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- 04/14/15--13:28: _Why the FDA doesn't...
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- 04/17/15--07:49: _Treasury's no-bid d...
- 04/17/15--13:41: _Why nobody knows wh...
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- 04/14/15--13:28: Why the FDA doesn't really know what's in your food
- 04/15/15--06:38: Food safety scientists have ties to Big Tobacco
- 04/15/15--08:44: U.S. House rolls back safeguards for mobile-home buyers
- 04/15/15--10:18: Consumer group: Federal food additive safety process is illegal
- 04/15/15--14:01: Virginia tops a shameful national record
- 04/15/15--21:02: How the World Bank breaks its promise to protect the poor
- New evidence that links World Bank money to a resettlement program in Ethiopia that, witnesses say, was enforced with beatings, rape, and murder;
- Inside sources and data analysis indicate the bank regularly fails to enforce its own safeguard policies designed to protect vulnerable communities;
- Reports of homes burned down in Kenya, a shanty town destroyed in Nigeria, and Peruvian farmers’ lands turned toxic by projects linked to World Bank funding — all at a time when the bank is rewriting its safeguard policies and has proposed to give its borrowers more authority to police themselves.
- 04/17/15--07:49: Treasury's no-bid deals for banks get flak on Capitol Hill
- 04/17/15--13:41: Why nobody knows what's really going into your food
- 04/20/15--11:20: Gingrich campaign pays IRS debt
- 04/21/15--02:00: Signs of hope for 'dual-status' kids
- Requests for 241.1 hearings, which determine a child’s dual status, have increased by 9.2 percent between 2011 and 2013, according to the 2013 Santa Clara County Juvenile Justice System Annual Report.
- In 2012, fewer youths in Santa Clara were “direct transfers” to adult court, while the number increased statewide, according to the California Sentencing Institute of the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ). (Data-counting may differ, county-by-county.) In 2014, Santa Clara had one such transfer.
- Rates of state confinement of youth, as well as the number of juveniles in out-of-home placements, were below the state average from 2009 to 2012, CJCJ noted. (Among the sources for CJCJ data are the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the Criminal Justice Statistics Center of the California Department of Justice, and the U.S. Census Bureau.
- 04/21/15--02:00: Campaign finance system is broken says GOP super-lawyer Jim Bopp
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- 04/22/15--12:57: Job-related deaths among Latino, contract workers rose in 2013
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- 04/23/15--02:00: More whistleblowers allege health plan overcharges
Rebecca Fattell was enjoying breakfast at a hotel in Berlin last summer when, after a few bites of a roll, her mouth started to itch, her gums started to hurt and before long, hives covered her skin.
“My face, trunk, arms, legs,” Fattell said, “they were all beet red.”
She rushed to the emergency room.
Fattell, who is allergic to peanuts, is vigilant about what she eats and had been assured by hotel staff that her breakfast didn’t contain any. Hidden in the pastry, however, was lupin flour, which is made from a peanut-related legume that caused her reaction.
“I’m extremely careful,” said the 23-year-old New Yorker. “I just had no idea about lupin.”
Lupin is considered a "major food allergen" in Europe and must be labeled accordingly on packaged foods. In the United States, where lupin is less commonly used, there is no such requirement, leaving Fattell and others who suffer from peanut allergies vulnerable.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has known about lupin’s effects since at least 2008, but has made no move to require companies to identify it as an allergen on products sold in the United States.
Lupin is just one of thousands of ingredients companies have added to foods with little to no oversight from the FDA. They’ve taken advantage of a loophole in a decades-old law that allows them to deem an additive to be “generally recognized as safe” — or GRAS — without the agency’s blessing, or even its knowledge.
The loophole is so big that companies can market additives, like lupin, that the FDA has found to pose dangers. Even ingredients the agency has agreed are GRAS are now drawing scrutiny from scientists and consumer groups who dispute their safety.
Critics of the system say the biggest concern, however, is that companies regularly introduce new additives without ever informing the FDA. That means people are consuming foods with added flavors, preservatives and other ingredients that are not at all reviewed by regulators for immediate dangers or long-term health effects.
‘Life threatening reactions’
When George Weston Foods — an Australia-based food manufacturer — sought the FDA’s agreement that its lupin flour, protein and fiber were safe to add to breads, pastas and cereal in the United States, regulators feared it could trigger “life-threatening reactions” in peanut-allergic consumers.
The FDA said merely listing lupin on ingredient labels would not be enough warning. The ingredients, the regulators said, “failed to meet the standards for general recognition of safety,” according to documents obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council through a Freedom of Information Act request.
George Weston withdrew its applications and decided not to sell the additives in the United States, its parent company said in an email to the Center for Public Integrity. Other companies do market them, however. Lupin, also spelled lupine, can be found as an additive in products on supermarket shelves today with no warning for people who suffer from peanut allergies.
The companies that make and supply these ingredients never had to seek the FDA’s opinion on safety, or even inform the agency that it was including lupin in products sold in the United States.
Rather than going through a painstaking FDA-led review process to ensure that their new ingredients are safe, food companies can determine on their own that substances are GRAS.
They can then ask the FDA to review their evaluation — if they wish. Or they can take their ingredients straight to market, without ever informing the agency.
"FDA doesn't know what it doesn't know," said Steve Morris of the Government Accountability Office, which published a report in 2010 that found that “FDA’s oversight process does not help ensure the safety of all new GRAS determinations.”
“It’s really clear that we have no basis to make almost any conclusions about the safety of the current food supply,” said Laura MacCleery, an attorney with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. “We don’t know what people are eating.”
‘He was crying … He couldn’t breathe’
Miles Bengco certainly didn’t know what he was eating when he chomped on a Quorn Turk’y Burger while watching a Los Angeles Lakers game with his family in 2013. Shortly after eating the burger, the 11-year-old started having trouble breathing.
“He started changing color. He turned purple and green, and then he went completely white,” his mother, Ann Marie Cote, remembered, tearing up as she relived that night. “He was crying … He couldn’t breathe."
By the time paramedics arrived to the house, Bengco was unresponsive and foaming at the mouth.
“I knew at that moment he was gone,” Cote said.
He died in a hospital the next day.
In a lawsuit filed last month, the boy’s parents blamed their son’s death on mycoprotein, a fungus-based ingredient used to make the burger Bengco ate. The lawsuit claims that their son, who had an allergy to mold, died after suffering “a severe anaphylactic reaction” caused by mycoprotein, which the family says was mislabeled on the package.
“It was a loaded gun in his mouth,” Cote said.
In a written response to reporters’ questions, Quorn stated, “we categorically reject the claims made by attorneys representing the Bengco family that our products were in any way associated with this unfortunate event.”
Quorn’s statement added that the company submitted all of its safety data on mycoprotein to the FDA years ago as part of an extensive agency review. The company said that the FDA had concluded that mycoprotein was safe but that “there would be a lengthy period before” the agency issued a formal decision. That's when Quorn decided to pursue an expedited GRAS review, according to the company’s written response.
The FDA did not respond to questions about Quorn's claims. But in 2002, it OK’d the GRAS status of mycoprotein for use in certain foods. Many consumer groups and scientists, however, dispute that the additive should be deemed safe.
Consumers have previously reported suffering a range of reactions after eating foods containing mycoprotein, including nausea and anaphylactic shock. The complaints prompted the Center for Science in the Public Interest to urge the FDA in 2011 to revoke the ingredient’s GRAS status.
GRAS ingredients are supposed to meet the same safety standard as food additives that undergo a full FDA review — a standard of “reasonable certainty” that no harm will result from consuming them.
For a company to determine that an ingredient is “generally recognized as safe,” it must establish that the additive’s safety is commonly understood by qualified scientific experts.
But some ingredients defy consensus, as consumers, scientific groups and sometimes even the FDA have pointed out.
Even GRAS additives that have been used in food for decades are now coming under fire as their uses expand and science doubting their safety emerges. For example, studies have found that carrageenan, widely used to provide a thick, creamy texture in foods like yogurt, ice cream and soy milk, can cause gastrointestinal inflammation in animals and humans.
The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit group, sent a letter to the acting FDA commissioner yesterday urging the agency to ban carrageenan as a food additive, an action the agency declined to take after a scientist made a similar request a few years ago. The group also sent the FDA a petition signed by nearly 39,000 individuals seeking the FDA to revoke the ingredient's GRAS status, including many who have blamed the ingredient for contributing to their digestive problems, including diarrhea and constipation.
An industry-regulated system
But it’s the ingredients unknown to the public that have critics of the GRAS system most worried.
Researchers for the Pew Charitable Trusts and Natural Resources Defense Council say that allowing companies to make safety determinations without telling the FDA makes it nearly impossible to identify whether there are health effects caused by long-term exposure to certain ingredients.
Their concerns are heightened because safety decisions often rest in the hands of a small group of scientific experts selected by companies or consulting firms with a financial incentive to get new ingredients on the market. Several of these scientists, a Center for Public Integrity investigation found, previously served as scientific consultants for tobacco companies during the 1980s and 1990s, when the tobacco industry fought vigorously to defend its products.
In many cases, researchers say companies are declaring ingredients to be safe without reporting the results of important toxicity tests to prove it.
Even the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group whose program for assessing the safety of flavor ingredients has been praised in the past, is now drawing increased scrutiny from critics who contend that the organization lacks transparency and approves additives using limited relevant public safety data.
“Congress had a clear understanding of what ‘generally recognized as safe’ means, but that’s not the understanding that basically prevailed,” said Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy group seeking reforms to the GRAS system. “There are plenty of ingredients that are receiving GRAS status, the safety of which are in dispute.”
An outdated law
The GRAS loophole was born in 1958. Americans were growing concerned about the increased use of preservatives and other additives in food, so Congress passed — and President Dwight Eisenhower signed — the first law regulating ingredients added to food.
To restore confidence, the law set up a system requiring companies to submit new ingredients to an extensive FDA safety review before going to market.
But Congress didn’t want the FDA wasting time and resources approving common ingredients such as vinegar and table salt. So the law included an exemption to bypass the agency-led safety review process. Companies could prove on their own that ingredients are “generally recognized as safe.”
In the past five decades, the number of food additives has skyrocketed — from about 800 to more than 10,000. They are added to everything from baked goods and breakfast cereals to energy bars and carbonated drinks.
Meanwhile, the FDA’s food additive approval system has slowed to a crawl — the average review takes two years, but some drag on for decades. As a result, ingredient manufacturers have increasingly turned to the GRAS loophole as a quicker road to market.
“The food additive review process is a highway that is constantly gridlocked. If the food additive road doesn’t go anywhere, what do I do?” asked Stuart Pape, a Washington, D.C., attorney who consults for companies that manufacture food additives. “GRAS is the other pathway.”
'It isn't the wild West'
The FDA has publicly acknowledged the GRAS system’s shortcomings.
“We simply do not have the information to vouch for the safety of many of these chemicals,” Michael Taylor, the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods, told the Washington Post last year.
Meanwhile, industry scientists and lawyers contend that safety concerns are overblown and that major reforms designed to increase government oversight would cripple the resource-depleted FDA and stifle food innovation.
“It isn’t the Wild West out there,” said Stanley Tarka, a toxicologist and industry consultant. “We have the safest food supply in the world.”
George Burdock, the president and founder of a food safety consulting firm, says requiring extensive FDA oversight for GRAS additives would stall food innovation and result in additives taking years to get approval. The FDA, he says, “has enough on its plate already.”
The FDA is currently busy implementing The Food Safety Modernization Act, a sweeping food safety reform bill signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2011. The agency also prioritizes responding to foodborne illness crises like the listeria outbreak that killed three people in March.
Industry consultant James Heimbach says he’s confident in the quality and detail of GRAS determinations, whether or not the FDA reviews them.
“None of us wants to be responsible for putting something on the market that’s going to do harm,” Heimbach said.
“The potential for consumer harm is all based on theory or the possibility of some untoward actions by unscrupulous people,” Burdock added. “There has been no documented harm to a consumer as a result of a GRAS” additive.
But the issue is not just with ingredients that cause immediate harm. Since the FDA, scientists and consumers often don’t even know when new additives hit the market, it’s difficult to track their potential long-term health effects.
“What we’re talking about here is not generally things that poison people immediately,” said Erik Olson, the NRDC’s senior strategic director for health and food. “These are chemicals that may cause cancer, they may be endocrine disruptors, which means they disrupt the hormone system, or they can affect your reproduction or they can have effects on a fetus in utero.”
This has become clear in the case of one of the most known — and vilified — GRAS additives: partially hydrogenated oil, or trans fats. Used to keep foods fresh for long periods of time, trans fats are commonly found in products including fried foods, cake mixes and microwave popcorn. The ingredient has been named by public health experts as a contributor to heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.
Despite strong pushback from industry, the FDA is expected this summer to officially revoke the GRAS status of artificial trans fats.
