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    You might think you're a political savant, boasting a brain brimming with knowledge of this month's every governmental and electioneering twist and turn.

    Here's your chance to prove it, smarty. 

    Correctly answer these 11 questions based on the Center for Public Integrity's reporting from July, and you can take pride in knowing more about the political influence game than some presidential candidates probably do.

     

     

        

       

    Michael Beckelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/michael-beckelDave Levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/dave-levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/07/29/17715/test-your-money-politics-iq

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    In an unprecedented measure to combat a deadly kidney disease that is devastating agricultural workers in Central America, the president of Costa Rica announced a national regulation to limit heat stress and dehydration among manual laborers.

    The new rule, made public on July 25, represents the first time that a government has sought to curb the epidemic by focusing on heat stress and dehydration. The policy comes as growing body of studies point to chronic dehydration from hard labor in tropical conditions as a leading cause of the disease.

    In short, the studies show, laborers who harvest sugarcane and other profitable agricultural exports may literally be working themselves to death.

    “All the data we have produced continue to indicate that recurrent heat stress and dehydration is the primary driver,” said Catharina Wesseling, a Costa Rica-based epidemiologist for the Karolinska Institute who has studied the disease for a decade.

    For more than three years, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has examined how a rare type of chronic kidney disease, CKD, is afflicting agricultural workers along Central America’s Pacific Coast, as well as in Sri Lanka and India. A 2012 study estimated that the ailment has killed more than 20,000 people in Central America alone.

    Scientists have long suspected the disease is caused by a combination of factors, from heat stress and dehydration to exposure to toxins such as pesticides. Previous policy responses considered by governments mainly focused on pesticide exposure, including a ban in Sri Lanka on Monsanto’s top-selling weed killer glyphosate that was announced in 2014, placed on hold amid industry pushback and questions about the scientific evidence, and recently reinstated this year.

    Costa Rica’s new regulation, which was issued by presidential decree, will require all enterprises that employ laborers in tropical conditions to provide water, rest and shade to those workers at increasing levels depending on how hot it is in work areas. The details of which protections are required at which temperatures will be set in negotiations between the government, unions and representatives of the sugar industry and other agricultural companies, said Dr. Roy Wong, a government epidemiologist in Costa Rica who led the official research into the disease.

    The rule marks the culmination of a multi-year study into the causes of CKD and whether it should be classified an occupational disease, which was launched in 2012 shortly after the publication of ICIJ’s “Island of the Widows” investigation.

    Over more than three years of research, Wong’s team identified the primary risk factors for the disease as being a peasant laborer and engaging in agricultural work between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Agricultural workers who labored between those hours were four times more likely to develop CKD than workers with different jobs within the same endemic region and even other manual laborers who worked at different times of day, Wong said.

    “Today we can say that this is an occupational disease,” Wong told ICIJ.

    Costa Rica’s reform comes days after another study of workers in neighboring El Salvador, published in the journal Environmental Research, offered insights into how heat stress and dehydration may be causing the illness. The researchers measured the kidney function of sugarcane workers before and after their daily shifts, and found that key indicators of damage such as reduced filtration rate increased over the course of a day’s labor at levels influenced by the climate and by workers’ water intake.

    “It’s really showing that there are changes in hydration, people really get dehydrated, and that correlates with temperature and liquid intake,” said Wesseling of the Karolinska Institute, who was one of the authors of the study. “That of course has an effect on the kidney.”

    Jason Glaser, the president of La Isla Foundation, an advocacy group that helped fund several of the recent studies on dehydration, advised the Costa Rican government on its response to the epidemic, and has been sharply critical of the sugar industry’s labor practices, praised Costa Rica’s new regulation.

    “It is the most clear-cut call that companies must provide interventions for workers in high temperatures via water, rest and shade,” Glaser said. “The fundamental trick is making sure this reaches the people on the ground and that it doesn’t just stay on paper.”

    Nicaraguan worker Moreto Cortez sucks the juice from fresh sugar cane during harvest on a plantation in La Guacima, Costa Rica, in March, 2007. Sasha Chavkinhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/sasha-chavkinhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/07/29/17716/reform-costa-rica-signals-new-strategy-against-lethal-epidemic

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    Long odds aren’t keeping Republican Jim Gilmore out of the 2016 presidential race.

    The former Virginia governor, who has already made multiple visits to the crucial early-voting state of New Hampshire, is expected to officially announce his candidacy today after filing his official paperwork with the Federal Election Commission on Wednesday afternoon.

    Several other current or former governors have already waded into the crowded Republican race — including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who are both expected to wield well-funded campaign war chests.

    But for now, Gilmore is resolved to find a place in the field: "I bring to the table experience that others don't have," he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch earlier this month.

    Gilmore’s resume certainly boasts some credentials that differentiate him from his rivals.

    A former U.S. Army intelligence officer, Gilmore led the Gilmore Commission, a congressional panel that advised both President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush about the country’s ability to respond to domestic terrorist incidents involving weapons of mass destruction. He also served as Virginia’s governor during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

    Since December 2009, Gilmore has served as the president and CEO of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Virginia.

    Here’s more about Gilmore’s financial and political past:

    Sources: Center for Public Integrity reporting, as well as the Center for Responsive Politics, Federal Election Commission, GilmoreGlobalGroup.com, Internal Revenue Service, Virginia Department of Elections and Washington Post.

    Image sources: Gage Skidmore/Flickr, Charlie Neibergall/AP, Michael Vadon/Flickr

       

    Michael Beckelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/michael-beckelJared Bennetthttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/jared-bennetthttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/07/30/17696/9-things-know-about-jim-gilmore

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    A group backing Republican John Kasich‘s presidential aspirations received $500,000 in seed money from a seemingly odd source, according to documents filed today: an obscure limited liability company in Montana.

    But a Center for Public Integrity review of business filings indicates the company is linked to someone quite familiar to Kasich, the current governor of Ohio — a venture capitalist who served in Kasich’s administration.

    The limited liability company, called MMWP12 LLC, made a half-million-dollar donation to the pro-Kasich New Day Independent Media Committee the day after the company formed.

    Making matters murkier: MMWP12 LLC is actually controlled by another Montana-based company called K2M LLC, according to state business records.

    This second company lists just two officers: Mark Kvamme, the Ohio venture capitalist and former Kasich administration official, and Paul Johannsen, a real estate developer in Whitefish, Montana, near Glacier National Park.

    Some campaign finance reform advocates worry that limited liability companies can serve as vehicles for megadonors to inject big bucks to political efforts while hiding their identities from voters.

    That’s because some states, unlike Montana, don’t require LLCs to identify the living, breathing people who own or control them. Instead, they need to provide only the name of a “registered agent,” which is often a company that exists only to serve as the registered agents for LLCs.

    Little is publicly known about Johannsen’s political leanings, but Kvamme is a long-time Kasich ally.

    After Kasich was elected governor in 2011, he enticed Kvamme to leave California and pursue public service.

    Kvamme went on to serve three months as the director of Ohio’s Department of Development and then worked for four months as Kasich’s director of job creation.

    He then founded and led a nonprofit group called JobsOhio that promoted job creation and economic development in the Buckeye State.

    Ohio campaign finance records show Kvamme has also personally donated more than $100,000 since 2010 to Kasich and other Ohio Republicans, including the state GOP.

    Moreover, according to the Columbus Dispatch, Kvamme has provided Kasich his private jet for travel to New Hampshire, which holds the first presidential primary election contest next year.

    Neither Johannsen nor Kvamme immediately responded to requests for comment from the Center for Public Integrity.

    Kasich officially announced his presidential bid last week, entering a packed Republican field now featuring 17 candidates. A network of pro-Kasich groups, including New Day Independent Media Committee, is also working to amass cash and build support for his campaign.

    New Day Independent Media Committee operates as a so-called “527 committee,” after the section of the U.S. tax code that governs its activities. It files campaign finance reports with the Internal Revenue Service instead of the Federal Election Commission. Overall, it raised $600,000 in June.

    A separate pro-Kasich group called New Day for America today reported raising more than $11 million, including $200,000 from Kvamme’s parents, Floyd and Jean Kvamme.

    Floyd Kvamme is an investor who served on Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential finance team.

    The pro-Kasich committees are allowed to accept unlimited contributions, including corporate contributions. They cannot, however, coordinate their spending with Kasich's campaign.

    Meanwhile, federal candidates cannot collect direct contributions from corporations and cannot accept more than $2,700 per person, per election.

    Kasich’s own campaign will not file its first campaign finance report until October.

    Venture capitalist Mark Kvamme, right, with Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio at his 2015 inauguration.Michael Beckelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/michael-beckelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/07/30/17733/why-obscure-montana-company-one-john-kasichs-biggest-boosters

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    Presidential super PACs operating expansive shadow campaigns — buying ads, hosting town hall meetings and hiring canvassers — have raised more than twice as much money as the candidates themselves, newly filed campaign finance documents show.

    About three dozen such super PACs collectively raised more than $266 million from January through June while the campaigns of 2016 presidential hopefuls collectively raised just half that much — about $130 million — according to a Center for Public Integrity review.

    The total raised by super PACs is about 17 times more than comparable groups raised during the same period four years ago, when the term “super PAC” had yet to make it into the dictionary.

    Super PACs, made possible thanks to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, can accept unlimited donations from corporations, unions and individuals. They may use the funds to support or oppose candidates, but are prohibited from coordinating their spending with campaigns.

    Leading in the money chase: Right to Rise USA, a group that supports former Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, which raised more than $103 million.

    Bush helped raise millions for the group, despite the anti-coordination rules. Bush attended numerous fundraising events for the super PAC, but got around the prohibition by making appearances prior to announcing his 2016 candidacy.

    Two dozen donors each gave Right to Rise USA at least $1 million during the year’s first half, with about 90 percent of it coming before Bush officially launched his campaign in June. One of those million-dollar donors was NextEra Energy, a Florida-based Fortune 200 energy company.

    A pair of famous Texas retirees also made handsome donations to Right to Rise USA: former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, who gave $125,000 and $95,000, respectively.

    Millionaires club

    While the pro-Bush super PAC dominated all others, a cluster of five super PACs supporting the presidential candidacy of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, raised about $38 million.

    Two groups backing Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin raised more than $26 million.

    And a super PAC backing Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., raised about $16 million.

    In each case, the super PACs raised more than the candidates themselves — sometimes many times over. Bush’s official campaign, for instance, has collected just $11 million to date.

    Never before have super PACs played such a prominent role in a presidential contest — especially so early in the process. Now, nearly every major candidate has a super PAC doppelganger.

    Among the Republican contenders, only celebrity business tycoon Donald Trump, who so far has self-funded the bulk of his campaign, doesn’t yet have an allied super PAC capable of raising significant cash.

    This represents a dramatic shift from four years ago.

    At this stage of the 2012 presidential election, only President Barack Obama and eventual Republican nominee Mitt Romney enjoyed the support of aligned super PACs. Super PACs supporting many 2012 GOP hopefuls did not form until the fall or winter of 2011.

    “The first thing I’m going to do as a presidential candidate is see if there’s a super PAC out there to support me, or someone willing to form a super PAC to help me,” said John Grimaldi, a political operative who worked for a pro-Newt Gingrich super PAC in 2012 but is not working for a campaign or super PAC this election cycle.

    “A super PAC eliminates a major portion of your campaign expenditures as a candidate,” Grimaldi continued. “It makes it easier to run.”

    Why? The answer, in part, is that deep-pocketed donors who are prohibited from donating large sums of money directly to the candidates themselves may give unlimited amounts to super PACs — as may corporations and labor unions.

    No limits, no problem

    Candidates may only accept donations of $2,700 per person, per election, and $5,000 per election from corporate or labor political action committees.

    “We are not subject to contribution limits like the campaigns are, so that certainly helps build resources to get our message out,” said Jordan Russell, spokesman for the Opportunity and Freedom PAC, which is backing former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s White House run.

    The Opportunity and Freedom PAC has already spent more than $2.3 million on advertisements touting Perry — more than twice as much as the Republican’s presidential campaign raised through the end of June.

    This dynamic frustrates many of the presidential contenders, and some, including Cruz, are openly calling for contribution limits to candidates to be eliminated entirely.

    “Our current campaign finance system is ridiculous,” Cruz told the Center for Public Integrity in a recent interview. “The way to do it is to let campaigns speak for themselves directly.”

    Even grassroots favorites, such as Republican Ben Carson, a former neurosurgeon, have allied super PACs.

    One super PAC working on Carson’s behalf raised $13.5 million last year and another $2.9 million during the first half of 2015, while Carson’s campaign, which was launched in May, has raised $10.6 million.

    “I personally have not gone around chasing after billionaires and special interest groups,” Carson told the Center for Public Integrity. “We’re getting an enormous response from the grassroots. That’s the people that I want to be beholden to.”

    Wealthy donors have certainly helped fuel the super PAC spree — and many of them are hedging their bets and supporting multiple White House contenders in a field that’s grown to 17 Republicans and five Democrats.

    Hedging their bets

    Rich donors flirting with multiple Republican candidates spread, in some cases, millions of dollars among super PACs backing different candidates. This continues a trend that first emerged after presidential candidates themselves released campaign disclosures earlier this month.

    Take hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, who laid down $11 million to a pro-Cruz super PAC called Keep the Promise I, making him practically the sole funder.

    That’s a pretty big investment.

    But surprisingly, Keep the Promise I steered $500,000 to a super PAC backing Cruz rival Carly Fiorina — presumably at Mercer’s direction, and possibly a sign that were Cruz to falter or withdraw, Mercer could direct the super PAC elsewhere.

    On top of that, Mercer wrote a $250,000 check to Believe Again, a super PAC supporting Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Republican presidential bid.

    Then there’s former Univision CEO Jerry Perenchio, who was the biggest donor to the super PAC backing Fiorina, who gave nearly $1.6 million. He also gave $100,000 to the pro-Bush Right to Rise USA super PAC.

    Meanwhile, Robert McNair, the billionaire owner of the NFL’s Houston Texans, donated $500,000 apiece to super PACs backing Republicans Bush, Cruz, Walker and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

    An investment firm tied to Manoj Bhargava, the politically active founder of beverage company 5-hour Energy, similarly placed multiple six-figure bets on super PACs supporting three GOP presidential candidates, all governors.

    The company, called ETC Capital LLC, gave $150,000 to America Leads, a super PAC backing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, $150,000 to the Unintimidated PAC, which supports Walker, and $100,000 to the pro-Jindal Believe Again super PAC.

    Bhargava’s investment firm was among the top five donors last year to the Republican Governors Association, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the firm would back three current Republican governors seeking the White House, two of whom — Christie and Jindal — are past RGA chairs.

    Even Marlene Ricketts, the matriarch of the family that owns the Chicago Cubs baseball team and the mother of Walker’s campaign finance chairman, Todd Ricketts, spread her money around.

