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- 08/20/15--09:48: How to fix the EPA's broken civil-rights office
- 08/21/15--10:15: Bury excess plutonium, don't turn it into fuel, study says
- 08/21/15--12:05: EPA annual report to examine improvements in civil rights office
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- 08/28/15--10:34: GAO to review accuracy of nursing home ratings
- 08/28/15--11:24: Working on solutions as well as problems
- 08/28/15--13:51: Lobbying firm fined for disclosure violations
- 08/31/15--02:00: Test your money-in-politics IQ
- 09/01/15--10:24: Jeb Bush ditched his corporate pals, but they won't quit him
- 09/02/15--05:41: Corporations playing politics with ballot measures
- 09/03/15--09:58: Kayleb returned to court as schools alter discipline policies
Fatal Extraction is the story of Australian mining’s vast but rarely-examined social and environmental footprint in Africa.
Over the course of 18 months, journalists from the Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, working with more than a dozen reporters across Africa, collected data, documents, video footage, and largely unheard witness accounts that uncovered links between Australian-listed mining companies and allegations of negligence, violence, environmental law-breaking, and other behaviors that would never be tolerated in better-regulated jurisdictions.
With an abundance of rich materials, the team faced a significant challenge: how to present it all in a compelling way that would allow audiences to explore a variety of content as they engaged in a much larger narrative. The end result is an immersive multimedia feature incorporating strong human stories with stunning visuals, rare documents and innovative data analysis to reveal the extensive and sometimes deadly impact of Australian mining companies in 33 African nations.
Q. Why did you choose this storytelling mode for the story?
Eleanor Bell: Initially, we intended to package our Africa multimedia into four separate video stories broken down by country. During filming, it became clear listening to our sources, on-camera and off, that there was a great deal of crossover in their experiences dealing with the practices of Australian-listed mining companies operating in Africa.
Lead reporter Will Fitzgibbon had uncovered a mountain of primary source documents and recordings. We also had a powerful data story, hundreds of hours of footage and multiple memory cards of images from some of the most visually stunning places on earth. These artifacts could be coerced into a video timeline or added as sound files, video stories and documents to a traditional text piece. But with so much unique material, there was an opportunity to allow the content to tell the story.
Our aim was to integrate all the elements into a “digital” experience that would deliver a compelling story without sacrificing the nature of the material. In short, we wanted to deliver these stories in their most organic form. We looked to NPR’s Borderlands and Demolished projects for inspiration. These are highly visual, engaging narratives that encapsulate the idea that stories can be “of the web and not just on the web.”
Chris Zubak-Skees: We could have packaged this with a written narrative, but we wanted the multimedia to tell the story, not supplement the story.
This format had the benefit of being tested (by outlets like NPR) for immersive multimedia storytelling, which is what we wanted. It lets the viewer process the story in discrete chunks, which has both pluses and minuses. It lets them choose their own pace and find shareable moments. But clicking through can feel like a chore if you don’t make it feel fluid. Could we make this feel like something more than a slideshow or a PowerPoint presentation?
Q. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the different media — and how did you decide which to use for each part of the story?
EB: This is an inherently complex story, and prevailing wisdom often says that the best video stories are discreet and simple. Part of this project was about seeing how far we could push the medium. That meant creating a linear narrative, incorporating a documentary-style arc rather than a faceted multimedia presentation.
An earlier version had a series of video assets in the first few slides but we needed the nature of the different media to be immediately apparent to the audience. I felt that this would set the stage for the user experience. We tried to use the most appropriate form for each part of the story. If we had good video, we used video, if we had a quote we made it a quote, if we had data, we turned it into a graphic.
CZS: Making inline video work well on mobile was a huge challenge. Many organizations opt instead for showing an image or text on mobile devices in place of video. Because the presentation was so video-heavy, though, we wanted to preserve that experience, if possible. To accommodate video in a landscape orientation, we tilted the presentation so viewers would have to holdtilt their devices horizontally to see it. We also had to work around limitations on the iPhone operating system, which weren’t ideal.
We made great strides in making it work well, but there’s still more we could have done. Would portrait video have worked better for these devices? Is video the best medium for slower mobile networks and devices? Would a different format have worked better? These are the questions we asked while building this, and many are still open.
Q. How concerned were you both about keeping the audience, and what steps did you take to keep the viewer invested and continuing to click through?
CZS: We were very concerned. Eleanor and Will spent a lot of time editing the narrative. We used a modified script in a Google Doc, which anyone on the team could edit, to populate the presentation. If an editor added, rewrote or changed the order of slides, we could preview that change instantly on a preview site. It was a process which allowed us to improve the presentation collaboratively.
I also spent a lot of time worrying about load time. The images and video load one slide before a user sees it. We re-encoded the videos at several different sizes, and the presentation loads the appropriate video format for the device and size of screen.
EB: During scripting we made sure to consider both the medium and the material. That meant balancing graphics and still images against the deeper personal stories of our sources told through vignettes and the use of video loops. I worked by color coding the different assets so that we could see, at a glance, how that balance shifted.
Even though the audience is essentially reading the story, they are experiencing it too. Data from outlets like NPR show that audiences love slideshows. But with 90 slides, I felt we had to keep the mini vignettes really tight so they would fit seamlessly into the wider narrative and allow the audience to advance quickly through the story.
Q. Does the multimedia approach allow you tell aspects of the story that the text report didn’t allow?
EB: Rather than recycle the broadcaster-as-all-knowing-expert format you see so often in TV news, the mini vignettes allowed our sources, often from remote communities across Africa, to share their stories and experiences with the world in their own words.
The looped footage acts as ‘moving pictures’ that transport the audience to the scene, letting them experience a little of life in Mali, South Africa, Malawi and the Democratic Republic of Congo that often illustrates the issues highlighted in the words on screen.
CZS: I suppose most of this could have been told in text, but the multimedia is a chance to connect with viewers on a personal, dare I say, emotional level.
Q. What are your favorite parts of the story?
EB: Adele Faray-Mwayuma’s story really connected. She’s a very warm person and also very strong. On some of the days we were filming, she was fasting, and yet she was very patient even when we delving into the most traumatic chapters of her life. To not know where your children are buried or how they were killed - I can’t imagine losing my family in that way let alone never being allowed to mourn for their loss. I hope she finds some answers.
Mali was the most spectacular place to film – the light has an incredible quality to it unlike anything I’ve experienced before. Coupled with the expressive beauty of the colors from the sandy ochre hues of the earth to the vibrant costumes of local women, it’s a visual journalist’s dream. Some of my favorite loops are from Mali.
CZS: I’ve also received positive responses to the map of mining deaths in Africa. It provides the overview that proves the story isn’t limited to isolated anecdotes, but is pervasive across Africa. Our data reporter, Cécile Schilis-Gallego, did a lot of research to get that detailed count, and it shows.
EB: Fun fact: this is my first ever story that doesn’t contain footage of a dog. Puppies, baby goats and ducklings were filmed in the making of the FATAL EXTRACTION.
Q. What goes into a project like this? What should anyone attempting this know?
CZS: Prototyping early and often and getting as much real, actual content into the presentation as early as possible helped a lot. I only wish we did that sooner and more frequently. The systems we used that allowed non-technical editors to tweak content and preview it live were absolutely essential. We spent weeks refining the details and probably could have spent weeks more, and that couldn't have happened otherwise.
Q. What were your greatest challenges during the project?
EB: There were a number of challenges -- from filming in Mali during an Ebola outbreak (and the subsequent 21 days of twice-a-day temperature taking and daily calls to U.S. health officials) to being forced to meet with sources in secret after being interrogated by Democratic Republic of Congo intelligence services who assigned us a minder. Then there’s the car in Malawi whose doors and windows didn’t open, that was funneling carbon monoxide into the back seat and eventually broke down entirely!
In terms of the production challenges though, the most fun thing was coming up with ways to capture (on very tight deadlines) events that had already taken place and of which there was little or no physical evidence. The idea to film the “dirt diagram” describing a protest in Mali in which villagers were killed, was inspired by a conversation I had with a local man who picked up a stick and began drawing to explain the location of a house. In this context, it seemed like the most natural way to tell the story of the shootings after the fact.
CZS: Definitely mobile was one of our greatest challenges. In addition to the work I did to make video work for mobile devices, design was also an issue. In the days before launch, we reviewed every slide on mobile devices and tried to make each work on the small screen. Sometimes the slide could be improved by moving elements, sometimes by rewriting the content and sometimes by using a different way of building the slide. Integrating all the technological, design and storytelling pieces into a cohesive whole was the hardest and most essential part.
Fatal Extraction was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was described by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed it into law, as an “effort to bring justice and hope to all our people.”
It has brought neither to Americans who complain of environmental discrimination.
Communities that have turned to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights for help since the early 1990s have seen complaints filed under the law’s Title VI dismissed 95 percent of the time. Other cases have languished — sometimes for more than a decade — leaving residents without remedies and often rendering their complaints moot. The office’s track record is so weak that advocates have lost faith in the law as a way to achieve justice.
The Center for Public Integrity’s “Environmental Justice, Denied” series, published earlier this month, shows what happens to communities in the face of EPA inaction. A massive Alabama dump a stone’s throw from homes is expanding while the predominantly African-American residents wait for the EPA to respond to their complaint. California parents are challenging an EPA settlement with the state over pesticide use near schools with mostly Latino students, a deal the EPA touted as a success. Other stories brimming with citizen rage and frustration can be heard in New Mexico, New York and Ohio.
The EPA declined offers to comment on the series.
The hurdles the civil-rights office faces in creating an effective program — funding, staffing, institutional attitude — are not insurmountable, say advocates, former EPA employees and civil rights experts. Some reform recommendations, they say, will require the rethinking of agency priorities; others will require officials to stiffen their spines and find creative ways to uphold the spirit of the Civil Rights Act.
Here are some suggestions that could lead to a revived EPA civil-rights office:
Build consensus and a civil-rights culture
The EPA has struggled to answer two fundamental questions in any claim of environmental discrimination: What does such discrimination look like? And how will the EPA identify it on the ground?
Academics and advocates alike have tried to help the agency figure this out for decades. Over the years, former EPA employees say, the agency has set up one task force after another aimed at adjudicating environmental-discrimination complaints. They have drafted policy guidelines, issued program recommendations and evaluated cases, yet have been unable to come to agreement on these two questions.
“People just looked at these cases as ‘I don’t know what the hell it is,’ ” said Ann Goode, who headed the civil-rights office from 1998 to 2001.
Debate has raged over key legal definitions. Historically, for instance, the office has relied on environmental health standards to define what it calls “adversity,” interpreting compliance with such standards as evidence that a complaint target’s actions or decisions would not harm a minority community. Similarly, it has allowed a target to argue against a claim of discrimination if a facility complies with environmental laws — a defense known as the “rebuttable presumption.”
These definitions, observers say, amount to a narrow read of civil-rights law. Some advocates want the EPA to broaden its adversity standard to include social, aesthetic and economic harms — increased odors, decreased property values. Others suggest analyzing environmental damage on a cumulative basis, rather than facility by facility.
But revamping legal standards would first require consensus on those big-picture issues — and not just within the civil-rights office. Part of the problem stems from how the EPA does business: its regulations address broad, geographic regions; its permits ignore polluters’ aggregate effects. Yet it also stems partly from agency culture.
At the EPA, the civil-rights office is considered, in Goode’s words, “backwater operations.” It has had to fight for resources and respect. Vernice Miller-Travis, of the agency’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), notes that the office has “an unpopular mandate that is not really supported by the institution.”
The office “will fail if EPA continues to signal that Title VI is a distinct program, or in conflict with EPA’s regulatory function, or at odds with the work of other offices,” said Gregg Macey, of Brooklyn Law School, who specializes in environmental law and is among a dozen or so advocates and organizations pushing for reforms.
Many believe the EPA must foster an agency-wide culture of civil rights, beginning with Administrator Gina McCarthy. Agency leaders must decide and win staff agreement on how to define environmental discrimination and what the office can do with the agency’s blessing to combat it. “At the leadership level,” Goode said, “you have to have clear goals and objectives about what kind of office do you want.”
In 2011, EPA officials took a step in this direction by creating an intra-agency group composed of senior-level career employees. The idea was to leverage all EPA resources to better handle civil-rights cases and give senior managers a stake in enforcing Title VI. So far, the group has issued recommendations for a “model” civil-rights program, including establishing deputy civil rights officials in the EPA’s regional offices, and creating a case management process. The civil-rights office is implementing both.
What’s needed most, Miller-Travis said, is a clear message from top officials that the EPA’s enforcement of civil-rights law is just as important as its enforcement of environmental law.
“That should have been said in 1970,” Miller-Travis said. “And every administrator from [the first one, William] Ruckelshaus to Gina McCarthy should have been enforcing that and embedding that into the consciousness of the agency.”
Develop a proactive approach
A vigorous civil-rights program should do more than just wait for and respond to Title VI complaints. “It should be proactive as well,” said Marc Brenman, a retired civil-rights policy advisor who spent more than 30 years working on such cases at both the Transportation and Education departments.
One way is to provide clear and comprehensive policy guidance to state and local agencies receiving EPA funding. The civil-rights office twice issued draft guidelines on the Title VI complaint process — first in 1998 and again in 2000. While a portion of those guidelines became final in 2006, it did not address legal standards used in civil-rights cases or other substantive issues. In May, the agency put out a position paper outlining the roles complainants and targeted agencies play in the process; it’s developing a “toolkit” to help state and local agencies understand the law.
Environmental-justice advocates, civil-rights experts and former EPA employees say the agency needs to be more definitive. Clarifying language could come in the form of a “Dear Colleague” letter defining terms like “sacrifice zone”; a white paper explaining how the EPA analyzes cumulative impacts of polluters; or a memorandum interpreting the “preponderance of evidence” standard used in civil-rights claims.