Other additives have been deemed safe despite animal studies that have linked them to cancer. Methyl eugenol, for example, is considered a safe flavor ingredient even though a 2002 National Toxicology Program study concluded that “there was clear evidence of carcinogenic activity of methyl eugenol in male and female rats.”
Even green tea extracts known for their health benefits have drawn scrutiny from scientists who worry that, when highly purified and added to food, they could pose long-term health risks, including liver damage.
Last year, the FDA issued guidance for industry about the growing use of botanical ingredients and extracts in foods and beverages that are often touted as healthy.
“We are concerned that some of the novel substances that are being added to conventional foods, including beverages, may cause the food to be adulterated because these added substances may not be GRAS,” the FDA stated. The “trend raises questions regarding whether these new uses are unapproved food additive uses.”
“I’m sure there are things that are GRAS that are problematic,” said David Acheson, former chief medical officer at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition who now heads a risk management firm that consults for food companies. “I’d put money on it that somewhere there’s abuse of the system.”
‘Generally Recognized As Secret’
If there is, it’s almost impossible for the FDA to police it.
Under today’s system, manufacturers that establish that an ingredient is safe for a specific use can either submit their safety evaluation to the FDA for a cursory review or keep their determination private. The FDA encourages companies to choose the former option, but companies more often choose the latter.
The NRDC estimates that about 1,000 ingredients have been added to food without FDA review since 1958. They dubbed the process “generally recognized as secret.”
Two industry consultants told Center for Public Integrity reporters that two-thirds of their safety reviews are never sent to regulators. An international food company told the GAO that it introduces five new ingredients yearly without telling the FDA.
The 2010 GAO report said the FDA should require companies to submit basic information from safety evaluations, including a substance’s identity and use.
But the FDA says requiring this information is beyond its power. “If we tried to make it mandatory,” said Keefe, “we would be sued.”
Leaving regulators and the public in the dark means it’s nearly impossible to track how much exposure people have to some ingredients, NRDC researchers say.
Safety evaluations must legally “consider the cumulative effect from all probable sources,” said Tom Neltner, an attorney and chemical engineer who has co-authored many reports about the GRAS system for Pew and the NRDC. “And if you don’t know something’s there in food, how are you going to do an assessment?”
Consider how this could play out at a family’s breakfast table.
A company might privately conclude an ingredient is safe at a specific level in cereal. Another might do the same for its use in muffins. Ditto for a third company adding it to juices.
A family sitting down to a breakfast of all three foods could end up consuming much more of the ingredient than each company had anticipated.
“How can FDA fulfill its responsibility for protecting public health and safety of the food supply if they don’t even know all the chemicals that are being used in the food supply?” asked Lisa Lefferts, senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
In response to such concerns, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a powerful food industry trade group, announced last year that it is working to increase transparency in the GRAS system by creating a database of safety determinations made by industry and making it available to the FDA.
The GMA, which also announced the establishment of the Center for Research on Ingredient Safety at Michigan State University, stated in an email response to reporters’ questions that industry is “committed to providing regulators and consumers with the important information they need about our products.”
Caffeinated jelly beans
Few ingredients demonstrate the FDA’s challenges in policing the GRAS system like caffeine.
While the FDA has long recognized the safety of caffeine at a certain level in cola-type beverages, companies have expanded that use to other products by making GRAS determinations on their own. In 2013, an FDA consumer update stated that “existing rules never anticipated the current proliferation of caffeinated products.”
In recent years, companies have added caffeine to jelly beans, sunflower seeds and energy drinks. The FDA noted in its consumer update that energy drinks are “aggressively marketed” to young people, despite links to deaths and other adverse reactions.
The latest concerns about caffeine-infused products follows one of the GRAS system’s most high-profile controversies: alcoholic energy drinks, which the FDA banned in 2010 after public outcry.
In September 2010, Bo Rupp, a 15-year-old high school sophomore from Centreville, Virginia, drank two 23.5 oz. cans of Four Loko, a popular alcoholic energy drink.
During a concert that night, Rupp went “completely, intoxicatedly manic and wired,” said his family’s attorney Jeffrey Simon. Event staff had to call the boy’s parents to pick him up.
Rupp acted paranoid, according to his mother, Karla, who drove home with one hand on the wheel and the other arm holding back her son from jumping out of the moving car.
When they arrived home, Rupp ran out of the car to a busy highway where he reportedly sat down in the road. He was struck by a vehicle and airlifted to a nearby hospital. He died the next day.
Three months before he died, a panel of experts convened by industry-consultant Burdock’s firm concluded the alcoholic energy drink was safe. The manufacturer, Phusion Projects, had notified the FDA of their conclusion less than a year after 18 attorneys general told regulators that they were concerned that caffeine-infused energy drinks like Four Loko were unsafe.
Some states like New York, Utah, Oklahoma, Michigan and Washington banned the sale of the beverages before the FDA acted. Two months after Rupp’s death, federal regulators told Phusion and three other companies that their products were unsafe, essentially banning them.
"While Phusion Projects does not comment on specific legal matters," the company said in a statement to the Center about the Rupp family's lawsuit, "it is important to remember that just because a lawsuit is filed does not mean it has merit."
Burdock declined to answer questions about caffeinated alcoholic drinks, stating in an email that he “can’t discuss client business.”
The story of caffeinated alcoholic beverages highlights the FDA’s limited ability to monitor many food additives. Because industry isn’t required to seek pre-market approval from the agency, the FDA is often left to police ingredients after they’ve already hit the market.
“Having pre-market authority, having people come to us and review what they plan to apply to the food supply is much more efficient for us,” the FDA’s Keefe said, adding that post-market reviews are resource intensive. “We strongly encourage them to come to us.”
But even if companies heed Keefe’s advice, some critics say the agency has given itself little power to protect the public from potentially unsafe food additives.
James O’Reilly, a professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, says the FDA essentially abdicated its responsibility as a food regulator in 1997, when it proposed rules to streamline a more robust review process that had become backlogged. The rules, he says, are a “sham.”
The system the rules created, which still operates today, excuses the FDA from actually declaring ingredients are safe. Instead, when companies determine their ingredients are safe, and then seek FDA review of that determination, the agency’s response is simply that it has “no questions.” The regulators don’t disagree but they are not formally approving the substance as safe.
“It’s a balloon in the shape of a regulator,” said O’Reilly, who specializes in food and drug law. “We have the appearance that there’s a regulator protecting us, but there’s not.”
The FDA’s Keefe, however, stresses that the agency reviews are thorough. Documents showing correspondence between regulators and industry officials confirm that the FDA asks tough questions.
But rarely does the agency reject a company’s GRAS determination. In fact, out of 524 notifications that have been submitted to the FDA and received responses to date, the agency has only rejected 17.
Instead, companies often withdraw their notifications when regulators indicate flaws with the submissions. Sometimes companies re-submit their notifications and receive a “no questions” letter. But even if they don’t, they are still allowed to market their ingredients without one.
The agency does not publicly report why notices fail to earn a “no questions” letter. And because the FDA’s concerns are not published, as in the case of lupin, other companies may end up marketing potentially harmful additives without ever knowing that the agency may have disputed their safety.
Marketing as 'FDA approved'
Companies like to leave the impression that the FDA is on the case, however.
At the Institute of Food Technologists annual exposition in 2013, manufacturers gathered at the sprawling convention center in Chicago to learn about the latest trends in food innovation.
Among the hundreds of exhibitors, including big-name food producers and suppliers, Neltner and Maricel Maffini, a scientist who has co-authored several NRDC reports on food additives, remember watching ingredient manufacturers hawking their additives as “FDA approved” — “even though they are not actual approvals” by the agency, Neltner said.
Others advertised them as “approved by FDA procedures,” suggesting that the ingredients were reviewed by the agency even if they weren’t.
“Statements like that are misleading,” Maffini said.
In March 2014, Senomyx, a San Diego-based biotechnology company, published a press release that appeared to suggest that the FDA had signed off on the safety of its new flavor, Sweetmyx S617.
That was news to the agency.
“In fact,” the FDA posted in a statement on its website, “the agency had not made this determination nor had it been notified by Senomyx regarding a GRAS determination for this food ingredient.”
Senomyx later clarified that the safety evaluation was conducted by a flavor industry trade group, not the FDA.
Additive makers who want to supply their ingredients to big food companies — like General Mills, Kellogg and Kraft — have an incentive to go to the FDA for a safety review: It makes selling ingredients much easier.
“It provides an additional level of assurance for them that the rigorous GRAS evaluation process has been met,” said Robert McQuate, a former FDA regulator who co-founded a consulting firm that specializes in reviewing food additives. The big companies “can impose the requirement that if you as a supplier of an ingredient want to sell to the 800-pound gorillas … you also have to get it cleared through FDA.”
General Mills told the Center for Public Integrity that it requires its suppliers to submit their additives to the FDA for review.
Kellogg did not say whether it requires the same of its suppliers. Spokesman Kris Charles said in a statement: “We adhere to all regulations concerning food additives and have robust measures in place for evaluating new food ingredients."
Kraft did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Bypassing FDA review is common, but industry consultants say it’s not a nefarious tactic designed to disguise unsafe food additives — it’s smart business.
They say companies often make GRAS determinations on their own — or through an industry trade association — as a way to protect proprietary information from competitors. After all, the FDA publishes information it receives when companies seek agency review, meaning competitors can steal ideas for using ingredients in new ways.
Secret GRAS determinations are done “to retain confidentiality of your material,” McQuate said. “It’s a competitive issue.”
But that explanation offers little comfort to critics who find it troubling that food additives are often regulated by companies with a financial incentive to market them, rather than a federal agency whose chief responsibility is to protect public health.
“Most people in this country take for granted that the Food and Drug Administration has some ability to oversee what ingredients are added to food and [that it] actually reviews the safety of those ingredients,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. “It’s extremely disconcerting to find out that they don’t.”
Joseph Borzelleca has been evaluating the safety of food additives longer than pretty much anyone else in the business. The 84-year-old toxicologist, who credits his career to Italian parents who taught him to love food, has helped companies bring hundreds of new ingredients to market.
“Food to me was always very important,” said Borzelleca, a long-time professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, who has been reviewing the safety of food additives since the 1960s. “I had an interest in food, not just from a nutritional perspective but from a historical and safety” perspective.
A Center for Public Integrity analysis of publicly available data found that Borzelleca is the most active of a small group of scientists — including several with ties to Big Tobacco — that the food industry turns to over and over again to determine whether additives can be deemed “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, and avoid a rigorous pre-market government safety review.
Of the 379 panels convened to review the safety of new ingredients in the last 17 years, the Center for Public Integrity found, three-quarters included at least one of these 10 scientists. But none has even come close to serving on as many as Borzelleca, who has appeared on 41 percent of them.
Despite his decades of experience and praise heaped upon him by colleagues — one called him a “wonder” — critics of the GRAS system say Borzelleca is emblematic of a system that is rife with conflicts of interest. If scientists depend on the food industry for income, they may be less likely to contest the safety of ingredients companies hope to market, critics say.
“These are standing panels of industry hired guns,” said Laura MacCleery, an attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “It is funding bias on steroids.”
Borzelleca and many of his colleagues who work with the food industry have done similar work for another well-known industry: Big Tobacco.
The Center for Public Integrity found that at least four of the top 10 GRAS panel experts, including Borzelleca, had also served as scientific consultants for cigarette makers.
The expert panels that review a new food additive to determine if it’s “generally recognized as safe” have great power because they can have the final word on that ingredient and its use. Once the group deems a new additive GRAS, it can go into an array of foods that end up on supermarket shelves, with no notice to or review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
That gives food companies an incentive to turn to experts they believe will look kindly upon their ingredients, and gives scientists incentive to do so, critics say.
“If I know that my paycheck is coming from a specific source, and I’ve been doing that for years and years, and that is what feeds me and my family, it becomes really difficult for me to be totally independent of the hand that is feeding me,” said Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Many scientific consultants dispute accusations that they are conflicted, arguing instead that they are the most qualified and most experienced scientists for the job.
“If you’re good at something, of course you’re going to be in demand,” Borzelleca said, adding that he focuses solely on safety and never considers companies’ marketing plans. “I know GRAS pretty well. It’s not a boast. It’s a statement of fact.”
A small world
A 1958 law allows companies to market ingredients without oversight by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration if they can establish that their ingredients are “generally recognized as safe” for specific uses. In other words, companies using the so-called GRAS process must demonstrate that there is a consensus among scientific experts that their ingredients are safe.
To do so, they usually convene a panel of scientists to review articles and opinions of authoritative bodies like the National Academy of Sciences to determine if an ingredient is safe for a particular use. Of 562 publicly available GRAS determinations voluntarily submitted to the FDA since 1998, a Center for Public Integrity analysis found that companies used such panels two-thirds of the time.
