogden, said McIntyre preferred not to comment until a new “Equity of Opportunity Task Force” he is appointing has been convened.
The Knoxville News Sentinel newspaper reported in November that at a community forum McIntyre said he was examining the district’s disciplinary data. Disparities such as those claimed in the complaint are not unique to Knox County, he was quoted as saying.
“This is an issue in every school system across the country, so there’s lots of conversation going on in school districts across the country,” McIntyre said, according to the paper. “But I think that still doesn’t diminish the need here in Knox County Schools for us to be having this important conversation and for us to make this an important priority and really to address these challenges head-on.”
The group’s cash flow fell from $67.9 million in 2012, when it spent about $20 million overtly advocating for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and against President Barack Obama, to less than $6.4 million in 2013, a non-election year..
This continues a trend for American Future Fund, one of several politically active nonprofits with ties to the Koch brothers, which now typically reports far less revenue in non-election years.
About one third of the money American Future Fund received in 2013 came from two large contributors, one who gave $1.25 million and one who gave $1 million, according to the tax filing.
As a “social welfare” nonprofit organized under section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code, American Future Fund is not required to disclose the identities of its donors, but must itemize contributions of $5,000 or more on its tax filing.
The itemized contributions total nearly $4.7 million. The source of the rest of American Future Fund’s 2013 revenue isn’t clear, and the organization didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from the Center for Public Integrity.
In terms of expenses, American Future Fund in 2013 reported $7 million in spending, far less than the $66.9 million it reported in 2012.
The group disclosed paying Concordia Enterprises LLC, the consulting firm of its founder, Nick Ryan, $515,016 in 2013 for “consulting and management services.” It paid Angler LLC, a company tied to a political operative connected to the Koch brothers, Sean Noble, $487,550 for “media services.”
Nonprofits connected to Noble, including the Center to Protect Patient Rights, have made grants to the American Future Fund. In addition, American Future Fund paid $80,000 to a fundraising firm connected to its treasurer/secretary, Allison Kleis, who is one of only two board members.
The American Future Fund reported making only four grants in 2013, including $294,000 to the Progress Project, another group run by Concordia Enterprises LLC that has received money from the American Future Fund in the past.
It also gave $120,000 to the Arizona Public Integrity Alliance, another section 501(c)(4) nonprofit group that ran ads attacking incumbent Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, a Republican, during the 2014 election cycle.
During the 2014 election cycle, the American Future Fund reported spending about $2.5 million to influence congressional elections, including more than $1 million against Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), who lost, according to campaign finance data tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The group also spent more than $360,000 on broadcast TV ads to boost Republican candidates in the Nebraska gubernatorial and Arkansas attorney general contests this cycle.
A full accounting of the American Future Fund’s 2014 income and expenditures likely won’t be available for another year, when it files its next annual tax return.
Eric Garner’s dying words are now the name of a federal super PAC.
The “I Can’t Breathe PAC” received the Federal Election Commission’s stamp of approval this week after New Yorker Tarik Mohamed, a visual communications strategist for Outfront Media and a volunteer for Barack Obama's 2012 presidential campaign, filed paperwork registering the group.
Mohamed said he got the idea for the super PAC, which may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for or against political candidates, while participating in a recent “die-in” in New York City’s Grand Central Station protesting police mistreatment of minorities.
“It’s about capturing that social inertia and giving it a political voice, not just a voice in the street, but a voice in the airwaves come election time,” Mohamed told the Center for Public Integrity.
Mohamed said the super PAC will support candidates who favor criminal justice reform, including requiring special prosecutors for police brutality cases.
Who those candidates are is still an open question for Mohamed and the volunteer staff he is currently assembling.
So, too, is its funding: Anyone may set up a federal super PAC, as comedian Stephen Colbert famously demonstrated. But finding money to get off the ground is another issue, let alone securing the firepower for substantial political influence.
The FEC currently lists 916 registered super PACs, but most have little to no financial activity.
So far, the I Can’t Breathe PAC doesn’t have any money other than what Mohamed is donating to set up its website. Mohamed said he plans to use his friendships with a music manager and entertainment lawyer to set up fundraising pitches with “high-profile celebrities and athletes” who have spoken out against police brutality.
“We’re encouraging them to put their money where their mouth is,” said Mohamed, who acknowledged he does not yet have firm commitments.
Mohamed said he also hopes the super PAC will generate a music festival, conferences and ads that focus on mistrust between police and minorities.
Mohamed said he hopes to imitate the success of two of the nation’s most well-known political players.
“A part of this is really just taking a page out of the Koch brothers’ playbook,” he said of the billionaire industrialists, Charles and David. “They have been very successful in getting candidates elected through their use of super PACs, so it’s about time that us, the people, form our own super PACs.”
The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday announced the first-ever national standards regulating the disposal of coal ash – a byproduct of electric power generation -- like everyday trash. The much-anticipated announcement comes under court order in a lawsuit filed against the agency by environmental groups following years of regulatory delay.