Velveta Golightly-Howell, who heads the EPA’s civil-rights office, pointed out that the program in 2013 added a new grant condition for those getting EPA financial assistance. Now, local and state agencies must check a “few boxes” and vow to comply with Title VI, said Macey, the Brooklyn law professor. “This is only as effective as EPA’s efforts to explain what compliance means,” he said, “[and to] give guidance to regional offices on how to review a program for compliance.”
Other state and local activities that EPA officials could monitor as well: permitting actions; regulatory decisions; and policies on environmental justice. Do they tackle environmental racism? Are they implementing the Civil Rights Act? If not, experts say, the EPA should issue warning letters notifying local and state agencies that, unless they correct problems, it will levy fines or rescind federal funds.
Another measure offered up as a solution: Civil-rights officials could launch inquiries at their discretion rather than wait for formal complaints. One former EPA employee suggests the civil-rights office should use this authority to focus on less-challenging cases alleging Title VI violations. Already, the office has had some success investigating complaints charging a lack of meaningful public participation — a Spanish-speaking community effectively shut out of a facility’s permitting process, for instance. Among environmental-discrimination cases, these claims are not technically complex, the employee said. They are also less likely to lead to conflicts with other EPA programs.
Start with the non-controversial cases, in other words, and build confidence in the process. “It is the low-lying fruit,” the employee said, “but it’s giving EPA [investigators] some softballs so they can learn how to take a case to resolution.”
Lisa Garcia, a former senior advisor to the administrator for environmental justice at the EPA, offers a twist on this concept: Select one civil-rights case to serve as model for how to properly process an environmental-discrimination claim. “Set the example of how we should do it or how states could do a better job,” she said. “Go to the states and say, ‘Here’s how to stop getting caught up in this potential pattern of discriminatory practices.’ ”
The Civil Rights Act is a strong law, advocates and former employees say; the EPA just needs to be less timid in its enforcement of it.
“[They] do technically have the ability to go seek out cases, but the office’s docket is largely determined by what complaints were filed, when,” said a former EPA employee with knowledge of the agency’s civil-rights office. The office rarely takes the initiative, the former employee said, to investigate what many experts consider non-controversial civil-rights claims — those alleging a lack of meaningful public participation, for instance — let alone politically sensitive topics, such as coal ash disposal.
One way to tackle that might be to keep track of Title VI complaints more closely as they come into the office. Even if individual complaints are denied, agency investigators could take a closer look at an agency or facility targeted by multiple claims. That would also require more widespread use of tools such as the EPA’s own EJSCREEN — which allows the agency to see demographic and environmental data for an area at a glance — and data collected by outside researchers and residents.
At minimum, outsiders say, the EPA should be talking about such things.
“Just take the risk,” said Garcia, vice president of litigation for healthy communities at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm. If the EPA noticed that most permits were being issued in predominantly minority communities, they should be able to “issue a decision that says ‘that, to us, is a disparity, and so come to the table, let's talk about this.’ ”
Garcia wants the EPA to pursue alternatives to formal findings of discrimination — an approach more collaborative than punitive. But Title VI does come with a large hammer that the agency’s civil-rights office has yet to use — the power to strip federal funding. To force compliance with civil-rights law, the agency could withdraw funds and refuse to give future awards to those programs and activities that flout the law.
EPA officials must make it known that the agency’s enforcement of civil-rights law is not an empty threat, advocates say.
“Nobody is saying you would take that lightly,” said Miller-Travis, the NEJAC member and a veteran advocate for environmental-justice issues. “But if everybody knows you are never going to go there, then your civil rights program has absolutely no validity. None.”
Stabilize and bolster civil rights staff
Most agree that the EPA’s civil-rights office would benefit from an infusion of money, staff and specialized training. Given today’s political climate, which has brought deep cuts to the EPA’s annual budget (from $10.3 billion in 2010 to $8.1 billion in fiscal year 2015) as well as its staff (from 17,000 to 15,000 employees), that seems unlikely.
During fiscal year 2014, the civil-rights office had 37.6 full-time-equivalent employees — its lowest count in the past decade. Agency officials say the office expects to hire in the next fiscal year, beginning in October.
If that happens, it’s important to keep the number in context. Take, for example, the Education Department. It has a staff of 554 employees in its civil-rights office, but is asking for a budget increase to hire another 200 lawyers and investigators just to handle its caseload. Any new staffers in the EPA’s office will be charged with enforcing complaints of racial, sexual and disability discrimination filed by citizens, as well as complaints filed by agency employees. Some advocates suggest the EPA should reassign internal complaints to another office. At the least, they see as crucial a staff solely dedicated to adjudicating environmental-discrimination claims.
There are some promising signs.
Advocates and experts alike said the EPA helped stabilize and professionalize the civil-rights office in February 2014, when it hired the current director, Golightly-Howell. Prior to her arrival, the office had a revolving door of supervisors; it’s had four directors in the last three years alone. For much of this time, one or more of the office’s top three management posts has remained vacant. Constant leadership change and staff turnover have made it hard to push through reforms.
In an interview with the Center for Public Integrity and NBC News, Golightly-Howell said that over the next five years, she aims to make “significant strides towards … promptly, thoroughly and efficiently addressing each complaint [the civil-rights office] receives.” She promised to implement what she called a “well-established process for conducting compliance reviews,” and to reach out to those receiving EPA funding to educate them on their obligations under Title VI. She said her office will collaborate with other federal agencies’ civil-rights programs so it can better achieve its goals.
A final suggestion for Golightly-Howell from Brenman, the former civil-rights policy advisor: Draw up a wish list of resources and structural changes necessary for the civil-rights program to be effective and send it to administrator McCarthy.
“If the response she gets back is either silence or not getting the resources that she needs,” Brenman said, “then she’ll know that EPA, at its highest levels, is not taking these issues as seriously as they deserve.”
Next to the Federal Election Commission’s front door is a quotation from former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants."
But the agency is refusing to uncloak a pricey, taxpayer-funded study that details decay in the security and management of its computer systems and networks, which the Center for Public Integrity revealed had been successfully infiltrated by Chinese hackers in October 2013.
The report — known within the FEC as the “NIST study” — also provides recommendations on how to fix the FEC’s problems and bring its computer systems in line with specific National Institute of Standards and Technology computer security protocols.
In denying the Center for Public Integrity’s Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of the study, the FEC primarily cited the “deliberative process privilege” in federal law, which is designed to “prevent injury to the quality of agency decisions.”
The Center for Public Integrity has appealed the decision of the FEC, which is responsible for enforcing and regulating the nation’s election laws and providing timely public disclosure of fundraising and spending by thousands of federal political candidates and committees.
The Center for Public Integrity did obtain through its Freedom of Information Act request 18 emails that together indicate top FEC staffers have for months considered this study — and the safety issues it addresses — a top priority.
FEC Chairwoman Ann Ravel, a Democrat, said Thursday that the FEC is not releasing the study because “the concern is that it contains information that details potential vulnerabilities.” She added that she believes, “without question, that the agency will be more secure” when it fixes problems pointed out by the study’s findings.
Ravel declined to discuss commissioners’ deliberations on the security study. Vice Chairman Matthew Petersen, a Republican, did not return a request for comment, nor did Commissioner Lee Goodman, a Republican who served as FEC chairman when the agency commissioned the study.
But Ravel confirmed that commissioners in July reviewed the study, which had been overseen by FEC Staff Director and Chief Information Officer Alec Palmer and conducted by Luray, Virginia-based consulting firm SD Solutions LLC.
An FEC employee familiar with the matter said commissioners in July conducted a closed-door meeting and approved hiring an outside firm to implement the study’s various recommendations. In a separate July meeting, the commission’s finance committee approved spending about $400,000 to pay for security improvements. Hiring a contractor remains a work in progress, the source said.
The security study itself wasn’t cheap: The FEC on Aug. 15, 2014, paid SD Solutions LLC $199,500 for what’s described in federal contract records as an “information technology gap analysis.”
A “gap analysis,” in government parlance, compares some aspect of a federal agency’s actual performance with what an agency would consider ideal performance.
Less comprehensive reports on the FEC’s security systems, including a broad annual survey of agency operations by contractor Leon Snead & Co., have highlighted notable flaws in the FEC’s computer and information technology systems.
“Without adopting and implementing National Institute of Science and Technology minimum security controls, the FEC’s computer network, data and information is at an increased risk of loss, theft, manipulation, [and] interruption of operations,” Leon Snead & Co.’s 2012 report stated.
FEC officials bristled at such assertions, saying its “systems are secure.”
Ravel acknowledged that “there was a lot of internal discussion” by FEC officials about security, and by early 2014, Goodman and Ravel — often at odds with one another politically and ideologically — said they were united in improving the FEC’s computer systems.
From there, the agency made steady progress toward improving its computer security.
It quickly began hiring new IT staffers.
In March 2014, the FEC requested Congress allocate it $1.51 million to address its obsolete computer systems.
And come the summer of 2014, the agency was seeking a contractor to comprehensively review those systems. It hired SD Solutions LLC to do the work.
In an email on Aug. 21, 2014, Palmer, the FEC’s staff director and chief information officer, told Goodman and Ravel that his staff was preparing for the study by “working on the timeline of all security related improvements and activities over the past 9 months and timeline related to the NIST study.”
On Oct. 31, Palmer thanked Deborah Tibbs, his special assistant, for attending a training course that would aid her in helping manage the study’s contract.
“We all know how critical this is in improving our security posture here at the FEC,” Palmer wrote Tibbs.
Contractor SD Solutions LLC appears to have completed its work this spring. On June 10, Palmer asked FEC Chief Information Security Officer Esteve Mede for an update on the study’s status.
“[W]e need to get the recommendations into the hands of the commissioners by the end of this month including all the cost related issues benefits risks etc. so they can make a decision and then we can set up a contract for execution before the end of the fiscal year,” Palmer wrote.
By June 29, Palmer was racing to present the study’s findings to the FEC’s six commissioners. He emailed five colleagues to ask if he could cancel a meeting with them.
“I need every minute I can get to complete the NIST recommendations (from the NIST study) for Commission review by the middle of the week.
On June 30, Palmer sent FEC commissioners several documents, including security recommendations made by contractor SD Solutions LLC.
“These documents are not to leave the FEC,” Palmer wrote.
Shortly afterward, Shana M. Broussard, an aide to FEC Commissioner Steven Walther, emailed Palmer for additional information. She also alerted Palmer that Walther might “take you up on your offer to meet” about the study prior to a July 15 meeting of the commission’s finance committee.
On July 2, Palmer sent FEC Commissioner Steven Walther an email titled “*Confidential: Fw: NIST Study and Recommendations - Confidential Documents.” The documents were not included in the FEC’s FOIA request response.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology said it did not possess a copy the FEC’s study, and therefore, could not provide it in response to a separate Freedom of Information Act request from the Center for Public Integrity.
This story was co-published with Poynter.
A team of experts has confirmed what the Energy Department has been saying for two years — that burying 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium would be far cheaper and more practical than completing a multibillion-dollar plant that would turn the radioactive material into commercial reactor fuel.
The report raises pressure on Congress to walk away from a costly project that has been plagued by rapidly escalating costs and an absence of any customers for the fuel it is supposed to produce.
The Department of Energy tried to kill the project in 2013, but Congress has kept it on budgetary life support, with the strong support of South Carolina’s congressional delegation. The study says essentially that sooner or later the Energy Department will be forced to abandon the fuel plant, and the sooner it does so the better.
“The downward performance spiral [expected for the plant] is accompanied by an upward cost escalation spiral that would eventually make DOE’s path-forward decision for them,” the report concluded, “but only after a great deal of money has been wasted.”
The report was delivered to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz this week by an Energy Department “Red Team” led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thomas Mason. It was posted online Thursday by the nuclear safety advocacy group the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The malignedMixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina, is part of a 15-year-old agreement between the U.S. and Russia to each dispose of 34 tons of plutonium taken from nuclear weapons. The aim of the post-Cold War accord was twofold: to discourage another arms race and to prevent the plutonium from being stolen and sold on the black market.
While President Bill Clinton’s administration initially sought to turn some of the surplus plutonium into fuel and dispose of the rest, President George W. Bush’s administration eventually agreed to follow Russia’s lead and convert all of it to a mixed-oxide fuel, called MOX. The 64 tons the two nations vowed to dispose of could be used to make 17,000 bombs.
Construction snafus, high turnover and management problems on the project have slowed progress on the MOX plant, and escalated the estimated cost to build and operate it. In 2013, the Energy Department estimated the project would cost $27 billion. An outside assessment ordered by Congress and published in the spring concluded it could cost up to $47 billion.
Meanwhile, a dueling June 29 study by consultants retained by CBI-AREVA MOX, which is building the South Carolina plant, concluded that the cost of completing and operating the MOX plant was roughly equal to the cost of disposal. The study priced each option at about $20 billion.
Mason’s 19-member team, which included officials at Los Alamos, other national labs and the United Kingdom, said the congressional study overstated the cost of the MOX project while the contractor-funded study understated them.
The Red Team concluded that building and operating the plant over the life of the program would cost between $700 and $800 million per year, while diluting the plutonium and shelving in in an underground facility would cost about $400 million per year – approximately the amount budgeted for the project this year and proposed for next year. It does not provide a bottom-line figure.
The Energy Department has spent more than $4 billion since work on the mixed-oxide facility in South Carolina began eight years ago. It is about 70 percent complete.
While Mason’s Red Team favors diluting the plutonium and storing it in an underground repository in New Mexico, this solution faces serious problems of its own.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, where diluted plutonium would be stored as an alternative to MOX, has been closed for a year and a half following a series of accidents. It’s a deep salt cavern in the desert of Southern New Mexico already used as a repository for low to mid-level nuclear waste generated during the Cold War by weapons production from the nation’s labs.
