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- 12/04/15--13:48: Trump skewers new super PAC
- 12/10/15--07:47: Toxic air emissions series wins sixth national journalism award
- 12/11/15--11:22: Anti-Trump ad fueled by pro-Bush millionaires
- 12/08/15--21:02: Title lenders fight to keep records secret
- Three major title lenders, their owners or key executives, pumped just over $9 million into state political campaigns during the past decade, as they sought to bat down reform legislation. Since 2011, about 150 bills to cap interest rates or crack down on lending abuses died in 20 state legislatures.
- In Virginia, where the three big lenders spread about $1.5 million in campaign cash in the last decade, five reform bills died this year alone. In Tennessee, more than two dozen similar measures have failed in the past five years.
- State banking and consumer regulators have a tough time enforcing current laws, with most levying fines or other civil penalties that don’t appear to halt lending abuses. Illinois officials hit TitleMax stores with about 90 fines for more than $527,000 in the past 18 months. Some state citations accused TitleMax and other lenders of improperly writing loans with repayment terms that sucked up more than half the borrower’s monthly income.
- Federal officials are considering regulations that would require lenders to confirm their customers earn enough to repay loans. But it’s not clear if that will happen, or how strict those provisions might be.
- Title loan contracts obligate borrowers to settle disputes through confidential arbitration hearings. This has stymied dozens of lawsuits accusing lenders of a range of deceptive tactics and kept judges from interpreting consumer protection laws in a court of law.
- 12/11/15--11:22: Financial titans behind Hillary Clinton slam
- 12/11/15--16:01: One cop's telling tale: Who will police the school police?
- 12/11/15--14:27: An epidemic of questionable arrests by school police
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- 12/14/15--00:00: Inside Ben Carson's small-dollar fundraising machine
- 12/15/15--00:00: Koch brothers supersize higher-ed spending
- 12/15/15--20:02: Marco Rubio: The force awakens?
- 12/16/15--15:21: Conservative groups helped gut Wisconsin election laws
A new super PAC is offering one lucky winner a huge opportunity: the chance to dine with Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump.
Just one problem.
“We have no knowledge of this at all,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks said. “We haven’t heard of it.”
The super PAC, which filed registration paperwork with the Federal Election Commission on Nov. 30, has other problems, too.
For example, it can’t keep its own name straight.
In its organizational paperwork, the super PAC first refers to itself as “Rescue America PAC” before later calling itself “Recover America PAC.” On the super PACs website, its name morphs into “Go Donald Go PAC.”
A representative for the group, which lists a man named Michael Williams as its treasurer, could not be reached for comment: calls made to the super PAC went to a full voicemail box and emails went unreturned. The super PAC’s physical address is a rental mailbox in San Francisco.
Trump has previously denounced super PACs, amplifying his assertion that he is the one presidential candidate in a crowded field of Republican contenders who can’t be bought by big-dollar donors with political agendas to push.
Most other Republican candidates enjoy the support of super PACs or politically active nonprofit groups, which thanks in part to the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for and against political candidates.
About 85 percent of broadcast and national cable television ads about the 2016 Republican presidential primary have not been sponsored by candidates themselves, but instead, by super PACs and other non-candidate groups, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from ad tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG.
Following the Republican presidential debate in October on CNBC, Trump tweeted out a call to fellow presidential candidates to “immediately disavow” super PACs fundraising on their behalf.
Following the discovery that super PACs were using Trump’s name, the Trump campaign went a step further, sending cease-and-desist letter to numerous pro-Trump super PACs.
His campaign in October also told the FEC that eight super PACs trading on Trump’s name or campaign slogans “are not authorized” by Trump.
“While we certainly respect these committees' First Amendment rights, given that we have over 75,000 donors, we must ensure our supporters are protected and there is no confusion about the unauthorized nature of such efforts (from which we have received no money, goods or services), especially when they use Mr. Trump's name, slogan, or likeness in their name or solicitation materials,” the Trump campaign wrote.
Trump's tack is similar to that of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, another super PAC critic who nevertheless has found himself battling with a super PAC that purports to support him.
Trump’s anti-super PAC pushback has worked in some cases.
After pro-Trump super PAC Make America Great Again formed in July, it immediately drew criticism for its close ties to Trump’s team. The group shut down in October, reportedly obliging to the wishes of Trump himself.
“Mr. Trump has said he doesn’t have a super PAC,” super PAC director Mike Ciletti told Politico. “So to honor his wishes, I’m shutting my organization down.”
Not only is Recover America PAC acting against Trump’s wishes and knowledge, but it may also be violating its own stated rules.
Chipping in dollars to the group can apparently increase your chances of winning the dine-with-Trump sweepstakes — contradicting rules laid out on the website.
This isn’t the first fundraising contest offering the chance to dine with The Donald.
In 2012, presidential candidate Mitt Romney enticed potential donors with a chance to stay at a Trump hotel, tour the Celebrity Apprentice boardroom and dine with Romney and Trump.
Trump was game for this dinner, although Romney ultimately wasn’t: the GOP presidential nominee stood Trump up at the last moment.
“Big Oil, Bad Air”, an investigation of toxic air emissions in Texas shale fields by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and the Weather Channel, has won the Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism.
The project spanned 20 months and helped lead to the installation of a new air monitor in one of the heaviest drilling areas in the state. In addition, Pennsylvania Congressman Matthew Cartwright launched an investigation late last year into how his state regulates the discarding of unwanted, often toxic material.
The authors “did a great job of making clear that the questions residents and homeowners have about their own health is just not a priority for the state, which just keeps saying 'Go, go, go' to more oil development,” said contest judge Craig Welch, an environmental writer for National Geographic and co-winner of the 2014 Knight-Risser Prize. “The West needs more deep-dive environmental journalism like this.”
CBC news reporter Duncan McCue, another contest judge, added that “the impacts of rapidly expanded fracking is very much a story for our times.”
The Risser prize is the latest of half a dozen first-place awards for “Big Oil, Bad Air” in national journalism contests. Reporters, editors and producers on the project included:
For The Center for Public Integrity: Managing Editor for Environment and Labor Jim Morris; reporters Ben Wieder, Jamie Smith Hopkins, Rosalind Adams and David Heath; Multimedia Editor Eleanor Bell; Data Editor Alex Cohen; News Applications Developer Chris Zubak-Skees; and former reporter Alan Suderman.
For InsideClimate News: Lisa Song, David Hasemyer, Paul Horn, Zahra Hirji, Susan White, Sabrina Shankman, Marcus Stern, Hannah Robbins and David Martin Davies.
For The Weather Channel: Gregory Gilderman, Neil Katz, Faisal Azam, Eric Jankstrom, Shawn Efran and Katie Wiggin.
The Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism recognizes excellence in reporting on environmental issues and stories in the North American West — from Canada through the United States to Mexico. It will be awarded at a symposium in early 2016. The event brings together journalists, researchers, policymakers, advocates, students and the public to explore the environmental issues raised by the winning entry. The prize is co-sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships and the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford, with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Hours after presidential candidate Donald Trump on Monday called for the “complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States, a super PAC supporting fellow candidate Jeb Bush had harsh words for the billionaire businessman who’s dominating Republican primary polls:
“Impulsive and reckless.”
Right to Rise USA, the super PAC supporting Bush, made the statement in a television ad that also questioned Trump’s terrorism response credentials as well as those of two other GOP frontrunners: Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
Trump, Rubio and Cruz, the ad says, are ill-equipped to be president “when the attacks come here.”
The super PAC’s ads follow weeks of Bush sinking in national polls. It signals an effort by the richest super PAC in Election 2016 to help Bush regain traction in an increasingly ugly race.
The ad’s sponsor
No other super PAC active in the 2016 presidential race has yet to match the spending power of Right to Rise USA, which Bush himself helped establish almost a year ago, long before the former Florida governor officially launched his presidential bid.
Thanks in part to the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, Right to Rise USA may accept unlimited contributions and dole out its cash as it sees fit — as long as it doesn’t directly coordinate with the Bush campaign.
But the definition of coordination is flimsy at best, opening the door for fairly intimate super PAC-candidate relations.
The Bush campaign pushed coordination limits first by working closely with Right to Rise USA and its sister leadership PAC before officially announcing his presidency. The super PACs top vendor — a largely untraceable limited liability company in Delaware — shares a post office box with a company run by Heather Larrison, the national finance director of Bush’s official presidential campaign.
Who’s behind it?
Those flooding Right to Rise USA with money — and those behind the scenes keeping the group afloat — are not just drawn to Bush’s presidential platform.
Many of the group’s leadership and top donors are close confidants of Bush and his storied political family.
At the forefront is Mike Murphy. A longtime friend of Bush, Murphy is a top super PAC adviser and runs a strategic communication group called Revolution Agency— an agency responsible for numerous Right to Rise USA TV ads.
Larry McCarthy, who is been called the “master” of the negative ad, is also on the Right to Rise USA team. McCarthy’s advertising firm has produced ads for numerous groups such as U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Future Fund and American Crossroads. He was responsible for the infamous 1988 “Willie Horton” attack ad against Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.
Paul Lindsay, the super PAC’s spokesman, is former communications director for American Crossroads, a conservative super PAC tied to GOP strategist Karl Rove. Lindsay is also a former communications director for the National Congressional Campaign Committee.
Right to Rise has raked in $103 million as of June 30. More than 20 individuals and corporate entities are known to have each given Right to Rise USA at least $1 million to that point.
Top contributors to the super PAC include a number of Bush’s former business associates. After quitting his corporate jobs to run for president, Right to Rise USA took in $1.7 million from executives, companies and organizations Bush worked with or had disclosed a financial stake in.
The super PAC’s war chest has almost certainly grown since June 30 — to an extent that will be revealed in January when the super PAC must next reveal its finances to the FEC.
Right to Rise USA, which did not return inquiries, has already aired the new ad the Boston television market, which includes much of New Hampshire, the state that in February conducts the nation’s first presidential primary.
Since launching its campaign, Right to Rise USA has also made several other notable ad buys costing well into the millions, including a September ad buy priced at $24 million.
To date, Right to Rise USA has spent more than $43.6 million on efforts designed to boost Bush's presidential fortunes, according to federal data compiled by the Sunlight Foundation.
Why to watch this group
For TV watchers in states that conduct early presidential primaries and caucuses, they have little choice.
Right to Rise USA is dominating the airwaves there, accounting for nearly one-fourth of presidential race-related TV ads aired this year, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from ad tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG.
The pro-Bush super PAC has aired more TV ads — almost 15,000 — than any other presidential committee or non-candidate political group this year. In October, the group aired more than twice as many ads as any other group or candidate. In November, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders’s 5,281 ads barely edged out those sponsored by Right to Rise USA.
Meanwhile, Bush’s official campaign has itself only sponsored about 400 TV ads. Candidate committees may only raise $2,700 from an individual per election. Super PACs face no such fundraising restrictions.
The outsourcing of its political messaging hasn’t proved particularly effective for the Bush campaign. Latest polls show Bush well behind Trump, Cruz and Rubio — all targets of Right to Rise USA’s latest ad flurry — as well as retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Right to Rise USA’s current ads also suggests a shift in Republican primary messaging: Candidates and presidential committees have — for the most part — strayed away from attacking other candidates in TV ads.
So far, about 83 percent of ads featured “positive” messages, according to an analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data.
This story was co-published with Al Jazeera America.
Three major auto-title lenders have filed legal petitions to block Virginia state officials from releasing company annual reports to the Center for Public Integrity, arguing that doing so would seriously damage their businesses.
The title loan industry, which is dominated by three Georgia-based companies, has come under fire from consumer advocates and some lawmakers for charging interest rates that can exceed 300 percent in some states and seizing the cars of borrowers who fail to repay their loans.
Title loans are legal in about half the states, and the three major companies operate more than 3,000 stores, including more than 200 in Virginia.
The three lenders are: TitleMax of Virginia; Anderson Financial Services LLC, doing business as LoanMax; and Fast Auto Loans Inc.
In November, the Center for Public Integrity sought copies of the 2014 annual reports the three lenders filed with the Virginia Bureau of Financial Institutions. In addition to revenues, the lenders must report data such as the number of title loans and their terms, the number of defaults and how often they sue customers or repossess their cars. The companies also must disclose if they have been the subject of any “regulatory investigation” for misconduct anywhere in the country within the past three years.
Virginia officials said nobody had asked for the reports before the Center for Public Integrity filed its request. Officials told the center they could find no reason not to disclose them under the state’s public records law.
In Nov. 19 letters to the companies, Virginia Commissioner of Financial Institutions E.J. Face Jr. wrote that his office was “unable to identify a statutory or other legal basis” for keeping the records secret.
But Face gave the lenders a chance to challenge his decision, and all three promptly did.
Making the data public “could endanger the safety and soundness of Fast Auto,” the company wrote in a Nov. 30 legal brief.
TitleMax argued it would suffer “irreparable damage” as a result. The company said anyone “could, at a glance, identify the strengths and weaknesses of TitleMax’s products and their financial risks.”
LoanMax wrote that it would be at a “competitive disadvantage” because competitors could see states “in which LoanMax is at increased risk for regulatory scrutiny due to past regulatory actions.”
Loan Max asked that its report be kept confidential “until there is a hearing on this matter and all other remedies, including an appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia, have been exhausted.”
No hearing date has been set, and it is not clear how Virginia officials plan to resolve the issue, according to an agency spokesman.
Virginia, like some other states, regulates title lending under banking statutes. As a result, the lenders argue they are due the same degree of secrecy that banks and savings and loans receive. Some states agree, while others do not.
LoanMax, in its Virginia petition, argues that none of the other states where it conducts business release such sensitive data. But a title lender with the same owner as LoanMax operates in Missouri, which released similar reports to the Center for Public Integrity.
LoanMax also said in the petition that releasing the information in the 2014 report “might cause unforeseen antitrust problems for Loan Max and other motor vehicle title lenders.”
After years of financial ups and downs, Gloria Whitaker needed some quick cash to help keep a roof over her head.
So she and her son, Devon, went to a TitleBucks store in Las Vegas and took out a $2,000 loan, pledging his gold 2002 Ford F-150 truck as collateral.
Whitaker, 66, said nobody verified she, or her jobless son, could repay the loan, which carried interest of 121.545 percent. When she paid off the loan, she said, the company didn’t give back the title to the truck. Instead, employees talked her into borrowing $2,000 more, which plunged the family deeper into debt, she said. Whitaker knows that was a mistake, but also feels misled by aggressive — and legally dubious — lending tactics.
“I had a hardship,” Whitaker said. “I was between a rock and a hard place.”
In October, Whitaker filed a complaint with state regulators, who say the giant lender, TitleMax, which operates TitleBucks, violated state lending laws and estimate that it overcharged Nevada customers more than 6,000 times this year by nearly $8 million.
“Our position is that they are a bad actor,” said George Burns, who heads the Nevada Financial Institutions Division. “We believe it is very important that we get them under control. We want them to conduct their business legally and not be taking advantage of the public.”