    She donated $10,000 each to groups backing Bush, Christie, Cruz, Graham, Perry and Rubio.

    But her largest donation — $4.9 million— went to Walker’s Unintimidated PAC, representing a quarter of the super PAC’s take.

    Working closer with candidates

    Bradley Crate, chief financial officer for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said that four years ago, super PAC leaders proceeded with a measure of caution, afraid of violating laws that restricted how they interfaced with political candidates.

    Today, such fears have largely dissipated, with the ideologically gridlocked Federal Election Commission often unable to agree on how to interpret and regulate the most basic of election law matters.

    This gives super PACs the opportunity to work more intimately with candidates. Some are even absorbing many of the responsibilities traditionally reserved for a candidate’s own campaign, said Crate, now president of Red Curve Solutions, a Massachusetts-based campaign finance consulting firm.

    “That’s what I would do,” he said.

    Alex Cohen and Chris Zubak-Skees contributed to this report.

    Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.Michael Beckelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/michael-beckelDave Levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/dave-levinthalCarrie Levinehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/carrie-levineBen Wiederhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/ben-wiederhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/08/01/17748/super-pac-doppelgangers-eclipse-candidates-campaign-money-chase

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    Potentially sweeping school police reforms are taking hold in Virginia, a state that was the focus of an investigation last April by the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal radio.

     The investigation found, based on an analysis of data, that Virginia ranked first among states in the rate at which schools refer students to law enforcement agencies in connection with a variety of indiscretions. The Virginia rate was about three times the national rate.

    Reaction to the story — including a state government initiative to reduce student arrests — is featured in the August episode of the public radio program Reveal, which will air on stations nationwide throughout the month.

    “We are all eager to work together to find substantive solutions to reduce the number of students who are referred to the justice system,” Virginia Director of Juvenile Justice Andrew Block told the Center recently. Block is involved in a review that Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe asked his so-called “children’s cabinet” members to conduct after the Center probe was published, along with a prior companion piece by Reveal.

    The International Association of Chiefs of Police, an advisory group for law enforcement, used the story and accompanying state-by-state data as part of a training session for brass from around the country this summer.

    In Virginia’s Henrico County, near Richmond, Police Chief Douglas Middleton said he’s been concerned for several years that school officials have grown “dependent” on involving school resource officers — who are under his command — in what are essentially discipline violations.

    In July, Middleton issued new department guidelines that are designed to limit police involvement in disciplinary issues and reduce unnecessary arrests that are frequently for disorderly conduct or assault. He’s also created a new 40-hour training requirement for school police and is making sure school officials get on board with new policies to limit requests for police intervention.

    “We’ve had far too many parents complain about their children getting arrested and handcuffed,” Middleton said. He said school resource officers have gotten calls from staff at schools “about a student who won’t get on the bus,” or a student who is in the hallway standing around.  “Well, that’s not a police matter,” Middleton said.

    He said he wanted to get back to the 1970s and 1980s, “when you didn’t lock up every kid for doing something immature.” 

    He’s also aiming to reduce juvenile arrests generally and “divert” more kids to counseling without a formal arrest.

    Pressed for a response to the Center’s findings, Henrico Commonwealth Attorney Shannon Taylor—the county’s top prosecutor—also called for “smarter” reactions to school discipline problems. 

    Middleton said he’s been invited by the Virginia’s Secretary of Public Safety to speak to the state task force convened by McAuliffe to respond to the Center’s findings.  .

    In Richmond, Police Chief Alfred Durham spoke to a gathering of residents in June about his own frustrations and review of policies. He said police officers feel they have a duty to arrest students if parents or school officials insist on it. But he’s ready to review practices because he knows there are serious long-term consequences of putting kids into the criminal-justice system.

    “If a crime is committed, we have an obligation because somebody could say, ‘My child was assaulted. You failed to do your job.’ “ Durham said. “I have to answer to that. Then when we lock them up, I still have to answer to that.”

    The Center’s investigation focused on Virginia after analysis of data that schools nationwide were required to submit to the U.S. Department of Education after the 2011-12 academic year. In Virginia and almost all other states, the Center found, the rate for referring special-needs students and African-American students to police and courts was disproportionately high.

    The national data—which was released in 2014—did not identify reasons why schools referred kids to police or directly to courts. In an effort to identify those reasons, the Center obtained a sampling of local Virginia police data for Henrico and Chesterfield counties that broke down allegations against students, many of them in middle school. The most common charges: disorderly conduct and simple assault.

     The Center also interviewed public defenders, parents and children such as Kayleb Moon-Robinson, an autistic sixth-grade student in the city of Lynchburg, who was prosecuted this year for disorderly conduct and felony assault on an officer.

    Kayleb was charged because he struggled to break free from the officer, who’d been asked by the school principal to go after Kayleb and stop him from wandering a hall.

    On Aug. 31 Kayleb is scheduled to return to Lynchburg Juvenile Court to again face the judge who found him guilty in April based on the evidence—but also kept the case open for further consideration.

    Witnesses inside the closed court said that Judge Cary Payne warned Kayleb in April that when he returns to court, he could be ordered straight to juvenile detention—especially if he got into trouble again. 

    Kayleb has a new team of lawyers helping him, his mother said. None would agree to speak on the record but some said that the judge still has an option open to drop the charges and absolve Kayleb.

    That would spare Kayleb from a juvenile record, as well as consequences the court could impose ranging from mandatory counseling to jail time. Payne and prosecutors have refused to discuss the case.

    Kayleb’s mother, Stacey Doss, said Kayleb finished the school year with no problems at an alternative school in Lynchburg that employs special methods to help autistic kids calm down if they are having a difficult time in class and failing to obey. The Lynchburg Police Department opened an investigation into Kayleb’s arrest at school in the wake of the Center story, but has not released findings.

    Lynchburg, Virginia resident Stacey Doss with her son Kayleb Moon-Robinson. Doss, the daughter of a police officer, is outraged that a school resource officer arrested her son after he left a classroom without permission. The autistic 11-year-old, who is sensitive to touch, was charged with felony assault on a police officer because he struggled to get away.Susan Ferrisshttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/susan-ferrisshttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/08/01/17734/virginia-pursuing-school-policing-reforms-following-center-probe

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    Gaziantep, Turkey– Lieutenant Farhan al-Jassem is not a reluctant soldier, but sadness lurked behind his smile and deep brown eyes when he talked about the last two and half years he spent trying to fight what he considers the good fight in Syria.

    On a sultry July night in a tea garden in southeastern Turkey, Jassem, 29, leaned back in his plastic chair and gulped down several bottles of water as he told the story of how he came to lead a key Syrian brigade receiving training and equipment from a U.S.-organized military coalition to take on the Islamic State. As he spoke, 54 members of the larger division his brigade belonged to were finishing up their training with U.S. Special Operations soldiers at a base located roughly 200 miles to the northwest.

    Jassem got his first taste of the country’s roiling civil war in early 2012, when he was conscripted into Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad’s army, but he hated it and bought his way out, paying $400 for permission to visit his home town of Manbij, 40 miles northeast of Aleppo. There, he quickly joined the anti-regime Free Syrian Army, before moving to a smaller Turkmen brigade and then to the so-called 30th Division, created by the United States and its allies as the vanguard of Washington’s effort to roll back the Islamic State’s territorial gains.

    When he spoke to the Center for Public Integrity in July, Jassem had passed an initial round of vetting to join the training and said he expected to participate in the next class—so long as the U.S. coalition kept its promises to the first set of graduates, especially a promise that the coalition would “protect us against our enemies after the program ends,” he said.

    But Jassem’s fate suddenly took an uncertain turn on July 28, when he was captured by a rival anti-ISIS militia, known as the Nusra Front, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda and therefore an enemy of any Syrian close to Americans. Captured alongside Jassem near the northern Syrian town of Azaz were his division’s commander, 16 graduates of the allied train-and-equip program, and two other division soldiers, according to Aziz Abu Mohammad, a 30th Division commander based in Turkey, who was interviewed by telephone.

    This capture was a cataclysmic event for the division, by all accounts, and a grave setback for the U.S. train and equip program, which will now certainly face steeper challenges in recruiting new fighters and maintaining their morale.

    But Jassem’s story — the arc of his military service and its apparently grim end — is also a lesson that a deepening U.S. involvement in this complex territorial conflict comes with many risks, both political ones and for the fighters, personal ones, since any association with Americans or the West can carry a problematic stigma on the other side of Turkey’s border with Syria.

    Fighting for his country was not always part of Jassem’s plan. He briefly studied Arabic literature in university before dropping out to move to Greece and work there for several years. When protests against Syrian President Bashar Assad began back home in Syria, he joined similar demonstrations in front of the Syrian embassy in Athens, where he began to make contacts within the nascent armed Syrian opposition.

    Jassem, who has a medium build, playful grin, close-cropped black hair, and bushy black eyebrows, said he was aware of the risks of joining the U.S.-led coalition effort. Graduates of the train and equip program would be returning to Syria “with targets on their backs,” he said. Nusra and other rebel groups, they knew, targeted recipients of foreign aid not just because of their anti-Western ideology, but also because they coveted the M16s and anti-tank guided missiles that coalition forces provided to other fighters. Even though their handlers from the Pentagon had promised to protect the trainees, Jassem said, it was a purely verbal agreement.

    But Jassem said he signed up when one of his superiors from the Turkmen brigade, Col. Nedim al-Hasan, told him last March that the coalition wanted to create a new rebel group that would unite several of the anti-Islamic State brigades that had splintered off of the Free Syrian Army and scattered around eastern Syria after being forced out of their homes by the Islamic State. The colonel, a man he’d fought with for three years, would lead the entire division, which would eventually number more than 1000 fighters.

    The division would be composed of brigades from parts of Syria east of Aleppo, where the Islamic State had become a greater scourge than the Syrian regime, such as Jassem’s hometown. Most were ethnic Turkmens, but some, like Jassem, were Arab. The aim, he said, was to create a force that could funnel recruits into the train and equip program.

    The vetting process was intensive, he said, and discomfiting for many. The reason, he was told by fellow recruits, is that candidates for training were interviewed in the second stage while attached to polygraph machines by wires wrapped around their fingers. The questions were simple — had they ever fought for Nusra, for example? But the candidates had heard that similar-looking machines were used to administer shocks to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and so the experience was scary. Being subjected to eye and fingerprint scans contributed to their fears. “They felt like laboratory rats,” said Jassem.

    Most enticing to the recruits of the program, Jassem said, was the prospect of getting satellite phones connected to vehicles, with which they could call in airstrikes from coalition warplanes when needed. They were also promised M16 rifles, and Jassem said there “had also been talk” of anti-tank weapons and ammunition.

    “The coming days will prove whether the coalition is really going to help us” defeat the Islamic State, Jassem said. If the coalition forces keep their promises to protect the first set of trainees, “we expect the number of people in the second training group to increase,” he added.

    Jassem emphasized that the coalition’s promises only covered the 54 graduates of the train and equip program. But when those trainees re-entered the battlefield, he said, they would rejoin their fellow fighters from the division already fighting the Islamic State, including around 200 men who had applied for the train and equip program but been rejected.

    At the time of his abduction, Jassem was awaiting a second round of vetting to join the program, having already passed the first. He was escorting colleagues heading back to Syria after visiting relatives in Turkey, and so they all had to pass a Nusra checkpoint several miles south of the Turkish border. They thought they had gotten permission to do so from an Egyptian Nusra leader ten days earlier, Abu Mohammad said.

    That promise proved false. Mohammad said he heard from a friend in the town of Azaz, where the group was taken after being stopped, that they were paraded through the town with the backs of their shirts pulled over their heads as Nusra fighters shouted that they had “collaborated with the crusader coalition.”

    Two days after the group’s capture, a militia group affiliated with Nusra directly attacked the 30th division’s headquarters, killing five other graduates of the program, Abu Mohammed said. Coalition warplanes reacted to both incidents by bombing the headquarters of Nusra in Azaz, he added, a claim that the Pentagon declined to confirm. Hours after the raids, he told the Center through an interpreter that Nusra’s reaction will likely be to execute the detainees it already has in hand and “finish” the 30th Division. “Especially now… their fate is sealed.”

    Pentagon spokeswoman Elissa Smith contested Abu Mohammad’s claim that any graduates of the train and equip program were detained in Tuesday’s kidnapping, but said she had no further information to provide about it. She acknowledged that the 30th Division and its trainees were also attacked on July 31, and said that the coalition had supported them with defensive airstrikes, but would not confirm that it occurred in Azaz and said the attacking force was “unknown.”

    U.S.  Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Killea, chief of staff of the U.S. combined joint task force carrying out anti-Islamic State operations, told Pentagon media on July 31 that he had no knowledge of any abducted or injured trainees. All anti-Islamic State forces in Syria “that are credible, reliable partners,” said Killea, “will receive coalition support as is required.”

    This story was co-published with Slate and The Independent

    Lieutenant Farhan al-Jassem.Julia Hartehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/julia-harteIsabel Hunterhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/isabel-hunterhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/08/01/17754/fighter-s-capture-spells-trouble-us-led-coalition-against-islamic-state

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    The Democratic and Republican parties certainly don’t agree on how to run the country, but they are in sync when it comes to capitalizing on a new law letting them raise eight times as much money from rich donors than before.

    The new money technically must be used only for specific purposes, such as legal expenses and improvements to party headquarters. The limits are, however, murkier than they seem, with some lawyers saying the money could legally pay for some election-related costs such as opposition research and data mining.

    And the Federal Election Commission, tasked with regulating and enforcing federal campaign finance laws, is at an impasse over whether and how to issue rules governing the new party accounts. As a result, decisions about spending the money are pretty much up to the parties and their lawyers.

    "The parties will do what they always do, which is use these new accounts as slush funds to pay for anything they feel like paying for that they can possibly get away with arguing falls within the meager constraints of the plain language of the statute,” said Paul Ryan, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan campaign finance reform group.

    The ‘cromnibus’

    Their opportunity comes thanks to a December stocking-stuffer from Congress: higher contribution limits via a series of new accounts, jammed through as part of a must-pass appropriations bill.

    The language on limits was on page 1,599 of a 1,603-page spending bill widely known as the “cromnibus.” The new law allows parties to accept more than $800,000 per person per year, compared to $97,200 under the old limits.

    The catch: the increased contributions go into special accounts that pay for expenses related to presidential nominating conventions, election recounts and “other legal proceedings,” and “the construction, purchase, renovation, operation and furnishing of one or more headquarters buildings.”

    The accounts give parties the ability to take six-figure contributions, easing restrictions they’ve chafed at since reform legislation in 2002 curtailed their fundraising ability.