In February 2014, a truck caught fire below ground at the repository, known as WIPP, limiting activity at the site. Nine days later, a chemical reaction inside a drum of waste at WIPP from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico caused it to burst. Radioactive contamination spread throughout the repository and some escaped outside, even though WIPP had been heralded as leak-proof. The accident exposed more than 20 workers to radiation.
Follow-up investigations determined that waste packaging policies at Los Alamos created the conditions that led to the release. Organic kitty litter had been used as an absorbent and mixed with the nuclear waste. A mix-up in the transcription of a 2012 technical manual led to the switch from inorganic kitty litter to organic.
The DOE has estimated the cost of restoring WIPP to working order at $500 million, with an eye on resuming some activities by early 2016. But this month WIPP’s manager acknowledged that reopening is going to take longer and cost more than originally announced.
Despite the problems at WIPP, the Union of Concerned Scientists has thrown its support behind the repository as an alternative to MOX.
“Obviously, they have to deal with the safety and environmental issues associated with the accident [at WIPP], but it’s not a showstopper,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said.
He said the time for studies has passed, and it’s time for the Energy Department and Congress to commit to a new course for disposing of the plutonium.
Don Hancock of the Albuquerque-based Southwest Information and Research Center, a nonprofit that closely monitors WIPP, also opposes the MOX project.
But he’s skeptical about WIPP as a viable alternative and said the Energy Department should review other options, including storing the plutonium at the Savannah River Site or the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, where thousands of plutonium pits are already warehoused.
“The Red Team or the Union of Concerned Scientists may be confident that WIPP will reopen in a few years, but I don’t see any real basis for that,” Hancock said. “Going from one bad idea to another bad idea is not the solution to this problem.”
The EPA Office of Civil Rights will begin publishing an annual report on progress toward improving its performance, according to a blog post.
In the post, published Monday, EPA Acting Deputy Administrator Stan Meiburg acknowledged that the EPA’s civil rights compliance program has “faced challenges in the past,” but that it is “committed to systematically changing the way it approaches complaints.”
The Center for Public Integrity recently published “Environmental Justice, Denied,” a seven-part series examining the EPA’s civil rights record and the agency’s failure to issue a single formal discrimination finding in the history of the office. The office has rejected 95 percent of the hundreds of complaints it has received.
The EPA’s Office of Civil Rights is charged with investigating complaints of discrimination filed against state and local agencies that receive EPA funds and, upon unearthing evidence of injustice, making things right.
The last story, published Thursday, focused on suggestions for improving the beleaguered office.
In the blog, Meiburg detailed a series of measures hoped to improve operations, including increasing engagement and partnerships with recipients of EPA funding so it can “address potential discrimination before it becomes a real challenge for communities.”
It will also work with communities to ensure they understand their rights and how to file a discrimination complaint.
“By working with communities from the beginning, we can help make sure their concerns are directed to where they can best be resolved, and to strengthen transparency and accountability,” Meiburg wrote.
Beginning in 2016, Meiburg said, the office will “publish an annual report to keep the public apprised of the office’s progress” on those efforts.
The EPA did not respond immediately to requests for comment or more details on the report.
Velveta Golightly-Howell, who heads the civil rights office, made no mention of the planned report during a June interview with the Center and NBC News. The office also declined repeated offers to comment on the findings of the series earlier this week.
EPA’s report won’t be the only assessment of the agency’s Office of Civil Rights in 2016.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an independent, bipartisan agency that advises the president and Congress on civil rights issues, announced in July that its 2016 report will focus on environmental justice, including EPA’s enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Executive Order 12898, which requires agencies to consider the health and environmental effects of their programs on minority and low-income communities.
The report will focus primarily on “possible violations of environmental and civil rights laws resulting from improper generation, storage, transfer and siting of toxic materials by public utilities and other sources near minority residential areas.”
The commission declined to comment further on the investigation, noting that it was still in the early stages. But in a press release, said the upcoming report would also examine EPA’s handling of coal ash storage and hydraulic fracturing. One of the pending cases the Center profiled in its series involves a sprawling municipal landfill in Alabama that accepts coal ash and other waste from around the nation. The civil rights office has launched an investigation into the 2013 complaint, but has yet to issue a decision.
If regulators approve the recently announced mega-deals in which Aetna, Inc. would buy Humana Inc. and Anthem Inc. would buy Cigna Corp., will consumers benefit? Or will the winners be limited primarily to the executives and shareholders of the companies involved?
If history is guide, the big winners will be — you guessed it — company executives and shareholders. The companies’ customers, on the other hand, likely will have the privilege of paying more, not less, for their coverage.
A new study on the effect of health insurance market consolidation and dominance published earlier this month should be required reading by the folks at the Justice Department, who will decide whether the deals should go forward. The study’s conclusion: Insurers that bulk up to the point that they can dominate a given market raise rates considerably more than their smaller competitors.
The findings in the study, published in a Harvard-affiliated peer-reviewed journal, are consistent with previous research that has found that consumers usually come out on the short end of the stick when insurers merge. It’s an entirely different outcome, though, for the few executives who make the mergers happen.
Even in relatively small deals, executives can engineer jaw-dropping fortunes for themselves. As I wrote last month, while I was still at Cigna, Healthsource CEO Norman Payson pocketed $94 million when Cigna’s $1.45 billion acquisition of Healthsource was completed in 1997.
Seven years later, a few WellPoint executives got golden parachutes worth far more than Payson’s going-away gift when WellPoint and Anthem merged.
California’s insurance commissioner at the time, John Garamendi, now a congressman, blocked the acquisition for a while when it was disclosed that the WellPoint executives would walk away with $600 million from the deal.
He eventually gave the green light to the $20.9 billion transaction when the companies agreed to reduce the compensation package for WellPoint CEO Leonard Schaeffer and a handful of other executives to $265 million. Anthem CEO Larry Glasscock was rewarded with a $42.5 million bonus for closing the deal. When Schaeffer left the company a few months later, in January 2005, his retirement package was valued at $337 million.
To get Garamendi to drop his opposition, the companies said they wouldn’t raise their customers’ rates, at least not right away. But in 2010 Anthem made national headlines when it hiked premiums as much as 39 percent for thousands of its individual customers in California.
News of the rate hike came just as the congressional debate on health care reform was winding down. At the time, reform advocates were worried that what ultimately came to be known as Obamacare would go down in flames. Some of the Democrats they had been counting on to vote for the bill indicated they were leaning against it. But when news of Anthem’s rate hike reached Capitol Hill, many of the wavering Democrats were so outraged they came back into the fold. Had it not been for what was perceived by lawmakers of both parties as Anthem’s greed, the Affordable Care Act probably would not have made it to President Barack Obama’s desk.
This time around, California’s current insurance commissioner, Dave Jones, seems to be taking a similarly dim view of the Anthem-Cigna deal, which has been valued at $54 billion. Although he hasn’t come out against it yet or even commented on it specifically, he was quoted by the Los Angeles Times as saying that, generally, increased consolidation in the health insurance industry has resulted in less competition and higher pricing.
"I do have concerns about the merger activity in the health insurance market," Jones said.
Among the organizations lining up against the Anthem-Cigna and Aetna-Humana deals is the American Medical Association, which for years has studied the effects of insurance industry consolidation.
“We have long cautioned about the negative consequences of large health insurers pursuing merger strategies to assume dominant positions in local markets,” the AMA said in a statement last month. “Recently proposed mergers threaten to increase health insurer concentration, reduce competition and decrease choice.”
The AMA said that its analysis of insurance markets “shows that there has been a serious decline in competition among health insurers with nearly three out of four metropolitan areas rated as ‘highly concentrated’ according to federal guidelines used to assess market competition.”
The organization’s most recent analysis found that in 41 percent of the country’s metropolitan areas, a single health insurer controls at least 50 percent of the commercial health insurance market.
The AMA also studied the 2008 acquisition of Nevada-based Sierra Health Services by UnitedHealth Group. It found that premiums increased after that deal was completed by almost 14 percent relative to a control group.
A study published earlier this month in Harvard’s Journal of Technology Science, an open-access peer-reviewed online publication, found results similar to the AMA’s. Researchers Grace Gee and Eugene Wang found that the largest insurers in each of the states have raised premiums on Obamacare plans 75 percent more than smaller insurers, “even though their costs have not risen more sharply than others.”
Let’s hope regulators reviewing the proposed deals don’t approve them unless they can be certain the past won’t be prologue. Otherwise, we can expect that the only winners once again will be a few executives who already make more than most of us can even dream about.
Wendell Potter is the author of Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans and Obamacare: What’s in It for Me? What Everyone Needs to Know About the Affordable Care Act.
A private corporation that operates a U.S. nuclear weapons laboratory agreed on Aug. 21 to pay the federal government $4.79 million to settle Justice Department allegations that it illegally used taxpayer money to lobby for an extension of its management contract.
The payment by the Sandia Corporation, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin that operates Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, resolved claims that the corporation violated two laws that bar such a use of federal funds.
It followed by nine months a restricted-access report by the Energy Department’s inspector general that accused Sandia of improperly trying to win a new contract without competition by lobbying senior Obama administration officials and key lawmakers with funds taken from its existing federal contract.
In his report, Inspector General Gregory Friedman described the company’s tactics as “highly problematic,” “inexplicable and unjustified,” and recommended that the Energy Department pursue reimbursement of the funds. A heavily-redacted copy of the report was obtained by The Center for Public Integrity in June under the Freedom of Information Act.
“The money allocated by Congress for the Sandia National Laboratories is designed to fund the important mission carried out by our national laboratories, not to lobby Congress for more funding,” Benjamin C. Mizer, chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, said in a six-paragraph news release late Friday announcing the settlement.
Sandia admitted no wrongdoing, the department’s release said, but a spokeswoman for the lab expressed the corporation’s regret in a statement. “At the time of the activities, Sandia believed our actions for a contract extension fell within allowable cost guidelines,” Heather Clark said. “However, in looking back at the activities, Sandia acted too early and too independently in planning for a possible contract extension.”
The settlement leaves open the door for the Justice Department to file criminal charges associated with the investigation, according to the eight-page formal agreement signed by representatives of Sandia and the Justice Department, which was obtained by the Center.
Sandia and Lockheed documents cited by Friedman described an extensive lobbying plan that targeted then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu, his family, friends and former colleagues at another nuclear lab, as well as key members of Congress. The effort, which occurred between 2008 and 2012 according to the Justice Department, was meant to block other companies from competing for a $2.4 billion a year contract to manage and operate Sandia National Laboratories. Its contract was set to expire in 2012.
The Justice Department barred Sandia Corporation from paying its multi-million dollar settlement and associated legal costs from its direct federal contract revenues. But Clark said the corporation planned to pay the fine from award fees – essentially bonuses for good performance – that it has previously received from the federal government. The amount represents 8 percent of the bonus payments Sandia Corporation received while the lobbying effort was under way, according to federal contract records.
Both sides agreed to the terms of the settlement "to avoid the delay, uncertainty, inconvenience and expense of litigation," according to the formal settlement agreement.
Jay Coghlan, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog organization Nuclear Watch New Mexico, called the sum Sandia Corporation agreed to pay “a slap on the wrist.” He said “there should be criminal prosecutions for clear violations of federal anti-lobbying laws.”
Since 2012, Sandia Corporation has received a series of one-year contract extensions from the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which oversees the production of U.S. nuclear warheads. In May, the NNSA issued a notice to prospective bidders that it plans to use a competitive process to decide who will run the laboratory after the corporation’s existing contract expires in 2017.
The troubles uncovered by the inspector general’s investigation could affect Sandia Corporation’s chances if it pursues a contract extension, according to Michelle Laver, spokeswoman for the NNSA. “Federal acquisition regulations require that past performance be looked at as part of any and all contract awards,” she said.
Thanks a lot, "Deez Nuts."
Since a poll propelled the fake U.S. presidential candidate intonationalheadlines Wednesday, 249 copycats, clowns and pranksters have inundated the Federal Election Commission with paperwork launching "official" White House campaigns.
Some possess leadership bona fides, if not proper constitutional qualifications: Star Trek Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, Queen Elsa from Disney's "Frozen," former Cuban President Fidel Castro, Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi and Captain Crunch.
But these wags — including a bunch whose names crudely refer to bodyparts or sex acts— are also potential headaches for federal regulators, who already struggle with limited resources and massive paperwork backlogs.
No matter how outrageous or asinine, the FEC must, by law, pay some measure of attention to these White House wannabes and cannot simply ignore them or reject their filings, which may be submitted with relative ease through the agency's website.
In addition to processing and tracking their initial paperwork, FEC staffers are tasked with sending follow-up letters to registered candidates who submit "missing or inaccurate information," asking them to correct their mistakes.
"The agency has no authority over and makes no judgement on an individual's qualifications or eligibility to run for office or obtain ballot access," FEC spokeswoman Judith Ingram wrote in a statement to the Center for Public Integrity.
The FEC doesn't require a prospective presidential candidate to file official paperwork until the candidate has raised or spent more than $5,000.
"That said, anyone may file," Ingram continued, adding that for these voluntary filers, "the agency has a statutory obligation to make all filings publicly available."
The government does have recourse.
For example, people who file "false, erroneous, or incomplete information" when registering as presidential candidates could subject themselves to FEC fines.
The Department of Justice could also criminally prosecute people who "knowingly and willfully" submit erroneous information to federal regulators, said Paul S. Ryan, senior attorney at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan campaign reform advocacy group.
But it's unlikely the government will "throw good money after bad," Ryan continued, since most comic candidates won't ever launch a real presidential campaign or raise any money.
Given this, could the federal government charge people some small amount of money — say, $50 or $100 — to file registration paperwork, with hopes of curbing jokers from creating false candidacies first place?