These panels, typically composed of three members, are meant to represent the scientific community at large. And they are particularly useful for establishing scientific consensus “when an individual published study raises safety questions” about an ingredient, according to FDA guidance.
"As long as you adhere to science-based review," said John Thomas, a scientific consultant, "then I don't think there's a better peer-reviewed process in place."
The world of GRAS panelists is a small one. A Center for Public Integrity analysis found that the top 10 most frequently hired panelists have each sat on two dozen or more panels.
Borzelleca has participated in 156 panels in the last 17 years — almost three times as many as either of the next two most popular panelists: Thomas, an adjunct professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine, and Michael Pariza, a professor emeritus and former director of the University of Wisconsin’s industry-funded Food Research Institute.
Thomas and Pariza have each served on more than 50 panels that evaluated the safety of ingredients.
Often times, the same team of experts serve on panels together. Borzelleca and Pariza, for example, have teamed up on more than 40 panels.
“It’s not a large universe of people,” said Steve Morris of the Government Accountability Office, which published a report in 2010 that cited financial conflicts of interest in the GRAS system as a concern. “The fact that there’s ... repetition and there’s familiarity, that could potentially breed a conflict.”
The Center for Public Integrity’s analysis likely captures only a fraction of all expert panels convened to establish the GRAS status of additives. That’s because companies can make safety evaluations in secret, without ever telling the FDA. So it’s unclear in those cases whether an expert panel made the determinations.
Companies are allowed to hire a single consultant to sign off on safety determinations or rely on the judgment of their own experts — and did so about a third of the time, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis.
In 2013, a Pew Charitable Trusts review of GRAS assessments concluded that “financial conflicts of interest were ubiquitous” in the system.
“The lack of independent review in GRAS determinations raises concerns about the integrity of the process and whether it ensures the safety of the food supply,” Pew researchers concluded.
‘Sterling reputations, impeccable credentials’
Industry consultants dispute such criticisms.
“There’s a reason you keep going back to the same people and that’s because these are people with sterling reputations, impeccable credentials and they know what they’re doing,” said James Heimbach, who has convened GRAS panels for decades. “If you need a quadruple bypass, do you want to go to somebody who’s already done a bunch of them or do you want to go to someone who’s never done one before?”
Indeed, most experts have decades of experience making GRAS determinations and maintain affiliations at universities. Panelists typically have extensive scientific backgrounds, often at the doctorate level, with years of experience in toxicology, pharmacology, organic chemistry and biochemistry.
Consultants interviewed for this story stressed that they would never sign off on an additive if it put public safety or their own professional reputations at risk.
George Burdock, the president and founder of Burdock Group Consultants, noted in an email that the experts who conduct GRAS assessments all have families who eat food.
“Would you approve anything you knew was not safe, knowing that your family might consume a product containing the ingredient?” he asked.
Some scientists say they’ve participated in panels that have been disbanded because the experts could not agree that the ingredient was GRAS for its intended use.
“If they don’t meet the criteria, they’re rejected,” said consultant A. Wallace Hayes, who has appeared on nine GRAS panels.
There are no public records documenting how often this happens, however.
Some additives that companies hope to market never even reach a panel. A couple of consultants told the Center for Public Integrity that they often conduct preliminary safety evaluations with companies to review ingredients before the company invests in a more comprehensive review with a panel of experts.
Robert McQuate, a former FDA regulator who co-founded the consulting firm GRAS Associates, says he sometimes flags safety problems during early screenings. He recalls doing so twice in the past few months.
“We’re going to do a rigorous safety evaluation,” McQuate said. “There’s no guarantee you’re going to get what you want.”
The Center for Public Integrity identified 10 GRAS panelists who have in the past had ties to the tobacco industry, including two who were once full-time employees of big tobacco companies, according to a review of tobacco industry documents archived by the University of California, San Francisco.
In interviews, some of these panelists said that their work for the tobacco industry was limited to evaluating the safety of cigarette additives or newly developed cigarette products that tobacco companies thought would be less dangerous. They stressed that they did not defend the safety of cigarettes in general.
Of the top 10 most frequently hired GRAS panelists, four have worked as consultants for tobacco companies.
Borzelleca’s work for the tobacco industry dates back at least to the early 1980s.
An RJ Reynolds memo from 1984 notes that Borzelleca “has been secured by the tobacco industry to represent our position” during discussions with the Department of Health and Human Services about cigarette additives.
Two years later, the company envisioned Borzelleca as its “main spokesman” if a list of cigarette additives submitted to HHS were leaked to the press and “there is sustained and intense media coverage of ingredients issues,” according to a confidential memo regarding the tobacco industry’s “public relations strategy.”
“My advice to the tobacco industry was that the GRAS substances they were using are safe when ingested,” Borzelleca wrote in an emailed response to Center for Public Integrity questions, “but I could not comment on their effects when they were subjected to the high temperatures of a lighted cigarette, a position that I still have.”
In 1995, Philip Morris hired Borzelleca for $2,000 a day for consulting services “relative to all aspects of tobacco processing and cigarette manufacture and to hold himself available to serve as a member of the Philip Morris USA Scientific Advisory Board.”
Borzelleca said he became a member of Philip Morris’ Scientific Advisory Board “to advise PM on a less hazardous cigarette,” which he added was “erroneously referred to as a ‘safer cigarette.’ ”
However, he said he began donating his fees from his tobacco work to charity after officials from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, with which he was involved as an expert, expressed concerns about his ties to Philip Morris.
Borzelleca said he has not consulted with tobacco companies for at least three years.
‘This is tobacco money’
For a while, Borzelleca’s colleagues on the Philip Morris Scientific Advisory Board included Pariza, Steve Taylor and William Waddell — scientists who are among the top 15 most contracted experts for safety assessments of ingredients added to food. Pariza and Taylor were also retained separately as consultants for the company.
Taylor told the Center for Public Integrity that he consulted with the company on safety-related issues for some of the ingredients in tobacco products, but he declined to work on the safety of tobacco itself because he “considered it a dangerous product.” Pariza did not respond to requests for comment.
Some GRAS panelists did more than just consult for tobacco companies.
A. Wallace Hayes served as an executive for RJR Nabisco, where he worked on both tobacco and food safety issues. A 1990 performance record said one of Hayes’ “objectives” was to “increase our knowledge base regarding the role of nicotine/cotinine in smoking enjoyment/satisfaction.”
“I only worked on RJ Reynolds’ attempts to develop a less hazardous, safe cigarette,” Hayes said. “I did not work on the traditional cigarette.”
Edward Carmines, who has participated in at least three GRAS panels, spent 13 years working as a scientist for Philip Morris. When contacted by phone and asked to discuss his work as a GRAS panelist, Carmines declined to comment and hung up.
Burdock Group Consultants is among the top five consulting firms hired by ingredient manufacturers for GRAS assessments. Burdock, the firm’s president, has participated in 10 expert panels since 1998.
While Burdock’s detailed résumé notes his extensive experience assessing the safety of food and dietary supplements for companies and trade associations, nowhere does it mention that Philip Morris routinely hired him as a scientific consultant in the 1990s and early 2000s.
On Aug. 22, 1995, Burdock received a check for nearly $16,000 from Philip Morris for his services. Underneath the amount, the check states: “This is tobacco money.”
When asked about his work for tobacco companies, Burdock replied in an email, “I cannot discuss any work I may have done with a client.”
Hayes, the former RJ Reynolds executive, said he “can see where people would have a problem” with former tobacco employees and consultants reviewing the safety of food additives. “But it’s all in the eyes of the beholder.”
'The good, the bad and the ugly'
Experts who serve on GRAS panels might think that they’re acting independently and making scientifically sound decisions, but that’s unlikely the case, says Sunita Sah, a Georgetown University business ethics professor who specializes in conflicts of interest.
Sah says many studies have shown that people’s judgment can be influenced by financial conflicts, even those involving as little as $5.
“For these scientists who are getting paid over and over again to do this, it’s very hard to remain totally impartial,” said Sah, who gave a presentation to industry consultants during a 2013 workshop about potential conflicts of interest in the GRAS system. “For something as important as what goes into somebody’s food, you want to eliminate those conflicts of interest.”
In 2010, the GAO recommended that the FDA “develop a strategy to minimize the potential for conflicts of interest in companies’ GRAS determinations.”
Five years later, the FDA says it’s still working on it.
Some industry consultants say they are open to the FDA creating guidelines to address concerns about conflicts of interest. But they worry that reforms could result in losing the most experienced expert panelists.
“It’s totally appropriate to investigate and refine and improve the processes with conflicts of interest,” McQuate said, “but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Borzelleca, for his part, says he would prefer to see the FDA weed out unqualified experts with limited experience reviewing GRAS additives. He worries that some scientists “gloss over things” when conducting safety reviews.
“You do get the good, the bad and the ugly,” Borzelleca said, adding that he has refused to serve on panels with scientists who had never conducted a GRAS assessment before. “We need to have some policing here.”
The U.S. House voted Tuesday to roll back safeguards aimed at protecting mobile-home buyers from predatory sales tactics and high-interest loans.
The bill passed with strong support from Republicans, helped by a handful of Democrats. Other House Democrats objected vigorously, with several citing the findings of a recent investigation by The Center for Public Integrity and The Seattle Times.
The investigation, “The Mobile-Home Trap,” found high interest rates, excessive fees and predatory sales practices by industry leader Clayton Homes, part of Berkshire Hathaway, an investment conglomerate run by billionaire Warren Buffett.
The bill “would allow an incredibly profitable industry to make even more money by charging exorbitant fees to borrowers,” said Maxine Waters of California, the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee. If it’s enacted, she said, fewer people who take out costly loans would be protected against predatory lending.
The bill would reverse rules put in place as part of a sweeping financial overhaul in 2010 known as the Dodd-Frank Act. It would raise the interest rates permitted on some mobile-home loans before they trigger extra protections for borrowers such as pre-loan counseling. The bill also would let mobile-home salespeople work closely with buyers to arrange financing.
Every voting Republican but one supported it.
Clayton Homes, by far the biggest player in the mobile-home industry, earned $558 million before taxes in 2014, a 34 percent increase over the previous year.
Clayton lends at unusually high rates. Under federal guidelines, most Clayton loans are considered “higher-priced.” Those loans averaged 7 percentage points higher than the typical home loan in 2013, according to a Center for Public Integrity/Times analysis of federal data, compared with just 3.8 percentage points above for other mobile-home lenders.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., said Democratic opposition to the bill “doesn’t hurt Warren Buffett, it hurts the people in Frog Jump,” the area in western Tennessee where he lives.
Customers, including several from Tennessee, told reporters that Clayton sales staffers steered them to finance at high rates with the company’s own lenders. Many said they were unaware that the lenders, Vanderbilt Mortgage and 21st Mortgage, were part of the same company that built and sold them their homes.
Former dealers also said the company encouraged them to put buyers in Clayton loans.
Under existing rules, sales reps on mobile-home lots may not provide a borrower with information about financing unless they first register as loan officers. Tuesday’s bill would exempt all mobile-home sales reps from registration unless they received extra pay for arranging financing.
Clayton last year built nearly half of the industry’s new homes. It finances more mobile-home purchases than any other lender by a factor of six. It sells property insurance on them and repossesses them when borrowers fail to pay.
Many buyers end up trapped in loans they can’t afford and in homes that are almost impossible to sell or refinance, the investigation found.
Clayton and Berkshire Hathaway did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Republicans said passing the legislation would help poor borrowers get loans that they might not otherwise be offered.
They also said that mobile-home buyers need salespeople to help them understand financing options, and that mobile-home loans now trigger extra consumer protections too easily because such loans tend to be smaller than regular mortgages.
Fincher, the bill’s sponsor, received more campaign money from Clayton employees than any other candidate in the 2014 election cycle: $15,150. Clayton was his fourth-biggest financial backer, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit tracker of political money. Fincher’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Clayton also donated $8,750 to Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas. Hensarling chairs the House committee that delivered Fincher’s bill to the floor.
Shortly before the vote, Waters proposed an amendment that would exempt from the rollback of rules for any lender that has “engaged in unfair, deceptive, predatory, or abusive lending practices.”
The amendment “is for veterans like Dorothy Mansfield, who should be honored for their sacrifices to this country — but were instead targeted. Just 18 months after being steered into a predatory mortgage she couldn’t afford, Mansfield was facing foreclosure.”
Mansfield is among the borrowers profiled in the Center for Public Integrity/Times story, published earlier this month. Waters also entered the story into the Congressional Record, the official archive of events and debates of the U.S. Congress.
The bill’s prospects in the U.S. Senate are uncertain. President Obama has said he will veto it if it passes both houses.
This story is part of a joint investigation by The Center for Public Integrity and The Seattle Times. Mike Baker contributed reporting.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest today charged that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s process for overseeing food additives is illegal.