    “There’s a bipartisan agreement among … party leaders that they would like more money,” said Michael Malbin, head of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. “That’s not surprising. And it’s certainly easier to get that money quickly by going to large donors.”

    The funds were especially important given the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The decision opened the floodgates for unlimited money given through super PACs and nonprofits, threatening the parties’ relevance.

    Republicans, especially, have been aggressively raising cash through these new accounts — more than $16 million so far this year compared to about $1.7 million for Democrats, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of federal campaign finance filings.

    Expect a lot more in coming months.

    The impact of the higher limits will inevitably be more money made available for expenses directly related to elections. Republicans have used money from the convention and headquarters accounts, for instance, to cover some staff salary and benefit expenses — money that would have previously come from general funds.

    FEC inaction

    FEC commissioners acknowledge they’re gridlocked on writing rules that regulate how political parties use their new accounts.

    Republican Commissioner Lee Goodman said he would only consider engaging in a rulemaking process around the new accounts as part of a comprehensive review of regulations about political parties that would also address “onerous regulations on state and local political parties.”

    Goodman said he has long pushed for such a comprehensive look and reeled off a list of regulations he described as overly restrictive, including rules governing coordination between parties and candidates and some record-keeping requirements.

    Republican Commissioner Caroline Hunter, who sits on the commission’s regulations committee, said she wouldn’t vote to change the rules this election cycle.

    Four of the six FEC commissioners must vote to affirm rules, and the agency’s three Republicans rarely break ranks.

    FEC Chairwoman Ann Ravel, a Democrat, said the agency needs to create new regulations around the new accounts, especially regarding how the money can be spent and whether it can be transferred to other accounts — something that’s already happening.

    Ravel said she believes she and Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, and Commissioner Steven Walther, an independent who typically caucuses with the Democrats, agree there need to be regulations.

    Parties fill in the gaps

    In the absence of FEC action, the Democratic and Republican parties are free to interpret Congress’ fundraising account changes as they please.

    And the parties refuse to reveal their strategies: Officials from the six national party committees either did not comment on the new accounts or referred the Center for Public Integrity to their campaign finance filings.

    But the parties have a history of working together on campaign finance issues that affect them both, either publicly at the FEC or behind closed doors.

    For example, last year the parties filed a joint request with the FEC asking permission to establish separate committees that could accept contributions toward party nominating conventions. The FEC approved the request, allowing donors to give up to $32,400 to such committees, contributions that don’t count toward federal contribution limits.

    John Ryder, the current general counsel of the RNC, said he has participated in RNC discussions about the new accounts “to a limited degree,” though he said the RNC’s in-house counsel has taken the lead. He acknowledged the two parties share a “common institutional interest,” though declined to be more specific.

    “People need to be both creative and cautious as they approach this,” he said, stressing that he would speak only generally.

    Joseph Sandler, a former general counsel of the DNC, said that during his tenure, party lawyers worked together on issues such as these, adding “I would not be surprised” if the parties are doing so now.

    Campaign finance watchdogs were furious about the new accounts, despite the restrictions. Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer called them “the most corrupting campaign finance provisions ever enacted.”

    The purposes of the new accounts sound straightforward enough, but the potential for creative interpretation is easy to find — depending on how lawyers choose to read the law.

    TV is king

    Take, for example, the headquarters account.

    Parties need headquarters, but putting money into them usually takes a backseat to buying television ads and other expenses directly related to expenses. This leaves the party faithful complaining about aging boilers and outdated tube televisions — infrastructure needs they say the building funds could address.

    “I was at the senatorial committee in the ‘90s. It looked great then — period,” joked Craig Engle, a Republican campaign finance lawyer now at law firm Arent Fox.

    But the money could also be put toward the less obvious.

    The account could potentially fund data mining or opposition research, according to an update issued in December by Covington & Burling’s election law practice.

    “This is the account to watch to determine how much of an impact these amendments will have on the balance of power between national parties and super PACs,” the firm’s lawyers wrote.

    Thanks to the new law, the DNC and RNC may also directly accept money toward their presidential nominating conventions.

    Although it’s difficult to predict how much money these new accounts will attract, both parties certainly know how to pull in big cash.

    The DNC raised 43 percent of its money in contributions of $20,000 or more during the 2012 presidential election cycle and the RNC raised 42 percent, according to data provided by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute.

    In a callback to the heyday of "soft money" — unlimited cash used for so-called “party-building” expenses, rather than to support candidates — the accounts have allowed lawmakers to directly solicit five- and six-figure-checks from contributors. This is something contribution limits barred for years in the wake of soft-money corruption scandals.

    Big donors

    Republicans, including members of leadership such as House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Whip Steve Scalise, have snagged six-figurecontributions for the new funds via joint fundraising committees that funnel the proceeds to the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party’s House campaign arm.

    So far, many of the super donors that have given big to the party committees — casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, coal executive Joseph Craft III, hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, Arkansas investor Warren Stephens, financier Donald Sussman — also have a history of writing big checks to super PACs.

    Such megadonors aren’t exactly on a budget, so giving more to the parties doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll give less to other organizations, although most donors didn’t respond to inquiries from the Center for Public Integrity.

    Big donors that automatically write the maximum check allowed aren’t always asking too many detailed questions about the purposes of the accounts.

    That might be good for the parties. It isn’t clear how attractive donors will find the prospect of paying for upgraded buildings and big-dollar legal fees, theoretically the main purpose of the accounts, though conventions have historically been a draw.

    Take Rex Sinquefield, a multimillionaire who is the biggest political donor in Missouri. Together with his wife, he contributed $453,600 so far this year to the National Republican Congressional Committee — the maximum allowed before the FEC adjusted amounts for inflation earlier this year.

    Travis Brown, a lobbyist and spokesman for Sinquefield, said Sinquefield simply contributed the maximum amount permitted in connection with an NRCC fundraising dinner held in Washington, D.C., at the end of March.

    In the meantime, expect Congress to consider additional ways to loosen campaign finance laws.

    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for one, is trying to repeat the maneuver this year, recently inserting a provision into draft spending legislation that would weaken rules limiting coordination between candidates and political parties.

    A new law allows parties to accept more than $700,000 per person per year, provided that money goes toward specific party activities like presidential nominating conventions or election recounts. But federal regulators are in no hurry to ensure party committees don't push the limits.Carrie Levinehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/carrie-levinehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/08/03/17720/limits-unclear-new-political-party-slush-funds

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    As part of our investigation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the agency asking for complaint and resolution letters for every case of alleged environmental discrimination from the mid-1990s until the date the request was processed. The EPA did not respond to a follow-up request seeking documents from cases dating to 1993, when the office began processing environmental discrimination complaints.

    The Center for Public Integrity cross-referenced the data received with that included in the EPA’s online database and found missing cases, inaccurate dates and other discrepancies. For example, in some instances, the Center received complaints with case numbers but the cases weren’t listed on the EPA website.  In others, the EPA database showed cases as pending even though the Center had documents indicating they had been resolved. In still others, the EPA reported receiving cases days or weeks before they were actually filed.

    The Center sought to standardize the data and make the records we received as accurate and complete as possible.

    We began by entering into our own database case information gleaned from more than 500 documents. If cases were missing data or final outcomes previously published by the EPA, the Center included that information. When information in the EPA’s database differed from the information we had in case files, we went with the latter.  For consistency, the Center categorized the adjudication of cases as follows:

    • Denied: Cases that did not pass a jurisdictional review because they  missed the 180-day time limit; the agency targeted in the complaint didn’t  receive EPA funding; or the complaint didn't describe an act covered by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
    • Dismissed: Cases that were accepted for investigation, but in which the EPA did not find a discriminatory act; cases that were put on hold or dismissed due to concurrent pending litigation.
    • Closed: Cases that were withdrawn by the complainant, referred to another federal agency with subject-matter expertise, or resolved through an agreement or settlement with the target of the complaint.
    • Pending: Cases that are awaiting jurisdictional review or final outcome.

    In calculating whether the Office of Civil Rights met a 20-day deadline to determine jurisdiction over cases, the Center used either the date the complainant was notified of the outcome or the date the EPA first reached out to the complainant for clarifying information about the case. We felt this was the best representation of when the EPA took action on a case, given that the agency had no control over when or if a complainant chose to reply.

    Additionally, when calculating how long cases took to wind through the review process, the Center omitted those that were pending, so as not to skew the results.

    Allegations of environmental discrimination comprise only a sliver of the civil-rights office’s enforcement mandate. The office also investigates claims of discrimination based on sex and disability, and internal complaints filed by EPA employees.

    The Center for Public Integrityhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/center-public-integrityhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/08/03/17724/how-we-acquired-and-analyzed-data-environmental-justice-denied

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  • 08/03/15--02:00: Decades of inaction
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    Yue Qiuhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/yue-qiuTalia Bufordhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/talia-bufordhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/08/03/17726/decades-inaction

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    Republicans have long dreamed of finding a way to either privatize or get rid of Medicare, a program that has provided access to health care for well over 100 million Americans since it was created in 1965. As presidential candidate and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush made clear a few days ago, that dream is still alive.

    While many Democrats and Medicare beneficiaries were making plans to celebrate the program’s 50th birthday last week—presidential candidate and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont hailed it as a huge success during a speech at a rally of Medicare-for-All supporters outside the Capitol Thursday—Bush was telling a smaller but decidedly richer crowd at a Koch brothers gathering in New Hampshire that it was time for Medicare to go:

     

    "We need to make sure we fulfill the commitment to people that have already received the benefits, that are receiving the benefits. But we need to figure out a way to phase out this program for others and move to a new system that allows them to have something, because they're not going to have anything."

     

    Bush did not elaborate, either to explain why people in the future won’t have anything or to describe what a new system would look like.

    But he was trotting out a tried-but-not-quite-true talking point, which holds that because Medicare costs continue to go up (no surprise when you consider our aging population and medical inflation), the country at some point in the future won’t be able to afford to cover health care costs for the elderly as we have for the last half century.

    A solution frequently suggested by Republican candidates is to privatize Medicare by giving people a voucher worth a few thousand bucks they could use to buy coverage from a private insurer. It can seem like a fine idea until you take the time to figure out how it would actually affect people, young and old alike.

    Consider this: one of the reasons Medicare was created in the first place was because insurance companies really didn’t want old people as customers. To discourage older folks from even applying, the insurers adopted the practice of charging people them five to ten times as much as younger people for the exact same policy. Worse, they refused to sell coverage at any price to people with pre-existing conditions. It’s little wonder that growing numbers of senior citizens were going uninsured.

    Historian Peter A. Corning, who was commissioned by the Social Security Administration to write the Evolution of Medicare, described it this way:

     

    "The elderly population was continuing to increase at a rapid rate…Meanwhile, the cost of hospital care continued to rise at about 6.7 percent a year, several times the annual increase in the cost of living…As a result, private health insurance carriers were repeatedly forced to increase premium rates…making private insurance even more prohibitive (or less adequate) for the many old people who were living on fixed incomes. By 1965 the proportion of the aged who were privately insured for hospital care seemed to be leveling off at about 50 percent. A Senate study that year estimated that only one-half of the policies issued to retirees provided comprehensive coverage [that would cover] 75 percent or more of the average hospital bill. In other words, only about 1 in 4 of the aged had adequate hospital insurance protection."

    So Congress and newly-elected President Lyndon Johnson created Medicare in 1965 because, as bad as the situation had already become, more and more seniors were eventually going to find themselves in dire straits when they got sick.

    While a voucher program sounds appealing to those who believe a privatized system would be cheaper and more efficient than the current government-run Medicare, it almost certainly would eventually be more costly to taxpayers or return us to the days when many people 65 and older were out of luck.

    While Obamacare made it illegal for insurance companies to refuse to sell coverage to anyone because of their age or health status, the insurers can still charge older people three times more than younger people. So for someone 65 or older to be able to buy coverage anywhere close to adequate, the vouchers would have to be pretty generous.

    And here’s another reason why such a program would likely cost taxpayers more in the long run: private insurers have not been able to control medical costs nearly as well as Medicare has. Private insurers pay doctors and hospitals considerably more, on average, than Medicare does, because Medicare uses its massive leverage to negotiate more aggressively.

    Insurance companies wouldn’t have a problem with vouchers so long as they were sizable enough for them to not only to cover the cost of senior care but also enable them to make a profit. But, as I will explain next week, insurers are finding the current Medicare program much to their liking. So much so that I’d be willing to bet they’re telling their GOP friends it’s time to drop that voucher thing.

    House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif. applauds former Michigan Rep. John Dingell during an event marking the 50th anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid, Wednesday, July 29, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington.Wendell Potterhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/wendell-potterhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/08/03/17746/privatizing-medicare-would-create-more-problems-it-solves

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    August 3, 2015: This story has been clarified.

    The invasion of sewer flies moved residents of University Place subdivision to turn to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for help. Darting from a neighboring sewage plant, the flies descended upon the mostly African-American neighborhood in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with such regularity that one resident posted this warning sign: Beware of attack fly

    In 2009, residents grew so sickened by the flies, odors and pollution emanating from the city’s North Wastewater Treatment Plant that they sought out the federal agency that has touted the importance of tackling environmental racism.

    “The citizens of University Place Subdivision are still suffering through the dreadful, unhealthy, and downright shameful conditions forced upon this community,” wrote Gregory Mitchell, whose mother, Mamie, erected that attack-fly warning atop her home, in a complaint filed with the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights.

    A little-known niche within the EPA, the civil-rights office has one mission: to ensure agencies that get EPA funding — like the city of Baton Rouge— not act in a discriminatory manner. The mandate comes from Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, a sweeping law prohibiting racial discrimination by those receiving federal financial assistance. Experts say the provision presents a significant legal tool for combating environmental injustice.

    Time and again, however, communities of color living in the shadows of sewage plants, incinerators, steel mills, landfills and other industrial facilities across the country — from Baton Rouge to Syracuse, Phoenix to Chapel Hill — have found their claims denied by the EPA’s civil-rights office, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and NBC News shows. In its 22-year history of processing environmental discrimination complaints, the office has never once made a formal finding of a Title VI violation.

    Months after receiving the Baton Rouge community’s Title VI complaint, the office rejected it. Investigators declined to examine the claim that the city had violated the civil rights of black property owners around the North plant, citing a pending lawsuit filed by residents against the city.

    In 2010, Mitchell and neighbors again turned to the EPA and, again, the agency said no. Settling their lawsuit later that year, the residents logged a third complaint charging the city had discriminated against them. This time, the EPA rejected it on another technicality — it was “not timely.”

    By 2012, they had returned to the EPA a fourth time, only to get a fourth rejection. Few communities have been rebuffed more than Baton Rouge. The distinction has left residents like Mitchell feeling as though regulators “say something to blow you off and just forget about it.”

    “Under the EPA’s civil-rights division,” he said, “nothing is done.”