FEC Chairwoman Ann Ravel, a Democrat, likes that idea, since it could conserve her agency's resources.
"A nominal filing fee would make sense," Ravel said, quickly adding it "must be nominal, because of the importance of encouraging all people to participate in the political process."
In the meantime, political jesters are free to keep joining the moneyed ranks of Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
To date, there are technically about 850 registered candidates running for president this election.
That compares to about 200 presidential candidates who had registered at this point during the 2012 election cycle, according to FEC records.
The American electoral system is maddeningly complex, decentralized, even counterintuitive. Some 8,000 jurisdictions administer elections at the local level, from rural counties with a few hundred voters, to urban ones with millions. They rely on an army of poorly paid, part-time employees — most of whom are older than 60 — to run polling stations. Voter registration lists often originate with paper-based systems prone to human error. Most election officials are also partisans, responsible not just to the electorate, but to their party’s interests. States set the rules, except when counties do. The result is a disjointed, crazy-quilt system, with inconsistent performance that often undermines faith in the process. That’s the bottom-line conclusion from this flurry of recent studies.
Appointed in 2013 by Barack Obama to identify best practices in election administration, the bipartisan commission held hearings with experts, officials and the public and drew together the best research on elections to compile a final report that identifies weaknesses in the nation’s voting system and proposes solutions.
Election Performance Index – Pew Charitable Trusts
Pew’s index measures each state’s performance using a broad range of indicators. An interactive allows users to track change over the past few elections.
Issues Related to State Voter ID Laws – Government Accountability Office
This 2014 study examined the implications of voter identification laws, reviewing rates of ID ownership among voters and examining the effect of identification laws on turnout.
Counting Votes 2012: A State-by-State Look at Voting Technology Preparedness – Verified Voting, Rutgers School of Law and Common Cause
This report looked at states’ voting system preparedness, using measures including a state’s audit procedures, the presence of a paper trail for all votes and back-up measures in the event of machine failures.
Report on Registration Systems in American Elections – Harvard and M.I.T.
Professors Stephen Ansolabehere and Charles Stewart provide an overview of the nation’s disjointed voter registration system, highlighting key policy questions and possible answers.
Waiting to Vote in 2012 – M.I.T.
Charles Stewart provides data on wait times at the polls in 2012 and analyzes the information both geographically and demographically. Among the conclusions: many places with the longest waits that year were also worst offenders in 2008.
How to Fix Long Lines – The Brennan Center for Justice
Lawrence Norden of the center’s Democracy Program draws on research about waits at the polls to argue for modernizing voter registration, expanding early voting and setting standards for polling place accessibility.
2008 & 2009 Ohio Elections Summit and Conference Final Report
Ohio’s then-Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, asked Norden of the Brennan Center to chair a summit after the 2008 election to assess how the state could improve its elections, drawing together officials, academics, advocates and the public. The final report provides a list of issues that might be addressed through improved laws and administration. Some of those recommendations have been adopted, while others have not.
Additionally, the Presidential Commission has a more exhaustive list of research and resources here: https://www.supportthevoter.gov/materials-research/
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The offices in a former Kohl’s department store here look inconsequential enough — linoleum floors, fluorescent lights and cookie-cutter furniture. But what happens in this strip mall, and other equally nondescript settings nationwide, could in fact be crucial to the struggle over America’s voting laws and apparatus — a struggle that may go a long way toward determining the outcome of next November’s presidential election.
The Franklin County Board of Elections moved to the north side of this capital city last year after using the site in 2012 to accommodate the rush of people who cast their ballots during Ohio’s early voting period. But that early voting policy is still not set in stone — its duration and details have been stretched and squeezed repeatedly over the past few years by both state law and court order, part of a bitter clash between Democrats and Republicans over access to the ballot, electoral integrity and resources.
Meanwhile, some 80 miles to the north, in the rolling farmland of Ohio’s Amish Country, the Holmes County Board of Elections is engaged in a separate but related conflict, strategically pinching pennies and holding off purchases of printers and other items in hopes the county can scrounge together a few hundred thousand dollars to replace its aging voting machines.
From Cleveland to Cincinnati, Toledo to Dayton, the stories are similar. Most of the Buckeye State’s 88 counties share these election-related dilemmas, and that’s critically important, since no presidential candidate has won the nation without winning Ohio since 1960. After a thin margin of error and widespread dysfunction at the polls tarnished election results here in 2004, state lawmakers enacted a series of reforms. But over the past few years, Republicans have been chipping away at many of those changes. GOP leaders say they’re simply trying to guarantee uniformity and prevent voter fraud, but voting rights advocacy groups say the recent changes threaten to bring back problems from the past, and may really be driven by an effort to suppress voter turnout.
Meanwhile, Ohio leaders are largely ignoring what a bipartisan federal panel called an “impending crisis”: voting equipment that’s at least a decade old and in need of replacement.
And Ohio is far from alone. Politicians and advocates are waging similar battles across the country, where state legislatures continue to fight over the rules — voting hours and required identification — and argue over money to replace broken down voting equipment.
But the stakes may be highest here, in perhaps the most important of swing states on the national electoral map. With voting laws in flux and funding a constant struggle nationwide, two central questions remain just 14 months before Election Day: who will be able to vote, and will all their votes be counted accurately?
Reforms and persistent problems
Today’s fights over the nation’s electoral rules and the sorry state of its voting infrastructure both trace back to November of 2000, when an unusually close race between George W. Bush and Al Gore led to a contested recount in Florida and the indelible image of bug-eyed election officials peering at “hanging chads.”
More than ever, the two parties began to see the opportunity to nudge electoral laws in their favor. “We’re in a highly partisan atmosphere now so that leads to more fights and litigation,” said Richard L. Hasen, an expert in election law at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. Hasen said that partisanship, along with a trend since 2000 toward closer presidential elections and a couple of key Supreme Court decisions on voting law, has led to more fights between the parties over arcane rules and “an increased churn and question of how far these voting changes can go.”
The 2000 election also exposed the need to modernize voting infrastructure. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 made a number of changes to the nation’s voting system; chief among them was creation of the federal Election Assistance Commission, or EAC, which was charged with setting voluntary standards for new voting machines to replace the punch-card systems, ostensibly heading off another “hanging chad” disaster.
In 2004, though, problems emerged again, this time in Ohio, where a combination of robust turnout and poor planning and administration led to long lines at polls. Some people in Knox County, near Kenyon College, waited as many as 10 hours to vote. The margin of victory was less than 120,000 votes out of 5.6 million cast, but despite widespread concerns among Democrats that the lines and other problems had sullied the vote, John Kerry conceded the state to Bush the day after the election (he later supported a recount, which confirmed Bush’s win).
In the ensuing years, the ills of the nation’s voting system drew increasing scrutiny from the political parties, advocacy groups and academics, with the clearest symptom of those ills being lines at the polls. While most people do not wait long to vote, lines have persisted in some locales, leading to the loss of some 500,000 to 700,000 votes in 2012, according to an analysis by Charles Stewart III, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stephen Ansolabehere, of Harvard University. Voters in Florida waited an average of about 40 minutes that year, the longest in the nation.
Those lines prompted Barack Obama in 2013 to appoint the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which held a series of hearings and pulled together relevant research to create a list of best practices. The commission noted that many issues — a dearth of data, uneven resource allocation, poorly maintained registration rolls — were rooted in the system’s decentralization, and the panel published a lengthy list of recommendations, including allowing people to register to vote online and expanding early voting opportunities. But perhaps nothing the commission said was more unsettling than the “impending crisis” it identified with the nation’s aging voting infrastructure.
A troubling state of affairs
Halfway between Columbus and Cleveland, the Holmes County Board of Elections occupies a windowless room with high ceilings in a one-story building it shares with other county offices in Millersburg, in the heart of Ohio’s Amish Country. The county seat, with some 3,000 residents, has a compact downtown of mostly red-brick buildings, some old and bright and some, like the elections building, made of newer, duller bricks that don’t quite fit in.
On a bright June morning the room served as staging ground for a public voting machine test, which counties must perform ahead of each election. No one showed up to watch, but at 10 a.m., part-time staffer Betsy Hall began setting up an AccuVote TSX, the county’s electronic voting machine. Its plastic casing was slightly battered but intact and held the touch-screen device itself, which looks like an oversized and outdated children’s toy. As Hall labored with the contraption, Elections Director Lisa Welch emerged from a back room holding a hammer and a white rubber mallet — her favorite office tools, she said with a smile.
Election administration requires a rare combination of skills: facility with ever-changing legal statutes, an ability to calm the nerves of tense and confused voters, knowledge of the various IT systems that support registration databases and equipment, management of a large team of usually elderly and often poorly-trained poll workers, and patience for a healthy dose of mind-numbing clerical work. In Holmes County, those tasks fall to Welch, her deputy director and two part-time staff members. Welch likes to say she’s a mechanic as much as anything, however, for all the time she puts in keeping the aging machines running.
With a short bob and plastic-rimmed glasses, Welch has a dry but cheery sense of humor. In her spare time, she helps her husband run a pair of lure and bait businesses, from which you can buy concoctions with names like Purrfect and Catatonic or a 50-50 mix of red fox and bobcat urine.
The machine test went smoothly. Hall used the touch screen to register four mock votes for an upcoming special election. The device recorded the selections onto a 128-megabyte memory chip the size of a credit card. Welch then walked the chip into a back room that stores the county’s 115-odd machines as well as its central server, which tabulates votes uploaded from the memory cards each election on a 2003 Dell desktop with a defunct floppy disk drive. The computer runs the Windows XP operating system, which Microsoft stopped supporting more than a year ago, making it vulnerable to hacks and viruses.
To date, the county has never had a major problem with the equipment, but Welch has no doubt that it’s quickly deteriorating, and she’s been pushing the county commissioners to replace it. “I've been explaining to them: It's a computer. It's all computer-based. It's 10 years old now. We've had the system for 10 full years. This is the point where things are going to start going crazy.”
In 2014, a review by Virginia’s Department of Elections of that state’s equipment, which includes the AccuVote, found that over time, a coating in the machine’s touch screen degrades a glue that holds the screen’s layers together, causing calibration errors that can prompt voters to select the wrong candidate. Welch said this problem has forced her to send a handful of the devices back to Election Systems & Software, which in 2009 purchased the original manufacturer, a subsidiary of Diebold. AccuVote is the most commonly used machine in Ohio, according to a survey conducted by the Ohio Association of Election Officials, with at least 33 counties deploying them each election.
All but four of Ohio’s 88 counties are using machines bought in 2006 or earlier, and according to the association survey, only 14 counties have a plan to replace them. The stakes are especially high in Franklin County, where 4,700 iVotronic touch-screen machines sit in a hangar-like space in the back of that sprawling office on the north side of Columbus. Those machines, which were first used in 2006, serve some 800,000 voters and are aging fast, but there is no plan to replace them, said William A. Anthony Jr., the county’s elections director.
A Center for Public Integrity review of Franklin County records showed that poll workers reported at least 105 incidents with voting equipment on Election Day 2014, though some of those incidents involved multiple machines. Anthony dismissed those as mostly minor problems. Still, he says he’s constantly appealing to state and federal officials, telling “anyone who will listen” about the need to replace the machines. The county does not have the money, he said, and there’s been no indication of state or federal assistance.
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted sounded the alarm two years ago in testimony to Obama’s bipartisan commission. “The next time we go to the polls to elect a president, these machines will be 12 years old,” he said. “That's a lifetime when it comes to technology.” The commission determined that “a large share of the nation’s voting machines … will reach the end of their natural life and require replacement” by the end of this decade.
But despite these broad concerns, the state does not collect data on the condition of Ohio’s machines writ large, and has no plan to purchase new ones.
Out of date, out of mind
This “impending crisis” regarding voting equipment has its roots in the solution to a previous problem. The 2002 Help America Vote Act provided more than $3 billion to help states purchase new equipment, and the majority of local jurisdictions bought replacements over the next few years — mostly either touch-screen devices like in Holmes County or optical scan machines that record votes from a paper ballot. The result is that, with rare exceptions, the country’s voting machines are all aging out at the same time.
“If I had a computer that was that old, I would be really concerned about it,” said Thomas Hicks, vice-chair of the Election Assistance Commission. “That equipment is at the end of its lifecycle and it needs to be replaced,” but the federal government is unlikely to provide funding to the states. “There’s a crisis in funding it, because there’s no money available, and there’s a crisis in replacing it, because it’s so old and antiquated.”
The Election Assistance Commission has had its own problems. Before Hicks and two other commissioners were confirmed by the Senate in December, a deadlocked Congress had refused since 2011 to fill the vacant commissioner slots, leaving the body without a quorum and unable to approve new guidelines for machines. As it happened, the older guidelines in some cases precluded machines from incorporating new technologies, such as tablets, Hicks said. And while the EAC guidelines are voluntary, nearly every state requires that machines meet at least some aspect of them, so the delay effectively stalled the market because manufacturers had little incentive to develop new equipment. “These standards that we’re using now were written before the iPhone,” Hicks said.
This year, the EAC finally approved a set of guidelines that had been in the works all those years, and Hicks said commissioners are now planning to write new standards that will account for advancements like tablets.
States are responsible for purchasing and maintaining their own equipment, and in many cases they delegate the task to the nation’s 8,000 local jurisdictions. While there’s no good data on machine failures, incidents have been popping up all over the country. On Election Day 2014, for example, voting machines in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, started crashing and became inoperable. The state Department of Elections ordered a review that found the machines were highly vulnerable to attacks that could alter vote tallies without detection. The review determined that a hacker could access the machine, called a WinVote, using a USB port or a wireless device (the Wi-Fi password was “abcde”). The machines’ software, a version of Windows from 2002, was easy to hack, as was its database, which was protected by a password that the reviewers cracked in 10 seconds. The Election Day problems, however, appeared to have originated when a poll worker used a smartphone to stream music through the Wi-Fi of the library where voting was taking place. The report prompted the state to de-certify the machines immediately — Virginia was the only state still using them — forcing 30 localities to scramble to find replacements.