Speaking to reporters in a press call, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy touted the agency’s rule as a “milestone” for communities living in the shadows of 1,425 coal ash ponds and landfills in 37 states throughout the nation. The new federal requirements for coal ash dump sites aim to prevent catastrophic spills caused by structural failures, McCarthy said, as well as more insidious pollution caused by the ash’s leaching.
“We don’t just worry about large-scale failures,” the administrator said. “We worry about all the cases” of coal ash damage. Calling the final rule “a smart, very large step forward,” she explained that “it will help prevent the pollution of air and water and protect our public health.”
Environmentalists -- who’d hoped the waste, which contains harmful metals such as arsenic and lead, would be classified as hazardous – were less than enthusiastic about the rule.
“We feel EPA had a golden opportunity and a clear mandate,” said Lisa Evans, a senior attorney at the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice who handled the coal ash litigation against the EPA. “They squandered it.”
One of the nation’s largest refuse streams at 136 million tons a year, coal ash has fouled water supplies, endangered public health and threatened communities across the country. The EPA itself has recognized as many as 160 “damage” cases in which coal ash from ponds, landfills and other dumpsites have contaminated nearby aquifers, streams, rivers and lakes or tainted the air.
In a series of stories, the Center for Public Integrity highlighted the environmental and human health consequences of coal ash.
Under the EPA’s final rule, new and existing ash ponds and landfills will face requirements that dozens of states nationwide have failed to put in place on their own — routine groundwater monitoring, for instance, and protective liners for all new units. The measure calls for regular safety inspections at the nation’s 1,070 ash ponds, which can rupture and spill tens of thousands of tons of coal ash into the environment; earlier this year, in fact, Duke Energy’s coal ash pond spewed 39,000 tons of waste into the Dan River in North Carolina.
Other requirements call for the closure of ash ponds and landfills that fail to meet structural standards, and that will no longer receive coal ash. They would also shutter any unlined ash pond that had already contaminated groundwater beyond federal safety standards.
Debate over federal regulation has dragged on for decades. After a disastrous December 2008 coal-ash spill in eastern Tennessee — among the largest environmental disasters in American history, unleashing 5.4 million cubic yards of the waste — the EPA pledged to act. Two years later, in June 2010, the agency unveiled a proposal to begin regulating the disposal of coal ash, presenting two alternatives in a 563-page draft. Under the first option, the EPA would classify the ash as hazardous, triggering a series of strict controls for its dumping. The second option would designate the ash non-hazardous, and subject it to less stringent national standards that amount to guidelines for states.
After unveiling its proposal, the EPA failed to issue rules, sparking the lawsuit by Earthjustice and 10 other groups over the slow pace of the agency’s regulatory action
Environmental advocates have long pushed for the “hazardous” designation. They voiced their disappointment over national standards that do not come with the teeth of federal enforcement, instead leaving oversight up to the states and citizens.
Evans, the Earthjustice lawyer, and other environmental advocates had hoped the agency would phase out all existing coal ash ponds, active and inactive. The EPA has chosen to do something less stringent and less effective, they say, by only requiring the closure of ash ponds that have clearly contaminated groundwater, among other issues.
“We are better off today than we were yesterday. There were no federal coal ash standards,” Evans said, explaining that the new rule will provide residents with key information on whether coal ash is seeping into groundwater. “But they represent a weak compromise that we hope can be strengthened in the future.”
Industry groups lauded the EPA’s designation of coal ash as non-hazardous, yet expressed concern about hints of future regulation.
In a written statement, Jim Roewer, of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, the utility industry’s main lobby on the topic, said that “while EPA has appropriately determined to regulate coal ash as a non-hazardous waste, we are disappointed with the Agency’s suggestion that it is still evaluating whether to reverse this determination.”
Roewer alluded to a possible fight on Capitol Hill, saying his group will continue to push for legislation establishing “baseline federal requirements for the disposal of coal ash that are enforced by the states.”
The House has passed legislation to fight coal ash rules in each of the last two Congresses.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the likely incoming chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, issued a joint statement with Senator-elect Shelley Capito (R-W.Va.), saying the rule will be costly and “leave a detrimental impact” on states who already effectively managing coal ash. Vowing to pursue legislation, the statement paints the EPA’s rule as another battlefront in President Obama’s “war on coal.”
“We are not pleased with this outcome,” Inhofe and Capito said. “We will work to ensure legislatively that states, municipalities, and American consumers have the proper protections from the President’s continued attacks on our nation's abundant and affordable energy resources.”
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The end of the year is always a good time to reflect on what went right and what didn’t and to speculate about what might happen in the coming 12 months.
So let’s take a look at how the U.S. health care system changed in 2014—the first year of close-to-full implementation of Obamacare—and take note of what we need to address sooner rather than later as we get ready to ring in the new year.
There is plenty of reason to celebrate and, as you can imagine, the White House wants us to believe that we can thank the Affordable Care Act for all the good things that happened. While I’m willing to give the law its due, the reality is that, as written, it will never get us to universal coverage or do nearly enough to control health care costs. But first, some of the good news:
Those are all good reasons to cheer. But other studies indicate just how much more there is to do.
In the coming year, I’ll be looking at what some states and the private sector are hoping to do to at least partially resolve some of these problems. So stay tuned. And happy holidays.