    A pattern of rejection

    The Baton Rouge case is extreme but not unique. The Center filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking every Title VI complaint submitted to the office, and every resolution of those complaints, since the mid-1990s. The agency produced records representing most of the complaints handled in that time, but not all. The records, consisting of thousands of pages of documents, cover 265 Title VI cases and stretch from 1996 to mid-2013.

    The records reveal a striking pattern: More than nine of every 10 times communities have turned to it for help, the civil-rights office has either rejected or dismissed their Title VI complaints. In the majority, the office rejected claims without pursuing investigations. On the few occasions that it did, it dismissed cases more often than it proposed sanctions or remedies. Records show the office has failed to execute its authority to investigate claims even when it has reason to believe discrimination could be occurring, such as in Baton Rouge.

    Of the cases reviewed by the Center, the EPA:

    • Rejected 162 without investigation;
    • Dismissed 52 upon investigation;
    • Referred 14 to other agencies, including the departments of Justice, Health and Human Services and Transportation;
    • Resolved 12 with voluntary or informal agreements;
    • Accepted 13 for investigations that remain open today, the oldest begun in 1996.

    The EPA rejected complaints for a host of procedural reasons, records show. The most common reason (95 cases), complaints were denied was because the EPA said their targets did not receive agency funding, as is required by law. Other complaints (62) came in too late for action, it said, because they fell outside a 180-day time limit that the agency has authority to waive. Still others (52) were tossed because of “insufficient” claims, meaning they did not adequately describe the alleged discriminatory acts forbidden under Title VI. The EPA, in essence, requires complainants to have knowledge of civil-rights law and other nuances before filing a case. They are assumed to know, for example, that Title VI does not apply to private companies unless they receive EPA funding.

    One thing is clear: While the reasons vary, the EPA’s civil-rights office rarely closes Title VI complaints alleging environmental injustice with formal action on behalf of communities of color.

    Indeed, as the records reveal, the agency often found allegations “moot” precisely because of its own inaction. Agency regulations set a 20-day deadline for the office to determine whether it will investigate a case. Yet in cases dismissed as moot — nine over 17 years, or 4 percent — the EPA took, on average, 254 days — excluding weekends and holidays — just to make such a jurisdictional decision.

    The delay, in itself, is a form of denial. At times, the EPA has taken so long to decide whether to open an inquiry that situations on the ground changed — an asphalt plant closed, for instance, or a waste facility withdrew its permit application. Other times, communities have remained in limbo for years as agency investigators ruled on the alleged discrimination.

    In July, five communities — in Alabama, Michigan, Texas, New Mexico and California — sued the EPA for failing to finish investigations pending for more than a decade. The litigation, filed by the environmental law firm Earthjustice, challenged what it called the agency’s “pattern and practice of unreasonable delay…” The delays have forced residents to endure pollution from a landfill, an oil refinery and three power plants, the lawsuit said. The EPA itself classifies two of the power plants and the refinery as “significant” violators of the Clean Air Act.

    Even among the small universe of cases sparking action — 64 over 17 years, or 25 percent — records suggest the civil-rights office rarely closes investigations with formal sanctions or remedies. Under Title VI, EPA officials can correct an act deemed discriminatory by requiring reforms, or overturning decisions. It can also withhold funding or refer cases to the Justice Department for prosecution.

    Only nine cases have been settled through agreements brokered between agency officials and targets of complaints. Another three cases have been closed through “alternative dispute resolutions,” meaning the complainants and the targets hashed out solutions.

    Asked about this record, the EPA did not dispute the Center’s findings. Instead, the head of the EPA’s civil-rights office, Velveta Golightly-Howell, declined to discuss cases prior to her tenure, which began in February 2014. In a half-hour telephone interview with the Center and NBC News, she stressed that the EPA is committed to “making a visible difference in communities,” and is “making a lot of strides” to improve its Title VI enforcement.

    “It is important to note that ‘finding a formal Title VI violation’ is not the ultimate objective as [a] civil rights office,” Golightly-Howell said in a written response to follow-up questions. “The most important objective is to bring about prompt and effective resolution of cases in order to address discrimination issues as quickly and thoroughly as possible.”

    She acknowledged that “there have been some problems in the past” processing Title VI complaints.

    “We cannot focus on the past because there’s nothing we can do about it,” she said. “We can, however … focus on the present and the future, and that’s what we’re doing.”

    To advocates, the EPA’s pattern of denials, delays and dismissals speaks louder than the agency’s words — from not only Golightly-Howell, but also Administrator Gina McCarthy, who in March gave the keynote address at a national conference on environmental justice, in Washington, D.C. Throughout her 20-minute speech, the administrator touted how the agency has promoted environmental justice in disadvantaged communities across the country. Not once did she mention the agency’s civil-rights office.

    Listening to McCarthy’s speech, Richard Moore, an advocate from New Mexico, said, “You have to put the proof in the pudding. At the end of the day, we see no major activity taking place through [the agency’s] Office of Civil Rights.”

    Searing critiques

    The dysfunction has been well known to EPA officials for years. Auditors and advocates alike have criticized the agency’s civil-rights office for such systemic failures as compiling a lengthy backlog, having an opaque complaint process and misconstruing a key legal standard. In the past decade, reviewers, internal and external, have offered critiques.

    One of the most damning was a 2011 Deloitte Consulting report that concluded the office “has not adequately adjudicated Title VI complaints.”

    The EPA moved slowly to process complaints, Deloitte found. “Only 6% of the 247 Title VI complaints [reviewed by Deloitte] have been accepted or dismissed within the Agency 20-day time limit,” the audit stated. The backlog of cases stretched back a decade, to 2001.

    The report depicted an office in turmoil. Managers had little ability to track employee performance. Record keeping was spotty. The civil-rights program took few steps to tap into EPA’s larger resources, and connect with state environmental agencies — a lack of outreach that left it operating in an insular fashion.

    The result: An office that appeared more ceremonial than meaningful, with communities left in the lurch.

    Since Golightly-Howell joined the office last year, she said, the focus has been on “creating a robust and revitalized civil rights enforcement program.”

    In the years following the Deloitte audit, the office has taken steps to address its findings — tackling its massive backlog, for instance, and issuing two agency-wide orders to create what she called a “model” civil rights program. 

    The office has been “proactive,” Golightly-Howell said, adding a grant condition ensuring that those receiving EPA funding comply with civil-rights law. According to a progress report released in May, the office is also developing a “toolkit” to help state and local agencies understand the law, as well as a manual for EPA investigators who examine complaints.

    “The whole goal is not to have complaints sitting in the office for years and years and years without there being some resolution,” Golightly-Howell said.

    For communities, the changes have meant little.

    That has been true, for example, for residents of the Rogers Road-Eubanks Road neighborhood, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, whose case has been stuck in the EPA’s Title VI complaint pipeline for eight years now.

    The historically African-American neighborhood is the site of an expansive county solid-waste landfill and transfer station collecting auto parts, biological waste, transformers — “you name it,” said Robert Lee Campbell, of the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association. In 2007, the association filed a Title VI complaint alleging that local government agencies discriminated against the adjacent black property owners, first siting the landfill there, and then not providing such basic amenities as water and sewer services. It followed up with a 2011 addendum of allegations to bolster its case.

    It took nearly a year for residents to hear from the EPA’s civil-rights office, which in 2008 and again in 2011 requested more information. Over the years, Campbell recalled his association and its lawyers sending the agency 12, two-pound boxes of documentation. They fielded occasional phone calls from an ever-rotating roster of agency investigators.

    “We were always getting, ‘We’re still looking into the complaint,’ ” said Campbell, who has lived 2,500 feet from the dump site since the 1970s. “Not a whole lot about what they were going to do to help us.”

    By 2013, the EPA had denied some of the residents’ claims on procedural grounds, but not all. The agency accepted the amended complaint for investigation almost a year after the county, responding to residents’ decades-old political activism, shuttered the landfill. In its place the county has installed trash-disposal operations handling yard debris and electronics waste, along with a recycling center.

    Today, the case is languishing on the agency’s current list of 17 open investigations.

    “We have no idea what’s happening,” said Mark Dorosin, of the University of North Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights, which has handled the complaint. “It’s been very frustrating.”

    Cases that have seen action from the EPA since the Deloitte report have not necessarily fared better.

    Consider the outcome for residents in California’s San Joaquin Valley, who, as far back as 1994, complained to the EPA about the sulfur and garlic-like chemical odors and the clusters of chronic illnesses surrounding three hazardous-waste facilities there. The mostly Latino communities of Kettleman City, Buttonwillow and Westmorland bore the brunt of these impacts, residents said, yet had little opportunity to participate in the permitting processes.

    The EPA’s civil-rights office accepted the complaint for investigation in 1995, but took 17 years to examine the allegations. Only after residents had sued the EPA, in 2011, did the agency act.

    In 2012, the EPA dismissed the case without ruling on whether the sites discriminated against residents. The agency also said it could trace no adverse health impacts to the three facilities, even though they lie within an area the agency has found exceeds all air-quality standards. EPA’s decision came down in the middle of the lawsuit, which the court then dismissed as moot. An appellate court affirmed that decision.

    “Congress wanted agencies to enforce [Title VI],” said Brent Newell, of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, in San Francisco, which was involved in the so-called Padres case, and has filed multiple complaints on behalf of minority communities nationwide. “What’s the point of having the agency if they’re not going to do it?”

    Strong odors, swarms of bugs

    In Baton Rouge, residents of the University Place subdivision have not given up on the EPA’s civil-rights office — yet. Viewing theirs as a classic struggle against environmental discrimination, they have pressed the agency for help — again and again — in recent years.

    “I wanted EPA to do its job,’” said Gregory Mitchell, the lead community activist, explaining why he and as many as 312 other residents have signed on to the Title VI complaints.

    When the North sewage plant began operating in 1960, the structure was barely visible to its neighbors. Over the years, the city has transformed it into an industrial complex stretching for blocks, separated from houses by a two-lane road. As the plant grew larger, community staples faded. A ballpark was closed, a community store shuttered. In their place came the flies and the stench.

    State records document the hazards.

    In 1998, a memo from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals detailed “strong odors” coming from the sewage plant, and “filter flies nesting all under carport walls and side entrance door” at Mamie Mitchell’s house adjacent the sewage plant. In 2009, the same department documented, again, “flies on the windows, around the doors, and on the walls under the carport.”

    The problem was so bad, Mitchell said, that the city used to supply her with air fresheners and boxes of bug killers. Still, the swarms kept coming, fouling the outdoor calm she said she found when she moved to the house in 1972.

    By the time she and other residents turned to the EPA’s civil-rights office six years ago, they had long since sued the city. Their lawsuit, filed in 1996, was stuck in the courts for more than a decade. It ended in 2010 with a ruling that the plaintiffs were not entitled to recover personal-injury damages.

    Clean Water Act litigation filed by the residents and a local environmental group eventually yielded some relief, helping to lay the groundwork for a city vote in 2013 to relocate some away from the sewage plant and to create a “buffer” area, a process that is ongoing.

    All the while, residents have pushed the EPA for help. Gregory Mitchell did not sit idly as the civil-rights office weighed his requests for action, and then dismissed them starting in 2010. He peppered regulators with constant pleas.

    “We the citizens/I would like an update on the status of the civil rights and EJ [environmental justice] paper work which has been in your office for a very long time,” he wrote in May 2012.

    An agency official asked him to include the EPA file number with his emails. Mitchell did so that June, and added another plea. “We have been in constant contact with your office over the years,” he wrote. “We consent again to your office to do what is needed, because our civil rights and EJ rights are continuing to be violated.”

    A day later, June 6, 2012, Mitchell asked for a written status update. “Please detail what your office has done, is doing, and will continue to do,” he wrote. “Our community is still suffering.”

    Another official told him his latest complaint was still under jurisdictional review, meaning the agency was considering whether to open an investigation. By August of 2012, plant critics’ patience was wearing thin.

    “Why is this office taking so long to accept our claims,” Mitchell wrote the EPA. “Time for this office to take action and not play games with our lives.”

    The EPA closed that complaint, like the previous complaints. Its final rejection letter said Mitchell did not cite a specific allegation within the 180-day window. “OCR independently could not identify a specific date of an alleged discriminatory act.”

    Mitchell said the community lives with the smells and sewer flies every day. Over the years, he said, agency investigators have mentioned other reasons the civil-rights office might deny his claims — questioning whether the city was receiving EPA funding, for instance.

    “All these complaints to EPA have gotten us nothing — zero,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s as if the city did nothing, and this is the way people are supposed to live.”

    He has filed a fifth, still-pending complaint to the civil-rights office.

    Asked about Baton Rouge, the EPA referred to its rejection letters explaining why the cases were closed. The agency said it has helped the community in other ways, supporting an agreement by the city council to relocate residents away from the sewage plant, and “to create a 300-foot buffer zone around the facility.” Under a U.S.-city consent decree dating to 1988, the agency’s regional office in Dallas has monitored North plant operations. The decree settled an EPA enforcement action brought against the city after years of water pollution violations.

    “Although the OCR rejected the referenced complaints, the Office supported EPA Region 6’s other efforts to mitigate environmental health issues stemming from the [North] Wastewater Treatment Plant,” the agency said in a written statement.

    The plant is undertaking $24.1 million in odor- control projects as well, according to the agency. EPA officials “continue to monitor the implementation of these efforts,” the agency said.

    Many residents have now chosen to flee. Even the Mitchell family, long the neighborhood’s holdout, has left the subdivision in recent months. Still residing in Baton Rouge, Gregory Mitchell said his family as well as his mother and her siblings do not miss the malodorous sewage plant. But they had to abandon homes in which they had lived for many years and neighbors to whom they had grown close.

    “Our community is gone. It’s no longer there,” said Mitchell, who, if rejected yet again, plans to file a sixth Title VI complaint with the EPA.

     “That’s a total civil-rights violation,” he said. “Tell me that’s not a civil-rights violation.”

    Clarification, August 3, 2015, 9:28 a.m.: An earlier version of this story said that Title VI does not apply to private companies. The phrase "unless they receive EPA funding" was added for clarity.

    Kristen Lombardihttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/kristen-lombardiTalia Bufordhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/talia-bufordRonnie Greenehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/ronnie-greenehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/08/03/17668/environmental-racism-persists-and-epa-one-reason-why

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    Mississippi is one of the few states this year where voters face a full ballot from governor to state legislators.

    But Tuesday’s primary isn’t going to offer them many hot races.

    Familiar names of incumbents fill the ballot in the Republican-controlled state and few races are expected to be competitive. More than a third of the legislature — 66 out of 174 seats — is already decided because the candidates face no challengers in the primary or general election, a common trend nationwide. Accordingly, turnout on Tuesday is expected to be low.