In December, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe had proposed spending $28 million on new voting equipment, but the legislature stripped the funding from the budget this year, two months before the WinVote report was published. Despite the lack of funding, all 30 jurisdictions are replacing their equipment, said Edgardo Cortes, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections, either by purchasing or leasing new systems or, in a couple of cases, receiving used machines from other localities.
Some states have upgraded their machines in recent years, including New Mexico and Maryland. But they are the exception to the rule. This year, the Arkansas legislature passed a bill authorizing $30 million to buy new machines but then failed to actually provide the money. Secretary of State Mark Martin had been pushing to replace the state’s voting equipment, going so far as to choose a vendor. But the legislature’s failure to act forced Martin to scale back the initial plan to a $2.5 million pilot project in four counties.
The Brennan Center for Justice, which works to expand access to voting and has been canvassing state officials for an upcoming report about voting equipment, found that while a “substantial majority” of states plan to replace their equipment within five years, officials in most of those states said they do not know where they’ll get the cash. “These aren’t small amounts of money,” Lawrence Norden, who is leading the Brennan Center’s work, told the Center for Public Integrity by email. “Given the numbers of machines that need to be replaced, we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Officials and experts say the machine failures are unlikely to cause massive problems in 2016, but smaller issues can add up, leading to long lines and undermining voters’ confidence in the system.
“Election officials are doing their best to make sure that equipment functions in the way that it was designed to for 2016 and 2018,” Hicks said. “But we run the risk, as we continue to delay the replacement of this equipment, for something catastrophic to happen.”
Back in Millersburg, Welch said her county has been able to avoid catastrophe so far, in part because of her sometimes-unorthodox efforts to maintain the equipment on a shoestring budget. Back in the storage closet, after she had finished verifying the test results, Welch picked off the shelf a white plastic contraption that resembles an oversized cash register printer. The device attaches to the AccuVote and creates a paper trail of the votes, a step Ohio requires for all touch-screen machines. She pointed to a shiny steel bolt that was holding the printer’s casing together, a jury-rigged fix she devised to save money after the original part broke. “I went to the hardware store and spent maybe 35 cents and used a drill,” she said. “You’ve got to like power tools with this job.”
From Selma to Cleveland
While Ohio’s aging voting machines get comparatively little attention, there’s no shortage of focus on the laws and rules that end up deciding who votes, and under what conditions. It’s easy for the seemingly endless debates over these rules — which cover absentee voting, provisional ballots, registration guidelines and other minutiae — to get lost in a bureaucratic haze. But for Rev. Tony Minor, in what’s becoming a common refrain across the country, there’s a straight line from Selma in 1965 to the present.
Minor grew up in Cleveland’s gritty Glenville neighborhood, a hotbed of activism and violence in the 1960s. In 1968, a shootout between black nationalists and the police left seven people dead and led to days of looting. That came two years after riots in neighboring Hough. A decade later, Minor left Cleveland to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. had earned a degree. He began working on civil rights issues and took part in the Overground Railroad, a voter registration campaign in the mid ’80s led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He’s now a pastor and the advocacy director at Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, a Cleveland social service group. But he’s also Ohio coordinator of the African American Ministers Leadership Council, where he works on voter education and registration drives with leaders of the state’s black churches.
“I'm doing this because of people like Amelia Boynton in Selma, Alabama and those individuals who crossed that bridge, and all Americans, black or white, in the North or South who really gave their lives so that people can have access to the polls,” Minor said. “That's what this is about.”
Minor, who has neatly trimmed, graying black hair and an unflinching stare, speaks softly but passionately. He was sitting in the Superior Avenue offices of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, a sleek one-story glass building surrounded by auto-body shops and vacant factories in Cleveland’s Goodrich-Kirtland Park district, east of downtown.
Minor’s church serves a down-and-out community, he said, “where inspiring low-income, struggling families to trust the voting process and to utilize the voting process is a continued challenge.” The riots of his youth haven’t returned, but the racial tension has, after a white city police officer, responding to a 911 call last year, shot and killed Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old black boy who was carrying a BB gun.
Today’s fights over laws like early voting trace back to 2004 in Ohio, when most of the longest lines at the polls were in urban areas like Cleveland and Columbus, which tend to have robust minority populations and are heavily Democratic. At the time, Democrats accused then-Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, a black Republican, of suppressing the vote after he ruled that so-called provisional ballots would count only if voters cast them in the correct precinct, a decision later upheld by a court. (Poll workers provide these provisional ballots to voters whose eligibility is in doubt, and officials count them only if they can later verify that the voter was indeed eligible. But while federal law requires states to offer provisional ballots, states have some discretion in setting the conditions under which they’re counted.) In addition, a lawsuit brought by the League of Women Voters in 2005 alleged that a shortage of voting machines in certain areas disenfranchised tens of thousands of Ohioans. “It put the black community on notice,” Minor said of the election.
Under a national microscope, the state legislature in 2005 approved early voting during a period of 35 days, including one week when people could register and vote at the same time, and opened absentee voting to anyone who requested a ballot. Those two measures became extremely popular — 1.8 million Ohioans voted early or by mail in 2012, casting about a third of all ballots — and are considered the primary reason long lines have not returned. In 2009, the state settled the League of Women Voters lawsuit and agreed to institute a series of reforms, including requiring counties to produce pre-election planning documents and to allocate voting machines based on the number of registered voters (poor machine allocation was a key driver of Franklin County’s five-hour waits).
But rather than settling the issue, these measures kicked off an intense back-and-forth battle over the laws that shows no signs of ending. In 2011, the Republican-led Legislature began trying to roll back many of these reforms by passing a sweeping elections law that would have cut early voting in half. Voting rights advocates responded with a campaign to repeal the bill through a referendum. When it looked like they might succeed, lawmakers decided to beat them to it by passing a bill in 2012 that itself repealed the law.
Since then, however, the Legislature has continued to pass smaller-bore adjustments. In 2014, lawmakers eliminated one week of early voting during which people could register and vote at the same time, bringing the period down to 28 days. The same month, Secretary of State Husted (Blackwell, who did not respond to an interview request, left office in 2007 after a failed bid for governor) set uniform statewide hours for voting during the shorter period, barring county election boards from opening during some weekends and evenings. Previously, counties could set their own hours for early voting during the 35-day window, and larger counties like Franklin and Cuyahoga, which includes Cleveland, stayed open during these extended hours.
The NAACP filed suit in May 2014, and just this past April reached a settlement with the state that reinstates some of the weekend and evening hours but maintains the 28-day period, without the week allowing people to register and vote on the same day. Several other bills have tweaked rules on absentee and provisional ballots — shortening the period voters have to correct them, for example, and requiring they provide their address, date of birth and driver’s license number or partial social security number on the ballot envelopes. Advocates say these changes increase the likelihood of technical errors that can lead to ballots being rejected.
Voting rights proponents see early in-person voting as critically important to black voters, many of whom work multiple, inflexible jobs and live in single-parent homes, all of which makes it more difficult to wait in lines during business hours on Election Day. A broad body of evidence suggests that blacks are more likely than whites to vote early, both in Ohio and nationally. One study at Cleveland State University found that, in 2008, African-Americans comprised about 56 percent of early voters in Cuyahoga County, but just 26 percent of all other types of voters (one of the authors is also a member of a local voting rights advocacy group). A 2014 study by the liberal Center for American Progress also suggests that blacks may be more likely to cast provisional ballots in Ohio and 15 other states. All of this has made arguments about early voting and tinkering with provisional ballot rules not simply partisan, but racially charged as well.
Joshua Eck, a spokesman for Secretary of State Husted, declined the Center’s request to interview the secretary. But Husted has defended the changes publicly, saying they have brought uniformity to the state’s voting rules and have actually expanded access in counties that previously offered no after-hours voting. “You can vote for a month, you don’t have to leave your house,” Eck said. “Ohio is still leaps and bounds above most states.”
Some 33 states plus Washington, D.C., offer early voting periods, and Ohio’s is indeed longer than most, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But officials in more populous counties say the rules have tied their hands and have the effect of reducing access for the people who most need it.
“The problem we have is that when they try to stick uniformity into the formula, they tend to restrict things,” said Pat McDonald, elections director for Cuyahoga County and a Republican. “Don’t take it away from us; give it to the other counties. Make it more accessible. Make it easier for the voters.”
State Sen. Bill Seitz, a Republican who has sponsored or co-sponsored many of the election bills, said the state overreacted after 2004, “and we’ve been trying to ratchet that back ever since.” He said the changes to provisional ballots were necessary to help protect against potential fraud, and that a shorter early voting period and limits on absentee mailings are common sense constraints on spending that bring Ohio more in line with other states. “These things are not free.”
The same debates have played out across the country. Since 2010, 21 states have passed laws that the Brennan Center qualifies as “restrictive,” such as cuts to early voting or strict voter ID laws, which generally require voters to present any of a list of approved photo IDs, such as a driver’s license or passport (Ohio requires voters to present identification, but allows for a broad range of documents, including utility bills). In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a provision of the Voting Rights Act that required some states with a history of racial discrimination, including North Carolina and Texas, to obtain approval from the Justice Department for changes to election law.
Within hours of that court decision, Texas’ then-Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is now governor, moved to instate a voter identification law that the Justice Department had blocked the previous year (many studies have shown that minorities are less likely to have driver’s licenses or other identification that Texas and some other states require at the polls, according to a review by the Government Accountability Office). Weeks later, North Carolina approved sweeping changes to its voting laws that included voter ID, limits to early voting and ending same-day registration and voting.
In June, North Carolina loosened its voter identification law to allow people to cast provisional ballots if they fail to show a photo ID but claim they were unable to obtain one due to any of a set list of reasons. But the rest of law is subject to a legal challenge, with a federal judge currently considering the case. In August, a federal appellate panel ruled that Texas’s ID law has discriminatory effect, and ordered a lower court to try to adjust the law.
Conservative groups have claimed that many of these changes help protect against voter fraud, and that there’s no evidence they suppress voter turnout. But the primary type of fraud that would be prevented by an ID law — voter impersonation — is extremely rare, even according to a list of cases collected by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which supports ID laws. The lack evidence has prompted Democrats and voting rights advocates to allege that the true intent of the laws is to suppress the minority vote (there have been more documented cases of absentee ballot fraud).
The rules covering provisional ballots remain particularly confounding. In theory, the ballots provide people who might have been turned away at the polls an opportunity to vote. But, as a 2009 report commissioned by Ohio’s then-Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, put it, they can also serve as a “trap door to disenfranchisement” because in many cases, those ballots are not ultimately counted.
Ohio had one of the highest rates of provisional votes cast in the last presidential election, when they comprised 3.7 percent of all ballots, and also one of the highest rates of rejected provisional ballots, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. While most were rejected because the voter wasn’t registered, officials tossed more than 9,000 because the voter cast the ballot at the wrong polling location, and nearly 3,000 because the voter failed to sign or print their name on the ballot envelope. The 2009 report commissioned by Brunner recommended the state simplify the rules for provisional ballots, but little progress has been made.
Unfortunately, Rev. Minor said, all of this back and forth undermines people’s trust and confuses voters, driving down turnout and making it more difficult to cast a ballot. "There's a huge distrust and sense of disdain that most people have for the electoral process,” he said. “Our challenge is convincing the public, convincing especially young African-Americans, that voting can be a tool toward justice. And I'm not so sure if they believe that.”
Ohio’s laws may yet change again before the next presidential election. Just weeks after the settlement that established the 28-day early voting compromise in April, a group represented by the general counsel of Hillary Clinton’s campaign filed a federal lawsuit challenging a broad slate of the state’s measures (more recently, that group has sought to withdraw and be replaced by the state Democratic party). In early August, in a separate matter, the Ohio Democratic Party and two groups representing the homeless filed an updated complaint arguing that the 2014 laws on absentee and provisional ballot rules discriminate against minority voters — the latest step in a years-old federal suit that, in 2010, resulted in a consent decree that has helped determine how the state counts provisional ballots.
The Clinton attorney has also filed suit in Wisconsin and Virginia, meaning that in several swing states, voting rules may not be settled until soon before the election. Rulings in any of those cases, or in North Carolina or other states, could also prompt a new wave of states trying to change their own laws, said Hasen, the election law expert.
“What you’re going to see is continued litigation, continued experimentation with the kinds of changes that we’ve seen in some places like North Carolina,” Hasen said. The chief cause, he said, is simple: Both parties have determined that making it easier to vote benefits Democrats.
Even if the Clinton lawyer’s case in Ohio is dismissed or unsuccessful, the state’s early voting laws may change again soon anyway. The April settlement on early voting expires after 2018.
The same uncertainty hangs over what types of machines voters will use in 2016 and beyond, said Norden, of the Brennan Center. There’s a “stalemate now between different branches and levels of government as to who’s responsible for paying for this,” he said.
Good enough is not good enough
Despite all the partisanship, litigation and finger-pointing, both the Buckeye State and the nation have made significant progress over the past decade. At least 28 states have adopted online voter registration, most over the past five years, which advocates say expands access to voting while reducing clerical errors that cause nightmares each Election Day. In late June, Husted, the secretary of state, touted many of these advances before a somber crowd of several hundred of Ohio’s election officials who had gathered for their summer conference in the Archie M. Griffin Grand Ballroom, a soaring space with rectangular, dangling glass-bead chandeliers, on the Ohio State campus.