Wendell Potter is the author of Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans and Obamacare: What’s in It for Me? What Everyone Needs to Know About the Affordable Care Act.
With the predictions of a Republican Senate takeover and the ever expanding influence of "dark money" on elections, we knew 2014 would be a busy year for the Center for Public Integrity's federal politics team.
We launched a major project tracking spending during midterm elections, continued deep dives into secretive money in politics, looked at some ways money influences politics that don't directly lead to a ballot box, and even had some fun along the way.
Over the next week or so, we'll be highlighting our major investigations from 2014 in handy, easy-to-read format. Don't want to miss out? Sign up and receive them via email.
First up, federal politics. From the IRS to college campuses, here are some of the major stories the Center helped bring to light in 2014:
The Center raked through the financial disclosures of top U.S. corporations to find which nonprofits, including trade associations and social welfare groups, are making the most of the post-Citizens United world. Companies like Exelon Corp., health insurer WellPoint Inc. and Microsoft Corp. funneled $173 million into politically active nonprofits over the course of a year.Keep reading
Advertising lessons on the "role of government institutions in a capitalistic society" or the "moral imperatives of free markets and individual liberty", the Koch Brothers Academy spreads far and wide. As this Center investigation revealed, donations from billionaires David and Charles Koch may come with some strings attached.Keep reading
While the most recent IRS scandal focuses on Tea Party targeting and lost emails, the Center reported on less visible and more troubling developments in the agency. Limited resources, a decimated staff and constant political pressure from all sides have emaciated the IRS nonprofit division, just as the agency is tasked with reigning in the "dark money" spending that is more influential than ever.Keep reading
If you have a loved one in a nursing home, enrolled in Medicare Advantage, or simply want to know how your tax dollars may be misspent, you are probably aware of the Center's work this year.
If you weren't aware, you might have missed $70 billion in "improper" Medicare Advantage payments and the problem shared by 80 percent of all nursing homes.
Over the next week or so, we'll be highlighting our major investigations from 2014 in handy, easy-to-read format. Don't want to miss out? Sign up and receive them via email.
Today we're presenting a few of the findings our investigations into America's health care system have turned up in the past year:
A Center investigation into Medicare Advantage uncovered how $70 billion in "improper" payments have been made to Medicare Advantage plans from 2008 to 2013. Most of these improper payments can be traced back to risk scores, a complicated tool used by the government to pay Medicare Advantage plans higher rates for sicker patients. Keep reading
Federal regulators have kept the results of audits aimed at Medicare Advantage secret, and settlement payments small, even though billions of taxpayer dollars have been misspent on the program. Overpayments related to the "risk score" system are still surrounded by secrecy, despiteincreasedattention to the program and a lawsuit filed by the Center.Keep reading
Data provided to consumers through the government-run website Nursing Home Compare over-reports the staffing levels at nursing homes as much as 80 percent of the time. The Center compared the self-reported numbers from Nursing Home Compare to Medicare cost reports, which the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services say are more accurate indications of staffing levels, to show which homes advertise one level of care, then provide consumers with very different conditions. Keep reading
The Center for Public Integrity's environment team spent 2014 combing through legislation, court documents, and emissions data to investigate how big companies put employees and neighbors at risk.
The team uncovered stories from Louisiana to Maine, and everywhere in between.
In case some of these great investigations missed you, we'll be highlighting our major investigations from 2014 in handy, easy-to-read format over the next week. Don't want to miss out? Sign up and receive them via email.
Here are some of the key findings from the Center's environmental reporting in 2014:
The EPA has been ready to declare arsenic 17 times more potent as a carcinogen than the agency now reports. But, as often happens, politics interfered with the process of science. A single paragraph in the committee report essentially halted the EPA's evaluations of arsenic, saving industry from complying with costly regulations.Keep reading
Benzene, a known human carcinogen, has been the subject of scientific studies for years. The petrochemical industry, however, has been able to counter studies connecting the chemical to health risks by sponsoring science of their own. Documents made available by the Center show the intentions behind, and the results of, a $36 million effort to establish science that could be used to avoid claims of liability and preempt new regulations.Keep reading
While the EPA focuses on reducing coal emissions, companies like Sasol North America are seeking to expand existing plants and factories near towns like Mossville, Louisiana. That could lead to up to 130 million tons per year of carbon dioxide equivalent released by the petrochemical companies, in addition to other health concerns.Keep reading
Financial reporting led to some of the Center for Public Integrity's most interesting stories of 2014, including our first news documentary, all with the same theme: How big financial institutions profit off homeowners, investors and consumers.
We expect more stories will share that theme in 2015, but this week we're highlighting our major investigations from 2014 in handy, easy-to-read format. Don't want to miss out? Sign up and receive them via email.