    But voters do get some choices at the polls Tuesday, including in races for 23 Senate and 48 House seats. The contest for state treasurer, which typically attracts little attention, has become the most expensive TV war so far as a relative unknown, albeit wealthy, attorney tries to unseat the Republican incumbent in the primary. 

    Here are some things to know about the money behind the primary:

    Sources: Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from media tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG through July 27, Ballotpedia, Mississippi campaign finance reports through July 28.

     

     

    Rachel Bayehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/rachel-bayehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/08/03/17725/5-things-know-about-mississippis-primary

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  • 08/03/15--16:29: Broken audit promises
  •  Chris Zubak-Skeeshttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/chris-zubak-skeesJulia Hartehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/julia-hartehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/08/03/17765/broken-audit-promises

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    Defense Department officials celebrated after their auditor certified that the Marine Corps had successfully accounted for all the money it received and spent in 2012. They said it was a key milestone in the Pentagon’s long, troubled quest to earn that certification for all its billions of dollars in annual spending.

    Then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the comptroller at the time, Robert Hale, who oversaw the Corps’s work, marked the occasion at a February 2014 event in the building’s Hall of Heroes, where they presented a framed copy of the certification to the Corps’s assistant commandant. Hagel boasted that “we don’t spend a lot of time using big megaphones to tout our great accomplishments… We get the job done. This is another example of, we’re getting the job done.”

    The self-congratulations turned to embarrassment this March, however, when the Pentagon’s auditor suddenly reversed itself and withdrew its endorsement, saying newly discovered facts called into question “the completeness of the information on which we based our opinion,” according to a memorandum sent by a senior auditor to the Pentagon’s Comptroller and other top Pentagon officials.

    No one said so at the time, but the Corps had not properly accounted for roughly $800 million worth of transactions on its books, insiders say. That amount represents the sum of misstated and improperly documented transactions by the Corps, according to a report by the independent Government Accountability Office released on Aug. 4.

    The GAO report further said these shortcomings in the Marine Corps’s accounting are typical, not rare. The same undocumented transactions and unreliable methods of financial record-keeping plague the Defense Department’s entire accounting apparatus, and threaten its ability to meet a congressionally imposed deadline for becoming fully auditable in two years, according to the report.

    If that deadline is missed, it will be the latest in a long series of unkept Pentagon promises about a requirement met years ago by every other federal agency – namely, that it should be able to track its revenues, its assets, and its spending according to standard business practices.

    “Defense dishes out over $500 billion a year yet still can’t tell the people where all the money is going,” complained Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Ia.), who reviewed the GAO report before its release. "We can’t effectively identify areas to reduce spending if we don’t know how much, and where, we’re spending that money in the first place," complained Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the senior Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "This is more than just a disagreement among accountants; it raises questions about the Department’s basic financial practices."

    Provocatively, the GAO report also said that senior managers from the Pentagon’s auditor’s office, which withdrew the certification of credibility for the Marine Corps’ accounting, had improperly certified the Corps’s financial report in the first place, over the objections of lower-ranking specialists who oversaw the work.

    The Defense Department has in fact been straining for years to reorganize its fiscal management in time to meet a legal requirement that its income and spending records adhere to modern accounting standards. The aim is relatively simple: To ensure that the department knows when its funds go astray, or can prove they were spent as intended.

    A law passed in 1994 initially set the deadline for 1997, but the Pentagon’s books were in such disarray that it blew past that date. Then, in 2010, Congress told the Pentagon to comply by 2017. The next year, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pledged that the department would by 2014 be ready for a partial account of its finances – a much less detailed accounting than requested of the military services -- but the department missed that deadline too.

    Hale, who retired in 2014, said in an interview that implementing any large-scale reform at the Pentagon, such as improving the reliability of its accounting software, “is like trying to push a block across sandpaper” because coordination is required between dozens of agencies, combatant commands, field activities, and military services. Other financial concerns, such as financing wars abroad while complying with legislated spending caps, were considered more urgent tasks, he said.

    But Hale said he does not question the need to reform the way the department keeps track of its spending, because electronic logs of Defense Department transactions are often old and supporting documentation is poorly organized.

    That means the department is unable to accurately account for its debts and credits at the end of each financial cycle, according to multiple reports from Hale’s office and the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General. Sen. John McCain (R-Az.), chairman of the Senate’s armed services committee and one of the GAO report;s requesters, described this shortcoming as “shameful” at a discussion about budget reform and defense spending at the Heritage Foundation on July 15.

    “Shouldn't the taxpayers of America know where their dollars are being spent on national defense?” McCain asked.

    Congress has been growing increasingly impatient and threatening to turn the screws. Since 2012, lawmakers have introduced an “Audit the Pentagon” bill that would punish the department if it fails to produce a modern accounting of its transactions, but the bills have not made it to the House or Senate floor. The latest version, introduced in February by Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and eight co-sponsors, states that if the department misses the 2017 deadline, it will not be able to buy certain weapons or shift funds from one account to another.

    To help modernize its bookkeeping, the department has invested in accounting software improvements over the past several years, which themselves cost more than $15 billion through 2017, according to a 2012 report by the department’s auditor. It has further spent tens of millions of dollars hiring accounting firms to help the military services meet their requirements.

    Grant Thornton, for example, collected $32 million from 2010 until 2014 to audit the Marine Corps’s report of how it had spent its budget each year and determine whether it had correctly recorded its financial intakes and expenditures, according to Grassley. The firm’s favorable verdict, seconded by the inspector general, was the basis for the public celebration.

    Michele Mazur, a spokesperson for Grant Thornton, when asked if the firm would return its fee since its initial endorsement was in the end rejected by the Pentagon, stated by email that “We are confident that our work complied with all professional standards.”

    Grant Thornton and other big accounting firms, such as KPMG and Ernst and Young, who check the books of the military services, are supposed to work hand-in-hand with the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General, run by Jon T. Rymer, who worked as a Director of KPMG and audited federal financial agencies before taking his current job in 2013.

    Each year for nearly two decades, teams of specialists in the inspector general’s office have examined the accounting firms’ work and judgments and announced whether they found their judgments credible. They are, in effect, watchdogs on the arduous process of bringing the department’s bookkeeping into the twenty-first century, and bear ultimate responsibility for auditing the department’s accounts.

    In the Marine Corps audits for fiscal years 2010 and 2011, the inspector general’s teams and Grant Thornton agreed that the Marine Corps had not kept a passable record of its budgetary activity. But in the 2012 audit, Grant Thornton’s accountants recommended a passing grade but their overseers from the Pentagon inspector general’s office initially disagreed.

    In the lists of orders that the Corps reported placing in 2012, for example, the oversight team found $399 million in erroneously recorded transactions. That exceeded the level of error the overseers were willing to accept for the placed-orders category of accounts — $275.3 million — and thus rendered the team unable to sign off on the entire category.

    Because the payments category constituted more than 90 percent of the Corps’s total budget statement, the inspector general’s team said that only 8.1 percent—at most—of the Corps’s accounting could credibly be described as “materially correct,” according to an email that the inspector general’s team leader, Cecelia Ball, wrote her supervisor on May 22, 2013. The email was given to the Center for Public Integrity by a source who had access to evidence used by the GAO to review the audit.

    The GAO’s investigators said however that the extent of the misreporting might have been even worse than what the inspector general’s team reported; they found, for example, $35.8 million in additional errors or unreliable transactions beyond the $773 million that auditors also found. The investigators also spotted $231.5 million in shipping transactions that the auditors accepted as reliable without sufficient evidence, according to the report. It said that “management” in the inspector general’s office nonetheless told Ball’s team to certify that the Marine Corps’s accounts were in order.

    Although the GAO had access to internal Pentagon documents, its report did not name who applied the improper pressure. But an Oct. 8, 2014 internal review at the inspector general’s office, by Ashton Coleman, Jr., seen by the Center, stated that the deputy inspector general for auditing’s close ties to a partner at the accounting firm “would lead a third party to perceive that undue influence” could have been exercised by the auditing firm on the team’s conclusions at three points in its deliberations. The holder of the deputy’s post was then Daniel R. Blair, who previously led financial audits at the GAO and worked as a public accountant.

    Ball, in an Aug. 14, 2013 message to colleagues about feedback she had received from her supervisor at one point said Blair, in particular, believed the team had “to do what it takes” to reach the same positive conclusion as Grant Thornton, according to a copy of her email. Reached by phone at her home in Kansas City, Ball declined comment.

    Ten days before the inspector general endorsed the audit in December 2013, Ball’s supervisor Edward Blair — no relation to Daniel — wrote to Daniel Blair, reminding him of the “many occasions” on which the team had found Grant Thornton’s conclusions about the accuracy of the Corps’s financial records unreliable. He also presciently warned that the “GAO may hone in on” flaws in the accounting if it conducted a review.

    Ultimately, one of Daniel Blair’s colleagues — Lorin T. Venable, assistant inspector general for financial management and reporting — signed an 8-page report stating that the Corps had “fairly” reported its budgetary activity for the year. But the GAO in its report said this report ignored evidence that “should have raised significant doubts” about the reliability of the audited information, such as transactions for which the Marine Corps had no documentation and discrepancies between accounts that should have had the same balance.

    “These actions appear to show how undue influence and bias trumped objectivity and independence,” Grassley said. He said emails sent between one of Grant Thornton’s partners and Daniel Blair “suggest a professional relationship that was far too cozy.”

    Venable, through Pentagon spokesperson Bridget Serchak, declined to comment. Serchak said Grant Thornton itself discovered the Marine Corps records that formed the basis of its endorsement were incomplete, when the firm audited the Corps’s accounts for 2014. She declined to comment on the emails making clear that staff had identified the shortcomings in 2013.

    Reuters first reported on May 20 that Blair had overruled his own oversight team after they found the Corps financial records faulty. Three weeks later, the Pentagon’s inspector general demoted him to the position of deputy chief of staff at the agency.

    “Dan made major and lasting contributions as the DIG for Audit,” inspector general Rymer wrote in a June 10 email addressed to his staff.  As deputy chief of staff, he added, Blair will focus on financial management and information technology, but not oversee accounting reports.

    Asked whether the reassignment was related to Blair’s handling of the Marine Corps audit, Serchak sent a statement from Rymer that Blair had said he was “ready for a career change” and Rymer thought he would help add “more management depth to our internal OIG financial management.” In written comments included in the GAO report, Ann-Cecile McDermott, the Corps’s fiscal director, contested that the Corps could not provide support for certain transactions and disputed that “significant” weaknesses impair the Corps’s ability to produce reliable financial information. But she also acknowledged “much work remains.” Mark Easton, the Pentagon’s deputy chief financial officer, did not contest any specific statements by the GAO but chastised the report’s authors for not recognizing “many of the corrections and improvements already made” by the Marine Corps, and for not “constructively” describing the value of the audit to the Marine Corps.

    Jack Armstrong, a former audit program director for the inspector general, says that Blair’s reported intervention was unsurprising because he had previously “killed” an unfavorable audit report from a Pentagon inspector general team.

    Armstrong said he managed a similar audit of the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) — the Pentagon’s internal accounting agency — five years ago. His team found enough holes in the audit of that agency — including a discrepancy of $71.2 million between two of its accounts — to recommend a “non-endorsement” of it.

    But Urbach Kahn & Werlin Advisors, Inc., the accounting firm hired to assist the agency, said it was okay to adjust the balance of one of the accounts so they matched, according to a copy of an internal memo Armstrong wrote “for the record” on February 16, 2010.

    To Armstrong, the discrepancy signified bigger flaws. “If your systems are working perfectly, you shouldn’t have to force one account to agree with the other,” he said.

    Shortly after winning the contract to carry out the DFAS audit, Urbach Kahn & Werlin Advisors, Inc. sold its federal audit practice to a firm that has since become part of CliftonLarsonAllen LLP. Jackie Kruger, a spokesperson for CliftonLarsonAllen LLP, told the Center by email that “professional obligations of client confidentiality” preclude the firm from any discussion of the audit work at issue.

    Blair, then principal assistant inspector general for auditing, first tried to convince Armstrong’s oversight team to pass the audit, then refused to issue any report about the agency’s finances when the team refused to change their findings, Armstrong said.

    report that Grassley’s office issued in November 2013 about that particular audit stated that the top Pentagon auditor directly involved in the matter should be held to account for the report never being issued. In the version of the report available online, that official’s name is redacted. The report notes, however, that as of March, 2010, the responsible official had “just been promoted to Principal Assistant IG for Auditing” — a job which Blair’s official biography states he started on February 14, 2010.

    “The biggest thing that outrages me personally is that I used to think we were the greatest agency on earth,” said Armstrong, who started working at the Pentagon’s inspector general’s office in 1982, the year it opened, and retired at the end of 2010.

    “To see what happened on the DFAS audit, and then what went on with the Marine Corps audit — it just completely disheartens me,” he said.

    After being told about the allegations concerning his role in the two audits, Blair declined, through Serchak, to comment.

    This story was co-published with Foreign Policy

    The Pentagon is seen in this aerial view in Washington.Julia Hartehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/julia-hartehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/08/03/17735/pentagon-remains-stubbornly-unable-account-its-billions

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    If Vice President Joe Biden decides to mount a 2016 presidential bid, his chances will rest heavily on his ability to raise enormous sums of money, something that he has not exactly excelled at in previous races.

    When Biden ran for president in 2008, for example, he raised about $8.6 million before dropping out, following a poor performance in Iowa. That didn’t cut it then, and it surely won’t in 2016. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has raised $45 million since declaring her candidacy in April.

    Whether there are enough uncommitted, deep-pocketed Democrats out there to fund a Biden bid is an open question. However, one consolation for Biden as he mulls a third White House run: many of his previous donors are keeping their financial powder dry.

    Only one of the top 30 individual donors to Biden’s three most recent campaigns has given to the campaign of a 2016 Democratic White House contender, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of federal campaign finance data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

    Los Angeles doctor Howard Mandel gave $2,700 to the campaign of former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — but also contributed $5,000 to Draft Biden 2016, a super PAC formed in March by those who hope Biden will run. Mandel could not immediately be reached for comment.

    (Update, 2:28 p.m. Aug. 4, 2015: Interviewed by phone, Mandel praised O’Malley, but said given the opportunity, he would support Biden.

    “He would make an amazing president, and I think he would be great for the American people and actually bring us together,” Mandel said.

    Mandel said he hasn’t spoken to Biden about a bid and is avoiding doing so since he is now working with the Draft Biden 2016 super PAC. Mandel will be hosting an event next week in West Hollywood, California, to raise money for Draft Biden 2016, he said, adding he already had received more than 40 RSVPs.

    "We need an alternative,” he said, “and I think we need to not have a coronation.”) 