“Consumers are being exposed to potentially dangerous chemicals that industry self-certifies as safe for use in foods, with little or no scrutiny from the Food and Drug Administration,” the consumer advocacy group said in a press release that accompanied comments the group filed with the agency.
Center for Public Integrity reported this week how a legal loophole created in a 57-year-old law allows the food industry to determine whether additives can be deemed “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, and avoid a rigorous pre-market government safety review.
A second Center for Public Integrity story, published today, details how the food industry repeatedly turns to the same small group of scientists to evaluate the safety of food additives they hope to market. Many of those scientists have done similar work for the tobacco industry, the investigation shows.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest argues in its 80-page filing with the FDA that the agency cannot fulfill its obligation to protect public health. The group notes that the current food additive safety system allows food companies to add new flavors, preservatives and other ingredients to foods and beverages without even telling the FDA.
The group, along with three cosigners — the Natural Resources Defense Council, Consumers Union and Environmental Working Group — further state in the comments that the secretive process “undermines FDA’s ability to conduct meaningful scientific assessments of the safety of food additives.”
In response to a lawsuit filed last year, the FDA is planning to finalize proposed rules governing the GRAS system. The agency re-opened the public comment period for the rules in 2011, through which the Center for Science in the Public Interest filed its comments today.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest proposed that the FDA limit which ingredients may circumvent agency review, minimize financial conflicts of interest for scientists and improve the quality and quantity of scientific data behind safety decisions.
“The FDA’s job is to ensure the safety of our food supply,” Erik Olson, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s health program, said in the press release. “It should be doing much more to protect our health — not outsourcing decisions on the safety of thousands of chemicals in our food to industry.”
The FDA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
But an earlier interview, Dennis Keefe, director of the FDA's Office of Food Additive Safety, stated that proposed additive safety rules in 1997 were never finalized because of “a resource issue” that the agency would have in addressing public comments and getting a rulemaking through general counsel. Keefe said he could not speculate on possible changes to proposed rules.
"He slammed me down, and then he handcuffed me.”
That’s a quote from an 11-year-old black child with autism in a story by our Juvenile Justice and all-around ace reporter Susan Ferriss. In a period when we’ve all seen harrowing video of a black man being shot in the back multiple times by a police officer, Susan’s story is highly relevant. It has superb data behind it which establishes it as far more than a sad story about one boy badly treated by the system.
I am new to Public Integrity but I have seldom been more angered by a story of such profound injustice.
Read the story and look at the data and see the many young people, pre-teens, kids, who are being criminalized and in some cases incarcerated. The proportion that is black is way out of all statistical reason as in many cases is the cohort of those defined as “disabled”.
I challenge anyone to read it and not come away with a sense of shame, certainly I hope the governor of Virginia will.
Please take a look at the story and let me know what you think.
Ben Wieder collected and made sense of the data that shows the appalling case of the 11-year-old autistic boy Kayleb Moon-Robinson is not just another sob-story, even if it could ever be dismissed in that way. Chris Zubak-Skees set the data to music, as it were, making the toll on kids literally graphic. It is the sort of work Public Integrity leads on: social issues made personal but backed up with hard data. That’ll be why the story is doing well on partners like Time.com and PRI and has been on the Reveal podcast and radio show. Powered by @Publici.
Polk Awards recognize the ICIJ – the only “digital” winner
Gerard Ryle, the director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and his team picked up the Polk Award for Business Journalism in New York Monday from Long Island University. It recognized the pioneering collaborative journalism model Gerard and Marina Guevara Walker and their colleagues are deploying to huge success, in this case with the Offshore Secrets series on massive tax avoidance.
My predecessor Bill Buzenberg was there and noted that among the winners this year and last when the Center won an award, the ICIJ and the Center were the only awards to “digital pure plays”. The ICIJ’s Offshore Leaks work is at http://www.icij.org/offshore. Of course the Polk this year doesn’t even cover the amazing HSBC-led #swissleaks story. On that front, the French government this week imposed a 1 billion euro “bail” on HSBC to require good behavior from a bank now seemingly certain to face charges in several European countries.
Cartoonist makes news shock
Also at the Polk, Garry Trudeau, the cartoonist of Doonesbury, made news with a view of the Charlie Hebdo story that only a fellow cartoonist could probably bring with a straight face and any integrity. In a speech to accept a career Polk, Trudeau noted that many of his own cartoons had been judged too hot to publish in many papers from time to time. He went on to address the Charlie Hebdo case, while never — despite what you may read elsewhere — in any way condoning the murder of the French cartoonists. He suggested they had pushed the boundaries of what he would consider fair. I quoted him on Twitter as saying Charlie Hebdo “wandered into the realm of hate speech”.
That caused a bit of a storm on Twitter of course as the locusts of the Internet swarmed. He also talked of “free speech fanatics” who forget that in his view satire is to poke fun at the powerful, not to single out or insult minority groups. Agree or not, he has a view. Weirdly, only one other person seems to have Tweeted him from a gathering of a couple of hundred journalists so I hope someone does a longer piece.
And here it is, The Atlantic printed the entire speech which I think is valuable for context from a cartoonist about the killing of cartoonists.
Putting us into spot news
Jared Bennett and Michael Beckel did a terrific piece of spot story-telling with a “12 things to know about Rand Paul” item which each component as a shareable moment for Facebook and Twitter.
It included these gems: "Rand Paul once called lobbyists a "distinctly criminal class" whose "sole goal was to rip you off.”
Followed by: "Among the companies whose lobbyists have donated to Rand Paul since he was elected: Amgen, Google and Koch Industries.”
What I/we’re reading
The Polk award winner for foreign reporting was amazing Australian/Lebanese reporter I know a little, Rania Abouzeid. An astoundingly brave and well-informed journalist she won for this piece in Politico.
Anyone in our business of nonprofit philanthropically funded journalism will do well to spend an hour or so reading and digesting this important set of research from the Knight Foundation. Almost all of it is applicable to Public Integrity and the Consortium.
I welcome any feedback.
CEO, The Center for Public Integrity
For more than three decades, the World Bank has maintained a set of “safeguard” policies that it claims have brought about a more humane and democratic system of economic development.
Governments that borrow money from the bank can’t force people from their homes without warning. Families evicted to make way for dams, power plants or other big projects must be resettled and their livelihoods restored.
The bank’s commitment, it says, is to “do no harm” to people or the environment.
The World Bank has broken its promise.
Over the past decade the bank has regularly failed to enforce its rules, with devastating consequences for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet, an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (a project of the Center for Public Integrity), The Huffington Post and other media partners has found.
Among the findings:
The World Bank often neglects to properly review projects ahead of time to make sure communities are protected and frequently has no idea what happens to people after they are removed. In many cases, it has continued to do business with governments that have abused their citizens, sending a signal that borrowers have little to fear if they violate the bank’s rules, according to current and former bank employees.
“There was often no intent on the part of the governments to comply — and there was often no intent on the part of the bank’s management to enforce,” said Navin Rai, a former World Bank official who oversaw the bank’s protections for indigenous peoples from 2000 to 2012. “That was how the game was played.”
In March, after ICIJ and HuffPost informed World Bank officials that the news outlets had found “systemic gaps” in the institution’s protections for displaced families, the bank acknowledged that its oversight has been poor, and promised reforms.
“We took a hard look at ourselves on resettlement and what we found caused me deep concern,” Jim Yong Kim, the World Bank’s president, said in a statement.
The scope of “involuntary resettlement,” as the bank calls it, is vast. Since 2004, the bank’s projects have physically or economically displaced an estimated 3.4 million people, forcing them from their homes, taking their land or damaging their livelihoods, ICIJ’s analysis of World Bank records reveals.
The true figure is likely higher, because the bank often fails to count or undercounts the number of people affected by its projects.
A team of more than 50 journalists from 21 countries spent nearly a year documenting the bank’s failure to protect people moved aside in the name of progress. The reporting partners analyzed thousands of World Bank records, interviewed hundreds of people and reported on the ground in Albania, Brazil, Ethiopia, Honduras, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Kosovo, Nigeria, Peru, Serbia, South Sudan and Uganda.
In these countries and others, the investigation found, the bank’s lapses have hurt urban slum dwellers, hardscrabble farmers, impoverished fisherfolk, forest dwellers and indigenous groups — leaving them to fight for their homes, their land and their ways of life, sometimes in the face of intimidation and violence.
Between 2004 and 2013, the World Bank and its private sector lending arm, the International Finance Corp., have committed to lend $455 billion to bankroll nearly 7,200 projects in developing countries.
Over the same span, people affected by World Bank and IFC investments have lodged dozens of complaints with the lenders’ internal review panels, alleging the lenders and their borrowers had failed to live up to World Bank and IFC safeguard rules.
In Lagos, the World Bank’s ombudsman, the Inspection Panel, said bank management “fell short of protecting the poor and vulnerable communities against forceful evictions.” Bank officials should have paid better attention to what was going on in Badia East, the panel said, given Lagos authorities’ long history of bulldozing slums and forcing people from their homes.
One year after the evictions, the bank loaned Lagos authorities $200 million to support the state government’s budget.
The World Bank said it was “not a party to the demolition” and that it advised the Lagos government to negotiate with displaced people, leading to compensation for most of those who said they’d been harmed.
Cases involving evictions have drawn the most attention, but the most common hardships suffered by people living in the path of World Bank projects involve lost or diminished income.
On India’s northwest coast, members of a historically oppressed Muslim community claim that heated water spewing from a coal-fueled power plant has depleted fish and lobster stocks in the once-fertile gulf where they make their living. The IFC loaned Tata Power, one of India’s largest companies, $450 million to help build the plant.
The U.S. and other global powers launched the World Bank at the end of World War II to promote development in countries torn by war and poverty. Member countries finance the bank and vote on whether to approve roughly $65 billion in annual loans, grants and other investments.
In 2014, the bank financed initiatives as varied as training for chicken farmers in Senegal and sewage system upgrades in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
World Bank President Kim said in March that the demand in struggling regions for infrastructure spending — to provide clean water, electricity, medical care and other vital needs — will mean the bank will finance an increasing number of big projects likely to remove people from their land, or disrupt their livelihoods.
The World Bank also put out a five-and-a-half-page “action plan” that it said would improve its oversight of resettlement.
“We must and will do better,” said David Theis, a World Bank spokesman, in response to the reporting team’s questions.
Yet even as it promised quick reforms to its procedures, the bank has proposed sweeping changes to the policies that underlie them. The bank is now in the middle of a rewrite of its safeguards policy that will set the bank’s course for decades to come.
Some current and former World Bank officials warn that the proposed revisions will further undermine the bank’s commitment to protecting the people it was created to serve. The latest draft of the bank’s new policy, released last July, would give governments more room to sidestep the bank’s standards and make decisions about whether local populations need protecting, they say.
“I am saddened to see now that pioneering policy achievements of the bank are being dismantled and downgraded,” said Michael Cernea, a former high-ranking bank official who oversaw the bank’s resettlement protections for nearly two decades. “The poorest and most powerless will pay the price.”
The bank says it has listened to the feedback and will release a revised draft with “the strongest, most state-of-the-art environmental and social safeguards.”
The Treasury Department’s practice of offering billions of dollars in no-bid contracts to banks for government services is drawing flak on Capitol Hill.
Several lawmakers are separately criticizing the Treasury for the deals that critics of the system say have exposed poor and elderly Americans to fraud and potentially wasted tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.
The agency’s inspector general has launched multiple audits of the deals and is planning more for next year.
Senators representing three committees have complained, inseparateletters sent this winter and spring, that the contracts are awarded in an opaque and arbitrary manner, blocking efforts at congressional oversight. Treasury responded with assurances that the banks are selected carefully and the programs are efficient, yet it has not provided documents or responses to satisfy any of the three letter-writers.
“In a no-bid process the risk that the American taxpayer will not receive the best deal is heightened,” wrote Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, this month.
The Center for Public Integrity published a seriesofstories about the no-bid deals, which Treasury awards under an obscure, 150-year-old law giving it the authority to hand-pick banks as “Financial Agents” and pay them for work that the government might otherwise do itself.
Among the Center’s reports was a 2014 investigation of contracts awarded to Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase & Co. to provide financial and technology services in federal prisons. The contracts were awarded in 2000 and 1998 and were amended dozens of times without being subjected to competitive bidding.
The investigation prompted Grassley to request details about the contracts from Treasury. The agency’s response did not satisfy the senator, who oversees federal prisons as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Treasury “simply allowed Bank of America to name its own price to build these complex systems,” Grassley wrote in a follow-up inquiry this month. It remains unclear, he wrote, how Treasury “is able to conduct ‘robust’ oversight of services and ensure adequate performance.”
Treasury’s inspector general – an internal, independent watchdog – is auditing some of the deals and “is planning future audits in this area as well,” said Rich Delmar, counsel to the inspector general.