Here are the key findings from a year's worth of financial investigations:
The financial services industry has made good friends with a handful of members of the House of Representatives, to the tune of $149 million in political contributions. In return, Wall Street wields influence as lawmakers draft legislation and roll back parts of Dodd-Frank. One of the so-called "banking caucus", Shelley Moore Capito, will head to the Senate in 2015.Keep reading
Barely recovering from the financial crisis of 2008, Florida has established a separate legal system for foreclosure procedures. The system, the Center found, includes practices that a Florida Supreme Court judge labeled "improper" and often leaves homeowners stuck with debt and responsibility for homes they haven't occupied for years.Keep reading
The Center's investigation into the prison banking system tracked how money sent from families of inmates disappeared into a web of fees, fines and kickbacks. It also led people in power to take a deeper look at the prison finance system. In the wake of the Center's investigation, the no-bid contracts Bank of America and JPMorgan enjoyed with the Department of Justice have been questioned by senators and Treasury fees for money transfers in three states have been removed.Keep reading
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Rachel Baye, Michael Beckel, Jared Bennett, Liz Essley Whyte, Allan Holmes, Carrie Levine, Dave Levinthal and Daniel Wagner contributed to this report.
Each year, thousands of kids and their families face the complexities of the legal system, often with life and death consequences. In 2014, the Center for Public Integrity told some of their stories.
This week we're highlighting our major investigations from 2014 in handy, easy-to-read format. Don't want to miss out? Sign up and receive them via email.
Today, we're presenting the best investigations into how young people are treated by the U.S. legal system. From spouses of immigrants to kids caught skipping school, here are some of Center's best juvenile justice stories from the past year:
Nicole Salgado, like hundreds of thousands of other U.S. citizens married to undocumented immigrants, was shocked to find her husband had to spend at least 10 years outside of the U.S. before trying to get permanent residency. Salgado, her husband and 4-year old daughter, also an American citizen, live in Mexico while they wait to see if Obama’s executive action allows them to return to the U.S. as a family. Keep reading
2. Minors seeking asylum in the U.S. face a labyrinth of technicalities and procedures, often without legal counsel
The nuances that can make or break an asylum case are difficult for even trained lawyers to understand. Each year, thousands of children will have to make their case, often under life and death circumstances, without legal aid or counsel.Keep reading
Each year, thousands of minors face juvenile courts and possibly jail time for infractions like truancy or running away. Because these are technically not crimes, however, the youth have no constitutional right to the appointment of defense counsel.Keep reading
2014 was a big year in Internet governance.
The debate surrounding network neutrality heated up and voices from all over the political spectrum made themselves heard. With those developments in mind, the Center for Public Integrity began investigating the political power of companies in the information technology industry in late 2013.
Here are some of the most interesting findings that will help determine America's digital future:
In exchange for control of about 40 percent of U.S. Internet users, Comcast Corp. offered to extend its low-cost service, Internet Essentials. The problem, activists say, is that the program's results aren't all that impressive. Only 12 percent of the eligible population was participating as of earlier this year. Comcast's $18.8 million in lobbying in the year prior may prove more effective in convincing the FCC to approve its purchase of Time Warner Cable Inc.Keep reading
When the city of Tullahoma, Tennesee, wanted to offer its high-speed Internet option to areas outside the city limits, lawmakers first had to deal with a law from 1999 that restricts the power of municipalities to offer Internet service. That law, combined with pressure from telecommunications lobbyists, has so far blocked expansion.
20 states have similar laws that ban or restrict city-run networks, despite the fact that many private providers do not offer the full range of services to the areas in question. This is thanks to the influence of the telecommunications industry, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country.Keep reading
The Center for Public Integrity's national security team asked a lot of questions in 2014. They asked questions about nuclear proliferation, the war against terror, and the conduct of U.S. officials ... and they got a lot of answers.
In case you missed some of those answers the first time around, here are the Center's best investigations into military budgeting and programs from the past year:
In 2013, former nuclear policy specialist James E. Doyle published an article criticizing the nuclear arms race and defending President Obama's nuclear-free goals. Information in the article, which was reviewed and declared unclassified by Los Alamos National Laboratory, where Doyle worked, has since been declared classified, used to dock Doyle's pay and eventually cost Doyle his job. Experts, including a senior Department official, harbor suspicions that the classification was used to punish Doyle for his critique.Keep reading
A report by the Conflict Armament Research, a London-based independent arms monitoring group, identified ammo casings used by the Islamic State but manufactured by at least 21 different countries, including China, Russia, and the United States. This is just the latest finding to document the missteps and unintended consequences of sending weapons and supplies to allies.Keep reading
"All pain is subjective, not objective."
That's an example of some of the claims made by architects of the CIA's torture policy and found in the new Senate Intelligence Committee report. The Center identified those mentioned and gathered what the report says about their involvement in the program.Keep reading
The Center for Public Integrity's investigations into state politics involved nearly every state in the country. If there was a state-level office up for grabs, we had data on it.
So it's understandable if some of our reporting on the money behind state politics missed you the first time around, and we've prepared our best stories from 2014:
Through late October, $108 million had been spent on TV ads for statewide ballot initiatives. Four of the five most expensive ballot initiatives featured at least one corporate patron helping pay for ads.Keep reading
About 40 nonprofit groups spent an estimated $25 million on TV ads related to state-level elections in 2014 while keeping their donors secret. That's nearly double the amount spent in 2010, when a comparable number of offices were up for grabs. What's more, a Center analysis showed that these groups backed the winner, or bashed the loser, in 63 percent of the races in which they were involved.Keep reading
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The way environmental groups see it, there’s a gaping hole in what the public knows about toxic chemicals released into communities. A wide range of factories and facilities must report to a key federal inventory, but not the companies that extract oil and gas.