It’s legal in about half the states to pledge a car title as collateral for short-term loans of a few hundred dollars or more. Many of these states allow lenders to tack on interest that can top 300 percent, and to seize and sell off cars when borrowers fail to pay. Most states have either permitted the companies to operate for years, or kept them out with usury laws that cap interest rates.
Title lenders insist they provide a vital financial service to people who can’t take out a bank loan or get credit when they need fast cash.
Consumer advocates scoff at this notion. They argue title lenders prey on low-income people by putting their cars, often their biggest or sole asset, at risk. Title lenders in four states alone — New Mexico, Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia — repossessed at least 92,000 cars in the past two years, according to state records.
“The person who has paid off their car is starting to move up the ladder a little bit,” said Jay Speer, executive director of the Virginia Poverty Law Center in Richmond. Virginia is home to nearly 500 title-lending shops.
“When you get one of these loans, you are knocked right back down and in bad shape,” he said.
Yet title lenders appear to be expanding. TitleMax and two other major lending companies — all three based in Georgia — run about 3,000 stores under a slew of eye-catching brand names, such as LoanMax and Fast Auto Loans. None would comment for this article.
A Center for Public Integrity investigation found that the title lenders have fended off tighter state oversight of their operations behind millions of dollars in campaign contributions, aggressive challenges to regulators who seek to rein them in and by writing loan contracts that leave aggrieved borrowers with little legal recourse.
Among the findings:
Consumer groups and some state officials say the courts need to clarify these issues, such as what steps lenders must take to prevent people from getting in over their heads.
“It’s not a loan if you can’t repay,” said Speer, of the Virginia Poverty Law Center. “That’s loansharking. They are just trying to milk somebody for interest.”
Whitaker, a onetime tour guide now retired, has a history of financial instability, including bankruptcies. She also admits she failed to read the contract’s fine print carefully.
“That was our biggest mistake,” she said.
Whitaker, in her complaint to the state, said her income was $1,055 a month, mostly from Social Security. Yet the first loan she took out in late 2013 obligated her to pay $265 a month.
She and her son, now 30, later took out a second $2,000 loan, even though he had no income. They signed an affidavit stating they could handle seven monthly payments of $410.68, for a total of $2,874.71.
“We did not have the ability to repay the loans, and TitleBucks knew that,” she wrote in her complaint.
(Update, Dec. 9, 2015, 11:19 a.m.: Most states don’t publish data on the average dollar value of title loans or their repayment terms. But in Virginia, the average loan term made in 2014 was for 345 days, according to the Virginia State Corporation Commission annual report. Title lenders must advise borrowers of the loan’s annual interest rate under the federal Truth-in-Lending Act.)
Like Whitaker, many borrowers realize too late how hard it is to climb out from under triple-digit interest rates, or they argue they didn’t fully understand what they were getting into.
Venicia Considine, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, who assisted the Whitaker family, said many borrowers with poor credit and few other options make easy prey for lenders.
“It’s very easy to say they [borrowers] are trying to game the system,” Considine said. “I think it’s easy to demonize people who don’t have a voice or a lobbyist.”
Title lenders, she said, “bleed” people “until there is nothing left. Then they get their car.”
Devon Whitaker didn’t lose his truck. After the family sought help from legal aid and filed a complaint with the state, TitleMax agreed to accept a payment of $580 and free up the title to the truck, Considine said.
Burns, the state regulator, believes some lenders charge way too much given the circumstances. He said some title loans are “almost risk-free” for lenders because they typically are made for a good deal less than the car is worth.
“If they repossess, they’ve got their costs covered,” he said. Rather than a source of quick cash, a title loan can morph into “a mortgage on their car,” he said.
Burns said he hopes his agency’s enforcement action will clarify a state law that directs lenders to review “current and expected income, obligations and employment” in assessing a borrower’s ability to repay.
Warnings to steer clear of title loans date back a decade or more.
In 2005, the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit group that opposes predatory lending, found that lenders often had “little or no regard to their borrowers’ ability to repay the loans.” The group noted that nearly three of four customers earned less than $25,000 a year, according to some surveys, and often rolled over their loans to keep the repo man at bay.
Also that year, the Consumer Federation of America warned that title-loan interest rates can exceed 300 percent and “trap borrowers in perpetual debt.” The group urged state lawmakers to crack down on these “predatory lenders.”
TitleMax, in a 2013 Securities and Exchange Commission filing, acknowledged its critics, adding that media exposés branding title loans as “predatory or abusive” may hurt sales at some point.
Still, TitleMax reported $577.2 million in loans outstanding as of December 2012, according to the filing. The Savannah, Georgia-based lender nearly doubled its stores from June 2011 to January 2014, reaching more than 1,300 locations.
TitleMax says it fills a void for growing legions of people banks won’t touch. Unlike banks, it doesn’t check a borrower’s credit before offering a loan or report defaults to credit bureaus.
TitleMax promises cash “in as little as 30 minutes.” The front window of a store in Charlottesville, Virginia, shouts out “instant approval” and “bankruptcy OK.”
A little more than two miles away, competitor LoanMax boasts the motto: “we say yes.” A hand-scrawled message on the store window reads: “Refer a friend. Get $100.”
Neither TitleMax nor its rivals offer any apology for the often-punishing fees they extract from those in need of surrogate banking.
How quickly the title loan market is growing, and the magnitude of profit margins, is difficult to assess. Many states either don’t try to find out if the market is growing or they keep financial data secret.
Wisconsin, for instance, requires title lenders to submit detailed sales figures, but making them public is a felony, officials said. In New Mexico, lawmakers took years to pass legislation allowing the state to collect basic statistics, such as the volume of title loans and default rates.
This much is clear: In Illinois, where three of four borrowers earned $30,000 or less per year, title loans nearly doubled between 2009 and 2013, according to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. California officials in July reported that title loans had more than doubled in the past three years.
Gaps in state recordkeeping also make it tough to confirm how often borrowers fail to make payments and forfeit their cars.
The Center for Public Integrity obtained records showing that in New Mexico, Missouri, Virginia and Tennessee lenders reported a total of 50,055 repossessions in 2013. The following year, the count was 42,905, not counting Tennessee, which won’t release its 2014 data until next year. In New Mexico, where interest rates average 272 percent, repossessions shot up in 2014, as they did in Virginia.
TitleMax argues that it seizes cars only as a “last resort,” not before “we have first exhausted all options for repayment,” according to an SEC filing.
Katie Grove, who spoke for the company during a March 2013 Nevada legislative hearing, said, “Our business model is to keep customers’ payments low and give them a longer time to pay off their loan so they can be successful in paying off the loan. That leads to extremely low default rates.”
But in Missouri, TitleMax repossessed a total of nearly 16,000 cars in 2013 and 2014, or about 16 percent of all loans on average, according to state records. The figures were first reported by the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
Soules, a Democrat, called it a “very big learning experience.” He said that “without a doubt” industry lobbying and campaign contributions doomed the bill.
“There’s big money being made off the very poorest and most vulnerable people in our state,” Soules said.
Two similar bills died during the past two years, despite a poll showing 86 percent of New Mexicans favored interest rate caps. Title lenders have won the argument at least partly by complaining that rate caps would drive them out of business.
New Mexico community activist Ona Porter also blames campaign cash for thwarting rate-cap bills. “The industry has bought and paid for our politicians. They make huge contributions,” said Porter, president and CEO of Prosperity Works, which advocates for working families.
More than four dozen similar bills have stalled in statehouses nationwide, and those on the losing side also cited hardball lobbying and lavish contributions by title lenders.
A bill offered earlier this year by Democratic Missouri Rep. Tracy McCreery labeled interest rates of up to 300 percent as “excessive” and said they could “lead families into a cycle of debt.” The bill would have limited rates at 36 percent, but it never got a hearing. McCreery blamed campaign donations from lenders to politicians of both parties that totaled $200,000 during the past decade.
“It’s disgusting,” McCreery said. “The vast majority of the legislature is willing to look the other way on the need for reform.”
McCreery plans to refile the bill. “I’m not giving up,” she said.
This year in Virginia, where lenders also have spread donations liberally, bills to limit interest rates, restrict the number of loan stores in some jurisdictions, and to keep the stores at least 10 miles away from military bases, all died.
Major title lenders have given nearly half a million dollars to Virginia party organizations over the past decade. Republican groups received about twice as much as Democrats. Richard Saslaw, the Virginia Senate’s Democratic leader received $90,000 or more. Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, a Republican, received about $57,000.
The Center for Public Integrity tracked $9.1 million in campaign contributions by the three major Georgia-based title lenders during the past decade using state data collected by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
The top donor is Roderick Aycox, of Alpharetta, Georgia, together with his companies and relatives, all of which gave nearly $4 million. They do business as Select Management Resources, LoanMax, Midwest Title Loans and several other brands.
TitleMax, which claims to be the nation’s biggest title lender, gave nearly $3.8 million, including donations from its executives and its president, Tracy Young.
The third big donor is Robert I. Reich, CEO of Community Loans of America in Atlanta, which has listed more than 100 subsidiaries, such as Fast Auto Loans. His firms gave more than $1.3 million.
Reich is the most visible of the three industry titans. He’s registered as a lobbyist in New Mexico and helped fight off a 2010 effort to drive title lenders out of Wisconsin. That state’s Government Accountability Board fined Reich $4,500 for exceeding limits on campaign contributions during that political skirmish.
Reich also showed up in person to talk down a move for tighter state oversight in Texas. At an April 2013 House Investments and Financial Services Committee hearing, Reich argued his company had made a “commitment” and “investment” there to “make credit available to tens of thousands of consumers without credit access.”
In 2012, Reich told the committee, his stores wrote 600,000 loans for over $533 million at more than 1,000 locations, including 300 in Texas.
Reich described about a third of his customers as small businesspeople seeking a “source of working capital.” As an example, he cited “a landscaper who needs to do a job, will come to us to hire his work crew, buy the bushes, shrubs and grass that he needs to finish a job and when he gets paid, he comes back and pays us.”
Another third of the loans were given to people with low credit scores, and a third were renters whose “largest asset is usually a vehicle,” Reich said, according to a video recording (at 4:07:15) of the hearing.
Reich also suggested that longer-term loans, which consumer advocates deride as the road to ruin, were a plus for borrowers.
“We like to have as long a term as possible so that basically the monthly payment is low, and the loan is indeed affordable,” Reich said.
States that spot violations of consumer lending laws generally settle for fines that title loan companies appear to view as little more than a cost of doing business.
In Illinois, regulators issued more than 230 fines for $1.1 million between January 2014 and August 2015, mostly for not properly verifying a borrower’s income and ability to repay.
In at least 46 cases, title lenders were cited for making a loan with a “scheduled monthly payment exceeding 50% of the obligor’s gross monthly income,” according to state records.
TitleMax offices in Illinois were hit with $527,450 in penalties during the same time period. The state fined Midwest Title Loans, owned by Aycox, $235,000.
Some states keep these infractions secret. The Tennessee Department of Financial Institutions has fined title lenders more than $60,000 during the past five years. But releasing their names, and the reasons for the penalties, is a criminal offense because state law protects banks’ financial confidentiality, according to agency spokesman T. Ryan Hughes.
In Virginia, the title lenders are fighting a request from the Center for Public Integrity for the 2014 annual reports they submitted to state banking regulators.
States that have sued to enforce consumer protection laws have found the lenders to be formidable adversaries in court.
A court case that alleged deceptive sales practices by Wisconsin Auto Title Loans, one of Reich’s companies, dragged on for more than a decade. Filed in 2002 by the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee and later joined by the state, the case was settled in September 2013. The company did not admit fault but agreed to pay $2.75 million in restitution and other costs.
Some states that outlaw title loans have clashed with lenders operating just across the border from states that allow them.
That’s been an irritant in jurisdictions bordering Virginia. In 2009, the D.C. attorney general sued LoanMax and another lender, arguing that television and radio advertisements lured residents of D.C. to Virginia, where they paid more than 300 percent interest. The lenders agreed to make some refunds, as well as the sales price of any cars they had seized from D.C. residents.
The West Virginia attorney general’s office launched an investigation in 2011 of Fast Auto Loans’ debt collection tactics, including repossessing more than 200 cars from West Virginia residents who had crossed into Virginia to get a loan. The office also accused the lender of harassing debtors and threatening to have them arrested if they didn’t relinquish their cars.
The case ended in April 2014 with a $1.2 million settlement. About a year later, the office settled a second suit accusing a different title lender of doing essentially the same thing. In that case, the title lender agreed to wipe out $2.4 million in loan debts from West Virginians. A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said complaints have since declined.
Bar courthouse door
Those who fail to read the fine print in a title loan contract — notably the arbitration clause — may come to regret it.
Many title loan contracts also prevent borrowers from joining class action suits and other litigation.
Arbitration is popular with customer finance businesses, including credit cards and private student loans. Yet the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in October announced it was considering a ban on arbitration clauses, arguing they amount to a “free pass” that allows companies “to avoid accountability to their customers.”
The Center for Public Integrity reviewed more than two dozen lawsuits in which borrowers tried to claim that fraud voided the arbitration clauses, only to lose in court. In one Virginia case, two men who could barely read asked a federal judge to give them a break. In another case, a law professor argued a title loan contract was “so convoluted that even lawyers and judges would have a difficult time understanding the arbitration provision.”
Neither strategy worked.
In at least three other arbitration cases cited in federal court, people who went to a hearing over a title loan lost.
One was a Pennsylvania resident who crossed the state line into Delaware and took out a title loan at 359.99 percent interest, putting up her 1995 Ford Escort. Title loans are legal in Delaware but not in Pennsylvania. Her lawyer argued the loan should be invalidated because it was illegal in her home state.
The arbitrator declared her a “very credible witness” and said she “has borne a series of difficult circumstances” but ruled the loan and the lien on her car were “enforceable.”
Robert Slavin, a Pennsylvania lawyer who has represented buyers from that state in lawsuits against Delaware lenders, said many borrowers who sign the agreements often “don’t even know what arbitration is.”
He said arbitration is a “big scam” that title lenders use to “give themselves immunity” from lawsuits that might expose their dealings.
“They know they are doing something wrong and put in an arbitration clause to protect themselves from being sued for the things they know they are doing wrong,” he said.
This story was co-published with USA Today.
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Hedge fund managers and investors, together worth billions of dollars, are bankrolling a little-known super PAC that on Tuesday unleashed attack ads against Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
“Hundreds of thousands dead. Terrorists on the march,” the ad’s narrator says. “Where did it go wrong?”
The group, calling itself Future45, uses the television ad to paint Clinton as responsible for Islamic State’s rapid growth in Syria. It also slams her performance as secretary of state.
This is not its first time Future45 has launched an offensive against Clinton. In October, the super PAC ran ads blasting her for her foreign policy work in Libya.
The ad’s sponsor
Future45 and sister nonprofit 45Committee are “focused on holding Secretary Clinton accountable by making certain that the American public has the full breadth of information on Secretary Clinton’s failures,” Ron Weiser, chairman of Future45, told the Wall Street Journal in October.