Treasury spokesman Daniel Watson would not comment on the deals, the lawmakers’ letters or the ongoing probes by the inspector general.
One of those investigations was prompted by a June 2013 Center for Public Integrity report that showed how debit cards issued by Comerica Bank under a program called “Direct Express” had exposed hundreds of thousands of mostly poor and elderly benefits recipients to fraud that left some penniless.
The inspector general’s audit found that Treasury paid Comerica $32.5 million for work the bank had originally agreed to do for free. The extra payments to Comerica turned a potential loss for the bank of $24.2 million into $8.4 million in profit. The compensation could “provide Comerica with a competitive advantage” when the contract was rebid last year, the inspector general found.
Treasury then selected Comerica to continue as its card issuer last year despite bids by other banks that appeared to offer the same services for less money. Members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, then led by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., questioned the decision in a Dec. 9 letter and asked the agency to justify its decision.
Treasury responded in February that it expected to make the documents available “in the coming weeks.” The senators, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, have yet to receive the documents they requested.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, accused Treasury of misusing funds set aside by Congress to support Financial Agent services, in yet a third letter critical of the no-bid contracts. The government expected to spend $1.24 billion on Financial Agent services under that appropriation in the 2013 and 2014 budget years, according to the administration’s 2015 budget proposal.
“The administration’s unilateral decision to use taxpayer resources from a permanent indefinite appropriation … is not what Congress intended when the appropriation was established,” wrote Hatch, who oversees Treasury as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Hatch was concerned that Treasury had picked Comerica to run another program — a retirement account called “myRA” — even after it had failed to deliver the benefits cards under the terms it promised.
“Treasury continues to keep Congress in the dark concerning its [agreement] with Comerica for the Direct Express program, in regard to both changes in the underlying agreement and the decision to give Comerica taxpayer funds,” Hatch wrote on Jan 22.
Treasury replied on Feb. 4 that it was compiling responses to his request and expected to make them available within the next two weeks.
Treasury still has not delivered the documents.
In 2008, when an Australian food manufacturer wanted the US federal government’s stamp of approval on the company’s new ingredients, regulators said no. But go inside many American supermarkets and you’ll find products containing them on the shelves.
So how do new ingredients get from the lab to your dinner table?
When companies create new food additives – to improve their product’s texture, taste, appearance, or to extend their shelf life – they have two choices:
The “Food Additive Highway” is a gridlocked route marked by government potholes. Traffic here is policed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration - the federal agency that regulates 80 percent of the nation’s food supply.
Companies traveling this path must submit their food additives to extensive review. Then the FDA may issue its formal approval. This journey can take years — even decades — to complete.
So it’s no surprise that companies often take an alternative route.
This road is paved by a legal loophole that hinges on what counts as a “food additive.”
Changes to the law in the fifties created this two-lane system where anything “Generally Recognized As Safe”, or GRAS, travels down a much smoother road to market.
These “GRAS” ingredients are not considered food additives and effectively get a pass to the fast lane.
This “GRAS” clause means companies can determine on their own that what they’re adding to our food is safe.
Then it’s up to the company to inform the FDA if they want to. That’s right. Companies have no legal obligation to tell the FDA what they’re putting in our food.
But if they do decide to pull in for inspection they could get the FDA ‘OK’, which makes them more attractive to potential distributors.
But what if the FDA doesn’t like what it sees?
Take lupin – it’s a legume from same family as peanuts. It’s often used in Mediterranean cooking. It can also be ground into flour and used in gluten free food.
In 2008, when George Weston Foods told the FDA that they’d certified the use of lupin based flour, protein, and fibre in food as safe, regulators at the FDA disagreed. It found that people with peanut allergies could suffer “life-threatening reactions” to lupin-ingredients. FDA officials said ingredient labels listing lupin wouldn’t be enough to protect consumers. The regulators refused to agree that the ingredients were Generally Recognized As Safe.
So George Weston Foods withdrew the notification. But other companies skipped the FDA checkpoint altogether.
The Center for Public Integrity found products containing lupin on supermarket shelves. None included warnings for people who suffer from peanut allergies.
Companies have added at least 1000 ingredients to the food we eat without ever telling the FDA.
Production: Eleanor Bell and Jared Bennett
Reporting: Erin Quinn and Chris Young
Animation: Phillip Allen
Voiceover: John Ketchum
Executive Producer: Kimberley Porteous
Anyone who still thinks the Affordable Care Act was a “government takeover of health care” should consider this headline from the news pages of last Thursday’s Investor’s Business Daily:
UnitedHealth Profit Soars On Obamacare, Optum—April 16, 2015
That’s from a Wall Street publication whose editorial writers have rarely missed an opportunity to bash the health care reform law. Here are a few other headlines, these from IBD’s editorial page, just since the first of this year.
More Phony ObamaCare Numbers From The White House—March 16, 2015
Shock Poll: Half The Uninsured Want Obamacare Repealed—March 3, 2015
Democrats Keep Running Away From ObamaCare—February 2015
CBO Now Says 10 Mil Will Lose Employer Health Plans Under ObamaCare—January 27, 2015
It wouldn’t surprise me if UnitedHealth Group executives helped shape the opinions of those editorial writers during the reform debate. One of the things I did in my old job as head of PR for one of the country’s other big for profit-insurers was arranging for my CEO to have “desk side chats” with bigwigs at important publications like Investor’s Business Daily. We would often leave those meetings with an invitation to submit an op-ed, as was the case several years ago when Ed Hanway, Cigna’s CEO at the time, and I visited with then Dow Jones CEO Peter Kann and Daniel Henninger, deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal editorial page.
The CEOs of the largest for-profit health insurance corporations were very wary of Obamacare as it was being drafted on Capitol Hill. They didn’t really say so publicly—in fact they had their chief lobbyist, America’s Health Insurance Plans’ Karen Ignagni—claim to support reform.
“You have our commitment to play, to contribute, and to help pass health care reform this year,” Ignagni told President Obama during a March 5, 2009, meeting at the White House.
But insurers were playing a duplicitous game. Later that year, Ignagni’s group began secretly funneling tens of millions of dollars to allies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to finance anti-Obamacare PR and ad campaigns. The big for-profit insurers, which gave AHIP the lion’s share of the secret money, arguably are more responsible than any other special interest in turning the public’s attitudes against reform.
Although the insurers stood to gain financially from a law that would require Americans to buy coverage from them, many Wall Street financial analysts and investors worried that some provisions of the law might cut into insurers’ profit margins.
Analysts and investors in particular didn’t like the section of the law that would require insurers to spend at least 80 percent of their premium revenues on health care. Before the law, many insurers routinely spent 60 percent or less of their revenues on patient care. The less spent on care, the more available to reward shareholders.
Wall Street also didn’t like the provision that would have created a government-run public option to compete with commercial insurers, and they didn’t think the penalties on Americans who refused to buy coverage were harsh enough.
Partly because of the anti-reform advertising blitz insurers financed in late 2009 and early 2010, Congress capitulated and gave up on the public option. And lawmakers agreed to make the penalty for not buying insurance more painful with every passing year.
But despite the worry, it turns out that the law the insurance industry’s shills demonized has been awfully good to insurance company investors.
Here’s how IBD’s Vance Cariage reported UnitedHealth Group’s first quarter 2015 earnings report last Thursday:
“UnitedHealth Group delivered its best quarter in years Thursday as it benefited from new Obamacare customers, another strong Optum-platform showing and tame medical expenses. The nation’s No. 1 health insurer also raised its full-year 2015 sales and earnings guidance.” (Optum is a fast-growing division of the company that provides data and other services to its health plan division as well as to employers and other insurers.)
UnitedHealth Group’s revenues grew an eye-popping 13 percent, from $31.7 billion in the first quarter of 2014 to $35.8 billion in the first quarter of 2015. Net earnings on a per share basis were even more impressive, growing 33 percent, from $1.10 to $1.46 per share.
One reasons for the glowing results was the fact that UnitedHealth added 570,000 new customers during the first quarter of 2015 from the Obamacare exchanges. And contrary to conventional wisdom, that the formerly uninsured Obamacare customers would overuse medical services, UnitedHealth executives said that wasn’t the case.
In fact, the company’s CEO, Stephen J. Hemsley, said that even with the new Obamacare enrollees, the company “improved” its medical loss ratio, which measures the percent of revenues spent on medical care, from 82.5 to 81.1 percent. He used the word “improved” because, as I noted, Wall Street loves it when insurers spend less on medical care.
That decrease was viewed as a very positive development by investors. By the end of Thursday, they had bid up the company’s share price by 3.6 percent, to $121.60, just shy of the all-time high of $123.76 set on March 30.
I can’t wait to see how IBD’s editorial writers spin UnitedHealth’s Obamacare success. I’ll let you know if and when they weigh in. But don’t hold your breath.
Newt Gingrich is once again square with the tax man, his 2012 presidential campaign having finally paid off a lingering debt with the Internal Revenue Service.
The "Newt 2012" committee had owed the IRS more than $26,000 for income tax liabilities and payments as recently as last autumn, although it cut that figure to about $1,000 by New Year's Day.
The bad news for the former Republican speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives?
Gingrich's campaign still owes dozens of other creditors a collective $4.65 million, according to a recently filed campaign finance report, and prospects of erasing it are bleak — the committee raised a little more than $17,000 during the year's first three months by selling supporters' personal information to a data broker.
Gingrich's massive debt is more than any other on the roster of deadbeat presidential campaigns of yesteryear. It's a lengthy list that includes Republicans Rick Santorum and Herman Cain and Democrats John Edwards and Al Sharpton, as the Center for Public Integrity previously reported.
Even President Barack Obama's 2012 campaign hasn't paid all its bills. It owed more than $2.3 million as of March 31, including debts to law firm Perkins Coie LLP and telecom company U.S. Cellular, according to federal records.
For Gingrich, the only debt his campaign cleared during the year's first three months was its IRS tab, reporting the transaction to the Federal Election Commission on a fitting day, April 15.
Creditors still waiting for Gingrich campaign cash include Verizon Wireless, Twitter and consulting operations owned by Cain, his former Republican presidential rival, and ex-Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla.
Federally registered political committees are generally not allowed to formally terminate their operations until they pay off remaining debts, be that money owed to public entities such as the IRS, or private interests such as contractors.
This means some political committees remain technically active for years, even decades — and occasionally, after its namesake candidate has died.
A Center for Public Integrity project with KQED Radio’s “The California Report” and Public Radio International’s “The World” on the life and death struggle for asylum in America has been awarded the Child Welfare League of America’s (CWLA) Anna Quindlen Award for Excellence in Journalism on Behalf of Children and Families.
The award recognizes reporters Susan Ferriss and Amy Isackson for their investigation into the struggles of Central American minors trying to prove they qualify for asylum in the U.S. The stories detailed how an overworked network of pro bono lawyers attempted to document abuses in the young applicants’ home countries in the face of threats, corruption and poor record-keeping. The pieces demonstrated how minors face the same legal and technical challenges that adults face in these proceedings, and how, like adults, they are not entitled to appointed legal counsel. The stories also raised questions about how children would be affected by congressional proposals designed to cut off foreign minors’ access to volunteer counsel before children can agree to be returned to home countries.
The Anna Quindlen Award is given to journalists in both print and broadcast who have provided constructive, informative reporting that advances awareness, understanding and action to meet the needs of children and families who are vulnerable.
The Child Welfare League of America is the nation’s oldest and largest membership-based child welfare organization founded in 1921.
The awards will be presented during CWLA’s national conference in Washington, DC in April.
This story was reported by Heidi Benson for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.
SAN JOSE, Calif. — At eight, Marco had spent most of his life in the child welfare system. When an uncle took him in, to the first stable family environment he’d ever known, the boy finally began to thrive.
When he turned 13, his behavior changed. He started fighting at school and smoking marijuana daily. His uncle feared for the family’s safety. Marco was sent to a group home. Soon, he was living on the street, addicted to meth.
The scenario is all too common, said Laura Garnette, chief probation officer for Santa Clara County. “Kids hit adolescence and something snaps,” said Garnette, who first studied to be a psychologist.
“We don’t know why, whether it’s memories or the onset of puberty,” she said. “Something triggers past trauma.”
Youths who enter the delinquency system from child welfare, as Marco did, are also at greater risk for mental health problems and educational deficiencies. “The research is very clear,” said John Tuell, executive director of the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice, which oversees the center’s dual status youth initiative.
As one of the first demonstration sites to enact the initiative, Santa Clara County underwent intensive training to improve outcomes for such kids. The program has been up and running since June 1, 2014.
“Dual-status youth” are those involved in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Historically, juvenile justice and other child-serving systems have not been aligned. The RFK Center has worked with 13 jurisdictions on efforts designed to synchronize the two systems and better serve dual-status youths.