Environmental and open-government groups petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency two years ago to add the industry to its Toxics Release Inventory, saying the agency’s own estimate suggests those firms emit more hazardous air pollutants than any sector except power plants. The EPA has yet to respond. This morning nine groups sued to press for action.
“The oil and gas extraction industry is somewhat unique in being really almost the last major industry group not to report,” said the suit’s lead attorney, Adam Kron of the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit group that presses for enforcement of pollution laws. “We’re not talking about a tiny industry that doesn’t matter.”
The EPA did not comment on the suit. A spokeswoman said the agency hadn't received it yet.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., doesn’t ask the court to order the EPA to include the extraction industry in the inventory — though that could be the subject of a later suit. For now, the plaintiffs simply want the EPA to act on the 2012 petition, whether yay or nay.
Two trade groups, the American Petroleum Association and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, did not respond to requests for comment. But the tug-of-war over the Toxics Release Inventory isn’t a new battle. The EPA considered including oil and gas extraction firms in the 1990s and chose not to do so.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Pennsylvania-based industry group, argued in a response to the 2012 petition that the agency’s original decision remains the right one.
Though the industry has grown substantially since the 1990s, the many thousands of wells and related sites dotting rural and urban landscapes don’t individually emit enough chemicals to get above the threshold required for firms to report to the Toxics Release Inventory, the coalition said in a 2012 filing with the EPA.
“While Oil and Gas has undoubtedly evolved over the past fifteen years, the basis of EPA’s determination has not changed,” wrote the coalition’s then-president, Kathryn Z. Klaber.
Last year the Environmental Integrity Project released an analysis suggesting that the larger sites, at least, meet the threshold that a facility use at least 10,000 pounds of any one chemical. The group collected air-emissions data from six major oil and gas states and said nearly 400 sites, including compressor stations and processing facilities, reported releases of at least that amount.
Kron thinks the number of locations meeting the threshold is far higher, given that the states provided information on what was ultimately emitted into the air, not what was used on site.
That information offers a taste of toxic releases, but it’s not the bigger picture offered by the national inventory, which also tracks releases into water and soil. The inventory is free and readily accessible online, whereas state information must be requested and can come with a fee attached, Kron said.
The Toxics Release Inventory, also called the TRI, dates to 1986. Congress launched it after a methyl isocyante gas leak from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, killed thousands in 1984.
“By making information about industrial management of toxic chemicals available to the public, TRI creates a strong incentive for companies to improve environmental performance,” the EPA says on the inventory’s website.
At first, only manufacturers — including oil refiners — had to report to the inventory. Other sectors were added later.
The new lawsuit’s plaintiffs, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Effective Government, see little difference between the downstream petroleum sites classified as manufacturing and the large ones upstream in the process.
“If you drive by a natural gas processing plant, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell it from a petrochemical plant or an oil refinery, and both of those already report to the TRI,” Kron said.
Groups frequently turn to the courts to make the EPA take action — or undo one.
The agency’s recent rule on coal-ash disposal came after a court order following years of delays. So did its proposal to tighten the ozone standard. The EPA's Office of General Counsel estimates that about 150 lawsuits involving environmental statutes are filed against the agency each year.
The state of Texas alone has nine cases pending against the EPA. Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law group, has sued the EPA “innumerable” times over the decades, said Abigail Dillen, vice president of litigation for climate and energy there.
Citizen lawsuits can play an important watchdog role, holding the EPA accountable for protecting public health, she said.
“EPA is charged with implementing so many fundamental statutes, from the Clean Water Act to the Clean Air Act, … and there are, as you know, political forces that discourage action,” Dillen said. “Lawsuits can be one way to give the agency cover to do what it actually needs to do.”
Less than a week into the new year, the first super PAC of 2015 has officially formed — and it’s not the group anticipated to bolster a Jeb Bush presidential bid.
A super PAC called “We the People, Not Washington” registered with the Federal Election Commission on Monday, according to new documents released by the agency.
Its treasurer is David Satterfield, a campaign finance compliance professional at the Alexandria, Va.-based firm Huckaby Davis Lisker. He previously worked as campaign finance manager at the law firm Arent Fox LLP in Washington, D.C., and has typically represented conservative clients.
The FEC has yet to formally process filing papers for the pro-Bush “Right to Rise” super PAC, which Bush allies announced this week.
Satterfield, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment, has worked with numerous other super PACs, political committees and candidates, including the failed 2012 presidential campaign of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
Some of Satterfield’s other super PAC clients have included Arkansas Horizon, which last year spent more than $1.8 million against Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and the Free at Last PAC, which spent about $360,000 during the 2014 midterms against the Democratic Senate candidates in Arkansas, Georgia and Louisiana.