Officially — as per its website — Future45 says it will fight to ensure the next president will possess “the character and trustworthiness necessary to restore leadership to the White House.”
Being a super PAC enables Future45 to accept unlimited contributions, although it must disclose its donors. 45Committee, a purported issue advocacy organization prohibited from making politics its primary purpose, doesn’t have to disclose its donors.
Those behind the group plan to “complement” work already done by Republican-backing billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, Future45 operatives told the Wall Street Journal.
The formation of the Future45 and 45Committee groups also suggests a conservative donor web with Koch-like aspirations is entering the political fray.
Who’s behind it?
Running the operations is Brian O. Walsh, president of Future45. In 2010, Walsh directed a $26 million campaign at “dark money” nonprofit American Action Network — an effort that succeeded in helping Republicans gain control of the House. Walsh left the American Action Network in January.
Weiser, former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, is chairman of Future45.
Officials at Future45 did not immediately return requests for comment.
The group is backed by three known donors, according to federal records: Kenneth Griffin, president of Citadel; William C. Powers, an investor; and Paul Singer, founder of hedge fund Elliot Management.
Singer has personally endorsed Republican Marco Rubio for president.
Meanwhile, Griffin — a big-time donor to candidates and committees in state and federal races — donated $100,000 in June to Right to Rise USA, a super PAC supporting Republican Jeb Bush for president. Powers, while not as politically active as the others, did donate $100,000 to Right to Rise USA in April.
The family of Joe Ricketts, founder of TD Ameritrade, is also supporting Future45’s effort, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Ricketts family has donated to several super PACs supporting presidential candidates, including more than $5 million to Unintimidated PAC, the group that supported Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s now-defunct presidential bid.
Future45 formed in March. It raised $600,000 through June 30, according to the Federal Election Commission. But it’s likely added significant money to its war chest: federal rules don’t require it to again disclose its finances until January. And being a super PAC allows Future45, unlike presidential campaign committees themselves, to collect contributions in unlimited amounts.
While the nonprofit 45Committee isn’t required to reveal its donors, it cannot spend the majority of its money on politics. Other politically active nonprofit groups have, however, pushed boundaries for how political they may get.
Future45 spent about $115,000 on the ad production and placement for its first ad that criticized Clinton’s foreign policy chops in Libya.
The latest ad — this time focused on Syria — will run nationally on television and is part of a “six-figure digital ad campaign reaching independents in Colorado, Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire,” according to a press release issued Tuesday by the super PAC.
Future45’s first anti-Clinton ad aired on television 25 times during October in New Hampshire, Iowa and Massachusetts markets, as well as on national cable networks, according to data collected by media monitoring firm Kantar Media/CMAG.
Both ads are the group’s only known expenditures. A full accounting of the group’s 2015 expenditures will be revealed when Future45 files disclosure documents with the FEC in January.
Why to watch this group
Future45 and the 45Committee are likely to invest heavily in the 2016 presidential race, and they’ve attracted donors who are no strangers to making seven-figure donations.
This isn’t their first time working in concert either.
Since 2014, Griffin, Singer, Powers and Ricketts (with his wife Marlene) have cumulatively contributed $12.8 million to the super PAC End Spending Action Fund, according to FEC filings. Ricketts founded the Ending Spending super PAC and its sister nonprofit with the same name in 2010.
Those associated with Future45 also attended an October fundraiser held by Singer.
In 2013, a former police trainee was called to testify about an allegation that a sworn officer had assaulted her in 2006 while she was learning the ropes at the Fontana Police Department in Southern California.
The former trainee, or cadet, testified that the incident occurred during a ride-along in Fontana, a city east of Los Angeles in San Bernardino County. Officer John Garcia drove up at night to a deserted area where she said he told her that “little gangsters” were defacing walls with graffiti.
According to a court transcript, she said that after inspecting the area together, Garcia, her mentor, began joking about wrestling and allegedly began grabbing the 18-year-old’s wrists. He allegedly pinned down her arms with bear hugs while trying to kiss her, according to a court transcript, and she pushed him and knocked the radio on Garcia’s belt, causing it to crackle. The officer stopped, she said, and although she was shaken, she got in the police cruiser with him to return to town.
The next day, as documents show, she reported the alleged attack to superiors and an investigation began. Her testimony on the matter came in litigation against the officer by other women.
Garcia claimed that “he was simply going over defensive tactics techniques” with the cadet, a skeptical police investigator later testified. And in the end, although prosecutors decided not to pursue a charge of battery recommended by the investigator, Garcia was told he had failed a period of probation with the Fontana PD and quietly left the force in 2006 after about a year on the job.
Two years later, though, Garcia was a cop again — this time as a sworn officer with the Fontana Unified School District Police Department.
What transpired from that point on, critics of the decision to hire Garcia say, illustrates a need for improved and independent oversight of school police officers and their conduct.
“There are multiple issues that have huge public implications for policing,” said Brian Hannemann, an attorney in San Bernardino County.
Hannemann represents four current or former female school police employees who worked as dispatchers or as security aides and who have filed civil lawsuits against Garcia and the Fontana School district. Two of the women have already won jury awards totaling more than $1.8 million against the school district. That doesn’t count the nearly $2 million in attorneys’ fees that a judge awarded Hannemann and other plaintiffs’ attorneys in November.
The school district plans appeals. The other two women’s cases are still pending.
The women allege that after Garcia joined the school police, he raped or otherwise sexually assaulted or harassed them. The women also allege that some supervisors in the school district police retaliated — firing one of them — after they began to complain in 2011.
“It is an insular, crony set-up,” said Hannemann of the Fontana school police.
After joining the department, Garcia was appointed to lead a burgeoning school-police mentoring program for “at-risk” teenage students called the Fontana Leadership Intervention Program, or FLIP. By 2011, troubling allegations also emerged behind the scenes about Garcia’s behavior in that role.
Hannemann used a special court procedure called a “Pitchess motion” to convince a judge to grant partial access to police personnel records, which in California are by law specifically protected from public inspection or disclosure. Documents Hannemann obtained led him to the cadet, whose story had never been disclosed, and to other police personnel.
The Fontana school district and Garcia broadly deny the female police dispatch workers’ allegations in court documents. The school district cast doubt on the women’s accounts and the timing of their complaints, suggesting that some of the sex acts were consensual.
Garcia was fired in 2012 and has never been charged. He has refused to speak to media and has not testified in any court proceedings, invoking his 5th Amendment right not to self-incriminate. On a social media site, he’s listed as an “investigator.”
Speaking on Garcia’s behalf, Michael Marlatt, one of his attorneys, alleged that sex that took place between Fontana school police employees was “part of a workplace where there was give and take, so to speak, of a sexual nature.”
”You can debate whether that give and take in a school district police environment is appropriate or not,” Marlatt said, “but that’s a different issue than whether or not my client and/or the district are liable for the allegations set forth in the cases.”
Garcia was hired to work for the school district police in 2008 by then-chief Robert Ratcliffe. When he was a hiring sergeant at the Fontana city PD, Ratcliffe had previously hired Garcia for the city police in 2005. Garcia had earlier been a city cop in nearby Riverside.
Ratcliffe later testified that he was aware of the incident with the police cadet, but nevertheless defended hiring Garcia for the school police, contending that he successfully completed a background check performed by independent investigators employed by the school district.
Documents Hannemann unearthed in litigation show that by 2011, the school police department was in private turmoil due to allegations surfacing about Garcia.
Cpl. Sean Shanen wrote in an interoffice memo in 2011 that Garcia allegedly showed him cell phone photos of nude women and boasted of sexual exploits with “FLIP moms” whom he had met through the program for at-risk students. The FLIP program, which puts kids through exercise drills and lectures by cops, also assigned cops to make home visits to check on kids and home life.
District officials declined to discuss the allegations about FLIP mothers, the women’s lawsuits or hiring practices, but did send some written responses.
“The Fontana Unified School District does not comment upon current litigation matters or personnel decisions,” one response said, “but wishes to re-iterate that it is committed to ensuring the quality of its staff and a positive workplace environment for all employees.”
Garcia’s troubles are not the only controversy that has beset the Fontana Unified School District Police Department. The department also garnered national headlines in 2013 when its then-chief bought 14 high-powered Colt LE6940 rifles at $1,000 apiece without consent of the school board.
The purchase outraged some parents, who complained that the 40,000-student district was so impoverished it had gutted its student counseling program.
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif.— Josue “Josh” Muniz admits that he embraced his girlfriend during lunch, while the pair was out on the quad at Arroyo Valley High School in this city east of Los Angeles.
He admits that after a school cop ordered him to step away, he did, but lightly hugged his girlfriend again, minutes later, because she was upset.
But Muniz won’t agree that he deserved what happened next.
His girlfriend walked off, and Muniz saw the officer approaching again and directing him to go with him. The cop reached out and “put his hand on my throat,” Muniz said. “That’s when I start freaking out. He tells me to stand up. And that’s when his grip on my throat got a little stronger and when I started really panicking.”
Alarmed, Muniz pushed at the officer to get him “just a little bit off me,” he said. They tumbled to the ground and the officer “showered” the student with pepper spray, Muniz alleges in a civil lawsuit that’s still pending. The cop handcuffed him, he said, dragged him into a nearby security office by the cuffs and planted a knee in between his shoulder blades while delivering “multiple blows” as Muniz lay face down on a carpet.
After it was over, the officer read the 17-year-old junior his rights and placed Muniz under arrest — for alleged misdemeanor assault on an officer.
“He told me that I had ‘f’d up,’ ” Muniz said. “But I never wanted to fight.”
In an initial substantive response in court, the school district claims that Muniz was “careless, reckless, and negligent,” and is the one to blame for any alleged injuries he suffered during the altercation.
Muniz’s arrest in November 2012 sounds extreme, but it was hardly isolated.
In fact, he was one of tens of thousands of juveniles arrested by school police in San Bernardino County over the last decade. The arrests were so numerous in this high-desert region known as the Inland Empire that they surpassed arrests of juveniles by municipal police in some of California’s biggest cities.
The San Bernardino City Unified School District, where Muniz was a student, has its own police department, with 28 sworn officers, eight support staff and more than 50 campus security officers trained in handcuffing and baton use.
The department made more than 30,000 arrests of minors between 2005 and 2014. The area has a reputation for youth-gang crime, but only about 9 percent of those arrests were for alleged felonies. Instead, the vast majority of arrests were for minors violating a variety of city ordinances — such as graffiti violations or daytime curfews — and for nearly 9,900 allegations of disturbing the peace. That’s a frequently-used catchall that raises questions among critics about whether most of these arrests were necessary for public safety.
The bulk of the minors arrested or referred to school police represent some of the most academically vulnerable demographics in the state: low-income Latino and black kids, as well as kids with disabilities, in disproportionate numbers, according to California arrest statistics and national education data examined by the Center for Public Integrity.
Based on 2011-2012 data collected from U.S. schools by the U.S. Department of Education, the latest available, Muniz’s Arroyo Valley High referred students to law enforcement at a rate of 65 for every 1,000 students. That was more than 10 times the national and California state rate of 6 per 1,000.
Those kinds of statistics raise red flags for critics who charge that school officers in some districts, especially those with substantial minority and special-needs populations, are turning what should be minor disciplinary indiscretions into criminal justice matters that put kids on a road to bigger problems — the so-called ‘school-to-prison pipeline.” In San Bernardino, cops, school officials, parents and community groups have started wrestling with how to balance demands for order — and security — without criminalizing kids.
There’s no state rule to define the role of school police, but some California districts have already taken steps to do that by imposing formal limits on police powers in school, and detailing what situations should require police involvement and what should be handled exclusively by educators.
The roots of a trend
The ranks of school cops have grown nationally since the 1999 massacre of students and faculty at Columbine High School outside Denver. Some inner-city school districts have developed significant police agencies of their own and deployed them on campuses. The fear of terrorism and mass shootings like the rampage in San Bernardino this month all but guarantee that schools will continue to seek out ways to put police officers on campuses.
But teens and officers don’t always understand each other, and kids can pay a price when cops’ own conduct gets aggressive.
In October, students in South Carolina precipitated a federal civil-rights investigation with videos they surreptitiously shot of a school cop violently arresting a high school girl who’d been using her cell phone, tipping over her desk and dragging her across the floor.
Last April, in the San Bernardino city district, an 8th grader was allegedly ordered to remove clothing and unhook her bra and shake her breasts to see if she was hiding marijuana, according to her mother, Anita Wilson-Pringle.
A female vice principal led the search, Wilson-Pringle said, which the district defended as a routine “pat down.” But Wilson-Pringle alleges that a male campus security officer who works for district police allegedly stood nearby. The district police chief denied that but was unwilling to release an internal review the chief said had been done — not even to Wilson-Pringle.
“I wonder how many other kids have been violated,” Wilson-Pringle said. State law prohibits strip searches by school employees.
Muniz’s lawsuit alleges that the San Bernardino city school district failed to properly train and supervise the officer who confronted him, Mark Clark. Clark coaches wrestling in the district and this past summer was promoted to sergeant.
In their defense, the district and Clark allege in court documents that Muniz “obstructed” a police officer, and that Muniz resisted arrest, causing Clark “to use only such force as was reasonably necessary … to overcome plaintiff’s resistance.”
Dennis Popka, lawyer for Clark and the district, declined to comment on the case while it’s pending.
Muniz, now 20, recalled his Mexican immigrant mother arriving at his school to find out how and why he’d been arrested and attempt to figure out what would happen next. Clark decided to write up his citation and release the boy to his mother pending his court date rather than put him in juvenile detention.
Muniz’s mother signed papers in English she didn’t fully understand and burst into tears when she was allowed to see her son, and noticed his abrasions and swollen eyes.
“I explained to her that I was hugging my girlfriend,” Muniz said. “It didn’t make sense to her. How could a situation have escalated so quickly?”
Similar complaints of excessive school police intervention in other parts of the Golden State have pushed some prominent school districts to more narrowly define the role of school police on campuses and institute more oversight.
The Los Angeles and San Francisco school districts now have agreements forged in 2013 and 2014, respectively, defining discipline as the responsibility of educators, not police, and instituting limits on officer interrogations, arrests and tickets.
“Technically, a young person may commit a crime” by making threats, or getting into a physical fight, said Donna Groman, supervising judge of the delinquency division of Los Angeles County Juvenile Court. “It could be viewed as criminal conduct, but it might not be the type of conduct that really benefits a young person to be arrested and injected to the juvenile justice system.”
Police arrests should be selective — reserved for the most serious incidents — because any exposure to the juvenile justice system is harmful to minors, Groman said.
Groman arrived at her view from her experience as a judge. She also points to research finding that an arrest, a court appearance, and even brief detention, especially for minor infractions, actually increase a minor’s risk of dropping out and getting into more serious crime.
“Whether it stops with just an arrest or a citation,” she said, “that doesn’t matter. The harm has already been done and it’s difficult to undo that harm. It’s the beginning of a young person becoming disengaged from school, which is one thing you’re trying to avoid.”