In years past, Marco might have fallen into the bureaucratic and philosophical gap between probation and child welfare. Today, he is back in school and in treatment for substance abuse. Though he is still in a group home, he now lives four days a week with his uncle, whose family is getting supportive services.
“Marco will probably be our first graduate,” said Garnette, who sat in on his hearing in January. “Soon, he’ll be out of both systems. He’ll be living full-time with his uncle. That’s our goal.”
The aim for better outcomes was spelled out in a 2010 “Mission and Vision” statement of the Santa Clara County Juvenile Justice Court, presented by Presiding Judge Patrick Tondreau.
If it is too soon for more than anecdotal evidence of progress, there are clear indications that — with the boost of the initiative’s intensive training — efforts to synchronize child welfare and juvenile probation are working.
Pall on the Golden State
In California, 3,000 foster youths are in the juvenile justice system at any given time, according to the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center (PJDC), an affiliate of the American Bar Association’s National Juvenile Defender Center.
Without emotional and family support, young people in the delinquency system may fall behind or withdraw from school. And, because of their complex needs and a dearth of appropriate placements, “Dual-status youth often spend additional time in juvenile hall, even after serving all the confinement time ordered by the juvenile court,” PJDC notes.
California can be Shangri-La or Hades, depending where one’s fortunes fall. The state’s juvenile justice system has a harsh history of funneling youth offenders directly into a decrepit delinquency system. Even when youth crime rates began to decline in the 1990s, counties continued to rely on state-run institutions, where overcrowding invited violence.
A 2003 class-action lawsuit filed by the Prison Law Office accused the California Youth Authority (now called the Division of Juvenile Justice) of denying basic rights and “failing to educate or rehabilitate its wards.” (The DJJ again was found “in violation of its duties to provide education and programming” in 2011; deadlines have been set for the division to comply.) In 2007, Senate Bill 81 ordered that nonviolent, non-serious youth offenders be “realigned” to the local level. Today, CJCJ data shows, the majority of justice-involved youth are served by the counties.
Even at the county level, there is no guarantee that juvenile justice and child welfare work collaboratively. Since the state does not, by law, recognize the dual-status population, it is up to each jurisdiction to choose to adopt the recommendations of Section 241.1 of the Welfare and Institutions Code, which sets terms for juvenile probation and child welfare to work together.
Fifteen years after that statute was passed, Santa Clara is one of only a dozen California counties that can boast this kind of cross-system coordination.
“Santa Clara County has distinguished itself. They have built a solid protocol for working together,” RFK’s Tuell said.
“I’m impressed by what they’ve overcome,” he said, citing the difficulty of coordinating long-separate data systems and funding streams, as well as improving the exchange of information. “There has been a collective effort to say, ‘These are our kids and we are responsible for their rehabilitation and treatment.’”
No Longer on Hold
A framed poster from the 1986 coming-of-age film “Stand by Me” hangs in the office of the Honorable Patrick Tondreau, presiding judge of the Juvenile Court of Santa Clara County since 2008. Settling in at his desk after a long morning in court recently, Tondreau was happy to talk about the progress made under his watch.
“Our primary goal is rehabilitation, not punishment,” he said. “Seventy percent of our kids have mental health issues. Seventy percent have substance abuse issues. They have dysfunctional home issues. They have education issues. We have to address everything going on in a kid’s life in order to help make that kid a success.”
The turning point came in 2009, when Tondreau was invited to bring a team to Georgetown University for a conference on dual-status youth.
“What struck me was when they asked, ‘How many of you have a lead agency?’ and every team at the conference — except us — raised their hands. It was embarrassing.”
What Santa Clara had instead of a “lead agency” model — where one agency takes the lead, but both stay involved — was something called “on-hold.” Until a case was settled, the judge had only two choices: put a child’s dependency on hold — curtailing all services — or dismiss their probation.
Everyone knew the on-hold model was flawed. “It was harmful to the kid and the families and the community,” Tondreau said. “So we came back from Georgetown and we started that conversation.”
Initially, there was resistance. “Our probation officers and our social workers didn’t know each other, didn’t understand each other, didn’t trust each other,” he said.
Eventually, probation came on board. “We went through a culture change,” Tondreau said. “Probation saw that they’re not just law enforcement officers. They saw that their role is a lot like a social worker.”
The leadership of juvenile probation and the leadership of child welfare agreed that a system of lead agency was the best practice. Together, they collaborated on a presentation and applied to be part of the RFK and MacArthur Foundation-funded program. They were accepted and a training team came to Santa Clara in 2012.
“Two big things happened,” Tondreau recalled. “We all signed a memorandum of understanding that said, ‘This is not just the flavor of the ice cream for this month. We mean to do business together like this perpetually.’
“And, we started to build a ‘co-occurring team’ — beginning with two probation officers, two social workers and a couple of supervisors on both sides,” he said. “They went through massive training.”
Now, when the judge orders a 241.1 — for cases that straddle both systems — the co-occurring team steps in. If they decide a case should go to the dually involved youth unit, both probation and dependency stay involved. Plans to expand are already underway, Tondreau said. “We know we can handle more kids.”
If there are no hard numbers yet to measure success, Garnette isn’t fazed. “Three years from now we WILL have hard numbers,” she said, emerging from a grant-writing session to request funding for two new social workers. “Noticeably, it’s working.”
On the Right Path
Once a case is labeled “dually involved,” another team convenes — a family meeting, organized by a facilitator who is also a youth advocate.
“They bring in everybody under the sun,” Tondreau said, including parents or foster parents, social workers and probation officers. The group stays on board until a case is decided. The anecdotal evidence is encouraging, he said. “Kids are saying, I really like my team, I’m glad they’re involved in my life.”
A growing body of scientific research shows that the adolescent brain is more malleable and more complex than previously known. The findings have informed progressive legislation: In 2014, taking a cue from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the California Supreme Court acknowledged that “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentences.”
The distinction has come into play in Santa Clara.
“I had a kid in court Tuesday who was on the dually involved youth team,” said Tondreau. “Seventeen years old. A foster kid. He’d committed a sex offense.”
The district attorney agreed to dismiss probation, an outcome that may have been unlikely not long ago. The decision was made to keep him in dependency.
“It was the kind of case that was serious, but he had so matured, and was so engaged in treatment — as a sex offender, he went to a specialist — that both his social worker and his probation officer had absolute confidence that he was going to be a success,” the judge said. “I think it had something to do with the team. You could tell that they really knew him.”
If they successfully complete counseling, such juveniles rarely reoffend, according to the judge. “We’ve been very successful with sex offenders. You can be, when you get hold of them when they’re still forming their attitudes and behaviors.”
Even in the best of circumstances, adolescents are vulnerable to poor judgment while their brains are developing. “You’re not weighing consequences because you don’t have the ability to do it quite yet,” said Tondreau, who confessed that he knows this through personal experience.
“Part of the reason for my love of juvenile court is that I was in juvenile delinquency court myself,” he said. “I was a good kid, but I got involved with a couple of guys and we snuck out every night and were going for joy rides. Nobody locked their cars back in 1961. We’d get in the car. We’d drive around. And we’d park it right where we’d found it. We weren’t trying to hurt anybody. Then one night, we hit a telephone pole. Everybody got hurt. Not badly. We were lucky.”
At the time he was an Eagle Scout and on the basketball team of his Jesuit high school in Portland, Oregon.
He never forgot the sadness he felt, or how deeply upset his parents were. “The shame that they had, that cured everything. The judge couldn’t have done anything to me,” he said.
“Even as a really good kid, with really good parents, I made some terrible mistakes. Adolescents screw up. It’s what happens.”
Now, as a judge of adolescents, he brings that awareness to the bench.
“I tell my kids, ‘You’re a good kid. I know you’re a good kid. You just screwed up. You’re not thinking straight. You’ve just got to get through this, to grow up, and to have this as a learning experience.” Just like he did.
Heidi Benson is a San Francisco-based writer and former reporter and editor for the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. Winner of the 2006 PEN USA award for literary journalism (for "The Life and Death of Iris Chang"), she is a recent graduate of the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco.
For decades, conservative attorney Jim Bopp has fought on the front lines of a regulatory war over how political campaigns are financed.
As a staunch proponent of deregulation, Bopp has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on multiple occasions, including during the 2008 Wisconsin Right to Life v. Federal Election Commission ruling that overturned the ban on corporate-funded issue ads ahead of an election — what federal regulators call “electioneering communications.”
The Terre Haute, Indiana-based lawyer was also involved with the landmark Citizens United v. FEC ruling, which overturned the ban on corporate-funded advertising that explicitly calls for the election or defeat of political candidates. This year, he’s advising Louisiana’s Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal as Jindal weighs a 2016 White House bid.
Bopp recently talked with the Center for Public Integrity about political corruption, the 2016 presidential election and the proliferation of super PACs and nonprofits in politics. Among his assertions: the current campaign finance system is broken and liberal campaign finance reform advocates tend to act like Communists.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Center for Public Integrity: In an ideal world, what is needed to combat political corruption and prevent people from gaming the system?
Bopp: You have to have as few rules as possible, and those rules need to be vigorously enforced. If they are not enforced, they are pointless.
Center for Public Integrity: Do you think the number of people trying to game the system has increased in recent years?
Bopp: No, there are always corrupt people, and they will always try to game the system. The more rules there are, the more opportunities they have to do that … This is the reason the Soviet Union collapsed — because of all the rules on the economy that people were flaunting with black markets and bribes and everything [else] to get around all these rules. And, of course, the response by the Communists — just as the response by campaign finance reformers — always is more rules.
Center for Public Integrity: How would the 2016 presidential race be different if candidates could accept unlimited amounts of money or higher amounts of money?
Bopp: They wouldn’t need to set up six or eight different organizations to raise money. They would have one … [Now] your last option is a candidate committee because it is the one that has the most severe contribution limits of all the potential options.
Center for Public Integrity: These other groups — such as super PACs and nonprofits — can’t be controlled by the candidate, but they can be operated by allies.
Bopp: It’s obviously a friend or an ally. I’ve found it impossible to get your enemies to set up organizations to support your campaign. The only people who are willing to support your campaign are people that support you. Isn’t that shocking?
Center for Public Integrity: What sort of boundaries or lines do those groups have to worry about?
Bopp: Each has their own unique set of rules, and you just have to make sure that you follow those. It’s a very complex dance now ... And it requires very sophisticated legal advice. It advantages the rich and the sophisticated, but all these rules always do. The more rules, the more money it takes, the more sophistication it takes to navigate them.
Center for Public Integrity: Is there a level of anonymous money in the process that would be concerning to you?
Bopp: It’s really pretty hard to get anonymous money effectively into a campaign … I am concerned about the system generally right now because it has been distorted, and it has been rendered so non-transparent and non-accountable.
Center for Public Integrity: What about political spending by so-called “social welfare” nonprofits that are organized under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code — where it’s unclear where the money is coming from?
Bopp: If it’s a (c)(4), you’ve got to spend half your money on activity that has nothing to do with the election. If your intent is to affect the election, half of the money is wasted. And not very many people are willing to waste half of their money.
Center for Public Integrity: Looking at the current landscape, some regulators have proposed restricting the political activities of certain nonprofits.
Bopp: If the current [vehicles] are attacked so that [their effectiveness and utility] goes down, then other ones will be used … There are organizations that I have already thought of that haven’t yet been utilized very much.
Center for Public Integrity: Like what?
Bopp: You’ve got to pay me for that. But there are several that I’ve already figured out how to utilize if that becomes necessary.
Center for Public Integrity: Do you think we’ll see LLCs or other corporate forms become more politically active?
Bopp: Only ones with unique profiles that are really, in effect, just a particular person’s vehicle. It’s almost unheard of for any for-profit corporation with customers and employees and investment bankers doing anything like that. As soon as you start involving all them, then the willingness to take political stands goes down dramatically.
Center for Public Integrity: Where do you see regulators or lawmakers going in the right direction right now?
Bopp: Before the last election, there were 13 states that raised or eliminated contribution limits. And that’s continuing because that is the source of all these problems. It’s the source of the incentive to look for other organizations or means to participate — which then results in the campaign finance reformers playing whack-a-mole.
Center for Public Integrity: How hopeful are you that this Congress would consider raising campaign contribution limits?
Bopp: What would be the point of doing something in Congress? [President] Obama’s going to veto it. What would be the point of that exercise?
Center for Public Integrity: Well, certainly in the states, there have been some politicians on both sides of the aisle that have supported raising the limits.
Bopp: No question. Democrats in some states have been the ones who have proposed and passed it. In Illinois, as an example, a very clever way was figured out by them to completely eliminate contribution limits. That means the vast majority of the money goes to the candidate. And you can vote for or against the candidate based on who is supporting them. You can’t vote against a super PAC.
Center for Public Integrity: In your mind, how long until the entire system reaches a tipping point?