    The New York Times reported Saturday that the 72-year-old vice president and his associates have begun to explore a possible bid, a report that has seriously ratcheted up speculation that Clinton may face some real competition for the nomination.

    Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, a noted Clinton supporter in 2008, is also a fan of Biden’s. His law offices are on the list of Biden’s top career contributors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

    But so far, Angelos has not contributed to Clinton’s 2016 campaign, federal filings indicate. He did contribute $500,000 during the 2012 election cycle to Priorities USA Action, a super PAC that backed President Barack Obama’s re-election bid which is now raising money to support Clinton’s bid.

    Angelos has not made a contribution to the group so far this cycle, according to federal campaign finance disclosure filings. Angelos could not immediately be reached for comment.

    A review of Draft Biden 2016’s filings shows at least one new contributor has popped up to support a possible bid by the vice president.

    On May 18, Curtis Block, who listed his employer as Madison & Monroe, gave $5,000. Florida records show Madison & Monroe didn’t exist until June 2, and the incorporation paperwork filed with the state lists what appears to be a virtual mailbox — a service that scans and forwards mail — as its address.

    On June 12 — 10 days later — Madison & Monroe gave another $38,000, making the mysterious new company and Block together responsible for half of the money raised by Draft Biden 2016.

    Draft Biden 2016, which recently added to its ranks a close adviser to Biden’s late son Beau, has so far raised only about $86,000 through June 30.

    Block could not be reached for comment. Sarah Ford, a spokeswoman for Draft Biden 2016, said today she would need more time to respond to a request for comment from the Center for Public Integrity.

    This story was co-published with Huffington Post

    Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Generation Progress’s 10th Annual Make Progress National Summit in Washington, Thursday, July 16, 2015. Carrie Levinehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/carrie-levineBen Wiederhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/ben-wiederhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/08/03/17772/can-joe-biden-raise-enough-money-be-contender

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    The Center for Public Integrity’s “Big Oil, Bad Air” project, a collaboration with InsideClimate News and the Weather Channel on toxic air emissions in Texas shale fields, has won the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Kevin Carmody Award for outstanding in-depth reporting from a large-market outlet.

    The 20-month investigative series showed how hydraulic fracturing in the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas has endangered public health and generated billions of dollars for oil companies, while generating little oversight from industry-friendly regulators. The stories helped lead to the installation of a new air monitor in one of the heaviest drilling areas.

    Judges called the series an “exhaustive and relentless” examination and noted, “The reporting here is solid, and the multimedia work is both captivating and thorough. The organizations proved their commitment to the inquiry by keeping at it, story after story. This commendable work upholds the best traditions of investigative reporting.”

    This is the fourth first-place award for the “Big Oil, Bad Air” series in a national journalism contest. Reporters, editors and producers on the project included:

    For The Center for Public Integrity: managing editor for environmental health and labor Jim Morris, reporters Ben Wieder, Jamie Smith Hopkins, Rosalind Adams, David Heath, multi-media editor Eleanor Bell, data editor Alex Cohen, news applications developer Chris Zubak-Skees and former reporter Alan Suderman.

    For InsideClimate News: Lisa Song, David Hasemyer, Paul Horn, Zahra Hirji, Susan White, Sabrina Shankman, Marcus Stern, Hannah Robbins, and David Martin Davies. 

    For The Weather Channel: Gregory Gilderman, Neil Katz, Faisal Azam, Eric Jankstrom, Shawn Efran, and Katie Wiggin.

    In addition, CPI senior reporter David Heath received an honorable mention in the contest for his work on “The Politics of Poison”, a collaboration with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, and Michigan Radio.

    Judges said “this wonderful package followed the data, the money and the politics while telling a story of national importance.”

    The Society of Environmental Journalists journalism contest is “the world’s largest and most comprehensive awards for journalism on environmental topics.”

    All of the award winners will be honored at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 25th annual conference in Oklahoma in October.

     


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    On the 9th floor of a glassy high rise in downtown Washington, partitions are coming down to make more room for workers handing out billions of dollars in Obamacare-funded research awards.

    Business has been brisk at the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute or, PCORI, as it is known. The institute was created by Congress under the Affordable Care Act to figure out what medical treatments work best — measures largely AWOL from the nation’s health care delivery system.

    Since 2012, PCORI has committed just over $1 billion to 591 “comparative effectiveness” contracts to find some answers, with much more spending to come. Money has thus far gone to researchers and medical schools, advocacy groups and even the insurance industry’s lobbying group, which snagged $500,000.

    Institute officials say they are reshaping medical research by stressing “patient centered” projects that offer practical guidance to people living with chronic diseases. They cite a $14 million study to settle the debate over how much aspirin people should take daily to help ward off heart disease, or the $30 million project to reduce serious, even deadly, injuries from falls in the elderly.

    But like all matters rooted in Obamacare, there are sharp disagreements — both political and scientific — over the core mission of the independent institute. PCORI expects to spend $3.5 billion by the end of the decade. Then it expires.  

    On both the right and the left, there’s simmering doubt about whether the unusual nonprofit can live up to expectations, or even what those expectations should reasonably be. Others argue these sorts of decisions should have been made prior to committing up to $3.5 billion.

    “PCORI seems to have become almost invisible. Maybe they think that's the best way to stay under the political radar screen,” said Gail Wilensky, a former Medicare chief under President George H.W. Bush. The institute has yet to “offer much value,” she said.

    Some Republicans are viscerally hostile. They want to kill off, or at the very least, hamstring the institute, fearing it will lead to rationing of medical care by interfering with medical decision-making. The House Appropriations Committee in late June voted to cut PCORI’s funding by $100 million — dubbing it wasteful spending. Earlier this year in the Senate, Kansas Republican Pat Roberts filed a bill to prevent Medicare from using PCORI results to “deny or delay coverage of an item or service.”

    “Americans do not want the federal government limiting their treatment options and deciding what is best for them,” Roberts said at the time.

    Liberals aren’t singularly thrilled, either. They fault the institute for not evaluating enough drugs and medical devices head-to-head to see which offer the best results — and thus the biggest bang for the health-care buck.

    “If it doesn’t prove its worth soon there will be increasing calls for getting rid of it, or reducing its funding,” said Topher Spiro, vice president for health policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “That concerns us.”

    PCORI executive director Joe V. Selby, a family physician and researcher, accepts some of the flak. But he argues that Congress directed the institute to explore research topics patients want and need — not to issue edicts on which treatments offer the best bargain.

    “We are not in any way a cost effectiveness shop,” Selby said in an interview. “That is not our job and there is a certain wisdom in saying that we shouldn’t get involved.”

    Clearly, PCORI’s stated mission means different things to different people. Five years after setting up shop, PCORI is sponsoring many projects that offer great hope to doctors, patients and their advocates. But the institute also has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on activities only tangentially related to discovering which medical treatments are the most successful, a review by the Center for Public Integrity has found.

    Among the findings:

    • PCORI has spent only about 28 percent of its contracting budget on projects that assess how best to prevent, diagnose or treat diseases. Selby says more such projects are coming, including head-to-head evaluations of drugs and medical and surgical treatments. He cited a hepatitis C study coming in the fall that will pit the highly costly drug Sovaldi against other options. Much of PCORI’s other spending, though, concerns how to accelerate its research or improve health care systems.
    • More than $70 million in PCORI awards cover projects intended to improve methods for conducting research, or to pay for contracts that are essentially public relations gestures to build support and good will in the medical community.

    Those figures include nearly $10 million in “engagement” awards and “meeting and conference” subsidies for medical societies and other groups. America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry trade group, got two engagement awards this year that total $500,000. One physicians’ organization got $250,000 to find out what its members think about PCORI and its work. Institute officials said these types of awards are necessary to get their work noticed and amount to a mere “rounding error” in terms of total money spent.

    • PCORI has allocated an additional $61 million to help spread the reach and impact of its activities. But some projects, at least in summaries posted on the institute’s website, are so freighted with academic and scientific language that it’s hard to imagine how they could attract a wide audience. One project, for instance, looks at how doctors can create a “Zone of Openness” with patients.
    • PCORI faces steep challenges in making its mark on the everyday practice of medicine. The Affordable Care Act states that PCORI’s findings are “not to be construed as mandates for practice guidelines, coverage recommendations, payment, or policy recommendations.”  

    Some critics say that language handcuffs the institute by limiting how its findings can be put to practical use. Others argue that PCORI has plenty of authority to push for more efficient health care spending, but has been too timid in wielding that power.

    The health reform law gives PCORI “more flexibility than it is willing to use,” said Nicholas Bagley, who teaches at the University of Michigan Law School.

    Sense of Purpose

    In the world of federally-funded medical research, the mammoth National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., is sometimes viewed as the “discovery” agency, where scientists study the origins of disease and search for breakthroughs and cures. There’s also the much smaller federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, with a budget of about $440 million and a mission to “make health care safer, higher quality, more accessible, equitable and affordable.”

    PCORI is a third entrant with a different  mission, though it can and does also collaborate with other federal agencies. Congress created PCORI in 2010 as an independent institute that specializes in comparative effectiveness research. Under the ACA, the institute receives a mix of Medicare money, general revenue and funding from a tax on health plans. 

    PCORI is run by a board whose 21 members are picked by the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, and it has 191 full-time staff. That’s up from 153 in September 2014.

    Oversight is minimal. A GAO audit in March found little to fault, though auditors noted they had heard concerns that PCORI’s research priorities were “too broad and lack specificity.” GAO also noted that the institute won’t undergo an outside critique of its performance until 2020, after it has run through that $3.5 billion.

    Common Sense

    At least in theory, comparative effectiveness is pretty hard to fault. Common sense dictates that doctors need to know which drugs, medical devices and other treatments work best. And it makes little sense for anyone to pay for health care services that are shown conclusively to be ineffective.

    But that’s not how things work. New drugs, for instance, come to market based on whether they are “safe and effective,” not if they are clearly superior to the competition. While many people might assume that a new medicine or device that costs much more than what’s already available must be better, there’s no such guarantee. In fact, more than half of medical treatments lack clear evidence of their effectiveness, according to the Institute of Medicine.

    As such, doctors often can’t find persuasive evidence to advise them how best to get sick patients well. But while many medical groups strongly back research to find these answers, getting their members to embrace recommended changes isn’t always easy or quick to occur.  Some doctors may be slow to pick up on the most current medical information, while others may resent suddenly being told how they should alter their practice.

    Dave deBronkart, a kidney cancer survivor, recalled talking to a doctor who derided “cookbook” medicine. “One doctor told me, ‘I want autonomy to practice as I see fit,’” deBronkart said. Like many other advocates, he favors a much greater role for patients in their own care.

    Manufacturers of drugs, medical devices and other equipment also have a big stake in comparative research. Some companies have noted a worldwide move to restrict payments for health care services, and certain types of drugs, that can’t clearly demonstrate they are worth the price.

    Drafters of the ACA tried to take note of all these competing interests and needs. Despite keen interest in using comparative effectiveness research to cut costs, they yielded to fears that patients could be denied some treatments. As a result, the law appears to restrict use of research findings for cutting costs at the same time that it allows PCORI to consider “the effect on national expenditures associated with a health care treatment” in setting its research priorities.

    Patients First

    Given its mandate, it’s perhaps no surprise that PCORI chose many projects that were seemingly worthwhile, but also unlikely to threaten any powerful health care factions.

    Since 2012, PCORI has let $389 million in contracts for accelerating its research agenda or “improving healthcare systems.”

    For instance, the $30 million study anchored by medical schools at Harvard, Yale and UCLA, hopes to reduce falls in the elderly.

    Falls “represent grievous events for older persons and a major public health problem,” according to the study.

    Albert Wu, a health policy professor at Johns Hopkins University, who also is involved in the study, said researchers are looking at whether a “specially trained nurse” can work with the elderly and their relatives to find ways to cut down on these injuries.

     “This is a topic that concerns every American who is over 65,” said Wu. “We all live in deathly fear an elderly relative will fall and break a hip. It causes terrible worry and distress and a substantial portion of those people die.”

    Though PCORI director Selby wants little to do with health care financing controversies, the falls study appears to be an exception.

    “Putting a nurse in every (doctor’s) office doesn’t come cheaply,” he said.  “Who pays for that?” Selby said, confirming unassailable health benefits of hiring the nurses “would be a big step toward getting coverage for that.”

    The $14 million aspirin study also has widespread health ramifications because if people take too high a dose they can suffer internal bleeding that may outweigh any heart benefits.

    Researchers at Duke University said that every year, 720,000 Americans have a heart attack, and nearly 380,000 die of coronary artery disease. They said that “increasing the use of an inexpensive yet effective therapy, such as aspirin… will save thousands of lives globally.” 

    “We know that aspirin can be beneficial in preventing heart attacks but surprisingly we haven’t known the appropriate dose,” said Ann Bonham, chief scientific officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges.

    “That’s an important piece of information…a gap that may not be recognized by a lot of people.”

    PCORI has also let 18 contracts worth $44 million for research about rare diseases. Among them is $2.6 million awarded to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center to study which type of diet to give to children with a condition called “eosinophilic esophagitis.”

    Overall, PCORI can point to $279 million in contracts for the “assessment of prevention, diagnosis and treatment options.” Still, that’s less than a third of total spending and less than one-fifth of the total number of contracts issued thus far.

    Engaged

    The Center for Public Integrity review found that tens of millions of dollars in other contracts are for studying research methods, or are looking into how to get findings noticed, or are difficult to decipher.

    PCORI has directed $64.5 million toward 66 contracts whose purpose is to improve methods for conducting research. In June 2012, PCORI funded more than $30 million in 50 “pilot projects” mostly at universities and medical schools. One was a boot camp at the University of Colorado Denver for $675,000 over 30 months.

    The authors said they would “activate personal relationships to bring together community members, clinical practices, patients, providers, and researchers to identify the important health issues they each face.” After several meetings, the group would “focus these topics into a priority list for further work.” The goal was to translate medical terms to make them easier for patients to grasp. 

    Some projects toss around esoteric phrases such as “how to capture stakeholder inputs” or “quality metrics to inform integrated care” that aren’t likely to be clear to the average reader.

    Consider the $674,452 project funded at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute with the catchy title: “Creating a Zone of Openness to Increase Patient-Centered Care.”  The 2012 project explored how medical professionals can foster a climate where patients don’t fear being labeled as difficult “for asserting themselves in clinical decision making.”  PCORI officials said the research produced important insights, though they concede they need to make their work sound more compelling.

    Jean R. Slutsky, PCORI’s chief engagement and dissemination officer, agreed that heavy use of jargon can be a turn off, especially for patients the institute is trying to reach. 

    “We are in the process of putting in lay language to communicate with people who are not scientists,” she said. “We wish we could change this.”