In San Bernardino County overall, where political support for law enforcement traditionally runs strong, data show that 37 percent of minors funneled into the criminal justice system for misdemeanors were put there by just two school police departments — San Bernardino’s and the Fontana Unified School District police. San Bernardino is the largest county in the nation, encompassing over 20,000 square miles and containing more than 20 distinct cities, vast swaths of unincorporated areas and 2.1 million people.
Over the last 10 years, municipal cops in the city of San Bernardino have arrested just 6,923 minors in all, compared to the 30,000-plus arrests by school district police in the city. School cops do engage in enforcement off campus. But their primary turf is a district of about 54,000 students. City cops patrol a city of 215,000 residents.
The state data also detail how few arrests by school police were for felonies.
More than 27,000 of the 30,000-plus arrests of minors by San Bernardino school cops were for misdemeanor charges. About 36 percent of those were for disturbing the peace — a charge that can range from disruptive, loud behavior to physical fights.
The data show that the department’s arrests did decline, from 4,043 in 2005 to 1,078 last year.
But last year, based on state records, San Bernardino school cops still arrested more kids than municipal cops in Sacramento, Oakland or San Francisco. They even arrested more kids than police who patrol the nation’s second largest school district — Los Angeles Unified — which has a student body that’s more than 10 times larger than San Bernardino’s.
“That level of arrests is an alarm,” said attorney Ruth Cusick of Public Counsel, an L.A.-based pro bono law group that has collaborated with Groman on school police reforms. Those who think it’s natural for police in schools to arrest more kids than regular cops, she said, are denying the harm it does to kids and to relationships with police.
A steady stream of arrests, she said, “basically communicate[s] to students, ‘You’re not part of the community.’ ”
Changing the MO
San Bernardino school police Chief Joe Paulino agreed to meet at Arroyo Valley High, where Josue Muniz was arrested in 2012, to discuss the historically high volume of arrests — and reforms he agrees are needed and that he says are underway.
“I believe we’re emerging from that history,” Paulino said, “to this new place where we no longer believe that we have to attack these things [minor infractions] to be able to keep our youth safe. And we’re looking at it from not a zero tolerance to more of a tolerance to these behaviors.”
The district in November started talks to identify circumstances that don’t merit police intervention, Paulino said. Officers are already mindful to follow a new “matrix” calling for students to get an opportunity to correct misbehavior — like a first-time fight — before they face arrest.
Paulino also said officers are now handing out “positive tickets” and prizes to students identified as having done good deeds. The practice is part of a “different mindset,” he said, that police are developing.
There’s still a maxim posted on the department’s website that says the purpose of citations — the real ones that put kids into the justice system for alleged crimes — “is not to punish them but to help them change bad behavior patterns.”
“I don’t believe that anybody should be handcuffed because they’re kissing,” he said. “However, it if turns into where I request that you go to class and it becomes violent, then again, we as police officers have the right to be able to defend ourselves as well as others we believe may be injured by another’s action.”
Trouble in Fontana
Elsewhere in San Bernardino County, there are other signs of problematic school policing.
Officers with the 40,000-student Fontana Unified School District, not far from the city of San Bernardino, arrested 10,741 juveniles over the last decade, a volume that also surpassed the 7,474 arrests of minors by Fontana city police.
Fontana school cops run the Fontana Leadership Intervention Program, a counseling and boot-camp program for students identified at school or in court as “at-risk.” In 2012, an officer who coordinated the FLIP program, which took kids on trips to colleges and prisons, was fired because he had allegedly boasted of having sex with mothers of kids in the program, according to documents in lawsuits filed by school staff.
In the community of Chino, the case of a student with Down syndrome who was arrested at his high school exemplifies concerns at the legal-defense group Disability Rights California that special-needs kids are getting criminalized at school.
Krystine Roldan, the guardian and sister of the student with Down syndrome, was shocked when she received word that her brother Christian had been arrested in 2013 at Ayala High School in the Chino Valley Unified School District. He was charged with resisting a peace officer. Roldan said she found her 16-year-old brother “crumpled up” and hogtied, inside the back of a sheriff’s vehicle.
“His hands are behind his back and his feet are tied together with handcuffs and they’re connected and he’s sweating. He’s crying,” Roldan recalled. “I kept saying you guys have to let him go. He has breathing issues.” The deputies said Christian had made threats. Roldan pointed out that Christian can only respond to questions with one- or two-word answers.
Ayala’s school resource office — a county sheriff’s deputy on contract — wrote up a report about an incident that led to Christian’s arrest.
Christian left class to go to the bathroom, unsupervised, and was later found sitting in an outside area on two airsoft guns, replica firearms that shoot plastic pellets. Roldan said she doesn’t know where he got the airsoft guns. The school officer doesn’t speculate in her report. A teacher picked up the prohibited replica guns, and Christian walked with him to the police office.
The officer was told he had Down syndrome. She began questioning the teen about the guns. She wrote that he appeared agitated, “had his hands clenched in fists” and “would not cooperate with my commands.” She wanted to search him for any other weapons. He “mouthed” a profanity. She called for more deputies, and they “escorted him to the floor to gain control of his arms and body.”
Christian was restrained, searched and taken to a patrol vehicle. “No additional contraband was found on his person,” the resource officer wrote. Yet he was arrested.
After sitting in a jail cell with his sister, Christian was released to his sister that day, but out of school for months. Therapists said it was too traumatic for him to return to the school, but the district said it couldn’t find another suitable placement for him, until after Roldan contacted Disability Rights for help, she said. She also had to take Christian to juvenile court two times to answer to his criminal charge before a judge was satisfied he had Downs Syndrome and dismissed the case.
“I thought they were there to protect him,” Roldan said of educators and police. He’s still terrified of police, she said, and she’s worried he won’t ask for help when he needs it.
National data show that the Chino Valley district referred students to law enforcement at rate of 21 for every 1,000 pupils during the 2011-2012 year — more than three times the national rate of 6 per 1,000. Disabled students were referred at a rate of 61 students per 1,000 kids, compared to a national rate of 14 per 1,000.
Chino Valley schools’ risk and safety manager Dan Mellon spoke for the district.
Confidentiality laws, he said, bar him from addressing Christian’s arrest. But he explained that the district contracts with local police agencies for school resource officers and those officers decide if a student should be arrested in connection with incident.
“We’re not going to interfere with a sworn officer’s duties,” he said. And if the school didn’t file a charge, administrators have no influence to get it dropped, he said.
In the San Bernardino district, Ray Culberson, director of the Youth Services program, is trying to ensure that changes occur in both disciplinary procedures and decisions to arrest kids. He grew up in tough circumstances here and feels that kids got more breaks back then than they do now.
Culberson is pushing for school leaders, campus by campus, to institute “restorative justice” circles, where students and staff air grievances about incidents and amends can be made.
With the backing of the district attorney’s office in San Bernardino County, he also recently started an informal district “youth court” that he’s urging both principals and police to make use of; they can send kids to this mock court rather than expelling them or sending them into real court. Juries of peers will try kids — if they admit to misconduct — and impose consequences such as an essay of apology, a visit to a hospital or a ride with police on patrol. If they fail, then they face the official system.
In October, a homeless boy, 13, facing possible expulsion, was tried for bringing a lighter to school and smoking cigarettes. He was told to write an essay, among other amends.
Culberson said he knows not everyone in the district is sold on reforms that include having to train in new ways to resolve conflict, like restorative justice, which take time that teachers often say they don’t have. Adults habitually say they want to do “what’s in the best interest of kids,” he said. “Do we do that? We don’t do that with 100 percent fidelity.”
At a downtown San Bernardino County office, juvenile probation officers, some of whom are also posted right on campuses, said they approve of a lot of the new ideas. They also said they think schools have already been working hard to get students plenty of support before they end up arrested.
Kids arrested on first-time misdemeanors in this county can go to court if they want to contest a charge. But if they admit to a charge, they can get a “diversion” to probation officers, a less formal procedure, and receive referrals for counseling — as well as consequences for what they did, such as mandatory community service.
Officer Maria Barton said school cops care, and frequently consult with her before making an arrest. But there are times, she said, when cops have to “deal with the instant moment,” and may have to subdue and arrest kids — and ask questions later.
But does she think a school cop should intervene if kids are hugging, as Officer Clark allegedly did when he saw Muniz and his girlfriend? At most, that’s a violation of school rules.
“Absolutely,” Barton said. “Any adult who works on a school campus is entitled to anything that deals with those kids. If it’s a custodian, an administrator, a teacher, a clerk, a probation officer, a police officer, when we see something inappropriate it should be addressed.”
There’s quite a bit of inappropriate hugging on campuses, Barton said, and parents want to know that officers are keeping their kids safe.
But did the officer go too far?
Kimberly Epps, another probation officer, said it’s difficult to judge without knowing the details. All adults on campus have to watch out for sexual harassment, she said. And she advises juveniles that when a cop gives you orders the best course of action is “to cooperate in the situation and do what’s being asked of you — and it doesn’t go, perhaps, where it doesn’t need to go.”
Ironically, Muniz said, the day he was arrested he was trying to stay safe. He was sitting in the vicinity of Officer Clark’s office because some “gangster” kids had been picking on him and his mother wanted him to stay close to security while out on the quad.
He’d never been in trouble with police, he said, and he was startled at how angry Clark allegedly appeared to be when he came over after the second hug.
“It was actually a pretty big event in my life,” Muniz said of the arrest. “I think if it weren’t for that, a lot of things would be different right now.”
Because of the seriousness of the charge, Muniz said, a vice principal he got along well with had no choice but to recommend he be expelled. But at the school-based hearing, Muniz said, “his face was showing regret more than anything else.” Officer Clark spoke out against Muniz at the hearing, identifying him as the aggressor, and to Muniz appeared “the only one determined to win” the recommendation to expel him.
Ultimately, Muniz prevailed, and the school expulsion panel decided not to eject him from the district. It helped, he said, that his girlfriend had quickly used Google while he was in custody at school, and found him a lawyer. When he went to court later, he said, the fact that he was spared from expulsion seemed to help. Prosecutors decided not to pursue the case and the charge was dropped.
By that time, though, he felt he’d been stigmatized.
He’d missed a lot of class time. He’d been forced to transfer to a special campus for troubled kids that he didn’t like. He and the girlfriend drifted apart. He ended up dropping out, his confidence shaken. He regrets it now, but at the time it seemed like nobody cared. He wants to pursue a GED diploma, but time is limited, as he needs to work and is constantly scrambling to get temporary jobs at warehouses here that are big employers.
But Muniz also said he lost something else with his arrest. Not long before, he was at church with his mother and conversed with a police officer about his career. He began dreaming of becoming a cop. But he says now that he couldn’t stand by and “keep my mouth shut” if he saw a fellow cop abusing people.
He decided to pursue his lawsuit, which is slowly moving along with pre-trial motions, because he felt that Officer Clark thought he was “basically, nobody.” The legal challenge, he said, has helped him feel that’s not true.
“It’s like the only way” he said, “that I feel like I have some sort of power.”
Amy Isackson of KQED public radio’s “The California Report” helped prepare this investigation in collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity and produced a companion radio report.
You probably don’t give much thought to the three-digit code on the back of your credit card. But a small, bipartisan group of lawmakers thinks political campaigns should be paying a lot more attention to them — in order to keep illicit money from coming into U.S. elections.
Those digits are the focus of a new bill called the “Stop Foreign Donations Affecting Our Elections Act.” The legislation’s main sponsor is Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, a member of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus who gained notoriety for boycotting Pope Francis’s address to Congress in September.
Supporters of the legislation say that without the additional verification, foreigners — or others with designs on using fraudulent credit cards — could hypothetically funnel money to political candidates.
“A loophole exists in the current disclosure requirement for online donations that makes it relatively easy for bad actors to circumvent federal contribution levels,” Gosar said during a press conference Wednesday on Capitol Hill, adding that his new bill would “prohibit foreign nationals from cheating the system.”
Most political observers say there hasn’t been widespread evidence of such abuse.
“It is illegal for foreigners to contribute no matter what method they use,” said Ken Gross, a former associate general counsel for the Federal Election Commission. “Is there some evidence that credit cards are being used to get around that restriction? I have not heard of that.”
In 2008 and 2012, Republicans accused President Barack Obama’s campaign of taking foreign money through credit card contributions, but the FEC ultimately dismissed the allegations.
Whatever the risk, many campaigns do require credit card verification when they solicit online donations. Many, but not all.
Among Democratic presidential contenders, only the party’s frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, currently requires this type of verification. Neither of her main rivals, Bernie Sanders nor Martin O’Malley, does.
Nor does former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, who briefly sought the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination and is now considering a 2016 bid as an independent.
Among Republican presidential contenders, it’s a different story.
“There is no reason for a well-funded campaign not to have those safeguards,” said Cleta Mitchell, a Republican campaign finance lawyer.
Michael Briggs, a spokesman for Sanders, said that the campaign uses the online platform from Democratic fundraising powerhouse ActBlue. He dismissed Gosar’s bill as “a solution in search of a problem.”
Like Sanders, Webb also relies on an outside vendor, said Webb campaign spokesman Craig Crawford.
“We are in the midst of switching companies, so we’ll raise this issue with them for discussion,” Crawford said.
Neither representatives of ActBlue nor the campaigns of Huckabee or O’Malley responded to requests for comment.
Gosar’s bill — which is currently co-sponsored by 21 Republicans and two Democrats — comes at a time when campaign finance regulations have become increasingly controversial and increasingly partisan in Washington.
Democrats have vigorously pushed for new rules and stricter regulations in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which helped usher in the era of super PACs and “dark money” nonprofit groups that don’t disclose their funders. Many Republicans, meanwhile, have called for a loosening of campaign finance rules — including lifting current caps on how much political parties can coordinate their spending with candidates.
Backers of Gosar’s bill hope to kick-start a new, bipartisan conversation.
“This is a good bill to get the debate about reform started,” said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., a co-sponsor of the bill who is a rarity among Republicans in that he also wants to overturn Citizens United and to adopt public financing for elections.
Jones’ sentiment was echoed by John Pudner, the executive director of Take Back Our Republic, a conservative group that worked with Gosar to draft the legislation.
“I am hoping this is a first step,” said Pudner. “Let’s look at other ways ‘dark money’ can get in. We don’t want our government being bought and influenced.”
This story was co-published with Al Jazeera America.
PORTSMOUTH, Ohio — Paul Brogdon was a security guard at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant during the last stages of the Cold War, protecting stockpiles of bomb-grade uranium from would-be terrorists.
Brogdon and the other guards would take their turns in the Blue Goose, an armored box truck used to transport cylinders of highly enriched uranium from Building 326, the final stop in the production chain, to a vault within Building 345, a distance of about a half-mile. They would sit inches from the cylinders, which gave off radiation, and had to stay in the truck until it was unloaded, a process that could take an hour or more. They wore no protective gear apart from their uniforms.
Other times, they would be posted just beyond what they cynically called the “magic tape” — the yellow plastic tape used to demarcate contaminated areas of the plant. Workers inside the tape wore hazmat suits and supplied-air respirators. The guards had no such equipment.