The one-day event serves as a continuing education seminar for election officials. Husted opened the day with a pep-talk during which he repeated favorite catch-phrases such as how the state is making it “easy to vote and hard to cheat,” and stressing that “good enough is not good enough.” Many officials and advocates say Husted appears sincere in his efforts to improve the administration of elections. He has supported key measures pushed by advocates, including online registration, which the state Senate passed in June, and state funding for electronic pollbooks — which replace paper voter rolls and promise to streamline voter check-in and cut down on poll worker error — for which the Legislature approved funding this year.
But conspicuously absent from his speech was any talk of money for voting machines. In an effort to reduce spending, county election boards eliminated more than 700 voting precincts from 2010 to 2013 in Ohio, a seven percent cut. The state sets a maximum number of voters per precinct, and sometimes the consolidations have few if any negative effects. But in several instances they’ve caused problems.
Summit County cut more than a third of its 475 precincts before the 2012 election. When voters went to the polls in Akron that year, some waited more than two hours when locations didn’t have enough voting booths to accommodate demand, and the county reversed many of the cuts the next year.
Even the state funding for electronic pollbooks — $12.8 million — has been framed as much in terms of cutting costs as anything else. Counties will no longer have to pay to print extensive paper lists for each polling location and will be able to save time and money due to the comparative ease of updating digital records.
Welch was unable to attend the conference — she and her husband had traveled to Indiana for the annual convention of the Fur Takers of America — but days earlier, in her office, she had said she was optimistic her county would approve money for new machines, perhaps within the year. They may only be able to afford them, however, by eliminating more than half of the county’s 17 precincts.
Welch’s desk is decorated with an earthen jar stuffed with dozens of ballpoint pens, a Ziplock bag filled with Band-Aids and an American-flag mug sitting next to an American-flag mouse pad. Her computer desktop had an image of a grazing horse with a quote: “Look for something positive in each day, even if you have to look a little harder. Let the challenge make you stronger.”
Inside the desk, she keeps an old analogue cassette tape deck that she uses to record the election board’s meetings, as required by the state. The last time someone requested a recording, she said, she pressed play on the tape deck and held it up to her computer’s microphone so she could create a digital file to send. The office needs a color printer — some ballots require red ink, and Welch is forced to print them at home or next door at the treasurer’s office. She’d like a variable speed drill, too, the better to make her repairs with. But she’s asked for none of these things, she said, as she holds out for new voting machines. “I'm trying,” she said, “to be good.”
This story was co-published with Politico Magazine.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has agreed to conduct a review of the federal government’s nursing home rating system —the subject of a Center for Public Integrity investigation last fall. The action by the watchdog arm of Congress comes in response to a request from Senators Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania and Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and Representative Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland.
Earlier this month, the two Senators wrote to GAO calling for a review of the rating system and Representative Cummings joined their request, following his own letter last year to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Those actions come in the wake of an announcement in February that CMS was making changes to its nursing home rating system.
Last year, investigations by the Center and the New York Times found widespread gaps between staffing levels reported by nursing homes to a widely used federal website and those calculated through an analysis of the homes’ annual financial documents. The gaps occurred across both for-profit and nonprofit nursing homes, with more than 80 percent of nursing homes reporting higher levels of registered nurse care to the Nursing Homes Compare website than were reflected in their reports to Medicare.
The Center’s series was the recipient of The Joseph D. Ryle Award for Excellence in Writing on the Problems of Geriatrics from the National Press Club.
In their release, Senators Casey and Wyden said, “The GAO’s decision to conduct a review is a first step towards ensuring the accuracy of this system that millions of families rely on...The Five-Star rating system has the potential to make a substantial difference in the lives of vulnerable seniors but the Administration has to make sure the rating system is working. We have to get this right.”
Working on solutions as well as problems
A positive end to the series on the failure of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to honor its commitments to include civil rights in its work.
Our pieces are often highly critical of politicians, agencies and corporations — usually out of necessity as they expose wrongdoing or influence-pedding or some form of systemic failure. However, it is also possible to make a push in to what the industry calls “solutions journalism” (also the name of a journalism non profit working in this area www.solutionsjournalism.org).
Talia Buford and Kristen Lombardi close the EPA “Environmental Justice, Denied” package with an essay on what the EPA could do to reverse its abject failure in this area, canvassing ideas for an organization seemingly constantly under attack to come out from under the covers. Sadly, the EPA chose not to respond to our repeated invitation to come back to us with a view on the entire series. We did interview the head of the EPA civil rights office by phone but neither she nor the agency was prepared to address the meat of the cases reported by our team.
On the other hand one wonders whether this new pledge in a blog from the EPA this week might somehow be related to the Environment team’s work.
The data on the project, beautifully interpreted by our data journalist Yue Qiu are a graphical indictment of inaction.
It also gets picked up by advocacy and more campaigning groups and it’s an important question as to how effectively we trail our work to those groups and treat them as a distinct audience group we try to reach. A good example of that was a significant Change.org petition raised by others who were moved by a story on child incarceration by Susan Ferriss. The story and the attention around it has led Virginia to plan changes to its school policing policies.
I’d like us to focus more on impact and outreach and we’re lucky to have a communications head and a social media guru.
Center fellowship(s) aimed at journalists of color
Diversity in all senses — from our staff to our reporting to the way we think — is increasingly central to the way we’re trying to run and grow the Center. This week we advertised two fellowships, supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which will help us bring in two people later this year aimed at journalists of color. The advertisement is on the site and we’d welcome you sharing it. The existing fellow, Maryam Jameel has been a strong contributor from day one.
The idea of the Kellogg Reporting Fellowship is to create a stronger “pipeline” of journalist candidates from underrepresented communities. We recognize that is only one part of the story but we’re very grateful for that backing and excited by the quality of people we are able to bring in. The Center has a long history in all its fellowship and intern programs of bringing in and often hiring people who turn out to be top journalists.
A story about a story with impact
A story which has had resonance with an international audience and I think is an indication of where some of our story-telling approach needs to go, is the ICIJ/CPI project Fatal Extraction which has been one of our most-trafficked stories this year.
Stories about journalism can be horribly self-referential but this does explain what the team was trying to achieve and what was involved in the project in Africa and here and gives room for them to explain the methodology and open it up for others. It worth a read and the codebase they built for it will be published for others to use. It’s all in their own words and the bylines are Eleanor Bell and Chris Zubak-Skees.
Nukes and state money
The National Security team at the Center has a long history of keeping tabs on the sad state of what happened to the “plough shares” projects between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Patrick Malone and Douglas Birch update the sorry tale with a piece on plans to bury plutonium rather than finish a vastly expensive reprocessing plant seemingly kept alive by congressional interest, a sort of nuclear pork barrel.
What we’re reading
Nieman has a good piece on the concept of “slow journalism” and how really going deep can yield great work. Personally, after a lifetime of more immediate reporting myself I know I am not suited to it but I do know what they are getting at.
Jason Burke, a terrorism reporter for The Guardian has a terrific analysis on how we risk making some of the mistakes with ISIS the West made with Al Qaeda.
I saw the movie “The End of the Tour” last week and note this piece in the New Yorker which suggests it skewers the essentially manipulative bargain between a reporter or interviewer and his or her subject. It’s about a road trip with the late author David Foster Wallace at the height of his powers and mystique.
The Carmen Group, a firm the Center for Public Integrity highlighted in a report about inadequate lobbying disclosure, agreed to pay $125,000 to settle federal allegations that it failed to report lobbying activity and political contributions.
The fine is the largest civil settlement of its kind since the federal Lobbying Disclosure Act became law in 1995.
The Center for Public Integrity's report, published in August 2014, described how the Carmen Group attempted to convince federal officials to forgive $130 million worth of taxpayer-backed emergency loans the U.S. Department of Education had given Xavier University of Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Carmen Group even drafted legislation for lawmakers to use and pass.
But when it came to publicly disclosing the nature of its six-figure lobbying efforts on the university's behalf, which federal law compelled it to do, the Carmen Group offered only five words: “Hurricane Katrina related recovery issues.”
“The American public has a right to know about the efforts of paid lobbyists to influence legislative and executive decision-making,” Acting U.S. Attorney Vincent H. Cohen Jr. said in a statement today. “Lobbyists who fail to report their activities thwart the purpose of the Lobbying Disclosure Act and remove transparency from the legislative process. This settlement reflects our determination to seek significant penalties from repeat offenders who fail to meet their reporting obligations.”
Upon reaching the settlement, the Carmen Group denied that it ever knowingly violated the Lobbying Disclosure Act.
"To avoid the delay, uncertainty, and expense of litigation, the parties mutually desire to reach a full and final settlement of allcivil claims the United States has or may have against Carmen Group and its registered lobbyists based on the conduct alleged above," reads the settlement, signed by Carmen Group President and Chief Executive Officer David Carmen and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Short.
In the five-page settlement, the U.S. Attorney's office does not detail specific situations where it believes the Carmen Group failed to file mandatory lobbying reports. It also does not cite specific clients represented by the Carmen Group, including Xavier University of Louisiana.
Carmen Group's client list this year is primarily composed of state and local government entities, colleges, hospitals and environmental outfits.
Among them: the San Antonio River Authority, the California State Coastal Conservancy, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Dillard University in New Orleans, and Napa County, California's flood control and water conservation district.
The firm's lobbying income has steadily declined since peaking at nearly $13 million in 2007. It's on pace to earn about $4 million in publicly disclosed lobbying revenue this year, according to records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
August in Washington, D.C., is infamous for heat and humidity, with lawmakers leaving the nation’s capital and returning to their home states for “August recess.”
But the summer doldrums haven’t kept Republicans from hosting the first presidential debate of 2016, super PACs from filing their first campaign finance disclosures or a pro-pot legalization group from collecting enough valid signatures to make the ballot in Ohio.
Have you been paying close attention? Now is the time to test your knowledge with these eight questions in the Center for Public Integrity’s monthly money-in-politics news quiz!
Health insurers have been telling us for years that their Medicare Advantage plans, which are federally funded but privately run alternatives to traditional fee-for-service Medicare, can provide better care—at lower cost—than the government.
One of my priorities when I worked in the industry was to perpetuate that notion. And I believed the PR, so much so that I encouraged my own parents to enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan. But is the PR true? The answer is, we don’t know, and we may never know.
That’s because, as health economist and researcher Austin Frakt pointed out in a commentary last week in The Incidental Economist, neither the federal government nor the insurers that operate Medicare Advantage plans will make the data available to enable apples to apples comparisons.
The lack of data hasn’t stopped the insurance industry from continuing the PR campaign. Whenever the Medicare Advantage program is threatened with a funding cut, the industry makes sure thousands of enrollees in the plans contact their Congressional representatives, and industry executives request opportunities to testify before friendly lawmakers about the superiority of Medicare Advantage plans.
In September 2012, for example, Karen Ignagni, then-CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans, read a long list of Medicare Advantage’s supposed advantages to members of the House Ways and Means Committee. Many of them were indisputably true. Medicare Advantage plans are able to offer enrollees richer benefits because the federal government has for years overpaid insurers to encourage them to participate in the Medicare Advantage program.
Ignagni told the committee that 78 percent Medicare Advantage plan enrollees are in plans that cap their annual out-of-pocket maximums at $5,000. People enrolled in traditional Medicare often have to pay more, sometimes much more, if they need expensive care.
Ignagni also ticked off a number of additional services and benefits that only Medicare Advantage enrollees receive, such as vision, hearing and dental benefits, case management services, disease management programs and nurse help hotlines.
And she indicated that the care provided through Medicare Advantage plans produces better outcomes because of the ability of the insurers to coordinate care better than traditional Medicare. Medicare Advantage plans’ coordinated care programs “provide for the seamless delivery of health care services across the continuum of care,” she said.
Ignagni’s information was based on various studies that have been conducted over the past several years, some of which have been commissioned (and paid for) by the industry. At the 2012 House committee hearing, for example, Ignagni cited a study concluding that the Medicare Advantage hospital readmission rate was about 13 percent to 20 percent lower than in the Medicare fee-for-service program. She didn’t mention in her testimony that the study was conducted by MedAssurant, Inc. (now known as Inovalon), a company that did data analysis for her trade group.
Frakt has written about studies involving Medicare Advantage plans and cautioned that, while the results can seem compelling, we can’t be certain that enough data was made available to the researchers to give us confidence their findings are reliable.
Last Thursday, Frakt wrote about the most recent study to conclude that Medicare Advantage plans have an edge over traditional Medicare in both quality and efficiency. After analyzing the findings, Frakt found it as lacking in some of the same respects as previous studies.
“Most studies fail to convince one way or the other because researchers are not permitted the same degree of access to MA (Medicare Advantage) data as that for TM (traditional Medicare),” Frakt wrote. “For the latter, full claims over many years are available…For the former, some aggregate measures of utilization provided by plans are usually all we get, and when we get them, they’re not over many years.”
As a consequence, Frakt added, “Comparing MA to TM is like trying to compare two houses, one of which you can live in, the other of which you can only observe through a few keyholes.”
Why only a view through a few keyholes? Because private insurers consider their data proprietary. They refuse to provide enough of it to make the apples to apples comparisons that would settle the ‘which is better’ question once and for all.
As Frakt noted, one would assume that Medicare Advantage plans would do better on quality measures, if not efficiency measures, when you consider they get more money per enrollee from the government than traditional Medicare. Frakt also noted that manipulation of risk scores could be a factor in studies showing MA plans to have an advantage.
One notable finding from the recent study was that MA plans operated on a nonprofit basis do better than those that are operated on a for-profit basis.
Frakt wrote that, “The best way to decide (whether MA plans are better than tradition Medicare) is to do more research with more complete data. But, he added, “Until we’re offered more than selected glimpses through keyholes at MA, we may never get the chance to do that.”
Jeb Bush quit his corporate jobs to run for president.
But the companies aren’t quitting him.
Right to Rise USA, the super PAC collecting unlimited contributions to support Bush’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination, has taken in at least $1.7 million from executives, companies and organizations Bush worked with or has disclosed a stake in, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Bush’s own campaign received nearly $160,000 more from contributors listing those companies as employers.