Super PACs sprung into existence in 2010. By law, they may raise unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations and labor unions to fund expenditures — often television and radio ads — that call for the election or defeat of federal candidates. But they cannot coordinate those expenditures with the candidates’ own campaigns.
As of today, more than 900 super PACs are registered with the FEC.
In its registration papers with the FEC, We the People, Not Washington stated that it “intends to raise funds in unlimited amounts” to make expenditures. It’s unclear, however, whom those expenditures will support or oppose.
Wells Fargo & Co. has been improving dozens of abandoned properties in St. Petersburg, Florida, that had fallen into disrepair after the lender foreclosed on loans tied to the homes.
The San Francisco-based bank has been working with city officials to fix up the ailing properties after a Center for Public Integrity report in September showed how the derelict homes have hurt neighborhoods in some hard-hit cities.
“We have received quite a bit of attention from Wells Fargo and they have been improving the priority list of properties we sent to them,” said Mike Dove, St. Petersburg’s neighborhood affairs administrator, who has been mapping abandoned, foreclosed homes in his city by lender in an effort to get the banks’ help with upkeep.
Dove said Wells officials contacted him the day after the Center report was published on Sept. 15.
The Center story showed how “zombie” homes — vacant homes that are stuck in some state of foreclosure for months or even years — can fall into disrepair because homeowners often leave after receiving foreclosure notices. But the actual foreclosure cases can take years to complete. The empty homes are often neglected by the banks until they regain title, and they pull down the value of other homes in their neighborhoods.
Florida was especially hard hit when the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent economic slowdown led to declines in home values. Millions of homes went into foreclosure.
Today, six years after the peak of the crisis, there are 35,913 “zombie” homes in the state, out of a total of 162,644 properties in some stage of foreclosure, according to RealtyTrac, a real estate industry market research firm.
The Tampa-St. Petersburg area stands out, with 7,509 abandoned homes out of 26,810 properties in foreclosure. Dove said in September that 800 properties within St. Petersburg’s city limits listed Wells Fargo as the lender or mortgage servicer. Of those, 84 were unoccupied and 54 were listed as “problem properties.”
Once the bank contacted Dove in September, things began to happen quickly. By November, the city had sent a Wells Fargo representative assigned to the issue a list of properties that were in disrepair. By last month, the company had corrected the problems on 19 homes and was working on another 11. The city had already demolished two homes and another is now occupied. A handful more are boarded up with no exterior violations, which city officials consider to be stable and secure.
As of now, Wells has addressed the problems in more than 64 percent of those homes, city officials said.
Wells Fargo spokesman Tom Goyda said the company has addressed problems at the properties in St. Petersburg where it had legal authority to do so. He said some were occupied and others were sold.
Wells actions are significant in a city like St. Petersburg, which has been struggling to prevent abandoned homes from spreading blight. When homeowners and banks walk away from a property, the city is left with the responsibility for the home. Sometimes it wants to fix it up and sell, sometimes it wants to tear it down. But St. Petersburg doesn’t have the resources to deal with all the vacant homes.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman in a statement said he was pleased with the bank’s actions and that the city looks forward to “a continuing relationship to eliminate the blighting impact these properties can have on neighborhoods if they are not maintained."
Wells Fargo spokesman Tom Goyda said in September that the company’s policy is to maintain vacant properties in foreclosure even before it gains full ownership. He said the company mows lawns, removes debris, winterizes the home and ensures they are secure. Still, some homes end up being missed.
Dove says he will now try to get the attention of the other banks that are the lenders for other abandoned homes in St. Pete. “I want to hold these financial institutions accountable."
His legal options may be limited. Many hard-hit cities have already tried to find ways to hold banks accountable for abandoned properties for which they hold a mortgage.
Baltimore and Memphis, Tennessee, succeeded in obtaining settlements from Wells Fargo for alleged predatory lending that led to abandoned homes, but a similar effort in Birmingham, Alabama, failed, according to Kathleen Engel, a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston who has written about cities’ legal efforts.
Cleveland sued several banks, alleging they caused a public nuisance in one case and accusing them of racketeering in another. The cases were dismissed.
“Cities have suffered unique injuries as a result of exploitative and illegal lending,” Engel wrote in the Fordham Urban Law Journal City Square. “Thus far the financial institutions have not had to internalize the harm they caused in Cleveland, Birmingham and other municipalities.”
Public pressure and bad publicity may be stronger weapons.
Jared Bennett contributed to this story.
Vermont’s state legislature wrapped up this election cycle’s longest-running gubernatorial contest Thursday when it voted to keep Gov. Peter Shumlin around for another two-year term.
The result is in keeping with a trend seen in gubernatorial races nationwide in 2014, in which the candidates who benefitted from more spending on TV ads than their opponents won at the ballot box.
In an unusual twist in Vermont, though, state lawmakers got the final say in the race when neither Shumlin, a Democrat, nor Republican Scott Milne received a majority of the votes cast on Nov. 4.