“We were non-people,” said Brogdon, 71.
After retiring, Brogdon and at least eight other former guards developed prostate cancer, which they blame on radiation exposures at Portsmouth. Fifteen years ago, Congress created a compensation program for people like them.
But they have not fared well. Brogdon and others who filed claims saw them denied by the U.S. Department of Labor, which has the authority to provide lump-sum payments and cover medical care for ex-employees of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex who fell ill after working in environments where production trumped safety. Many other civilian veterans of the Cold War are similarly demoralized, having failed to navigate a Byzantine program, troubled from the start, that tries to estimate toxic exposures at secrecy-cloaked sites where records often were lost, destroyed, falsified — or simply didn’t exist.
“A lot of claimants have no confidence in the records,” said Malcolm D. Nelson, the Labor Department’s ombudsman for the program.
It’s not that the department never approves claims. Compared with state workers’ compensation programs, which have an abysmal record dealing with complex occupational illness, the payout is notable: $12 billion in more than 74,000 cases since 2000.
But nearly half the cases over that period have been turned down. The denial rate would be even higher if not for exemptions carved out for certain groups of workers.
Brogdon was undone by a dose reconstruction— an attempt by federal health officials to estimate his radiation dose over time. The results of this exercise, overseen by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, inform a “probability of causation” assigned by the Labor Department. If the department decides there is at least a 50 percent chance a claimant’s cancer was caused by radiation exposure, the claim is approved. Brogdon never came close to this threshold.
Nationwide, almost two-thirds of the cases involving dose reconstruction have been rejected by the Labor Department. For Portsmouth claimants, the denials are particularly objectionable given the plant’s history. Dubious recordkeeping practices and erratic radiation monitoring suggest assumptions made by NIOSH for dose reconstructions are way off, they say, leading to unwarranted denial of claims.
“Garbage in, garbage out,” said David Manuta, who was chief scientist at Portsmouth from 1990 to 2000 and now runs a safety consulting firm. “If your input variables are lousy, your output will be lousy.”
Stuart Hinnefeld, director of NIOSH's Division of Compensation Analysis and Support, said the agency only goes forward with a dose reconstruction if it thinks there’s sufficient information to determine the highest possible dose a worker may have received.
“It doesn’t give me any pleasure to turn out a dose reconstruction with a [probability of causation] less than 50 percent,” he said.
For claims alleging injuries from chemicals, linking exposure and disease can be particularly daunting. The burden of proof, some physicians and scientists say, is unreasonably high. For instance, the Center for Public Integrity found that when Labor Department officials ask their staff toxicologist to weigh in on causation because the program hadn’t already accepted a link, she almost never agrees with the claimant.
Officials with the Labor Department’s Division of Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation say that both they and NIOSH are following the rules of a program that was never intended to compensate everyone who developed cancer or other diseases. Approvals are higher than initial expectations, they say.
“We have to evaluate the likelihood that this cancer is due to work or not due to work, and … there [are] always going to be people that are going to get an answer that they don’t want to hear,” said John Vance, the program’s policy chief. “It’s the perfect intersection of politics, science, human emotion and all of that. It’s a difficult, difficult situation.”
Some members of Congress are unpersuaded.
“Over the years, [the program] has been plagued with delays and bureaucratic hurdles,” U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, told the Center in an emailed statement. The Labor Department frequently updates its rules, “often adding steps to the process and making it harder to prove a case,” he wrote. The agency proposed more rule changes just a few weeks ago.
“Too often, workers die waiting for compensation that they never receive,” Udall wrote. “Congress didn’t intend for the … process to be so burdensome.”
He has repeatedly tried to change the way the program operates. Most of the bills he sponsored or co-sponsored fizzled, but last year Congress required the creation of an advisory board for the chemical-exposure side of the program. It’s in “dire need of increased oversight,” he wrote.
The Labor Department expects to choose board members from a nominee list next year.
‘In harm’s way’
What prompted the compensation program was a scandal decades in the making. At nuclear-weapons sites run by contractors for the U.S. Department of Energy and its predecessors, home to some of the most dangerous substances on earth, officials routinely risked their employees’ health.
Workers were exposed “without their knowledge and consent,” Congress would later determine, “driven by fears of adverse publicity, liability, and employee demands for hazardous duty pay.”
In February 1989, retired admiral and energy secretary designee James Watkins told a Senate committee that the Energy Department was a “mess” and that “problems relating to safety, health and the environment have not only been backlogged to intolerable levels but, in effect, hidden from public view until recently. So we are now paying the price.”
Joy Stokes and Faye Stubbs, who worked as custodians and held other jobs at the Energy Department’s Mound plant near Dayton, Ohio, described episodes they say illustrate a cavalier attitude toward safety.
Stokes said she was ordered to clean a laboratory fume hood — which she later learned was “screaming hot” with radiation — without respiratory or skin protection. As a truck driver, Stubbs hauled containers of solvents and barrels of radioactive dirt and was similarly unprotected, she said. Both say managers played down their exposures and eventually took away their dosimeters — badges that measure personal radiation doses. “We were disposable, I guess,” Stokes said. Both filed unsuccessful compensation claims.
More than 600,000 people worked throughout the weapons complex during the Cold War. When sick employees filed for workers’ compensation with their state programs, the Energy Department directed its contractors to fight the claims. Millions of taxpayer dollars were spent on that effort.
Bit by bit, suppression stopped working. Whistleblowers came forward. The Government Accountability Project and other groups dug into the issue. And elected officials were not happy to hear how the complex had treated the people who made it run.
The legislation that launched the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program passed with bipartisan support, but the use of dose reconstruction to make determinations in radiation cases was included over the objections of some House leaders. Cindy Blackston, who served on the staff of the House Judiciary Committee from 1980 to 2007 and closely monitored the program, said the panel expressed concerns during negotiations and “continually thereafter.”
“This is a program to address the fact that we put these people in harm’s way,” she said. “Our position was that dose reconstruction and all that was really just a way to keep from paying people.”
The program has two ways in. One, dubbed Part B, pays $150,000 for radiation-triggered cancers and two lung diseases. Part E, for toxic-exposure claims, pays workers for wage loss and impairment — up to $250,000 — while eligible survivors can receive at least $125,000. Both cover medical costs.
Congress, concerned about shoddy recordkeeping and monitoring, did include a method to exempt certain Part B applicants from dose reconstruction. In cases without enough exposure information, groups of workers can be added to the Special Exposure Cohort, their claims automatically accepted if they develop any of 22 cancers.
Portsmouth is among the four sites Congress put in that cohort — though that doesn’t help the ex-guards with prostate cancer, which is not one of the 22 cancers on the list. Petitions and NIOSH’s own efforts have helped expand the special cohort since then. Certain workers at 80 sites are now part of the group, though claimant advocates say the increase hasn’t resolved all the problems they’re seeing.
Problems, in fact, have been the program’s frequent companion. Congress had to amend it in 2004 to put the Labor Department in charge of all claims when the Energy Department — then overseeing the toxic-exposure arm — managed to process only 5 percent of its claims over those first four years.
Then-Rep. John Hostettler, a Republican from Indiana, held hearings in 2006 after the White House’s Office of Management and Budget wrote a memo listing ways to “contain the growth” in benefits paid out. The outraged congressman reminded witnesses at one hearing that the government was to blame for putting the workforce at risk: “Pinching pennies never looked so inappropriate as it does when addressing the plight of these workers.”
Congressional frustration was also behind the creation of the advisory board to weigh in on Part E, which unlike the radiation-focused Part B has not had such a panel.
“We’ve been asking for it for a long, long time,” said Terrie Barrie, a founding member of the Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups, whose husband worked at the Rocky Flats site in Colorado. “I’m trusting the Department of Labor to take their recommendations seriously, not just blow them off and say, ‘Thank you very much.’ ”
‘Don’t worry, you can eat this stuff’
The Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant — in Piketon, Ohio, about 25 miles north of the Ohio River city of Portsmouth — was built by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and began operation in 1954. The 3,700-acre site included three process buildings “comparable in size to three Yankee Stadiums and a football field,” according to the Energy Department, an AEC successor.
The process itself went as follows: Less than 1 percent of naturally occurring uranium contains the U-235 isotope needed to generate power or make bombs. Therefore, it had to be “enriched.” First at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky and later at Portsmouth, gaseous uranium hexafluoride was forced through a series of porous membranes to separate molecules containing U-235 from those containing U-238. By the time the product arrived in solid form at Portsmouth, its U-235 content, or assay, was under 3 percent. When it left Building 326 in cylinders, it was weapons-grade: up to 97 percent assay.
The plant, which ceased production in 2001, was operated by a series of contractors: Goodyear Atomic, Martin Marietta, Lockheed Martin and the United States Enrichment Corporation. In the early 1980s — as tensions escalated between the United States and what was then the Soviet Union — management at Portsmouth sought to professionalize the security force. It hired military veterans with law-enforcement experience and pitted them against the Navy SEALS and the Army’s Delta Force in training exercises.
Charles “Chick” Lawson, who’d been a K-9 officer in the Air Force, was hired in 1984. As Lawson settled into the job, he grew troubled by what he believed to be safety lapses.
When the Blue Goose, for example, would leave Building 326 carrying cylinders of highly enriched uranium — carefully spaced to keep them from triggering an uncontrolled chain reaction, known as a criticality accident — “every criticality alarm we passed we set off,” Lawson said. The alarms would go off again when the truck pulled into Building 345.
Managers claimed these were merely equipment malfunctions, Lawson said. His response: “That’s not a malfunction. Something’s going on over here.”
Several years in, Lawson ran for local safety officer with his union, known at the time as United Plant Guard Workers of America. He won and stayed in the job for a decade, frequently knocking heads with managers.
“When I was hired in ’84, they were telling people, ‘If there’s an outgassing [of radiation], don’t worry, you can eat this stuff. Go home and drink a beer and you can pee it out,’ ” he said. “After I became safety officer I began asking a lot of questions.”
His queries, combined with a chemical accident that sent a fellow guard, Jeff Walburn, to the hospital for 11 days in 1994, prompted NIOSH visits to the plant in 1996 and 1997. John Cardarelli, who held a master’s in health physics — the study of radiation’s effects on the human body — led the inquiry. His task was to determine whether exposures to neutron radiation, a byproduct of highly enriched uranium considered more dangerous than other types of ionizing radiation, posed a risk to workers at Portsmouth.
Management had deemed such exposures so insignificant that employees weren’t required to wear neutron dosimeters during the plant’s first 38 years. (They did wear dosimeters that recorded alpha, beta and gamma radiation.)
In his final report, Cardarelli concluded that “under certain conditions an acute exposure to neutron radiation can occur” at Portsmouth, creating a potential health hazard. He highlighted a phenomenon the industry called “slow cookers” — buildups of uranium within the cascade of gas centrifuges used in the enrichment process that gave off excess neutrons.
Cardarelli noted that recordkeeping procedures at the plant made it hard to determine just how high historical neutron exposures may have been. Archive tapes containing older dosimetry data were reused, the data overwritten and unrecoverable. Abnormally high radiation doses were dismissed as anomalies and blamed on “equipment failure.” And doses that couldn’t be linked to a particular person were dumped into a computerized account, known as a “bucket dose” account, with no follow-up investigation. This practice, combined with questionable assumptions about levels of “background” radiation in the plant, “will eventually lead to an artificially low dose history for the facility,” Cardarelli wrote.
A 41-page Lockheed Martin report unearthed in an unsuccessful lawsuit by Walburn found that some officials at Portsmouth believed the plant’s dosimetry database was “corrupt.” In a statement to the Center, the company said it had investigated these and other employee allegations and “could not substantiate” them.
In an interview, Cardarelli, now a health physicist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said he thinks “the workers have a legitimate concern that the dosimetry itself may not have been an accurate predictor of their total dose. I believe the slow cooker phenomenon is real. I also believe that people, as a result of the slow cooker, were exposed to neutrons at levels we cannot determine.”
NIOSH’s Hinnefeld said the agency agrees that the highly enriched uranium handled at Portsmouth “would be, probably, a higher neutron-emitter” than material handled at other plants. “We are investigating that issue and it’s likely that we will make some change and actually increase the amount of neutron addition that we are putting in these dose reconstructions,” he said.
Lawyer Frank Gerlach has represented more than 900 Labor Department claimants, including some of the former Portsmouth guards. NIOSH, he said, “relies on known doctored, falsified dosimetry records.” (The agency said it investigated this allegation and concluded that “some apparent anomalies … are not evidence of falsification of dose records, or reasons to disregard the radiation monitoring results.”)
Energy Department records, Gerlach said, indicate the guards were exposed to far less than 1 Roentgen equivalent man, or rem, per year when in fact “they probably all received 5 to 6 rem per year,” based on employee records reviewed by Lawson while he was union safety officer. The legal limit for radiation exposure in the workplace is 5 rem per year.
Paul Brogdon has had five dose reconstructions. In the first, in 2004, NIOSH noted that the Energy Department showed his “whole body deep dose of record” to be a miniscule 0.078 rem over the entire two decades he worked as a guard. NIOSH, trying to give Brogdon the benefit of the doubt, calculated the dose to his prostate at just over 35 rem. His prostate numbers plummeted in subsequent reconstructions; the probability of causation assigned his claim by the Labor Department fell as a result, from 31 percent to 4 percent.
“They might as well go ahead and say, ‘He didn’t get nothing in 21 years,’ ” Brogdon said.
He and other ex-guards told the Center they often worked 12 hours a day, six days a week in some of the “hottest” areas of the plant — on the roof of Building 326, near vent stacks, for example.
Labor Department ombudsman Nelson, who shares complaints in an annual report to Congress without taking a position, said he repeatedly hears from former security guards, firefighters and administrative employees that the compensation program understates their exposures, assuming their responsibilities generally kept them away from hazards. At one plant in Iowa, the program’s records suggest that guards had no contact with toxic substances.
“The complaint by the guards is, ‘Where did you get that information from? We were the first responders whenever there was an accident, we were the first to go, we were the last to leave,’” Nelson said. “The belief by these guards is that [the Labor Department] is imagining that they all sat in a guard shack at the front gate somewhere and didn’t move.”
The science on the relationship between radiation and prostate cancer is inconclusive. One study, for example, found elevated prostate cancer death rates among employees of Britain’s Atomic Energy Authority; another found excess deaths at the Energy Department’s Y-12 weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. A National Research Council committee, however, reported that prostate cancer was “not usually thought to be radiation-induced.” Lifestyle factors such as diet and smoking, as well as family history and race or ethnicity, all can play a role in the development of the disease.
NIOSH data show that through September 23, 2015, nearly 97 percent of 4,975 claims nationwide relating to cancers of the “male genitalia,” mostly prostate, had been denied by the Labor Department.
“There’s a very high likelihood regardless, with no radiation exposure, that a male is going to get prostate cancer, particularly as he ages,” said Hinnefeld, of NIOSH. To reach a 50 percent probability of causation, a claimant with the disease would have to show he absorbed a higher radiation dose than victims of many other cancers, Hinnefeld said.