Bush-linked companies in the analysis include investment bank Barclays, Tenet Healthcare, Jackson Healthcare and timber company Rayonier Inc.
About 80 percent of the $1.7 million from companies tied to Bush flowed in to Right to Rise during the first three months of 2015, shortly after Bush resigned the majority of his corporate positions.
During that period, Bush described himself as “actively exploring” a presidential candidacy. That unofficial status allowed him to actively lobby for six- and seven-figure contributions on behalf of the Right to Rise super PAC, something not legally permitted since he became an official candidate in June.
It’s impossible to tell from public filings whether Bush personally solicited former colleagues or the companies where he served on boards.
Right to Rise officials could not be reached for comment. Allie Brandenburger, a spokesperson for Bush, emailed a statement: "Governor Bush has taken a conservative approach to all of his political activities. Throughout this process he has complied with all applicable campaign finance laws and will continue to do so."
To be sure, the money is only a fraction of the roughly $114 millionraised by the network of entities supporting Bush’s campaign. But executives associated with those companies have also hosted fundraisers and solicited others, suggesting they could be responsible for millions more.
A big chunk of the $1.7 million — more than a third — came from contributors connected to British bank Barclays, where Bush was an adviser until 2014.
For instance, Stephen Lessing, who worked with Bush at Lehman Brothers and Barclays, where Lessing is now a managing director, contributed about $277,000 to Right to Rise, mostly in January, and gave $2,700, the maximum primary contribution, to Bush’s campaign after he formally declared his candidacy.
In addition, Lessing is a member of the Right to Rise executive committee, which means he has either contributed or raised $1 million, and he has been listed as a host for at least one Hamptons fundraiser benefitting the campaign.
Other companies and executives pitched in, too.
Seth Bernstein is the founder of Empower Software. Bush was a member of the company’s board of directors until he stepped down in December 2014, according to his financial disclosure form. Bernstein donated$75,000 to Right to Rise, and has also been listed as a campaign fundraiser host.
Richard Jackson, the chairman and CEO of Jackson Healthcare, and Shane Jackson, the president, togethergave $550,000 to Right to Rise. Bush was a member of the company’s board of advisers, according to his financial disclosure form. Jackson Healthcare executives also donated to the campaign.
Contributors listing Tenet Healthcare, another company where Bush sat on the board of directors, gave $33,000 to the campaign and $127,500 to Right to Rise, including $100,000 from Tenet CEO Trevor Fetter in March.
Donn Walker, director of external communications for Tenet Healthcare, said there is no organized effort at the company to support any presidential candidate, including Bush, and the company doesn’t comment on “our employees’ individual, personal political activities.”
Bush was also on the board of Rayonier Inc., a publicly traded timber company that gave $50,000 to Right to Rise. Michael Bell, the director of public affairs for Rayonier, said Bush did not personally request the donation, but the company's senior management discussed it and "we support the Right to Rise mission."
"It's not really a secret that we hold Gov. Bush in very high regard," he said.
Bell wasn't sure whether if the contribution was Rayonier's first to a super PAC, though he described such direct corporate donations to political committees as "rare."
A search of FEC records did not turn up additional super PAC contributions from Rayonier. Asked if the company would make additional contributions to Right to Rise or other super PACs, Bell said he didn't yet know.
"I'm sure it's something that we would talk about and consider," he said. "At its heart, Rayonier and most corporations don't believe they can improve public policy by disengaging from the process."
Since 2007, when the former Florida governor left office, Bush served on the board of directors or advisory boards of at least 15 companies or nonprofits, an Associated Press review found earlier this year.
Bush this year filed a complex, 40-page financial disclosure form disclosing his previous corporate board positions, as well as positions with nonprofits, companies he owned, and investments made via limited liability companies or private equity funds.
Bush’s less direct private sector contacts yielded contributions, too — some of them sizable.
Bradford Freeman, an investment banker with Freeman Spogli & Co., which paid Bush $45,000 to give a speech in May 2014, according his personal financial disclosure report, gave $1 million.
This story was co-published with Daily Beast.
The largest and most costly U.S. environmental cleanup project has been dogged for years by worries about an accidental nuclear reaction or a spill of toxic materials that could endanger residents nearby, as well as a history of contractor retaliation against workers who voice worries about persistent safety risks.
But it hasn’t fully turned the corner yet, according to recent comments by the federal officials now overseeing its operation.
“Changing the culture takes time,” said Mark Whitney, the Department of Energy’s assistant secretary for environmental management, at a special hearing last week before members of an independent federal watchdog group that monitors safety problems at federal nuclear facilities. “I’m not going to sit here today and tell you we have everything solved.”
Whitney spoke inside a ballroom at the Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick, Washington, 17 miles from the Hanford Site where generators churned out plutonium, the lifeblood of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, for a half-century during the Cold War. More than 55 million gallons of pasty waste now lie in decomposing barrels beneath the ground at Hanford, posing a potential safety hazard to thousands of people who rely on the nearby Columbia River for drinking water.
The Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant project there, known as WTP, is meant to exhume the waste, freeze it in glass, and give it a proper burial. But it’s been plagued by delays. It was expected to cost $4.3 billion and be built by 2011. Instead, the cost has swelled past $12 billion to date, with an estimated $7 billion in work left to be done. So far, not a drop of waste has been processed.
The Department of Energy has been constructing facilities to house the glassification work, including a plant that prepares the waste for storage by mixing it with materials to dilute its radioactivity. But the technology was flawed, creating a risk that explosive gases could pool in the pipes. According to a Government Accountability Office report released in May, contractors relied on obsolete safety guidelines, leaving the site vulnerable to accidents involving dangerous nuclear materials.
A 2014 draft report by the Energy Department’s Office of River Protection on the status of the project was obtained by the nonprofit nuclear watchdog group Hanford Challenge and released by the group last week. It said engineers have identified more than 360 design weaknesses that could impede the operation of the Low-Activity Waste Facility, where the waste will be encased in glass. They also said the design led by contractor Bechtel National Incorporated fell short of acceptable safety standards. The ventilation system hadn’t been adequately tested to assure it would stop widespread radioactive contamination in the building. Without a detailed plan for operation and maintenance, workers are at risk of exposure to searing heat and chemical and radiological hazards, the report said.
Asked about the report and about progress toward resolution of the longstanding problems facing the WTP project at last week’s meeting of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, Energy Department representatives said they had imposed stricter oversight of contractors, and made a concentrated effort to assure workers they can report problems without retribution.
But safety board member Sean Sullivan, a retired Navy officer who spent 26 years commanding submarines, questioned what the department claims are signs of improvement. He pointed to a January 2013 Energy Department review at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a federal nuclear waste repository in New Mexico known as WIPP, which missed some key safety problems.
When a truck fire and a radiation leak inside WIPP halted operations there a year later, independent experts identified even more gaping holes in the plant’s safety precautions than the department’s previous examinations had found, Sullivan said. “The safety culture at WIPP was not fine,” Sullivan said. “In fact, it was not good at all.”
In June, Bechtel, the contractor the Energy Department hired for the WTP project, agreed to pay a fine of $800,000 after investigators concluded Bechtel had failed to follow safety guidelines it agreed to more than a decade earlier, or to update them when problems were found, “in some cases, for many years,” according to the company’s settlement agreement with the Office of Enterprise Assessments.
The Government Accountability Office in May said that the Energy Department’s cost estimates for the project can’t be trusted, and also asserted that “significant, unresolved design issues remain” with Bechtel’s nuclear safety standards compliance. Correcting the problems could add to the expense of the project and delay its completion, the GAO concluded.
In 2012, then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu concluded that the project was progressing but still had significant flaws. A report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board concluded that problems flagged by a whistleblower in the planning and design of the waste mixing center persisted, raising the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction. Chu halted work on the project in late 2012 and ordered a large-scale testing operation meant to detect when nuclear materials become so concentrated that that they threaten to trigger an accidental reaction.
These problems were flagged in 2010 by Walter Tamosaitis, who worked for Bechtel subcontractor URS Energy and Construction and headed a team that sought to find and fix the waste plant’s design problems. At a critical juncture, Tamosaitis said the project should be suspended until serious safety concerns with the planned waste mixing operation could be resolved.
Delaying milestones on the project jeopardized $55 million that Bechtel stood to gain by meeting certain deadlines. “There’s only one thing standing in the way,” Tamosaitis, 68, recalled telling his colleagues. “That’s me.” He was removed from the project within days and then fired in 2013.
He filed a whistleblower retaliation lawsuit, and after years of hearings and resistance by URS, he won a settlement this month of $4.1 million from Aecom, the company that acquired URS in October 2014.
“This is sweet, deeply-deserved and long overdue justice for a whistleblower who may have changed the course of history by preventing a nuclear tragedy,” Tom Devine, legal director for the whistleblower advocacy organization the Government Accountability Project in Washington, D.C., said. “It was absolutely terrifying what Bechtel was planning at Hanford. It was a complete gamble with public health and safety, all to earn millions in bonus money for getting a job done, regardless of whether it was disastrous for the Pacific Northwest. Bechtel was willing to take that chance. Walt wasn’t.”
Aecom did not admit to treating Tamosaitis unfairly, according to the agreement filed in court. Spokesmen for Aecom, Bechtel and the Energy Department all said safety is a foremost concern for the project, and that workers are encouraged to speak up when they recognize hazards.
In 2008, however, the Energy Department levied fines against Bechtel for retaliation against a whistleblower on the WTP project. And last year, the Department of Labor reinstated an environmental specialist at Hanford after she filed a whistleblower complaint against URS alleging that she was fired in 2011 for reporting nuclear safety deficiencies and environmental noncompliance.
Tamosaitis’ firing spurred a congressional hearing in 2014, and a letter he wrote to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board soon after his safety worries were ignored triggered an inquiry. The safety board’s chair at the time, Peter Winokur, wrote to Chu that it uncovered a broken safety culture at Hanford.
“The Board finds that expressions of technical dissent affecting safety at WTP, especially those affecting schedule or budget, were discouraged, if not opposed or rejected without review,” Winokur wrote in June 2011. “Project management subtly, consistently, and effectively communicated to employees that differing professional opinions counter to decisions reached by management were not welcome and would not be dealt with on their merits.”
As a result, the safety board formally recommended the Energy Department strictly monitor the safety culture and technical soundness of the WTP project. Wednesday’s hearing was an extension of those recommendations.
Safety board member Jessie Roberson asked the assembled Energy Department representatives what has changed since scrutiny of the project has increased.
Kevin Smith, manager of the Energy Department’s Office of River Protection that helps oversee the project, acknowledged that workers’ “trust had been degraded” by what they’d seen happen when others spoke up . But he said workers now are freer to report safety concerns than they were in the past. Smith said he sent an email message to every worker on the WTP project inviting them to contact him when they’re frustrated by management responses to safety observations.
“Nobody shoots the messenger,” Smith said. “We want all the issues out. We want to get them all on the table and fundamentally change.”
But accusations of whistleblower retaliation persist at Hanford and other nuclear sites. Glenn Podonsky, head of the Office of Enterprise Assessments that has enforcement authority over Energy Department contractors, told the safety board on Wednesday that his office was at Hanford last week investigating another whistleblower’s complaint.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said ending management’s hostile reactions to dissent is essential to the future of the WTP project.
“The bottom line here is [Tamosaitis] and other whistleblowers should never have been retaliated against in the first place for calling attention to the problems at Hanford,” Wyden said in an email to The Center for Public Integrity. “Whistleblowers play a crucial role in holding government and government contractors accountable. It is my hope that this case acts as a further catalyst for the Department of Energy to protect workers who seek to improve the culture and effectiveness of its facilities.”
When corporations give money to get a ballot issue passed, the issue often affects their bottom lines.
A gambling company gives millions to allow the opening of a new casino; an agricultural giant spends huge sums to block mandatory labeling on genetically modified foods; or an electric company finances a measure to make it harder for municipalities to create their own power companies.
But occasionally, the corporate interest — and the shareholder interest — is a bit harder to identify.
In 2014, athletic-wear giant Nike Inc. put $50,000 toward an Oregon measure that would have eliminated separate party primaries in elections and $3,300 toward another issue that promised equal rights for women. In 2012, the company spent $5,000 to support gay marriage in a referendum in Washington, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
The Center for Public Integrity reviewed 55 publicly traded companies and top corporate givers to ballot measures and found nine instances of curious positions — positions taken even when the companies’ policies emphasize their business interests as the overriding criteria in doling out political contributions.
The areas of interest were fairly diverse, but most seemed to focus on social issues or were aimed at fundamental changes to how state government operates.
When spending is aimed at playing politics, rather than business, it raises concerns with activists and shareholders, said Bruce Freed, president of the Center for Political Accountability, a nonprofit that advocates for transparency in corporate political spending.
“Companies need clear policies, and they need to follow those policies,” he said. “I think there is significant shareholder concern.”
What interest Nike had in the Oregon initiative on primaries remains a matter of speculation, as the company did not give a specific explanation when asked. A spokesman said the company gives based on “the merits of the ballot initiative, including the potential direct or indirect impact to our business.”
Nike policy states that political contributions are “to protect or enhance shareholder value.”
Corporate giving to politics has come under more scrutiny since the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission opened the door for corporations and unions to spend more advocating for or against candidates.
In 2014 alone, business interests accounted for more than three-quarters of the $266 million given by top donors to statewide ballot measures.
Some of the contributions that don’t line up with company policy appear to be aimed at building corporate political clout in the states.
Companies are keen to make governors and legislatures as friendly as possible to business, according to Paul Kelly, a board member of the Association of Government Relations Professionals, which represents lobbyists.
Sometimes that means contributing to issues that control how those politicians are elected.
Exxon Mobil Corp. opposed public funding of political campaigns and stricter contribution limits in California in 2006.