Bopp: We have reached the tipping point! It’s utterly unaccountable and non-transparent. And it’s all because the rules have made them so … This is a downward spiral until the whole system collapses, which it is very close to. The effects of contribution limits have so distorted the system that we have almost zero accountability and transparency.
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At a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, federal employees and child advocates argued that states have been allowed to take juvenile-justice grant money while violating laws against jailing kids for minor infractions.
“The true victims in all of this are the children who come into contact with inadequate juvenile-justice systems,” said Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the committee.
Among those testifying at the hearing was University of Tennessee law professor Dean Rivkin, who was featured in a 2014 Center for Public Integrity investigation into children who were shackled and jailed in Knox County, Tenn. , after being summoned to court for truancy.
As in most states, truancy is not a crime in Tennessee, Rivkin said. Missing school is a “status offense,” an infraction that only a minor can commit, like running away. Under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency and Prevention Act of 1974 status offenders cannot be jailed—unless, based on a loophole, the children are first clearly afforded the appointment of legal counsel and given ample opportunity to comply with instructions given to them by a court.
Rivkin told the Senate panel that he and other attorneys have represented truants with mental-health and learning problems who were jailed before the lawyers met with the minors or began representing them.
“One of our clients threatened suicide, following her release from the detention facility, and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital by her parents,” Rivkin said, describing the story of a 15-year-old Knox County girl whose experience was featured in the Center report. Rivkin submitted the story to the committee as part of his testimony.
“In the juvenile jail,” Rivkin told the committee, “our clients were shackled, indiscriminately drug tested, asked to strip, given orange jail jump-suits, and placed in a facility that held serious juvenile offenders. They were not screened for mental-health problems.”
Rivkin testified Tuesday that in 2013 he asked officials at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention—part of the U.S. Justice Department—to look into documents he had obtained suggesting that Knox County might have committed scores of violations of federal rules against detention of status offenders.
The federal official, Rivin said, “stated that he was not interested in our data” as part of a subsequent federal audit that examined only a four-month period of juvenile detention in Tennessee.
Grassley’s interest in scrutinizing the quality of audits stemmed from whistleblower accounts alleging that certain states had been faking detention data and were still getting grants.
The 1974 juvenile justice act spells out rules that states must follow to receive federal grants designed to help keep troubled youth out of the criminal justice system. If audits identify violations, then grants to states are supposed to be cut, based on a formula, if not halted altogether.
“The law says that the federal money comes with strings attached,” Grassley said. “Specifically, states must comply with four core requirements in order to qualify for the grants.”
The core requirements include a prohibition on the detention of status offenders, such as truants or runaways, and a prohibition on placing minors in adult jails, with narrow exceptions. A third requirement prohibits placing minors who do end up in adult jails adjacent to or inside cells with adults. A fourth requirement demands that states show they have programs in place and are making progress toward reducing the disproportionate involvement of ethnic minorities with the juvenile-justice system.
In January of 2014, Grassley said, an inspector general oversight report found that the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention had failed to penalize the state of Wisconsin for violations—even though a state employee had admitted that fraudulent data was submitted to show compliance with the core requirements.
Grassley wrote letters to U.S. Justice Department officials demanding responses to allegations of additional “mismanagement” in the states of Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois and Puerto Rico.
A Center report released this month detailing the arrests and prosecution of young students in Virginia—many of them children with special needs—was submitted to the Senate Committee as part of the record generated by the hearing.
“To its credit,” Grassley said, “the (Justice) Department has now owned up to its problems” and is revamping its policies for ensuring that states comply with rules and merit federal grants.
Testifying Tuesday, Karol Mason, assistant attorney general of justice programs at the Justice Department, said that officials have identified “errors and systemic flaws” in how states are audited and are making changes.
Mason said the methods used to monitor states are “old and outdated” and standards for measuring compliance have been vague.
Rivkin said that the current auditing system is “one of the least transparent systems of any federal program that I’ve encountered. Public access is limited. Bureaucratic language abounds. Without greater transparency and clarity,” he said, the intent of the 1974 act “suffers.”
One hundred eighty work-related deaths in 2013 were added to the federal government’s official tally Wednesday, updating preliminary numbers released last fall.
The corrected numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 4,585 people died from injuries sustained on the job, up from initial reports of 4,405 deaths. Even the revised number represents the second-lowest annual total of fatal injuries since 1992, the BLS said. That equates to about 3.3 deaths for every 100,000 full-time-equivalent workers — a slight decrease from the 3.4-per-100,000 death rate reported in 2012, and the lowest rate under the most recent method of reporting established in 2006.
The release is an update of preliminary data reported by the BLS in September. Every category — except workers 17 and younger — saw more deaths in the update. The overall increase in the final numbers is on par with historic trends.
According to the new data, most workers killed on the job in 2013 — 1,865 — died in transportation accidents; 721 died via contact with objects and equipment; 724 died from falls, slips or trips; and 335 died from exposure to harmful substances or environments. Violence — either homicides or suicides — accounted for 773 deaths.
Thirty-two more deaths were added to the private construction sector, for a total of 828 — the most in the sector since 2009, according to the BLS. Workers classified as Hispanic or Latino accounted for 817 deaths in 2013, or roughly 3.9 deaths for every 100,000 full-time equivalent employees. That’s the highest total since 2008. Seven hundred and eight Hispanic workers died in 2012. (The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a nonprofit advocacy group, offers resources for Spanish-speaking workers.)
The new data show that 749 contract or temporary workers — employed by one firm, but working under the guidance of another — died in 2013. That number has increased steadily in recent years, going from 542 in 2011 to 715 in 2012. The Center for Public Integrity has reported on the dangers temporary workers face on the job and the corporate and regulatory factors that perpetuate the hazards.
A new method of estimating air pollution from flares at refineries and chemical plants, released under court order by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this week, could mean that earlier tallies substantially undercounted the tons of chemicals pumped into communities.
Flares are used to burn off gas, a process that releases some volatile organic compounds — VOCs, which can harm health and contribute to lung-damaging smog. The Environmental Integrity Project, an environmental law group that sued to press the EPA to reconsider its emissions figures, said the new calculations suggest that factory flares likely belch four times more VOCs than previously thought.
The EPA did not release an analysis of how the new guideline changes the pollution picture. Officials there cautioned that previous national tallies included numbers from firms that used their own estimation methods, not just those that used the EPA calculation. But the new guideline is about four times higher than the old one, the agency confirmed — and because the old method also counted some non-VOC substances, the real gap is even larger.
Environmental advocates say they hope the change will yield information that more accurately reflects what’s going into the air. Many companies estimate their emissions rather than measuring them directly, the Environmental Integrity Project said.
The group said it calculated that the annual health costs imposed by refinery flare emissions alone likely tops $120 million in medical bills and other expenses — most of which comes from additional pollutants that had not been previously accounted for.
“By recognizing that there are much higher emissions and health impacts from flares, I think there will be much more priority put to finding ways to reduce these emissions,” said Sparsh Khandeshi, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project.
The group’s lawsuit — on behalf of several Texas and Louisiana organizations — prompted a court-ordered deadline of April 20 for the EPA to reconsider its decades-old emission guidelines. The updated figures, issued late that evening, suggest that flares from U.S. refineries alone are likely sending about 50,000 tons of VOCs into the air each year, rather than the approximately 13,000 tons the EPA calculated last year, the Environmental Integrity Project said in an analysis released Tuesday.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents the chemical industry, declined to comment on the new guidelines or their implications. The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, another trade group, did not respond to requests for comment.
Advocacy groups involved in the lawsuit over the calculations hope the end result will be reduced emissions. Companies could recycle more gas, putting it to use instead of flaring it, they say.
“Members of industry have a saying: ‘What gets measured gets improved,’” Adrian Shelley, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, said in a statement. “Only by accurately measuring emissions can we reduce pollution and protect public health.”
Flares aren’t limited to chemical plants and refineries. They’re also used at oil and gas drilling sites across the country. But the EPA said in a statement that its new guidelines shouldn’t be applied to production sites because those flares can differ from ones used by manufacturing plants — and because emission-control requirements are looser for some production sites than for refining and chemical manufacturing facilities.
Juan Parras, director of the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, one of the nonprofit organizations included in the EPA lawsuit, said the ideal would be zero emissions — for companies to capture all their waste.
Until that’s possible, he wants to see reductions. The health of people living in nearby communities depends on it, Parras said.
“We have never said that to change a process or a system of operation is not costly — certainly, it’s costly,” he said in an interview. “But we also believe they make enough profits and enough money to fix up what they’re building, and they can build it a better way.”
Privately run Medicare plans, fresh off a major lobbying victory that reversed proposed budget cuts, face new scrutiny from government investigators and “whistleblowers” who allege plans have overcharged the government for years.
Federal court records show at least a half dozen whistleblower lawsuits alleging billing abuses in these Medicare Advantage plans have been filed under the False Claims Act since 2010, including two that just recently surfaced. The suits have named insurers from Columbia, S.C., to Salt Lake City, Utah to Seattle and plans which have together enrolled millions of seniors; lawyers predict more whistleblower cases will surface. The Justice Department also is investigating Medicare risk scores.
Though specific allegations vary, the whistleblower suits all take aim at these risk scores. Medicare uses the scores to pay higher rates for sicker patients and less for people in good health. But officials were warned as early as 2009 that some plans claim patients are sicker than they actually are to boost their payments.
Privately run Medicare Advantage plans have signed up more than 17 million members, about a third of people eligible for Medicare, and are poised to get bigger. Their lobbying muscle is keeping pace with that growth. Earlier this month, the industry overturned proposed cuts sought by the Obama administration for a third straight year, instead winning a modest raise in payment rates for the programs.
Medicare Advantage resonates with many seniors for its low out-of-pocket costs. It’s also winning favor with some health policy wonks who argue these managed care plans can offer higher quality care than standard Medicare, which pays doctors and hospitals on a “fee-for-service” basis.
Karen Ignagni, the chief executive officer of America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s trade group called the government’s change of heart “a notable step to provide stable funding.”
She went on to say: “Millions of seniors across the country have made their voices heard in Washington, and more than 340 members of Congress have stood in support of Medicare Advantage.”
But the whistleblower suits argue that it’s far too easy for health plans to gouge the government.
Malcolm Sparrow, a health care fraud expert at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said the number of these cases suggests government oversight is too lax.
“Overall this is quite bad news, because in the majority of instances no whistleblower steps forward—as it's a difficult, risky and highly stressful thing to do,” said Sparrow. “It shows the incentives provided for whistleblowers are working well, and all the other controls and detection systems are failing miserably,” he wrote in an email.
Ray Thorn, a spokesman for the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, disagreed. He said CMS “is taking steps to protect taxpayers, Medicare beneficiaries, and the Medicare program.” Thorn cited an increase in CMS audits and said health plans have identified overpayments and given back about $1.1 billion to the government.
Still, critics want to step up accountability– annual taxpayer costs for Medicare Advantage exceed $150 billion—as the health plans bite off bigger chunks of Medicare business.
“CMS could save billions of dollars by improving the accuracy of its payments to Medicare Advantage programs,” the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, wrote in its 2015 annual report released earlier this month.
On another front, the Justice Department is widening the scope of an investigation into whether exaggerated risk scores are jacking up costs improperly.
Humana Inc., based in Louisville, Kentucky, which counts more than 3 million seniors in its plans, wrote in a March Securities and Exchange Commission filing that the investigation “includes a number of Medicare Advantage plans, providers and vendors.”
On April 14, DaVita Healthcare Partners Inc., headquartered in Denver disclosed that it had been hit with a Justice Department subpoena. Investigators sought Medicare Advantage billing data and other records from January 2008 through the end of 2013.
DaVita HealthCare Partners, whose medical clinics have treated Humana patients, also disclosed “a potentially improper” billing practice, which it said had been halted. DaVita is cooperating with authorities to “address the issue,” according to the SEC filing.
Medicare Advantage billing errors aren’t easy to spot because CMS – not patients— foots the bill and the agency keeps its audits of risk scores secret. (The Center for Public Integrity is suing CMS in an effort to make these findings public under the Freedom of Information Act).
In the latest lawsuit to surface, a pair of whistleblowers allege that Blue Cross of South Carolina submitted inflated claims between 2006 and 2010, then “acted to cover up and hide the false submissions so that they would be able to retain the wrongly paid reimbursements,” according to an April 3 filing.
The South Carolina suit also names the Deseret Mutual Insurance Company, a Utah plan formed by the Church of the Latter-day Saints, which contracted with Blue Cross to process Medicare Advantage billings.
“We deny the allegations and are vigorously defending the case,” responded Blue Cross of South Carolina spokeswoman Patti Embry-Tautenhan.
Deseret Mutual could not be reached despite repeated calls and emails to the health plan’s Utah office and its South Carolina attorney.