Gerlach, the lawyer, doesn’t dispute the science; rather, he challenges the doses NIOSH has estimated for the ex-guards. “They never believe what a claimant says,” he said. Only if prostate cancer spreads to the bone — one of the 22 cancers allowed in the special exposure cohort — does a victim stand to get a claim approved, said Gerlach, who has won several such cases, none involving guards.
Calvin Parker, who joined the security force at Portsmouth in 1979, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in August 2011. His Labor Department claim was denied in March. Parker’s wife, Lisa, keeps a tally of former guards who died from cancer or other causes; the list includes 33 names — “just the ones we know of” — from a force of around 200 at its peak. She counts nine living victims of prostate cancer, all of whom were diagnosed before age 65 and started at the plant between the mid-1970s and the mid-’80s. Across the general population, about six in 10 cases of the disease are diagnosed in men 65 or older, according to the American Cancer Society.
“I don’t believe in coincidence,” said Lisa Parker, who was a guard for part of her 19 years at Portsmouth and received compensation for chronic beryllium disease, a serious lung condition. “The common denominator was the plant. All of us who worked as guards were exposed to highly enriched uranium.”
The prostate-cancer cluster is notable not only for the relative youth of the men at diagnosis but also for the aggressiveness of the disease, Lisa Parker said. Her husband said the level of prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, in his blood doubled within two months of his diagnosis. “It’s usually a very slow-acting cancer,” he said. Other former colleagues had similar spikes over short periods.
So far, however, Calvin Parker has been compensated only for solvent-induced hearing loss.
Brogdon, diagnosed with prostate cancer at 59, covets the program’s medical coverage more than the $150,000 lump sum he might get if his claim were approved. When his PSA count goes up, he said, he has to take a shot that suppresses his testosterone levels, saps his energy and causes hot flashes and night sweats — “just like a woman going through the change.” He can’t afford treatments that could mitigate such effects.
“If I had that medical card,” Brogdon said, “I wouldn’t feel like hell all the time.”
Roadblock for claimants
Bob Haller spent 28 years as a custodian, laundry worker and demolition technician at the Mound plant. After developing cerebellar ataxia — a nervous-system disorder that interferes with balance, speech and other motor behavior — he filed a claim with the Labor Department. He and his doctor blamed the disorder on exposure to the solvent trichloroethylene and other substances used at the plant. But he was turned down multiple times.
David Manuta, the Portsmouth scientist-turned-consultant who estimates he has helped several dozen people with their claims, learned the last denial had been based on a report by the agency’s toxicologist, Lynette Stokes. Stokes observed that Haller had suffered since childhood from vertigo and a seizure disorder and deemed it “highly unlikely” that his condition was work-related. The report was 2 ½ pages, including citations.
Manuta also discovered that the Labor Department had received only the first two pages of a 47-page submission by Haller’s doctor; one of the missing pages cited a worker study tying chronic trichloroethylene exposure to ataxia. The denial was reversed — a rarity in cases involving a negative toxicology opinion, advocates say — in January 2014.
The toxicology reports consider exposure-disease links the program doesn’t already accept. They aren’t designed to be a roadblock, but they effectively are, according to a Center analysis of documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Of the 113 reports Stokes wrote from 2013 to early October of this year, seven found a causal association between exposure and disease — good news for the claimant. All the rest were thumbs down.
Program officials want her to be cautious about declaring that a certain exposure can cause a specific disease. And she is.
Stokes wrote that the body of research showing links between cadmium, a human carcinogen, and prostate cancer is not yet sufficient. By contrast, the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires prostate exams for cadmium-exposed male workers over 40 because of the cancer risks the agency saw when setting a rule for the metal in 1992. (The former Portsmouth guards are among those the department considers potentially exposed.)
Considering the claim of a liver-cancer patient exposed to arsenic, tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene, all three of which are classified as known or probable human carcinogens, Stokes opined that the evidence any of the substances can target the liver also was too weak. The studies the claimant submitted “support important hypotheses regarding liver cancer,” but “do not establish a causal relationship,” she wrote.
Most strikingly, Stokes declared in 2013 that the evidence that trichloroethylene can cause kidney cancer was not yet strong enough — about two months after the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, or IARC, came to the opposite conclusion. IARC determined the solvent is carcinogenic to humans, with kidney cancer as a major reason.
Stokes, whom Labor Department officials would not make available for an interview, subsequently agreed with IARC. When two such claims crossed her desk later, she cited the group in writing that there is indeed a causal association.
But for cancer epidemiologist Dr. David Ozonoff, that raises questions about how much evidence the program requires — and why officials bother reviewing the literature if they’re not satisfied until a consensus group such as IARC is absolutely convinced that a substance can cause the disease.
Such pronouncements can take many years, if not decades. Before the announcement in October 2012, the last time IARC weighed in on trichloroethylene was 1995. But even then, IARC considered the solvent a probable carcinogen.
Ozonoff, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health whose research has included trichloroethylene and kidney cancer, is familiar with legal burden of proof from years of testifying as an expert witness. IARC’s 1995 determination strikes him as perfectly adequate for a compensation program that requires claimants prove their exposure was at least as likely as not a significant factor in causing, aggravating or contributing to their disease.
“If something is probable,” he said, “that’s already more likely than not.”
Officials with the program disagree. They say the bar must be set higher to accept that a substance can cause a certain disease, at least for the program as a whole. Individual claimants may still prevail if their medical experts make arguments so convincing that they sway the claims examiner or, on appeal, the hearing official.
“You could have 10 studies that all say ‘probable’; well, that doesn’t mean you have causation established,” said Vance, the program’s policy chief.
That’s the reason the Labor Department, though not specifically requiring a certain level of IARC classification to accept cancer claims, relies heavily on the group’s pronouncements. Those decisions will reflect “the agreement in the scientific community,” Vance said.
Dr. Karen Mulloy, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, has written causation opinions for about a dozen claimants. Her impression as an occupational-medicine specialist — one who has examined many former nuclear-weapons employees — is that the program has set “a higher standard than what Congress had meant.”
Advocates say the causation hurdle is typical of burden-of-proof difficulties they see. Chris Hayes, a lawyer in Tennessee who has represented nearly 1,000 claimants, said it’s harder to prevail in Part E now than several years ago, a contention echoed by others. He suspects a desire for cost control is at work.
“As time has gone on, they have made some concerted effort to sort of close the spigot, if you will,” he said.
Rachel P. Leiton, the program director, said cost isn’t driving decisions.
“My priority is to make sure that we are paying the people that are eligible,” she said. “That’s my only priority.”
Ombudsman Nelson, however, said a directive issued by Leiton a year ago is making claimants anxious. The directive says big safety improvements at Energy Department sites after 1995 make it unlikely that workers “would have been significantly exposed to any toxic agents.” It suggests that claimants would need to muster “compelling data to the contrary,” unless they can show that incidental exposure aggravated or contributed to their illness.
Program officials said in a memo explaining the decision that the Energy Department issued an order in 1995 standardizing worker safety and health rules. Agency enforcement actions starting in the late 1980s showed that violations carried risks, the memo added.
But the directive’s premise may be faulty.
In January, for example, the demolition and decommissioning contractor at Portsmouth, Fluor-BWXT, received a violation notice from the Energy Department accusing it of “improper alteration” of radiation-protection records. “Although no individuals received a radiological dose as a result,” the notice said, Fluor-BWXT managers engaged in “willful falsification of documents,” an act that “posed an elevated risk of unplanned radiological exposures to [Portsmouth] workers and the public.”
In an email to the Center, Fluor-BWXT spokesman Jeff Wagner wrote that the company paid a $243,750 fine and dismissed technicians and managers who failed to calibrate radiation monitoring equipment and then “compounded the issue by going back into the records and entering false data that would indicate the equipment was operating within parameters.”
Wagner called the acts “totally unacceptable.” Radiation and chemical exposures remain a worry at the site, where workers are cutting into pipes that in some cases contain hazardous residue.
Faye Vlieger’s lungs were injured in a 2002 chemical-vapor incident at the Hanford site, a former plutonium production complex in Washington state where cleanup has been under way for 26 years. The Labor Department OK’d her claim in 2009, but under current rules, she’s sure she would have a problem: Given her symptoms, her doctor suspected phosgene — a poisonous gas — but she said she could never get an official answer.
“If my claim was going to go through today, it wouldn’t be approved,” said Vlieger, who helps others with their cases.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson says cleanup workers at Hanford are exposed to noxious fumes and vapors even now. He sued over the matter in September.
“Despite 20 years of study and multiple reports, the federal government has not implemented a lasting solution,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement, “and workers continue to get sick.”
This story was co-published with Slate.
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Friday was another bad day for Albany’s tarnished image, as former state Senate leader Dean G. Skelos and his son were convicted on a suite of corruption charges. The verdict came just two weeks after Sheldon Silver, the former Assembly speaker, was convicted in an unrelated federal corruption trial.
The two convictions of legislators — the latest in a long series — highlight the sleazy political culture and lax ethics and campaign finance laws that led the Empire State to earn a D- in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency published last month by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.
Skelos, 67, the former senate leader, and his son, Adam B. Skelos, 33, were convicted in federal court in Manhattan of eight counts of conspiracy, bribery and extortion.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who was behind both convictions, issued a statement after the verdict was read, calling for change. “The swift convictions of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos beg an important question – how many prosecutions will it take before Albany gives the people of New York the honest government they deserve?”
The senator’s lawyer, G. Robert Gage, told reporters that “we are obviously very disappointed with the verdict,” and that the defense would “vigorously” pursue post-trial motions.
New York’s D- grade in the State Integrity Investigation reflected poor scores across most of the categories examined by the project, including legislative accountability and political financing, two issues that reared their head during the month-long trial. Skelos’ conviction — which automatically expels him from the Senate — marks the fall of two of the “three men in a room” that rule New York politics. Each year, the leaders of each house of the legislature and the governor hash out final details of the annual budget behind closed doors, a process that earned the state the worst grade in the nation in the category for budget processes from the State Integrity Investigation.
Prosecutors drew on evidence from cooperating witnesses, phone taps and emails to sketch out several schemes that they said Skelos, a Long Island Republican, used to leverage his power in order to enrich his son, winning him no-show jobs and clients that paid him some $300,000 since 2010. In exchange, the senator allegedly pushed legislation beneficial to a powerful developer and helped steer a county contract to a wastewater services firm, which had employed the younger Skelos and had financial ties to the developer.
Prosecutors said that Adam Skelos was paid nearly $200,000 by AbTech Industries, a wastewater treatment company, despite his admission — caught on a wiretap — that he “literally knew nothing about water or, you know, any of that stuff.”
The owners of Glenwood Management, an influential development firm and one of the most prolific political donors in the state, were investors in AbTech. Prosecutors said that the developer arranged for a job for the younger Skelos with AbTech in exchange for promises from the senator that he would help both companies in Albany and in his home district in Nassau County, where AbTech won a $12 million contract.
Separately, prosecutors said the senator helped the younger Skelos secure work with a medical malpractice insurer, Physicians’ Reciprocal Insurers. During the trial, Anthony Bonomo, the company’s CEO, testified that the senator had implored him to hire the son. Once on the job, Bonomo said, Adam Skelos was an absentee employee, sometimes going days without appearing in the office. Bonomo said he was scared to fire Skelos for fear of crossing his father.
None of the companies have been charged.
Throughout the trial, the defense disputed the assertion that Skelos had promised anything in return for the work given to his son, repeatedly asking witnesses whether the senator had ever explicitly promised anything. Key witnesses replied that there had not been any explicit mentions, but said that they were either fearful or at least aware of the senator’s power.
In closing arguments, lawyers for the Skeloses argued that evidence such as phone taps and emails were taken out of context and failed to prove a quid pro quo, and they looked to discredit the government’s witnesses, pointing out that two of them received immunity for testifying.
“When you scrutinize it carefully, the government’s entire theory starts to collapse and the holes in their case become glaringly obvious,” said Christopher P. Conniff, a lawyer for Adam Skelos.
The government called several witnesses to support their case against the Skeloses, including former Republican U.S. Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato, now head of the lobbying firm Park Strategies and still an influential figure in the state.
Just as it was during the Silver trial, the state’s pay-to-play culture was on display in the Skelos case, particularly in the form of the so-called “LLC loophole,” a quirk in New York campaign finance law that allows limited liability companies to contribute to politicians under the limits for individuals, which are considerably higher than those for corporations. The loophole essentially allows companies or individuals to give unlimited sums of money to politicians by creating multiple LLCs. No entity has used the loophole more than Glenwood management, which has showered politicians with millions of dollars in recent years.
Advocacy groups have repeatedly called for the loophole to be closed, including in a November press release that cited the trials and the state’s poor showing in the State Integrity Investigation.
On December 7, a group of independent Senate Democrats — who comprise a leadership coalition with the Republicans — “relaunched” a campaign to pass ethics and campaign finance changes that would ban corporate contributions, including from LLCs, and prohibit outside income for lawmakers. The group’s leader, Sen. Jeff Klein, said in a statement that “more than ever, it is imperative that we work to rebuild the public’s trust in its government.”
Saturday’s 196-nation climate pact is aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions, whose effects on the planet already are being seen. Another beneficiary, however, will be public health.
If, in fact, the accord marks a true shift away from dirty fossil fuels like coal and oil, people from South Texas to South Philadelphia should expect to live longer, higher-quality lives.
Start with areas of heavy oil and gas drilling, like the Eagle Ford Shale region south of San Antonio. Last year the Center for Public Integrity, along with InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel, reported in “Big Oil, Bad Air” that chemicals released into the air during hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, were making people sick as regulators did little or nothing. Longer term, there are worries about cancer, given that potent carcinogens such as benzene are being spewed into the atmosphere.
If oil production — currently in a funk because of low prices — tapers off over the long haul, residents of beleaguered places like Karnes County, Texas, should see their health improve.
Levels of lung-damaging ozone also may fall as coal-fired power plants, oil and gas operations and other industries scale back their carbon emissions. The Center’s “Danger in the Air” series showed how the problem — which, like climate change, has its own stable of “deniers” — afflicts people from rural Utah to Dallas.
Emissions of air toxics in places like Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and North Tonawanda, New York — communities profiled in the Center’s “Poisoned Places” series with NPR — may go down as well.
And acute hazards that threaten people in large sections of Philadelphia, Houston, Los Angeles and other cities may be phased out. The Center’s “Fueling Fears” collaboration with ABC News, showed how oil refineries’ use of a deadly chemical called hydrofluoric acid puts millions at risk.
CONCORD, N.H. — George Anderson woke at 6:30 a.m., drove two-and-a-half hours south from his home in the White Mountains to New Hampshire’s granite-block statehouse, squeezed into a crowded corridor near the New Hampshire secretary of state’s office and proudly hoisted a “Ben Carson for President” sign.
But Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and surprise favorite in polls thus far, hadn’t just inspired Anderson to symbolic action on the November day when Carson filed paperwork to appear on the state’s primary ballot.
In addition to drawing Anderson’s allegiance, Carson also attracted his money. The 66-year-old Army veteran has given Carson’s campaign about $100 in several increments — the first donations he’s ever made to a politician, he said.
“I’m tired of politics and the politicians, and I felt Carson had all the things I was looking for,” Anderson said, adding he’ll continue sending Carson’s campaign money whenever possible. “He needs all the support he can get.”
Anderson typifies Carson’s reliance on first-time givers.
Indeed, three-fourths of Carson contributors who gave $200 or more to his campaign — 18,475 people — have not donated to any other federal political candidate since at least 2007, according to an analysis of campaign finance data by the Center for Responsive Politics that the Center for Public Integrity commissioned.
The overwhelming success of the campaign in attracting small donors is not due solely to the grassroots appeal of the mild-mannered giver of a now-famous speech at that 2013 National Prayer breakfast.
The success can also be credited to the Carson campaign’s expensive and ambitious fundraising strategy. The campaign has paid millions of dollars this year to telemarketers and fundraising firms to identify and cultivate the kinds of potential donors — like George Anderson — who are now largely bankrolling his campaign.
To boost a first-time candidate without a built-in constituency, the campaign needed to invest.
Building a supporter list “puts us on par with the campaigns with the big super PACs,” said Doug Watts, the Carson campaign’s communications director.
The strategy has paid off. The Carson campaign has now received more than a million contributions from roughly 570,000 people, Watts said. During the first nine months of 2015, the Carson campaign reported raising $31.4 million, more hard dollars than any other Republican candidate’s campaign, including those of other top-tier dwellers such as Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. The campaign last week said it has raised $20 million so far this quarter.
The average contribution: a modest $50. Presidential campaigns aren’t required to identify campaign contributors who give them less than $200.
Carson’s poll numbers have slipped recently, but he still consistently ranks among the top three or four candidates in most surveys. And his fundraising success will likely keep him competitive for some time.
Carson’s campaign has easily attracted the largest number of “new” political donors among his Republican presidential competitors.
Trump’s campaign reported a higher percentage of such donors, but Trump is poised to largely self-finance his campaign and has only reported having a small fraction of Carson’s donor base.
Carson supporters are different because Carson “has a pre-political following, based on his fame in the evangelical world for his writing, for his books,” said Michael Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, which tracks money in politics. Many contributors say they first heard of Carson after a speech he delivered at the National Prayer Breakfast.
Some have followed Carson for years, reading his books and long hoping he would run for president. When Carson in May officially declared his bid, his backers knew there was an existing fan base of “literally several hundred thousand people out there that loved Dr. Carson,” said Terry Giles, a Houston-based lawyer, businessman and longtime friend of Carson’s who was responsible for initially setting up the campaign.
What the fledgling and underfunded Carson campaign didn’t have was much hard, actionable information about them.
“We wished we did, but we didn’t,” Giles said. “But we knew if we got onto the social networking and all that, those folks would come out of the woodwork.”
Far beyond mere social networking, the Carson campaign mined lists of people who donated money to a group called American Legacy PAC, which earlier this decade used Carson as the face of its campaign against Obama’s health care overhaul.
Carson’s campaign also rented a supporter list from a super PAC created to draft Carson into a presidential run, most recently known as the 2016 Committee.
They were looking for people like Ruth Clark, 90, a retired teacher from Dubuque, Iowa, who in 2013 contributed money to a super PAC aimed at drafting Carson into a presidential run. She first heard of Carson about 20 years ago through her Methodist church library where she read his book, “Gifted Hands.”
Clark has now contributed $645 (in more than a dozen installments) to Carson’s presidential effort.
Some of the companies involved in building Carson’s presidential fundraising capacity have contributed to soaring Carson campaign expenses.
Watts said the campaign looked to President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign outreach to small donors for inspiration, but couldn’t just rely on lower-cost digital efforts.
“We're Republicans,” he said. “We have a different marketplace.”
Key players in the campaign fundraising effort include Ken Dawson, the president of Eleventy Marketing Group, who is the campaign’s chief marketing officer. Eleventy Marketing also worked for American Legacy PAC.
The Carson campaign paid Eleventy Marketing $4.7 million during the first nine months of 2015 for database management services and other purposes, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Dawson said the company was responsible for the campaign’s initial online setup and its digital ads. He and Watts both said social media has been an important artery through which the campaign has reached supporters. Carson’s Facebook page is hovering on the verge of 5 million “likes,” and Dawson said Facebook has helped the campaign both attract contributions and add to its supporter list.
“It’s been amazing,” he said. “Ultimately we’re turning those people into donors immediately.”
Infocision, an Akron, Ohio-based telemarketing firm that has come under heavy criticism for using aggressive tactics, is another.
The firm was American Legacy PAC’s biggest vendor in the 2014 election cycle and has so far received nearly $2 million from the Carson campaign. Carson himselfvisited the company’s office in Green, Ohio, in July.
Watts said the campaign used Infocision because it is one of the biggest companies in the industry. Asked about criticism that the company targets the elderly and has provided misleading information, he said, “I can tell you this: We go through their scripts every week, and we wouldn’t abide by that sort of thing.”
The company has up to 400 people making calls for the campaign on heavy nights, he said, which isn’t cheap.
Watts described the campaign’s contract with Infocision as one calling for “no net loss.” The purpose of the telemarketing, he said, is to build the campaign’s own list, so it can go back to contributors far more cheaply.
“We didn’t have Jeb Bush’s Rolodex,” he said of the former Florida governor-turned-presidential-candidate whose father and brother have already served as president.
Then there’s Mike Murray, the founder of American Legacy PAC, who’s now a senior adviser to the Carson campaign and oversees the campaign’s grassroots fundraising. Murray is also the president and chief executive officer of TMA Direct, a marketing firm.
The Carson campaign paid TMA Direct almost $2.7 million during the first nine months of 2015.
Watts, Giles and Bill Millis, a former Carson campaign national board member who has also been a supporter, donor and fundraiser, all said Murray deserves significant credit for the campaign’s fundraising success.
Murray said that while working with Carson on American Legacy PAC’s healthcare campaign, he saw how Carson connected with people. He also witnessed how the number of attendees at events featuring Carson far exceeded what anyone expected.
“It has to do with his tone, his biography, his respectability — all the things that make him what he is,” Murray said.
Murray, Watts, Giles and Millis all said fundraising costs should decline as a percentage of the total amount of money raised now that they can rely less on the most expensive supporter-prospecting methods like direct mail.
Millis, the campaign board member, said live fundraising events he’s helped organize have also yielded good money among motivated supporters. This autumn, for example, one in Charlotte, North Carolina, raised about $200,000, he said.
“I’ve never, ever been this involved,” Millis said in a mid-November interview.
But after Millis was interviewed for this story, he stepped down from the campaign’s board, citing differences over how the campaign was being run. It’s an indication that despite the Carson campaign’s fundraising success, the campaign is experiencing turbulence as the nation’s first presidential caucuses and primary contests near.
In an email to the Center for Public Integrity, Millis said he would continue to support Carson’s candidacy.
Giles, for his part, left the campaign in May and spent months working with super PACs supporting Carson’s bid, attempting to streamline their efforts.
He is no longer doing that. He disputes reports that he was pushed out of the campaign and said he is ready, after months of working in the political arena for no pay, to go back to his businesses and spend more time at home. He added that he told Carson to call him if the candidate needs anything.
Carson’s appeal to small donors
Some Carson admirers who’ve become contributors this year seem little concerned with any internal drama.
They remain drawn to Carson for a variety of reasons.
Some cite his faith-based worldview. Others are compelled by his political outsider status or distinguished medical career. Still others, like Anderson, the New Hampshire man who drove hours to catch a glimpse of Carson, are attracted to what they consider Carson’s personal integrity and independence from established political interests.
Take Kevin Amici, a project manager for a Las Vegas construction company, who said the only political contribution he’s ever made before this year was a small donation to Republican Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign. Amici said he stumbled across information on Carson and said he was attracted to the candidate’s compelling life story and personal integrity.
During the first nine months of this year, Amici contributed about $900 to Carson’s campaign in more than three dozen separate contributions. The donations have ranged from $5 to $100, according to campaign finance records.
Amici says he responds whenever he can to emails and mailers from the campaign soliciting donations. He describes himself as “fully vested in Dr. Carson.”
Mary Pond, 93, of Palmdale, California, said she’s received solicitations from the campaigns of several Republican candidates, “but my money is going to Dr. Ben.”
She donates when she can after hearing from the Carson campaign by both email and postal mail. “They want a donation every day at least, but they do stress that even a small amount is beneficial. So that’s what I do,” said Pond, who's given several hundred dollars.
“He’s not coming from the jaded perspective of being influenced by so many political perspectives. He is a Christian like me,” said Alicen Twardosky, of Loudon, New Hampshire, an at-home mom who homeschools her children and says she’s contributed to the campaign, though not yet enough to cross the $200 threshold.
Robert Sweet, a retiree in Homosassa, Florida, said he hasn’t so much as voted since becoming a Christian more than three decades ago.
“I realized if I vote and the person who gets in there does evil, I am partly responsible for that evil, so I haven’t voted,” he said.
But Sweet says he’ll vote this general election — for Carson. He’s also doing more than that, so far giving Carson’s campaign $1,257 via multiple contributions.
Many of the Carson contributors interviewed for this article said they intend to keep sending small sums to the campaign whenever they are able.
Campaign finance reports show fewer than 100 donors have so far given the maximum $5,400 contribution allowed for the general and primary elections, so the campaign can continue to tap all the rest of their supporters for more money.
Carson’s political “Moneyball”-esque strategy does have its limitations, though, which the candidate himself is beginning to realize.
In order to prepare for what could be a protracted Republican primary fight lasting well into 2016, Carson’s campaign has begun the delicate process of also courting billionaires and establishment support. For instance, no less a mainstream Republican figure than Karl Rove has reportedly introduced Carson’s fundraisers to Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn, a conservative mega-donor. Watts confirmed Carson has met with Wynn.
Carson’s appeal to the elites and establishment types risks alienating supporters who see his reliance on more common Americans as a selling point.
Watts said he expects any effort to court bigger donors will always take a backseat to grassroots efforts.
“We knew that in order for us to ever go around and start raising money from major donors we had to prove our viability, and numbers do prove your viability,” he said.
But when Carson met with some bigger donors early on, Watts said, he came back “and literally said, ‘I don’t want to lick anyone’s boots to do this and we seem to be doing just fine. Why don’t we keep doing what we’re doing?'"
Carson spoke carefully when asked whether he can continue to rely solely on grassroots.
“I love the idea that our campaign is powered by ‘we the people,’” he said after filing his ballot paperwork in New Hampshire.
“Have I spoken with some billionaires who were willing to give money? Absolutely,” Carson added. “But only if I would listen to what they had to say and maybe make some changes in the way I thought about things. I’m not willing to do that.”
Jadugoda, Jharkhand, INDIA— The Subarnarekha River roars out of the Chota Nagpur plateau in eastern India, before emptying 245 miles downstream into the Bay of Bengal, making it a vital source of life, and lately, of death.
The name means streak of gold and for centuries prospectors around Ranchi, the traffic-choked capital of Jharkhand state, have sought fortunes by panning for nuggets in its headwaters, which wash over a region flecked with minerals and ore.
Its link to widespread misfortune is not admitted by the Indian government. But the authorities' role in the deaths of those who live near it first became clear when professor Dipak Ghosh, a respected Indian physicist and dean of the Faculty of Science at Jadavpur University in Kolkata decided to chase down a rural “myth” among the farmers along its banks. They had long complained that the Subarnarekha was poisoned, and said their communities suffered from tortuous health problems.
When Ghosh’s team seven years ago collected samples from the river and also from adjacent wells, he was alarmed by the results. The water was adulterated with radioactive alpha particles that cannot be absorbed through the skin or clothes, but if ingested cause 1,000 times more damage than other types of radiation. In some places, the levels were 160 percent higher than safe limits set by the World Health Organization.
“It was potentially catastrophic,” Ghosh said in a recent interview. Millions of people along the waterway were potentially exposed.
What the professor’s team uncovered was hard evidence of the toxic footprint cast by the country's secret nuclear mining and fuel fabrication program. It is now the subject of a potentially powerful legal action, shining an unusual light on India’s nuclear ambitions and placing a cloud over its future reactor operations.
A comprehensive new energy plan approved by the government in October declared that nuclear power is "a safe, environmentally benign and economically viable source to meet the increasing electricity needs of the country." And Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while standing beside President Obama at a Paris conference on global warming Nov. 30, said "India is a very nature-loving country and we are setting out, as always, to protect nature in the world" while producing energy.
On August 21, 2014, however, a justice in this state’s court ordered an official inquiry into allegations that the nuclear industry has exposed tens of thousands of workers and villagers to dangerous levels of radiation, heavy metals or other carcinogens, including arsenic, from polluted rivers and underground water supplies that have percolated through the foodchain — from fish swimming in the Subarnarekha River to vegetables washed in its tainted water.
Given the absolute secrecy that surrounds the nuclear sector in India, the case is a closed affair, and all evidence is officially presented to the judge. But the Center for Public Integrity has reviewed hundreds of pages of personal testimony and clinical reports in the case that present a disturbing scenario.
India’s nuclear chiefs have long maintained that ill health in the region is caused by endemic poverty and and the unsanitary conditions of its tribal people, known locally as Adivasi, or first people. But the testimony and reports document how nuclear installations, fabrication plants and mines have repeatedly breached international safety standards for the past 20 years. Doctors and health workers, as well as international radiation experts, say that nuclear chiefs have repeatedly suppressed or rebuffed their warnings.
The industry's aim, according to local residents, has been to minimize evidence of cancer clusters, burying statistics that show an alarming spate of deaths. The case files include epidemiological and medical surveys warning of a high incidence of infertility, birth defects, and congenital illnesses among women living in proximity to the industry’s facilities. They also detail levels of radiation that in some places were almost 60 times the safe levels set by organizations like the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, although India's Atomic Energy Commission, the country’s top authority, disputes these findings.
The Indian commission argues all problems at the nuclear complex have been corrected and that no cases of radiation poisoning have been proven. But the court files include compelling stories of how residents have been stonewalled and criminalized, and their communities strong-armed, to ensure that nothing gets in the way of India’s nuclear dream.
Poor conditions for those who work or live near nuclear facilities have been largely unchanged for decades. When we drove into Jadugoda, we quickly spotted laborers, barefooted, and without protective clothing, riding trucks laden with uranium ore through villages, their tarpaulins gaping and dust spewing. Ore was scattered everywhere: on the roads, over the fields and into the rivers and drains. Uranium tailing ponds that dribbled effluent into neighboring fields were readily accessible, and children played nearby as their parents gathered wood. Washed clothes hung from tailings pipes carrying irradiated slurry. Four months after we left, last March, some of these pipes burst, again sending toxic slurry into Chatikocha village, where residents were supposed to have removed, but remain.