Thursday’s decision makes Shumlin one of 29 candidates for governor in 2014 who won their races after being bolstered by more spending on TV ads than their opponents, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of media tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG data. In six of the other seven races, the winners were incumbents who didn’t need as much help from the airwaves. Only Maryland Republican Larry Hogan won after being outspent by ads favoring former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, a Democrat.
Before voters went to the polls on Nov. 4, the campaign to re-elect Shumlin spent roughly four and a half times what Milne’s campaign did on TV ads and more than 36 times what Libertarian Dan Feliciano’s campaign spent. The other five candidates on the ballot did not air ads captured by Kantar Media/CMAG.
Shumlin also received more votes in the November election — 46.5 percent to Milne’s 45.3 percent. But with eight candidates vying for the governor’s mansion, none received more than 50 percent of the votes cast, a requirement in the state’s constitution. As a result, the Vermont legislature cast the deciding votes Thursday in a secret ballot: 110 for Shumlin, 69 for Milne and none for the third-highest vote-getter in November, Feliciano. (Democrats dominate both chambers with 104 of the 180 seats.)
Overall, Vermont’s race for governor was a relatively inexpensive contest, with an estimated $762,000 spent on the state’s airwaves. Governors’ races in only two states, South Dakota and Alaska, saw less money spent on TV ads, according to Kantar Media/CMAG estimates. Wyoming’s race did not have ads captured by Kantar Media/CMAG.
In total, the country’s 36 governors’ races accounted for nearly 70 percent of the $856 million spent on television ads aimed at shaping the outcomes of state-level races this cycle, about $100 million more than was spent on the same number of U.S. Senate seats up for election.
The spending helped Republicans pickupfourgovernorships, while Democrats flipped only one and an independent defeated Alaska’s Republican incumbent, leaving Republicans holding the reins in 31 states nationwide.
In the Vermont race, no groups independent of the candidates’ campaigns bought TV ads prior to the November election. The same can only be said of six other governors’ races nationwide in 2014 as so-called “outside” groups took on a greater role in promoting or denigrating candidates than they did in 2010, the last comparable elections.
However, last week a group called Vermonters for Honest Government began airing ads in support of Milne.
“If you’ve had enough of Peter Shumlin’s political shenanigans, let your representatives know that it is time for a change,” one ad says. “Contact them and urge them to vote for Scott Milne for governor on January 8th.”
The group was created by William Round, a former Navy captain and Boeing engineer who lives in Newport Center, Vermont, according to the group’s website.
While most of the ads in the election cycle were aimed at influencing the voters, these ads were unique in that they were aimed at influencing state lawmakers instead. As a result, the way the spending is disclosed with the Vermont secretary of state is unique, too. Rather than registering his group as a political action committee, Round registered with the state as a lobbyist, according to Federal Communications Commission filings.
The group spent at least $31,000, FCC records show. But it was not enough to tip the scale from overall ad spending favoring Shumlin — or to persuade the Democratic-leaning legislature to elect Milne as the state’s top executive.
Union-backed Pennsylvanians for Accountability, which spent more than $1 million on political advertisements targeting Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and a handful of state lawmakers, failed to file a mandatory tax return, the Center for Public Integrity has learned.
For failing to file returns with the IRS on time, the secretive, Pittsburgh-based Pennsylvanians for Accountability could be fined up to $50,000.
The IRS confirmed the agency had not received the group's tax filing — the kind of document that provides a key window into the inner workings of politically active nonprofit groups like Pennsylvanians for Accountability, which are becoming increasingly influential in state and national elections.
Adam Bonin, a Philadelphia-based lawyer who represents Pennsylvanians for Accountability, acknowledged the nonprofit didn’t file its tax return on time. He said the group would soon be submitting documents to the IRS.
Bonin provided an unofficial copy to the Center for Public Integrity, which showed the group raised $1.23 million in its first year of existence. Most of the money came from labor unions.
Almost immediately after its formation in September 2012, Pennsylvanians for Accountability, which is organized as a “social welfare” group under Section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code, produced mailers critical of several Republicans running for re-election to Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives.
The 501(c)(4) tax status allows organizations like Pennsylvanians for Accountability to lobby to advance a “social welfare” mission and engage in politics, so long as overt support of or opposition to candidates is not their primary purpose.
This tax status also generally allows these nonprofits to keep the names of their donors secret, unlike political action committees, which must disclose their funders. This has earned them the moniker “dark money.”
Such “dark money” nonprofits have been increasingly active in elections, thanks, in part, to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling in 2010, which allowed corporations, including certain nonprofit corporations, to bankroll political ads that call for the election or defeat of candidates.
One of the Republican lawmakers targeted by Pennsylvanians for Accountability was state Rep. Rick Saccone. The group’s mailers asserted that “our kids” weren’t Saccone’s “top priority” because he had supported cuts to education spending.
Saccone denounced the group for “trying their hardest to slander me” and persuade voters in his heavily Democratic district not to vote for him. He ultimately won by just 112 votes out of the nearly 29,000 votes cast.
The copy of Pennsylvanians for Accountability’s tax return for the first year of its existence showed the nonprofit spent about $475,000 in 2012 on political mailers and digital ads in nine state-level races in Pennsylvania, including Saccone’s.