The suit was filed by Catherine Brtva, a former Blue Cross computer billing specialist and Jerald R. Conte, a former contractor. Conte alleges he was fired after objecting to the billing, while Brtva said she was forced to quit. Blue Cross lawyers counter that Brtva “resigned of her own accord” and Conte was let go because of “budget reductions.”
The case targets flaws in computer programs that Blue Cross says were used to submit to Medicare millions of health insurance claims by hundreds of thousands of members.
In court filings, Blue Cross does not deny some overcharges occurred. But it says underpayments also happened and it worked with CMS to correct the problems.
The whistleblowers argue that the plans set out to repay only about $2 million in overpayments – just 10 percent of what they actually owed. CMS officials declined to discuss the matter.
The False Claims Act dates to the Civil War and is a growing platform for unveiling fraud against the federal government. The suits are filed under court seal to give the government time to decide whether to join the case, a process known as “intervention.” (Here's how it works).
These suits don’t appear on court dockets until a judge lifts the seal, usually after the government completes its investigation. As a result, it’s difficult to discern how many such cases are in the pipeline.
“We are not yet seeing everything out there,” said Patrick Burns, co-director of Taxpayers Against Fraud, a group funded by whistleblowers. “The strongest cases may be hidden for years while the government investigates.”
Several attorneys said in interviews they expect more cases to surface, particularly as Medicare Advantage grows. Risk scoring fraud “has popped up on our radar,” said Joseph E.B. White, a Philadelphia lawyer who specializes in whistleblower cases.
The Center for Public Integrity has previously reported the case of Miami doctor Olivia Graves. She accuses Humana of billing Medicare for diseases that “were not supported by medical records.” Humana denies the allegations and has sought to get the case tossed out of court. But earlier this month, a magistrate judge recommended that it go forward. Humana has appealed that decision, arguing in an April 20 filing that it cannot “guarantee the accuracy” of all medical diagnoses made by doctors.
In another case, a former manager at a southern California health care firm alleges that home visits were abused to inflate risk scores at several Medicare Advantage plans. A third case brought by a former Bush administration health official accuses a Medicare health plan in Puerto Rico of bleeding hundreds of millions of dollars from Medicare by concealing inflated risk scores.
All of the health plans have repeatedly denied the allegations and are seeking to have them dismissed. Lawyers on both sides note that whistleblowers must clear significant legal bars to succeed in court. If so, they can receive from 15 percent to 30 percent of any money the government collects.
Many cases fall by the wayside, either because the government doesn’t intervene or the whistleblowers fail to meet legal tests in the law. In general, whistleblowers have a much greater chance of winning if the government joins the case and throws its resources behind the effort. But lawyers can also point to many cases that settled for millions of dollars, or more, even though whistleblowers went ahead on their own.
Even cases that fail to meet the legal threshold can allege conduct that most businesses would rather not have aired. One case in Seattle that didn’t go forward after the government declined to take it over, makes the point.
The suit, which the Center for Public Integrity only recently discovered, was filed in 2012 by Lisa Parker, a former clinic supervisor at The Polyclinic, who sued the clinic and Essence Healthcare, a Medicare Advantage plan.
Parker cited a 2010 memo that asked doctors’ staff to talk hundreds of elderly people into coming in for a medical visit. The clinic was to receive about $250,000 to $500,000 in 2011from increased risk scores from the visits.
“We have a significant opportunity to enhance our financial results and thus our paychecks, but we must act quickly,” the memo reads.
The staff was given “talking points” to use in persuading the patients to come in. When patients resisted, the staff waived patient co-payments for the visits or in some cases paid for their parking fees. Co-pays were from $10 to $20 at the time, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges the visits “were not dictated by patient concern, nor for the treatment or diagnosis of specific illnesses, symptoms, complaints or injuries, but were designed and performed to maximize the opportunity to bill Medicare.”
Joel Andersen, vice-president of marketing for Essence Healthcare, said in an email statement: “the government did not find any wrongdoing or any cause to intervene and thus the case was quickly dismissed. We consider the matter closed and have no additional commentary to add. We strongly advise that this matter not be characterized in any other fashion than a frivolous lawsuit based on unfounded claims.”
Tracy Corgiat, vice-president of marketing and development at The Polyclinic, said that CMS requires that a patient’s “clinical history and medical diagnoses be newly documented each year during an in-person visit.” The Polyclinic has a “rigorous process for validating the diagnoses of our patients and we are fully confident in that process,” she said.
At least one doctor was taken aback and said so.
“Let me see if I’ve got this right. In order to get more $$$ for the Polyclinic, we have to bring patients in for a visit they didn’t need or initiate?” the doctor, Scott Stevens, wrote in an email that’s part of the court file.
Stevens said the visits were “contrived appointments” that “entail inconvenience, a waste of their time and co-pays for no added value (to the patient).”
He went on: “considering the advancing age of these patients, they struggle to find and pay for parking, often having to coax a friend or family to bring them in. For them, it’s a half-day at least.
“They would get more from a movie and popcorn,” Stevens wrote.
A U.S. effort to dispose of 34 tons of surplus plutonium from scrapped nuclear weapons has been long been stymied by cost overruns and technical problems. But now it seems the challenges to proceeding are even steeper than anticipated, with a new Energy Department study saying that a startling, year old cost estimate may still be billions of dollars short.
The older study led by John MacWilliams, an advisor to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, estimated the lifetime cost of the so-called Mixed Oxide (MOX) plutonium elimination project in South Carolina at over $25.1 billion.
But the new study, conducted by a U.S. Air Force-funded research and development center known as the Aerospace Corporation, says the effort could cost at least $30.7 billion to complete, according to a summary that was presented to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
After the summary was obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an anti-nuclear group, Energy Department officials confirmed that the study concluded this cost might even balloon to $47.5 billion.
The higher pricetag would ensue if, as MacWilliams’ study assumed last year, annual spending on the program is capped at $500 million annually, which would drag out its completion. If spending were limited to $375 million a year — an amount close to what Congress has recently appropriated — the cost of the overall project could eventually reach $110.4 billion, the summary stated.
None of these figures include the sums spent so far to build a plant at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to mix the plutonium with uranium and produce fuel for U.S. commercial reactors. The plant is about 65 percent complete and $4.1 billion has already been spent, according to the Energy Department.
An alternative plan to turn the plutonium into reactor fuel: simply diluting the plutonium by mixing it with a classified material and burying it, could cost up to $17.2 billion, the document states.
Derrick Robinson, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, confirmed in an email that the fuel option could cost $47.5 billion while the burial option could $17.2 billion, as outlined in the summary. He said both figures were calculated to include anticipated inflation, which was “consistent with the best practices and industry standards for cost estimating.”
Robinson said the full report was released to Congress April 22, but was considered "for Official Use Only" and would not be publicly available. “Aerospace is working on a version of the report that has no distribution restriction,” he said, adding that the process could take a few months.
Edwin Lyman, senior scientist with the group’s Global Security Program, said that the summary was consistent with a slide presentation outlining the full report’s conclusions, which was presented April 21 on Capitol Hill. “These eye-popping numbers just underscore how completely unsustainable the MOX program is,” Lyman said. “We have to stop wasting more money on a white elephant.”
Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for the contractor building the fuel plant at Savannah River, CB&I Project Services Group, said in an email that "we vigorously disagree with this report." He called the Aerospace “cost figures … inaccurate and unsubstantiated," citing the MacWilliams study and other earlier government reports.
Jessica Brown, a spokeswoman for the Aerospace Corporation, said that no one was immediately available to speak about the report.
The plutonium disposal effort grew out of a post-Cold War U.S. agreement with Russia to each get rid of 34 tons of their surplus weapons plutonium, partly to discourage another arms race and partly to keep the material from being stolen for sale on the black market. The combined total of 64 tons slated for disposal could be used to make 17,000 bombs.
Under the deal, signed in 2000, the United States pledged to turn some of the weapons fuel into a mixed-plutonium and uranium oxide fuel, called MOX, for use in commercial reactors.
The DOE planned to bury the rest encased in large canisters filled with glass that contained highly-radioactive materials. But the Bush administration abandoned this option in 2002. Russia always planned to burn the plutonium as reactor fuel.
Construction of the U.S. MOX plant began in 2007. While the shell is largely complete, the structure must still be equipped with the piping and specialized machinery needed for turning the mixed plutonium and uranium into fuel pellets.
The escalating cost of the MOX project led the White House in 2014 to try to put construction of the South Carolina plant on cold standby, essentially shutting it down. But that plan was thwarted by South Carolina’s congressional delegation, including its Republican senior senator, Lindsay Graham.
A November 2014 report to Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz by the Contract and Project Management Working Group, which included senior managers from seven DOE offices, concluded that the department had underestimated the costs of the MOX project from the start.
The Working Group’s report said that the DOE’s cost calculations were flawed because they were not subjected to peer review and because the department had not analyzed the construction or operating costs of the French MOX plant that served as a model for the Savannah River facility. The report also found that the DOE had not conducted a “rigorous” risk analysis or review of the technology.
A congressional hearing on hydraulic fracturing waded into the highly charged debate over the oil and gas extraction process Thursday, with each side accusing the other of misleading the public.
“Activists have spread misinformation about the science in an attempt to convince Americans that there is no way fracking can be done safely,” said U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. “The science overwhelmingly shows that hydraulic fracturing can be done in an environmentally safe manner.”
He focused on concerns about groundwater contamination, saying claims have been made based on the “possibility and not the probability” of risks, threatening the jobs and increased energy independence fracking has brought the country.
U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, the science committee’s ranking member, countered that communities face real challenges as a result of fracking — an industrial process that has brought wells alongside and within residential neighborhoods — and said their concerns won’t be allayed by dismissing them or preventing them from pursuing local bans, as Texas is on the verge of doing. She charged that the hearing was “designed to give a platform for the fracking industry to attack those who question the safety of practices within that industry.”
“This hearing is advertised as being about the science of fracking, but the majority’s witnesses consist of a state economic regulation and development official, a representative of a firm that was set up to run public relations for the fracking industry and a scientist who has been paid by one of the largest fracking firms in the country,” she said. “That does not sound like a promising panel to honestly examine scientific questions.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists said in an analysis last year that the House science committee, once known for calling on independent scientists for a large share of its witnesses, has become increasingly dominated by industry interests. By 2012, the last year of the group’s analysis, industry-affiliated witnesses outnumbered all others — scientists included.
On top of that, it can be hard to tell when seemingly independent witnesses have industry or other ties because the committee asks only for disclosures about government grants received, not about other potential conflicts of interest, said Yogin Kothari, senior legislative assistant at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy.
“Having more transparency and disclosure from witnesses would be helpful,” he said.
Conflict of interest was a theme that ran through the hearing.
Donald I. Siegel, chairman of Syracuse University’s earth sciences department, was called as a witness to discuss his recent large-sample study that found no relationship between methane in water wells and their proximity to oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. He took a moment during his testimony to defend himself against criticism raised in an InsideClimate News story that he didn’t disclose the study had industry funding and that one of his co-authors worked for the oil and gas company providing the samples.
Neither his peer reviewers nor the journal editors found fault with their initial disclosures, Siegel said, adding that the journal later asked for an expanded disclosure“in response to media pressure.”
Simon Lomax of Energy In Depth, an oil and gas industry group, said in his testimony that some of the research New York relied on when it decided to ban fracking in the state last year was produced by groups opposed to the practice, with foundations of a similar bent helping to financially support those groups, media outlets that wrote about the studies and organizations active in fracking fights.
Lomax criticized one study in particular, which enlisted residents to sample air near oil and gas sites in their communities, because a number of the authors work for nonprofits critical of fracking — they disclosed their employers and mission “to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals” in the paper — while all three peer reviewers have been active in fracking-ban efforts, he said. Lomax called the production and use of such studies “an echo chamber to drown out the facts.”
Last year, Energy In Depth criticized the Center for Public Integrity over its investigation of air pollution in Texas communities with abundant oil and gas development but patchy monitoring because one of the nonprofit news organization’s funders is the Park Foundation, which supports groups active in researching fracking or fighting it. InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel were partners in the investigation.
Fracking critics have made the same echo-chamber charge about the oil and gas industry, which has aggressively pushed back against local bans, setbacks and other rules. The Public Accountability Initiative, a Park Foundation grant recipient, reviewed a long list of studies that Energy In Depth pointed to as evidence that fracking is safe and concluded that three quarters had “some degree of industry connection” and only 14 percent were peer-reviewed.
Sheldon Krimsky, a Tufts University bioethicist who wrote Science in the Private Interest, said the impact of agenda-driven nonprofits funding research hasn’t been studied. But the corrosive effect of industry funding of science is well documented, he said, with tobacco as just one example.
That’s why he’s worried about financial conflicts of interest, where parties stand to make or lose large amounts of money depending on what science finds.
“Corporations try to protect themselves,” he said. “Financial conflicts of interest are probably much more insidious than other kinds of conflicts of interest that don’t have financial consequences.”