    The 36 “engagement awards” to health care organizations, universities and groups cost more than $8 million. That includes $500,000 to AHIP, the insurance industry trade group, to “build and maintain support from health plan leaders” and to “identify important gaps in availability of health insurance administrative data,” according to summaries of the contracts. AHIP spokeswoman Clare Krusing said sharing health plan data is “complex” and “requires a significant amount of review and expertise from the industry.”

    PCORI also has provided “meeting and conference support” to medical organizations that totaled more than $1.8 million in 17 grants.

    The Society for Academic Emergency Medicine, for instance, received $50,000 in 2015 to develop and publish “a consensus research agenda.” The year before, the Society of General Internal Medicine, whose 3,000 physician members teach at medical schools, received a $249,960 grant for a two-year program “to help us develop a better understanding of the attitudes and knowledge of our membership… and how they may best be engaged to participate.”

    PCORI director Selby said these awards are necessary to get through to busy professionals who “may not answer our phone calls.” Selby said: “Our job is to build relationships and to get on their radar, adding “This helps us get their attention.”

    Patient priorities

    Though it may be largely unknown to the public, PCORI has won support from a wide range of parties.

    Tony Coelho, a former Democratic congressman from California who chairs the Partnership to Improve Patient Care, said the institute takes pains to “get first-hand views on what questions really matter to patients.”

    Coelho’s group, a coalition of patient advocates, drug manufacturers and medical groups, applauds PCORI for conducting research “in a manner that is patient-centered and ultimately useful at the point of health care decision making.”

    Other experts said that putting patients first is itself a worthy research legacy.

    PCORI “is filling a really important void,” said Justin W. Timbie, a Rand Corporation policy researcher. “This is really practical research to help people make decisions (about their health). I think that’s a lot of bang for the buck.”

    This story was co-published with NPR

    PCORI Executive Director Joe Selby.Fred Schultehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/fred-schultehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/08/04/17762/obamacare-research-institute-plans-spend-35-billion-critics-question-its-worth

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    The Pentagon’s top contractors sent an army of more than 400 lobbyists to Capitol Hill this spring to press their case for increasing the nation’s spending on military hardware, in a massive effort costing tens of millions of dollars of their own funds from April to June alone, according to an analysis of public lobbying data by the Center for Public Integrity.

    The contractors are upset in part because most military spending has been capped for the past few years under budget controls meant to rein in government debt. So far, the caps have forced a decline in main defense budgets from about $528.2 billion in fiscal 2011 to $496.1 billion in fiscal 2015, instead of a previously projected increase to roughly $598 billion. Mounting frustration with the caps was evident in the administration’s submission this year of a military budget that exceeded the limits by about $38 billion, followed by moves by both branches of Congress to add even more billions.

    The caps remain the law of the land, however, and they won’t go away until Congress votes to lift them. The issue has so far been tangled up in a dispute between the parties over whether to also increase spending on social welfare programs. But several lobbyists said in interviews that they were optimistic that this could finally be the year that lawmakers agree to let defense contractors return to their historic pattern of ever-higher revenue from the federal treasury.

    This could explain in part why total lobbying expenditures by the 53 top defense contractors that reported paying for such work in the second quarter of 2015 were more than 25 percent higher than the amount they spent in the same quarter of 2014 — $58.5 million instead of $45.7 million. But not all of the lobbying was related solely to military spending.

    Boeing, a $100 billion corporation that makes military aircraft and other lethal hardware, as well as civilian aerospace goods, reported to the clerk of the House and the secretary of the Senate that it spent almost $13.2 million on lobbying in the first two quarters of this year. Its filing said some of this expenditure was related to expanding its “Commercial Aircraft Sales/Services” and supporting the Export-Import Bank, among other issues. The aerospace contractor’s commercial aircraft division receives billions in financing from the bank, and so it has a large stake in this year’s continuing congressional skirmish over renewing the bank’s charter.

    Gayla Keller, a Boeing communications director, declined to comment specifically on their lobbying activities in an emailed response to questions.

    Parsing the lobbying reports to sort out just the defense-related expenditures for these contractors is not easy, because the lobbying reporting requirements have some ambiguity baked into them. Lobbying expenses are only reported on an overall basis for an organization, and aren’t tied to specific issues or associated with the agencies that lobbyists target. And for some of the top defense contractors, the Pentagon is only one of many customers, albeit an outsized one.

    Still, 40 of the 53 top contractors that lobbied during the last quarter reported that one target of their efforts was the National Defense Authorization Act, the main legislation authorizing defense spending each year. Some of these firms — including Boeing, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon — said that their efforts were aimed at budget controls.

    General Electric — which makes washing machines and light bulbs and has a major healthcare division — lobbied on the Export-Import Bank, Medicare, passenger and freight train safety and natural gas production, according to its latest disclosure. It also lobbied on several defense weapons programs, including the B-1 Bomber, the CH-53K Super Stallion helicopter, the F-18 Fighter and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

    General Electric responded to the Center’s requests for comment with an emailed statement that its “[e]mployees educate officials on our Company’s operations, emerging technologies and markets, as well as on our views on public policy issues.”

    Boeing and General Electric had the largest increases in lobbying spending compared with the same period in 2014, among the 15 defense contractors that spent $1 million or more to lobby in the quarter. General Electric almost tripled its lobbying spending compared with the earlier period, from $2.8 million to almost $8.5 million. Boeing more than doubled its spending for the quarter, from almost $4.2 million in the second quarter of 2014 to $9.3 million in the most recent quarter of this year.

    Industry experts the Center spoke with said that while there were probably multiple reasons for the heightened lobbying, lifting the budget caps has been the industry’s central ambition. “People are concerned about the sequester,” said retired Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, the chairman of the National Defense Industrial Association, the country’s main defense industry association. “For the industry as a whole, that may be the top issue,” said a veteran defense lobbyist, who asked not to be named.

    Of the total 655 lobbyists employed by the contractors, 423 of them specifically lobbied on defense, in some cases along with other issues, according to the lobbying reports.

    General Dynamics paid for 74 lobbyists, more than any other contractor, for example, and 70 of these lobbied on defense, part of its $2.7 million lobbying tab. Lockheed Martin Corp., the world’s largest defense contractor, spent $3.5 million and enlisted 64 lobbyists to press government officials, including 56 who lobbied on defense as well as other issues.

    “The defense budget is capped at a level that neither the industry nor the Pentagon wants," said Gordon Adams, a fellow at the Stimson Center and a senior White House budget official for national security during the Clinton administration“The industry has been active on that, company by company, and by the industry as a whole," Adams said. Companies “either want to raise the caps or get rid of them all together.”

     

     

     

    Defense Secretary Ash Carter, center, gives his opening statement on Capitol Hill prior to testifying with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, left, and Defense Undersecretary Mike McCord, before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Defense Department's budget.Alexander Cohenhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/alexander-cohenhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/08/05/17776/top-defense-contractors-spend-millions-get-billions

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    Uniontown, Alabama — As Esther Calhoun sees it, discrimination, rooted in the acts of many, has turned this wisp of a town into a dumping ground.

    A landfill owner that staked out roughly 1,000 acres for Alabama’s biggest municipal-waste site on a county road dotted by well-worn homes. A county commission that approved the landfill over objections from a largely African-American neighborhood. And a state agency that issued operating permits time and again.

    “If this had been a rich, white neighborhood, the landfill would never have gotten here,” said Calhoun, whose sharecropper and slave ancestors toiled on local plantations, explaining why so many of her fellow citizens view the facility as discriminatory.

    “They put it here because we’re a poor, black community,” she said. “They knew we couldn’t fight back.”

    In the last decade, little has roused this town in the heart of Alabama’s “black belt,” 30 miles west of Selma, like the Arrowhead Landfill, a sprawling dump capable of collecting thousands of tons per day of household garbage, industrial waste and other debris — including coal ash, an often-toxic byproduct of coal-fired electricity — from more than half the nation. Foul odors, corrosive dust and menacing buzzards have become facts of life for people who live here. Some no longer sit on their porches, grow their gardens or let children play in their yards. In the area abutting the landfill, almost everyone claims to have suffered ill effects, from headaches and earaches to neuropathy. Residents say state regulators are absent; their sense of powerlessness is palpable.

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while touting the importance of tackling environmental racism, has done little to address the residents’ concerns — until now. Spurred by a citizens’ complaint alleging the Arrowhead Landfill violates the civil rights of surrounding black property owners, regulators in the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights have launched an investigation into the facility’s permitting.

    A little-known program within the EPA, the civil-rights office has one mission: to ensure that agencies receiving EPA funding do not act in a discriminatory manner. The mandate comes from Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, a sweeping law prohibiting racial discrimination by those receiving federal financial assistance. Experts say the provision offers the EPA a legal tool for combating environmental injustices.

    The Uniontown complaint, filed by 35 residents in 2013, alleges that the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, or ADEM, twice violated civil-rights law when permitting the Arrowhead Landfill — in 2011, when state regulators renewed the landfill’s license; and again in 2012, when they approved modifications allowing the facility to expand by 169 acres.

    The landfill, the complaint charges, has caused a battery of adverse impacts — offensive odors, fugitive dust, disease-infested birds — which has disproportionately harmed the black residents.

    The head of the company that owns the landfill, Ernest Kaufmann, says most of the problems alleged in the complaint occurred under a previous operator. Since his company took over the landfill in 2011, he says, it has had “no penalties, no fines, no citations, nothing.”

    Federal and state regulators have examined residents’ claims on multiple occasions, Kaufmann says, and some have written letters suggesting there is little basis for them. “How many letters does EPA and ADEM have to write to get people to understand these claims are not true?” he asked.

    ADEM, for its part, has disputed the allegations in the citizens’ complaint. The head of the department, Lance LeFleur, calls the complaint “misplaced,” and an attempt to force “ADEM to do things we can’t do.” Under state law, he notes, a local government body — in this case, the Perry County Commission — approves the location of a landfill, while the state agency approves its design. He says ADEM’s permit renewal and modification expanded the Arrowhead Landfill’s waste-disposal area, not its footprint. 

    “Our responsibility is to make sure whatever and wherever it is, it does not harm human health and the environment,” LeFleur said.

    The subject of 11 Title VI complaints over 17 years — among the most of any other state environmental agency, according to EPA records — ADEM insists it is complying with the law. It points to the EPA’s own record to prove it. “Every Title VI case in which we’ve been charged has resulted in our favor,” LeFleur said.

    A Center for Public Integrity investigation has found that the EPA’s civil-rights program, championed under presidents from Clinton to Obama, almost always closes cases without action, either rejecting or dismissing nine out of every ten. Records show the agency has failed to exercise its authority to investigate claims even when it has reason to believe discrimination could be occurring.

    The Uniontown complaint is one of the few open investigations at the EPA. Some — including another complaint against ADEM over a landfill in Tallassee, 100 miles east of Uniontown — have been pending for more than a decade. For the agency, Uniontown seems like something of a test case. Under pressure to beef up its Title VI enforcement, it could decide the case in a way that breaks from its problematic past — or not.

    EPA officials declined to discuss details of specific cases, including Uniontown. The director of the agency’s civil-rights office, Velveta Golightly-Howell, describes Title VI enforcement as a “priority,” and said her office is “making a lot of strides in [that] area.” She promises swift resolution to any pending civil-rights investigation.

    “When cases come in the door,” she said, “we have a plan of action for resolving them.”

    Marianne Engelman Lado, of the environmental law firm Earthjustice, who specializes in civil-rights litigation and is handling the Uniontown case, believes its outcome will depend upon the EPA’s approach to what she calls “a pretty extraordinary example of discrimination.” She is among a dozen or so advocates who have pushed the civil-rights office to reform its guidelines, including its standard for determining discrimination.

    “There is a fundamental problem here,” Lado said, of the EPA’s existing civil-rights record. Despite their rhetoric, she said, agency officials have yet to show “political will to address the problem of systemic discrimination in places where health hazards are.”

    ‘A terrible place to put a landfill’

    In Uniontown, where residents live within a four-mile ring of what they call “the mega-landfill,” as well as a cheese plant, a catfish mill and a sewage lagoon, they just want somebody, anybody, to help. Situated in the southwest corner of Perry County, among the state’s poorest, the city stretches approximately a mile and a half across rural terrain, its streets replete with rusty trailers, sagging porches and boarded-up buildings. Eighty-eight percent of its 2,449 residents are African-American, according to the Census Bureau’s 2013 estimate.

    Short on jobs, the city has a median household income of $13,800. Once booming with businesses — furniture outlets, drug stores, shoe shops — its Main Street boasts little more than a supermarket and a restaurant. Dozens of storefronts sit vacant; the lone bank was shuttered in June.

    “The town is falling down,” said Calhoun, of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, whose members constitute many of the Title VI complainants.

    The Arrowhead Landfill, owned by Green Group Holdings, is one of the few industries. Straddling the city’s edge, the 977-acre facility sits on a two-lane stretch of County Road 1, among wooded fields and rolling pastures, overlooking 30 or so modest houses. It is marked by a road sign that reads, simply, “LANDFILL,” as well as an iron gate. About a third of its footprint — 425 acres — is permitted for waste disposal. From the outside, it is hard to see more than the looming, thinly vegetated mound — “the mountain,” residents call it — where 4 million tons of coal ash has been dumped.

    Once a plantation, where slaves and tenant farmers picked cotton and milked cows, the landfill offers no pastoral vestiges. Gone are the fishing ponds, hunting grounds and fruit trees. Generations of slaves, buried in unmarked graves near the site, have all but disappeared for their descendants.

    Partly because of this heritage, said Mary Leila Schaeffer, whose family ran a cotton gin in Uniontown and who lives in her grandparents’ 1840s-era plantation house, “We thought it was a terrible place to put a landfill.”

    In 2006, Schaeffer and four other residents sued ADEM, along with the Perry County Commission, over the then-proposed landfill, challenging its permit on historical and environmental grounds. She remembers some 40 residents, black and white, showing up for the case’s sole court proceeding, only to be disappointed when the following year the trial judge ruled for the defendants.

    By then, residents were waging a political fight, spurred by the landfill’s evolving size. Over the years, the facility grew from one collecting the trash of Alabama to that of 16 additional states along the East Coast; today, its 33-state service area encompasses much of the Midwest, too. Residents formed a coalition and signed petitions, only to find the county commissioners approve the landfill.

    For many, their sense of betrayal lingers to this day.

    “The people was being lied to,” said Carlene James, a Uniontown native whose family owns 65 acres near the landfill. She remembers attending public hearings — at times, driving 1,150 miles from her home, in Syracuse, New York, to testify — all while the landfill operator cleared trees and leveled dirt.

    “I felt like it was making a fool of everyone,” she said.