Pennsylvanians for Accountability, it turned out, was just getting started.
A ‘shell game’
The following spring, Pennsylvanians for Accountability launched a barrage of TV ads attacking Corbett, the state’s Republican governor, for playing a “shell game” by cutting education spending while supporting “big tax cuts for his corporate backers” and “giveaways to his campaign donors.”
The new tax document indicates Pennsylvanians for Accountability spent $725,500 for its various anti-Corbett messages in 2013, which it classified as a “public education campaign.” This included both television and online ads. Corbett later lost his re-election bid in November 2014.
As a social welfare nonprofit, Pennsylvanians for Accountability isn’t required to reveal the identities of its funders. Therefore, it wasn’t known during its advertising barrage who was bankrolling the group — or even who was leading it.
But Department of Labor records and tax documents reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity show three unions combined to give Pennsylvanians for Accountability $1.11 million — 90 percent of the money it raised between Sept. 1, 2012, and Aug. 31, 2013, the tax year covered by the return.
The largest donor was the National Education Association, which contributed $650,000.
An additional $100,000 came from by another Democratic-aligned social welfare nonprofit — America Votes, a Washington, D.C.-based group that seeks to create “a permanent progressive campaign infrastructure across the country.”
SEIU’s Pennsylvania State Council and America Votes did not respond to numerous email and phone messages seeking comment about the contributions. Officials with both the NEA and the national SEIU declined to comment for this story.
“We received your inquiry, but we will not have a comment on this,” SEIU spokesman Beau Boughamer said.
NEA spokeswoman Sara Robertson also declined to comment. saying the union had “no control over" Pennsylvanians for Accountability's operations.
Previously, officials at the SEIU have criticized political “dark money” for “polluting” American democracy. And both the SEIU and NEA have endorsed measures to curb the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.
Mum’s the word
The people listed on documents as running Pennsylvanians for Accountability don’t want to talk about the group either.
In state business filings, Pennsylvanians for Accountability lists three union-connected activists — Linda Cook, Kevin Kantz and Georgeanne Koehler— as the people who incorporated the group. The same three union activists, who are all Pennsylvania residents, are listed in the group’s new tax filing as its only officers.
Both Cook and Kantz have worked for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, where, tax records show, they both served as directors as recently as 2012. Koehler also has ties to organized labor: she’s an SEIU member and healthcare activist.
When reached by phone, Cook said: “I have no comment for your story.”
Neither Kantz nor Koehler responded to multiple requests for comment.
Koehler, however, did talk to a reporter with PublicSource.org, a Pittsburgh-based investigative reporting group, in May 2013 — though she didn’t shed much light on the inner workings of Pennsylvanians for Accountability.
“I’m not sure who started it or why it was started, other than they want to fight for a better life for our citizens,” Koehler said at the time.
“I don’t know who’s in charge,” she continued, adding that she was recruited to serve as a director of the organization by Mary Shull, the state director of America Votes in Pennsylvania.
And Koehler wasn’t Shull’s only connection to Pennsylvanians for Accountability.
Daniel Ford, who worked with Shull at America Votes in Pennsylvania until May 2013, was listed in multiple documents as a point of contact for Pennsylvanians for Accountability.
Reached by phone, Ford, who now works at a community organizing company in California, declined to comment. Shull did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
A call for more transparency
Shortly after the PublicSource.org article in May 2013, Pennsylvania state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican, called for a hearing to determine if Pennsylvanians for Accountability was violating the state’s election law. The hearing, though, never took place.
"A group attempting to influence the outcome of an election ought to register as a political committee," Metcalfe said at the time. "They appear to be a political committee more than anything else."
Lynsey Kryzwick of public relations firm BerlinRosen, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvanians for Accountability at the time, dismissed the criticism as “nothing more than a partisan attempt to silence the real concerns that Pennsylvania taxpayers have with Gov. Corbett's budget and the direction that he's taking our state."
Since the anti-Corbett advertising blitz in early 2013, Pennsylvanians for Accountability has all but disappeared.
Media outlets rarely mention the group anymore, and it has not produced any additional TV ads, according to Kantar Media/CMAG, an advertising tracking firm. Its largest presence appears to have been online, where Pennsylvanians for Accountability’s Facebook page — which boasted more than 8,000 likes — regularly promoted content throughout the 2014 midterm election, mostly news articles critical of Corbett.
The nonprofit’s most recent activity on Facebook came on Oct. 29, 2014 — just days before Democrat Tom Wolf defeated Corbett at the ballot box. The group’s Facebook page appears to have been deactivated following inquiries from the Center for Public Integrity.
Metcalfe, who chairs the House state government committee, called Pennsylvanians for Accountability a “shell organization” that was used as “an attack dog” and was “trying to skirt the law.”
Voters deserve transparency to “know who’s actually behind these operations,” Metcalfe told the Center for Public Integrity, adding that when the Pennsylvania legislature reconvenes, it would be a “high priority” for him to address this issue.
“The law is meant to ensure that the citizens of Pennsylvania have good information to work with when they are going and choosing who their leaders are going to be,” he said.
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