Companies may also win friends by giving to ballot measures backed by powerful state leaders.
AT&T Inc. and Altria Group Inc., for example, gave to a pair of California government finance initiatives championed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014. In Maine, AT&T, Waste Management Inc. and Coca-Cola Co. were among more than a dozen companies that helped fight the repeal of a governor-backed school consolidation plan in 2009.
“That, too, can be an effective tactic,” Kelly said. “It goes on to some degree in order to be involved and help people that you have to work with.”
Coca-Cola’s policy says that it gives politically to benefit the “long-term, sustainable growth of our global beverage business.”
Coca-Cola spokesman Kent Landers said that the company opposed the Maine repeal measure because the company supports education. “Education is one of the keys to socioeconomic development in the communities in which we operate,” he wrote in an email.
Waste Management said the Maine school plan helped stabilize the state’s budget, which aided the company’s local business interests; Altria and Exxon Mobil did not say specifically how their contributions fit with their policies.
AT&T did not respond to requests for comment.
Risk or reward?
Experts are divided over whether using contributions to create political allies can actually help a company’s bottom line. Robert J. Shapiro, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy who has written on this issue, said corporate political activity generally boosts business.
“Companies spend this kind of money because it produces a return,” he said. “Corporations are not irrational actors.”
Not all shareholders agree. Critics of corporate political giving warn of risks to a company’s reputation, citing protests outside retailing giant Target Corp.’s doors in 2010 after the company gave to a pro-business political action committee that backed a candidate who opposed gay marriage.
Since 2014, shareholders have sponsored at least 58 proposals about political spending at annual meetings of Fortune 250 companies, according to an analysis of the Proxy Monitor database, which is sponsored by the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Legal Policy. None passed.
Zevin Asset Management, a Boston firm that calls itself a pioneer in socially responsible investing, helped craft one unsuccessful shareholder resolution in 2013 that asked Exxon Mobil to study whether it should stop political giving.
“We still think there’s reason for concern and risk to shareholder value by companies using funds to influence elections,” said Zevin President Sonia Kowal. “The returns are unclear.”
All or nothing
Some public companies, such as Accenture PLC, make it a policy not to give to ballot measures.
Still others give widely with no concrete policies or explanations — Wal-Mart Stores Inc., for example, gave at least $100,000 to support the 2014 California government finance measures but has said in documents that sharing the “business rationale” behind political contributions “would place our company at a competitive disadvantage by revealing our long-term business strategies.”
Other firms have policies explicitly saying they give to a wide range of ballot measures as a form of community involvement. These broader policies are intended to benefit not just stockholders but “stakeholders,” including employees, customers and more.
Microsoft Corp. has a global public policy agenda that takes stances on the environment, education and other issues. In 2012, it gave $99,500 to support gay marriage in its home state of Washington and earlier this year published a blog post defending its contribution.
“Diversity and inclusion help drive our business and our bottom line,” the company wrote. “Our customers literally are as diverse as the people of the world. To create technology that empowers the world, we need a workforce that reflects the diversity of the world.”
This story was co-published with TIME.
White House budget director Shaun Donovan called for a “more aggressive strategy” to thwart improper government payments to doctors, hospitals and insurance companies in a previously undisclosed letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell earlier this year.
Government health care programs covering millions of Americans waste billions of tax dollars every year through these “improper” payments, Donovan said in the Feb. 26, 2015 letter.
“While some progress has been made on this front,” Donovan wrote, “we believe a more aggressive strategy can be implemented to reduce the level of improper payments we are currently seeing.”
Donovan, director of the Office of Management and Budget, went to say that “we must continue to explore new and innovative ways to address the problem and attack this challenge with every tool at our disposal…”
Donovan cited problems with traditional Medicare, which pays doctors and hospitals on a “fee-for-service” basis, as well as Medicare Advantage, its fast-growing, privately run alternative. The private insurance plans are paid a set fee each month for each patient using a billing tool called a risk score.
The White House budget chief also noted in his letter that payment errors rose by $3.1 billion last year in Medicaid, the government health care plan for lower income people, which is jointly funded with the states. In addition, he directed HHS to draw up a plan for getting payments right under the Affordable Care Act. The health law, known as Obamacare, has added millions of people to insurance rolls and is slated to undergo payment-accuracy audits for the first time starting this fiscal year.
A copy of Donovan’s letter, which also directs HHS to develop a “comprehensive corrective action plan,” was released to the Center for Public Integrity earlier this week through a court order in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
OMB did not respond to emails and a phone message seeking comment. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the branch of HHS which oversees the health programs, did not immediately respond to a similar request.
The White House dubs payments as “improper” when they are “made to the wrong entity, in the wrong amount or for the wrong reason.” When errors occur, Medicare often pays too much, records show.
A Center for Public Integrity investigation published last year found that officials made nearly $70 billion in “improper” payments to Medicare Advantage plans from 2008 through 2013, mostly in overbillings triggered by inflated risk scores.
The Center also examined Medicare fee-for-service billing data in a 2012 series that documented how thousands of doctors and other medical professionals steadily billed higher rates over the past decade despite little evidence they were doing more for patients.
In total, Medicare covers more than 50 million Americans, most of them elderly. While most seniors remain on the original plan, Medicare Advantage has proven popular in recent years and enrolled some 17 million people. Both Medicare options are among 13 federal programs singled out as “high-error” due to billing abuse. (Here’s a list).
Medicare fee-for-service billing errors jumped 2.62 percent in fiscal 2014, costing $9.7 billion more than the previous year, according to Donovan.
Donovan cited progress in reducing Medicare Advantage payment errors, but said that the government estimate of $12.2 billion in these mistakes for fiscal year 2014 “remains a concern.”
Donovan directed health officials to develop a “comprehensive corrective action plan” by April 30 that describes the problem’s “root causes” and sketches out what it would take to clean things up. He also asked for a plan to improve the “integrity” of the ACA insurance programs, which he also described as a “key priority,” by May 31 of this year.
It is not clear whether HHS has yet produced such documents.
The OMB chief suggested HHS work with its Office of Inspector General to help measure the agency’s performance. Inspector General’s Office spokesman Donald White said his unit has been meeting with CMS “to describe joint actions to address program integrity, performance and improper payments."
David A. Lipschutz, an attorney with the Center for Medicare Advocacy, a non-profit law group that helps seniors navigate Medicare, said health plans that make patients appear sicker than they actually are to get higher payments present a “clear example of improper payment that should be vigorously monitored.”
But he cautioned that policy makers must be careful about turning the screws too tightly. He said some Medicare providers may “prematurely terminate care or deny services altogether out of fear of being audited and/or due to an overly restrictive interpretation of Medicare coverage guidelines.”
Twelve-year-old Kayleb Moon-Robinson of Lynchburg, Virginia—whose felony arrest at school last year sparked national criticism—returned to juvenile court this week but left with his case still officially pending.
Kayleb, who is autistic, was featured in a Center for Public Integrity investigation last May that scrutinized national data—and local police records—and found that Virginia schools referred students to law enforcement at three times the national rate of referral. In a pattern reflected nationally, black and special-needs students in Virginia were disproportionately referred to police and courts for seemingly minor indiscretions like middle-school fights.
Last Friday, just days before Kayleb’s Monday afternoon hearing, Kayleb’s mother and Morenike Owaiwu, a Texas autism-rights advocate, went to the Lynchburg prosecutor’s office to deliver boxes filled with more than 150,000 signatures that Owaiwu gathered online demanding that charges against Kayleb be dropped. Prosecutors declined to comment on the petitions.
In the meantime, on Aug. 18, Lynchburg city schools trustees announced an agreement with local police aimed at both preventing the arrest of students younger than 13, and keeping school cops out of disciplinary and behavior disputes at schools.
The law group handling Kayleb’s defense, the Virginia Legal Aid Society, issued a statement Wednesday saying that Kayleb’s family and the law group are “pleased” with the new agreement’s revisions, but believe it “should have gone further” by raising the age limit for arresting school children to 15 and requiring more specific training for police on disabilities and appropriate “de-escalation” techniques to deal with disruptions.
On Facebook, Kayleb’s mother, Stacey Doss, told her acquaintances that she isn’t “free to go into detail about the judge’s decision as of yet.” But she also said: “I am deeply touched by the amount of continued support and I want to thank you all for showing us that we aren't alone. Kayleb is doing well and has been thriving through this adversity. I’m very proud of my son and strength he has shown during this time.”
“Most of last night and this morning,” Doss said on Facebook after the hearing, “I've been reading emails sent to Kayleb and myself from people all over the world.”
Juvenile proceedings are closed to the public, and Doss and her lawyer declined to elaborate on exactly what had happened in court.
Last October, a school resource officer charged Kayleb with disorderly conduct after he observed the then-11-year-old kicking a trash can in the school office, as recounted in the Center report and an accompanying public radio report broadcast by Reveal.
Then, in November, the officer charged Kayleb again with disorderly conduct as well as with felony assault on a police officer. Kayleb had walked out of class without permission and when the principal sent the officer to get the child, the cop grabbed the boy, who struggled to break free, and then wrestled Kayleb to the floor. Kayleb was arrested and handcuffed for three hours, at school and during transit to juvenile hall.
Kayleb’s mother, whose father is a police officer, was upset that school officials did not intervene in the arrest, and argued that Kayleb should not have been charged with crimes. But prosecutors pursued the charges and at an April hearing, witnesses inside the closed courtroom said, Judge Cary Payne found that Kayleb was guilty based on evidence, but said he would leave the case open for future review.
Kayleb’s lawyer, Melissa Waugh of the Virginia Legal Aid Society, said confidentiality requirements prohibit her from commenting specifically on Kayleb’s court case. She said that in general, juvenile cases often remain before the court for months, even years, while judges take stock of changing circumstances: how a child is doing with the passage time, and how adults in his life, including school officials, are handling their responsibilities to help.
Sometimes charges against a minor that are pending for months can be ultimately dismissed, she said.
In Lynchburg, police began a second internal review of Kayleb’s arrest last spring. That review found that the officer’s “actions were appropriate to the situation the officer encountered, were within Lynchburg Police Department policy, and were legally authorized under state and local code.”
The department, an August letter to Doss also read, “has been supportive of these charges being taken under advisement and no sanction imposed, so long as the student demonstrates more appropriate conduct during a time period set by the court.”
The Virginia Legal Aid Society statement noted that Kayleb—who has shown he can perform well academically—is now attending a new school, which is private, and “receiving the services and support he needs in the appropriate educational setting for him.” Doss told the Center that the school has expertise in helping autistic students cope with frustrating moments and does not have police officers inside.
The national data the Center analyzed indicated that during the 2011-12 school year Virginia’s schools reported referring kids to cops and courts at a rate of 16 per 1,000—compared to six per 1,000 nationally. Special-needs kids were 14 percent of enrollment in Virginia, but represented 30 percent of referrals. Black kids, who were 24 percent of enrollment, represented 38 percent of referrals.
Linda McCausland, a public defender in southeastern Virginia, told the Center that young kids were coming to court with prosecutors pursuing multiple charges against them. A 12-year-old female client faced a judge with a disorderly conduct charge, McCausland said, for resisting arrest and obstruction of justice as a result of “clenching her fist” as an officer grabbed her during a school fight.
A number of school officials told the Center that they don’t control police on campuses, and that officers are empowered to decide what behavior constitutes a crime.
In the wake of the Center story, state officials have formed a task force, at Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s instruction, to look into reforms aimed at cutting Virginia’s relatively high rates of student referrals to law enforcement. The officials are members of the governor’s cabinet, and have not yet disclosed their conclusions.
Some organizations are urging statewide requirements that would mandate specific training for school resource officers.
The legislative director of the state PTA and the director of the Virginia Legal Aid Justice Center’s JustChildren Program, for example, wrote a Richmond Times-Dispatch opinion piece decrying “casual policing” on campuses that they said is pushing children unnecessarily into the criminal-justice system.
“If the state is committed to a law enforcement presence in schools,” the piece said, “we need to pass legislation that requires SROs [school resource officers] to be trained for their jobs.” The piece also urged the adoption of school-police agreements that clearly spell out the role of law enforcement officers in schools.
Prior to Lynchburg schools’ revisions to its agreement with police, several other major Virginia police departments this summer either enacted or are in the midst of discussing reforms to keep police out of what are essentially disciplinary problems.
Henrico County Police Chief Douglas Middleton enacted new policies to require fresh training for officers on dealing with adolescents and special-needs kids. He told the Center that staff at schools in the Richmond suburb had become too accustomed to asking officers to intervene when a student refuses to leave a hallway or get on a bus.
Lynchburg’s new schools-police agreement states that school staff and police officers “will differentiate between disciplinary issues and crime problems and respond appropriately. The parties agree that, whenever possible, a ‘prevention-before- intervention-before- enforcement’ approach will be taken when addressing student behavioral concerns.”
“At no time,” the lengthy agreement states, “should the SRO recommend or make decisions about student discipline or otherwise involve himself/herself directly or indirectly in disciplining a student.”
Scott Brabrand, Superintendent of Lynchburg schools, declined to speak to the Center about the revised agreement with police. In August he told Lynchburg media that language in the document reflects efforts to do “everything we can” to limit the arrest of students who are not yet 13.
Lynchburg Police Chief Parks H. Snead told the Center in an email that the revisions “more clearly define the roles of school staff members and the role of SROs.”
Jeree Thomas, an attorney with the JustChildren Program of Virginia’s Legal Aid Justice Center, said written agreements provide “crucial” transparency for parents and the public. But she said Lynchburg’s agreement could be improved with more specific language outlining how both schools and police will be held accountable for following it.
“I hope they make an effort to get feedback from parents and students on their performance,” Thomas said, “and that they are willing to re-evaluate their policies and practices in light of that feedback.”