    Coal ash arrives

    The Arrowhead Landfill opened in 2007, accepting “household garbage, commercial waste, industrial waste, construction and demolition debris, and other similar type materials,” as its permit states. Its presence was hard to escape. Residents noticed the traffic — 18-wheelers rumbling by front doors from New York, New Jersey and beyond — as well as the noise. Many believe the operations unearthed those old graves.

    The landfill would take on new meaning two years later, when coal ash began arriving. The ash came from a disastrous spill occurring some 330 miles away in eastern Tennessee, where an earthen dam holding a billion gallons of the waste in a pond collapsed, deluging 300 acres in gray muck, destroying houses and dirtying a river. The 2008 disaster remains the largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

    Overseeing the spill’s clean up, regulators in the EPA’s regional office in Atlanta paved the way for the coal ash dumping at the Arrowhead Landfill — first approving the ash’s disposal at a municipal-waste landfill and then signing off on the facility itself. At ADEM, regulators granted a waiver classifying coal ash as “special waste.” Under the permit, the designation did not require special protections beyond the standard liners and water tests mandated at the landfill, such as a thicker disposal cover or a greater “buffer zone.”

    ADEM’s LeFleur presents the waiver as routine, explaining that “the landfill could physically handle it,” and that coal ash was not classified by either the state or the EPA as “hazardous.”

    One of the nation’s largest refuse streams at 136 million tons a year, coal ash contains harmful metals such as arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury and many others. It has fouled water supplies and endangered public health across the country.

    In 2009, the first trainload of coal ash pulled into Uniontown, bound for the landfill. Every day, 120 rail cars carrying the Tennessee ash rolled by the city en route to the facility’s unloading area. The transfer of coal ash lasted 18 months. When it ended in 2010, the EPA estimated as much as 3 million cubic yards had been dumped.

    John Wathen, an advocate who, as the “keeper” of Hurricane Creek, in Tuscaloosa, works on water-quality issues in Alabama and beyond, learned about the coal ash disposal in the fall of 2009, after following a tanker truck hauling what turned out to be the ash’s leachate — liquid leaking from the ash itself. He remembers the smell was “so overpowering” that his head throbbed. “I nearly passed out,” he said.

    During weekly visits to Uniontown, Wathen said, “I was shocked at the seeming disregard for their community.” Months earlier, he had traveled to Tennessee to document the 2008 spill’s fallout, testing water sources and tagging dead fish. He watched cleanup workers in hazmat suits, gloves and masks handling coal ash as if it were a hazardous material — covered in piles, sealed in bags.

    At the landfill, by contrast, the ash pile was visible from neighbors’ yards. Wathen saw workers with no protective gear dumping the wet waste into a “disposal cell” in the ground, only to cover it with more coal ash — something ADEM approved as an “alternative cover material” for the compacted dirt that landfills must use daily to cover disposal operations, as required by state law.

    “This would not have been done in an affluent, white community,” said Wathen, who spent months documenting with hundreds of videos and photos the conditions during the transfer — the white dust in water sources, the coal ash in the air. “They put it right in these people’s faces.”

     For those living in the landfill’s shadows — and especially its ash mountain — the battle seemed constant. Residents endured the dust, which often blanketed streets, trees, lawns and rooftops. “It was like going through a dust storm in Texas,” said Booker Gipson, who owns property across the street from the landfill. Vehicles were so caked in dust that he and others could write on them. At times, wet ash clung to the tires.

    Then there were the buzzards, which circled the landfill and swooped into people’s yards. Hundreds lined rooftops, trees, and ridges for miles, spreading their wings yet refusing to fly. “It was like a horror movie,” said Ben Eaton, who has lived on his 23-acre property four miles from the landfill for 30 years. In the summers, so many buzzards overtook his yard that a neighbor took to ringing his doorbell to make sure he was alive.

    An odor permeated the community. It was the kind of stench that ended outdoor activity; residents fled their front stoops. People slammed windows or stuffed towels in doors. At times, relatives refused to visit.

    Everyone, it seems, has a different way to describe the smell. Spoiled milk. Rotten eggs.

    “It smelled like shit, you know what,” said Bertha Drew, who lives less than a half-mile away. She stopped sitting on her porch and tending to her yard because of the odor, which left her with what she calls “terrible headaches.”

    Ailments — from nausea to nosebleeds, skin conditions and respiratory problems — became commonplace. Many suspected the landfill. Minutes into his first trip to Uniontown in 2010, Tom Brown, a retired minister from Birmingham, found himself in the throes of an asthma attack, wheezing and coughing. He remembers the particles in the air, dense and suffocating.

    “There was no mistaking this was a reaction to what I was breathing,” said Brown, noting that he, at least, could leave Uniontown — unlike residents he met.

    In the ensuing years, residents complained about these effects and more — at an EPA “listening session” in 2011 and at an ADEM public hearing that year. They flooded complaint lines at ADEM, often filing multiple reports a day. They enlisted help from environmental advocates who, in turn, filed their own complaints. Some, like Wathen, included test results showing unsafe levels of arsenic and other metals in the area’s surface water. But as the residents’ complaints mounted, so did their frustrations.

    “They seem like they’re listening and they’re concerned,” Calhoun said of state regulators, “but they must have a deaf ear.”

    LeFleur, ADEM’s director, defends his agency’s oversight of the Arrowhead Landfill. Inspectors have visited the site, examined citizen complaints and monitored the company’s required reports, he said, adding that the agency has conducted twice as many inspections at the Uniontown facility as at any other disposal facility in the state.

    He minimized the complaints, saying “there’s no data to support the alleged adverse impacts whatsoever.” ADEM has never issued a notice of violation against the landfill. While acknowledging the facility has had “issues,” especially during the coal-ash transfer, LeFleur dismissed residents’ claims of ill effects.

    ADEM has tried to substantiate these claims, he said, “and we can’t.”

    Waiting for a response

    Enmeshed in coal ash, Uniontown residents fought back, again, in court. In 2010, 34 residents living within a mile of the Arrowhead Landfill sued its then-operator, Phill-Con Services, accusing the company of violating federal clean-air and clean-water regulations. Eighty residents filed a second lawsuit in Alabama district court against the operator and a contractor, alleging “negligence, wantonness, nuisance, and trespass arising from the construction and operation of a landfill.”

    The owners of the landfill property had filed for bankruptcy, complicating the residents’ lawsuits against the operator. In 2013, they settled both cases for a confidential lump sum translating into a nominal dollar amount per household — and little else. According to a motion filed on behalf of all the parties, the agreement stipulated that residents “waive all claims that they may have, whether local, state or federal, legal or administrative … relative to the location, construction or operation of Arrowhead Landfill.” Confidential provisions reportedly bar them from speaking about any harm they suffered. Phill-Con admitted no liability.

    For many, bitterness runs deep.

    “It makes me feel sad,” said Drew, a plaintiff in the lawsuits. In 2001, she returned home to Uniontown to care for her ailing mother, who died before the landfill opened. Living in a trailer on her family’s acreage, Drew signed on to the litigation in hopes of getting something better for the community.

    “It doesn’t do any good,” she said.

    Searching for a salve, residents turned to the EPA’s civil-rights office. In 2012, David Ludder, an environmental lawyer from Tallahassee, Florida, who once worked as ADEM’s general counsel, and represented Uniontown residents in their civil litigation, filed a Title VI complaint on their behalf. Unlike the lawsuits, the civil-rights complaint does not target the landfill owner. Rather, it hinges on the state’s activities. As the complaint argues, ADEM’s decisions to renew and modify the Arrowhead Landfill’s permit — doubling its trash volume to 15,000 tons per day, as well as its disposal area — have “the effect of adversely and disparately impacting African-American residents.”

    The civil-rights office initially accepted the Uniontown complaint for investigation — one of just 64 such cases accepted over 17 years — but dismissed it, citing the pending litigation. When the lawsuits ended a year later, the residents tried again. This time, the EPA opened an investigation.

    While the agency’s inquiry has seemed routine so far — contacting ADEM, and requesting information — it has taken some unusual turns. In August 2014, civil-rights investigators traveled to Uniontown to interview the 16 complainants. (Ludder and 29 original complainants have had to withdraw from the case because of that settlement of the civil cases.) Residents and advocates remember taking officials on a tour of the city and offering medical records, water samples and even nickel-sized peaches to bolster their case.

    Despite EPA regulations setting a 180-day time limit for civil-rights investigations, the complainants have not heard from the agency since.

    Neither has ADEM. “They didn’t come talk to us,” director LeFleur said. Generally, the EPA can mediate some resolution of a Title VI complaint with the investigation’s target. The agency can also strip the target of federal funding if investigators find that it has made decisions discriminating against communities of color.

    To make such a finding, the EPA must determine that the actions of an agency such as ADEM have a discriminatory effect — what the law terms “disparate adverse impact.” Simply put, the EPA must find the alleged discrimination has harmed a community of color more so than others. In Uniontown, as the complaint notes, the percentage of African-Americans is higher than in all the states that send trash to the Arrowhead Landfill combined — 87 to 15 percent, respectively. Some say the EPA’s standard for determining what it calls “adversity” has never been so straightforward.

    The debate over the adversity standard has raged on for years. As far back as 1998, the civil-rights office issued a now-infamous decision in a case involving a Detroit steel mill. Concerned about toxic air pollution, the mill’s African-American neighbors filed a Title VI complaint, which the EPA investigated. In its decision, the agency agreed that the plant spewed mercury, which can cause such ill effects as neurological disorders, tremors and kidney problems. But because the emission levels did not violate environmental standards, it said there was no disparate impact. 

    “Advocates said, ‘That’s ridiculous,’ ” recalled Lado, the Earthjustice lawyer. Under Title VI, they argued, the mere act of releasing mercury should constitute a disproportionate effect. “The agency was conflating standards,” she says, substituting environmental law for civil-rights law.

    Under guidelines drafted in 2000, the EPA has allowed targets of civil-rights claims to raise what it calls a “rebuttable presumption,” essentially arguing there is no disparate impact if a facility complies with environmental standards. Recently, however, EPA officials have issued a position paper promising “to eliminate … the rebuttable presumption.”

    Modern-day civil-rights movement in Alabama

    Now, even ADEM is challenging the EPA to act. The department has asked the civil-rights office to define, once and for all, what disparate impact looks like when a facility has not violated its permit, LeFleur said. State regulators cannot find what he considers “one concrete example” in any previous civil-rights case — not in the EPA’s record, nor the courts.

    “Every single permit is protective of human health and the environment,” he said. “Are you going to be more protective of one group over another?”

    LeFleur said he wants the EPA to establish clear guidance for state environmental agencies like ADEM, which, in 2004, was among the first to undergo a Title VI audit. At the time, the EPA declared the state in compliance. It offered some minor policy recommendations, which LeFleur says ADEM has implemented. Golightly-Howell, EPA’s civil-rights chief, said her office is developing what she calls “critical internal as well as external guidance,” which will detail “all regulatory, policy and legal requirements” for those receiving federal assistance under Title VI.

    “We keep saying, ‘Before we settle anything, show us where we’re at risk,’ ” LeFleur said, alluding to the EPA’s attempts at mediation.

    To the complainants, ADEM’s failure to consider civil rights in its permitting of landfills seems obvious — after all, the agency maintains that it has no such authority under state law. Mark Johnston, a minister who helped organize Uniontown residents and has signed on to the Title VI complaint, ranks it as “the worst case of environmental injustice I’d ever seen,” but not necessarily unique. A veteran environmentalist, Johnston formed a statewide advocacy coalition aimed at reforming ADEM’s policy on environmental justice in the early 2000s.

    “It’s still the civil-rights movement in Alabama,” said Johnston, who has been involved in other Title VI complaints, including two now pending at the EPA. “Environmental justice is the way it manifests today.”

    As EPA investigators plod forward on the Uniontown case, residents keep waging their battle. Now that the coal ash has been capped at the Arrowhead Landfill — and the company has moved the facility’s entrance road away from most homes, among other things — residents say they have noticed improvements. They still have to contend with pungent smells that seem to wash over the neighborhood, and nagging colds that never seem to go away. For the most part, however, their concerns about the landfill have moved from the fleeting — dust and buzzards — to the lasting: water contamination. Recently, residents have feared the ash’s leachate is seeping from the landfill.

    “I’m scared they’ll get water from the landfill,” said Booker Gipson, whose yard sits 100 feet in front of the coal ash mountain, explaining why he no longer lets his family drink from his well or his cows drink from his tributary. Gipson has tested the water in his well twice, finding nothing but bacteria in it. But his fears have not dissipated. In 2013, a Birmingham biology professor had water samples taken near his creek, revealing elevated levels of arsenic, which causes skin lesions, neurotoxicity and bladder cancer, among other health effects.

    Advocates have argued the high arsenic content shows the coal ash is leaking from the landfill. State regulators have dismissed the results as not “verifiable,” instead maintaining the arsenic “is naturally occurring in soil and water.”

    “I don’t know what to believe,” said Gipson, who in April logged another complaint with ADEM over possible leachate. Residents have sent his photo depicting a rush of grayish water coming from the ash mountain to EPA investigators as well. Records show that ADEM inspected the landfill and found some areas “not stabilized” releasing storm water, not leachate. It issued no citations. A landfill spokesperson says the facility has re-planted vegetation to better soak up storm water.

    For residents like Calhoun, it seems only an outside entity can help now. She and her neighbors hope that EPA investigators do what state regulators have failed to do: “Stop making these places a dumping ground.”

    That message has taken on new meaning in recent months, as the owner of Arrowhead Landfill seeks out more coal ash. Green Group’s Kaufmann confirms the company is marketing the landfill as a place for coal ash disposal; in May, the company circulated an advertisement touting the facility as a “safe haven” for utilities looking to unload their ash. While it has yet to sign any contracts, the company is banking on new demand for ash-disposal sites. Last year, the EPA issued rules requiring utilities to get rid of the waste as dry ash in landfills, rather than as wet slurry in ponds. “We think we’ll get some coal ash on a sporadic basis,” Kaufmann said, noting the company will dump new coal ash “in the middle of the site,” away from neighbors. Residents have come to see the Title VI complaint as their last chance to push for additional protections at the landfill — or else live their coal-ash saga all over again.

    “People need some hope,” Calhoun said, standing in her yard, taking in the railroad tracks where, as she remembers, box cars carrying the Tennessee ash rolled past. She can throw a rock and hit those tracks, just yards away. For her, they have become a reminder of the injustices Uniontown residents have had to endure — and not just in pollution or health risks. Many of those living near the Arrowhead Landfill inherited their properties from parents and grandparents who often faced violence, hard labor and other threats just to buy the land.

    Save for its sentimental value, she said, that land seems pretty worthless today.

    View of Arrowhead Landfill across the street from the home of Towanda Eubanks.Kristen Lombardihttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/kristen-lombardihttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/08/05/17703/thirty-miles-selma-different-kind-civil-rights-struggle

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