Alarms about these activities were circulating as long ago as 2005, when India and the United States began work on a pact expanding cooperation on civil nuclear power. A joint statement that year by President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about the pact included a promise to safeguard the environment, but hailed reactors as a way to meet “global energy demands in a cleaner and more efficient manner.”
The pact was signed by the two governments in October 2008, despite an American diplomat’s warning from Kolkata in a confidential cable to Washington the previous year that the Indian government’s “lax safety measures … are exposing local tribal communities to radiation contamination.”
Henry V. Jardine, a career foreign service officer and former Army captain, expressed blunt dismay in the cable about India’s “notoriously weak” worker protections and substandard safety procedures around mines. If safety at civil nuclear projects like these was “an apparent failure,” Jardine wondered “what standards are being maintained in India's nuclear facilities not visible to the public.”
The source of the poisonings
Charting the trail of disease and ill health back to its source, Ghosh’s team learned that the alpha radiation they had recorded came from the mines, mills and fabrication plants of East Singhbhum, a district whose name means the land of the lions, where the state-owned Uranium Corporation of India Ltd is sitting on a mountain of 174,000 tons of raw uranium. The company, based in Jadugoda, a country town 160 miles west of Kolkata, is the sole source of India’s domestically-mined nuclear reactor fuel, a monopoly that has allowed it to be both combative and secretive.
After starting work in 1967 with a single mine, the corporation now controls six underground pits and one opencast operation that stretch across 1,313 hilly acres, extracting an estimated 5,000 tons of uranium ore a day, generating an annual turnover of $123 million. It supplies nine of the reactors that help India produce plutonium for its arsenal of nuclear weapons, and is thus considered vital to India's security.
The company crushes the ore below ground and treats it with sulfuric acid, transforming it into magnesium diuranate or “yellowcake,” which is then loaded into drums and taken to the Rakha Mines railway station. From there, it is transported to the Nuclear Fuel Complex in Hyderabad, 861 miles to the southwest. Workers ultimately process it into uranium dioxide pellets that are stacked in rods, inserted into reactors all over India.
Wherever uranium is extracted, anywhere in the world, from Australia to New Mexico, it is a messy, environmentally disruptive process. However, the poor quality of ore eked out of these wooded hills means that for every kilogram of uranium extracted, 1750 kilograms of toxic slurry, known as tailings, must be discarded into three, colossal ponds. Studies by scientists from North America, Australia and Europe show that while these ponds contain only small quantities of uranium, equally hazardous isotopes connected to uranium’s decay are also present, including thorium, radium, polonium and lead, some of which have a half-life of thousands of years. Arsenic is a byproduct, as is radon, a carcinogen.
The tailing ponds in Jharkhand, Ghosh’s team and other scientists discovered, have never been lined with rubble, concrete or special plastics, as organizations like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have advised for domestic ponds, and as a result their contents leached in winters into the water table. Lacking a cap, the ponds evaporated in summers, leaving a toxic dust that blew over nearby villages. Thirty five thousand people live in seven villages that lie within a mile and half of the three huge ponds, most of them members of tribal communities.
Moreover, during the monsoon season, the ponds regularly overflowed onto adjacent lands, with contaminants reaching streams and groundwater that eventually tainted the Subarnarekha River, according to studies of the issue by Ghosh's team and other scientists. Pipes carrying radioactive slurry also frequently burst, leaching into rivers and across villages, according to photographs taken by residents. Lorries hired by the mines also dumped toxic effluent in local fields when the ponds were full, actions caught in photographs and on video taken by villagers and shown to the Center.
When Ghosh published his team’s results, there was no reaction from the mine or the Indian government. A senior official in the U.S. State Department declined to discuss the contents of Jardine’s leaked cable, but said he was aware of criticisms about the uranium corporation.
The evidence begins to pile up
Uranium was first discovered in the hills above Jadugoda in 1951, by Indian geologists working alongside the Associated Drilling Company, of London. The geological makeup of the area makes the natural — or “background” — radiation in this area higher than other parts of India, but scientists say nothing besides man’s activities can explain the extraordinary levels discovered in their tests.
Long ago, the local tribes already feared the place the geologists were drawn to, according to Ghanshyam Birulee, a round-faced political activist for the Adivasi.
“My father told me of a [castor oil] tree in the forest and even back then everyone thought this tree was haunted,” he said. Village lore warned that “if a pregnant woman passed the trunk, she would suffer a miscarriage, or the child would be born with deformities. Everyone avoided it,” except those digging the hole.
The bore became a mine, and Birulee’s father, like many others, was contracted to wrest ore from the subterranean galleries and shovel the resulting yellowcake into drums. His father died of lung cancer in 1984. “Contract laborers were not issued with any respirators or dosimeters to measure radiation,” Birulee said, talking in the granular accent of his tribe, known as Ho. Sometimes they worked barefoot.
Then in 1991, Birulee’s mother also died of lung cancer. “We were stunned by her death. She had never worked in the mines. I searched for a reason,” he said. Friends and neighbors meanwhile were in mourning for their own relatives. According to the uranium corporation’s own records, 17 UCIL laborers died in 1994, 14 more in 1995, 19 in 1996 and 21 in 1997; no cause of death was revealed in the records seen by the Center, but critics claim most if not all were radiation-related.
The corporation will not discuss the causes of these deaths. But a spokesman for the Jarkhandi Organization Against Radiation (JOAR), a local group formed in 1998 out of a student lobby for indigenous rights, said it has investigated these cases and that “from what we can see all of them contracted illnesses associated with radiation or exposure to heavy metals.” The spokesman, who asked the Center to withhold his name because intelligence officials and police have arrested him in the past and accused him of “anti-national activities,” claimed the number of deaths was actually “four times higher” than UCIL admitted.
Birulee contacted doctors and public health researchers at Jawaharlal Nehru University, in Delhi, one of India’s best government-funded institutions. They came up with a hypothesis about his mother’s death, blaming the family’s laundry. “My father,” Birulee said, “would bring back his cotton uniform, caked in uranium dust, to be washed once a week, as did all the other contract laborers. There were no facilities in the mines and no warnings.”
Birulee wondered how many other families had been similarly affected and, working with the JNU doctors, helped arrange for midwives to visit nearby villages. They found that 47% of women suffered disruptions to their menstrual cycle, while 18% had had miscarriages or stillborn babies over the previous 5 years. One third were infertile. Many complained their children were born with partially formed skulls, blood disorders, missing eyes or toes, fused fingers or brittle limbs. Livestock too were suffering, with veterinarians reporting that buffaloes and cows were infertile or suffering from blood disorders.
Arjun Soren was one of those affected. Born in Bhatin village, adjacent to another uranium mine on the other side of the tailing pond, Soren became the first member of the Santhal tribe to get a medical degree, and one of his first cases was to track the deteriorating health of his family. “My aunt died of cancer of the gallbladder,” Soren recalled. “My nephew has a rare blood disorder.” Then Soren himself was diagnosed with leukemia and transferred to Mumbai for treatment. “Radiation and toxins from the mining processes has to be the reason,” Soren said. “I spent my childhood playing, breathing, drinking, eating there.”
The mining corporation dismissed the 1995 Jawaharlal Nehru University study, asserting that it failed to link these health problems conclusively to radiation exposure. When the company needed to create the third of its tailing ponds in 1996, its agents uprooted families in the Adivasi village of Chatikocha, which was in their way. Dumka Murmu, a local activist from there, recalled how on Jan. 27, at 11 a.m., armed police escorted the mining company’s diggers into town. “They tore down houses belonging to 30 families,” he said. Their fields were also dug up, groves of trees that served as a religious site were felled, and a graveyard was flattened.
Outraged, the activist group contacted local politicians and civil servants. Demonstrations at the site grew, indigenous people incensed by the destruction of their place of worship, until on Feb. 25, 1997, thousands of Adivasi from all over the district converged on the site and forced work on the new pond to stop. The mining company had to change tack. It offered the demonstrators a compensation package and promised more jobs, which divided them. “Everyone needs money,” Murmu said bitterly, “and UCIL broke the will of poor people by buying them off with jobs that might kill them in an industry that was poisoning the district.”
Birulee lodged a protest with the state’s Environment Committee, in Bihar’s capital. Its chairman, Gautam Sagar Rana, directed UCIL to finance an independent health inquiry, led by two professors from Patna Medical College, who were accompanied by the uranium conglomerate’s deputy general manager, R.P. Verma; and the head of its health unit, A.R. Khan. Analyzing a representative sample of those between 4 and 60 years old living within a mile and a half of the third tailing dam, the researchers hired by UCIL concluded that the residents were “affected by radiation.”
In a report dated Nov. 14, 1997, thirty-one persons were said to need hospitalization. Their symptoms included swollen joints, spleens and livers, and coughing up blood. The UCIL report also described “osteoporosis, defective limbs, and habitual abortion,” as well as many complaints of “missed menstrual cycle” and a cluster of cancer cases.
Two more inspections by doctors occurred later that month and a separate report that month signed by professors K.K. Singh and D.D. Gupta and printed on UCIL stationery warned that the toxic tailings ponds were unprotected and the site lacked warning signs about the dangers of radiation or other toxic substances, according to a copy seen by the Center. Cattle grazed freely around the poisonous ponds, while villagers gathered firewood beside them and children built sand castles from the toxic grit, the report said.
While mine officials said they had provided regular medical checkups for the workers, one miner told the researchers, in an interview documented by Shri Prakash, a local filmmaker, that his last examination had been 10 years before. “Some test was done, but the results were not given out,” he said.
The researchers called on the corporation to fence in the ponds immediately, and to move the tens of thousands of villagers who lived in seven communities around the three tailing ponds to new sites at least three miles away. The report noted that security at the sites was “very poor” and “totally lax”, carried out in such an uncaring way, that “any mischief on life or nation cannot be ruled out.”
Four months later, on March 23, 1998, R.K. Verma, a deputy general manager, claimed in a letter sent to the civil surgeon, a public health official, in Jamshedpur, that improvements had been made. But the Bihar Environmental Committee complained in a June statement that “no wire, fences, signs: security remains abysmal, health conditions as before.”
Denying what scientists documented
India’s nuclear project is seen as the country’s most prestigious enterprise, a tangible expression of the nation’s resilience and resourcefulness. This idea was cemented when India tested nuclear devices in 1998, in twin blasts. Feeding the weapons program was UCIL’s duty, and protecting the mines became paramount.
As a result, the UCIL-funded health studies were not welcomed by the Bhabha Atomic Research Center, the country’s premier civil and military nuclear research facility, which has a Health Physics Laboratory in Jadugoda. It said in 1999, after a quick visual inspection of villagers living close to the mines, that its own experts “unanimously agreed that the disease pattern could not be ascribed to radiation exposure.” The complainers were “backwards people” who suffered from “alcoholism, malaria and malnutrition,” the company said. But it took no soil, water or air samples and launched no epidemiological study.
UCIL subsequently reversed its own position. “There is no radiation or any related health problems in Jadugoda and its surrounding areas,” J.L. Bhasin, the managing director of UCIL, concluded in 1999, in a press conference before local reporters in Jadugoda. A.N. Mullick, UCIL’s chief medical officer for 25 years, issued a press statement a few months later that “I have not come across any radiation-related ailments during my entire career.”
One safety practice changed: Miners were now given personal dosimeters, although they were taken away at the end of a shift and the readings were kept secret, a circumstance that prevails now, according to more than a dozen miners interviewed by the Center. Also, a few warning signs were posted beside the tailing ponds, according to several of the residents. But the signs were later removed by the corporation, which called them “alarmist” — a circumstance confirmed by three residents from Chatikocha village, who attended a public meeting called by the mining corporation.
In 1999, Birulee and his friends, who had begun to teach themselves about the impact of radiation by reaching out to nuclear blast survivor groups in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, decided to contact a husband-wife scientific team, Sanghamitra and Surendra Gadekar, who had studied the health of laborers at a nuclear reactor in the western desert state of Rajasthan. Surendra Gadekar, a nuclear physicist, began taking soil, water and air samples around Jadugoda the following year.
Their study was published in 2004 in Anumukti, a now-defunct pacifist magazine. It said radiation levels inside the villages aound the tailing ponds were almost 60 times the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission “safe level.” They wrote that a football pitch, a school close to Rakha Railway Station, a dam, and some walls built around homes in several villages had been constructed by UCIL with radioactive mining rubble. Radiation readings at a UCIL laboratory were 20 times the U.S. safe limit, they said, blaming unsafe work practices.
The report pointed to “extremely high levels of chronic lung disease in mill and mine workers,” and highlighted case studies of 52 men and 34 women with “severe deformities.” The Gadekars also documented the existence in neighboring populations of children with malformed torsos and deformed heads and the wrong number of fingers, as well as a cluster of cases where infants’ bodies grew at different rates, giving them a lopsided gait. Some had hyperkeratosis, a condition known as “toad skin” due to the striated patterns and raised lumps it causes. Dr. Sanghamitra Gadekar concluded in her report: “In my opinion radiation or heavy metals are the likely cause.”
Their study was ignored by India’s nuclear chiefs but caught the attention of Hiroaki Koide, a nuclear engineer who teaches at the Research Reactor Institute, Kyoto University. In late 2000, Koide flew to Jharkhand, discreetly carrying activated charcoal and thermoluminescent dosimeters (TLD) to study background gamma radiation. He stealthily took soil and water samples, with the help of local residents, and carried them back to Japan, where they could be tested for radon, uranium and other nuclides.
Four years later, Koide, who had access to more modern equipment than the Indian researchers and to a research reactor at Kyoto University, revealed that radiation levels in villages close to the mines and radiation levels in residential areas near the tailing ponds exceeded international safe limits by tenfold. Levels in the areas next to the ponds were 12 times higher. “These figures were exceptionally worrying,” Koide said. “No one should have been living anywhere near, but UCIL was repeatedly told to move people [and] has not done so.” Orders from the state government for villagers to be relocated, first issued in 1996, had never been implemented.
More worrying, Koide confirmed that uranium rock and finely ground mine tailings had been used as ballast for road leveling and house building, and to construct a local school and clinic. UCIL declined to make an attributed comment about these claims, but a senior UCIL official who talked to the Center on condition of anonymity confirmed these construction projects using irradiated materials had gone ahead as “part of a community outreach project.” He added: “Scientists at [Bhabha Atomic Research Centre] told us the material was of no risk, so we listened to the scientists.” BARC declined to comment.
A worrisome contaminant shows up
Koide’s also identified a radioisotope in the tailing ponds that he found especially disturbing: cesium-137. It’s created when uranium and plutonium undergo fission in a reactor or during the explosion of a nuclear weapon. Since no reactor exists in this region, “this was nuclear waste from somewhere else in India that had been transported to Jadugoda and discarded, like this heavily-populated district was simply some kind of nuclear dump,” Koide said.
There is no safe limit for cesium, since it is easily absorbed by the body, and concentrates in soft tissues. According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, cesium “moves easily through the air … dissolves easily in water [and] binds strongly to soil and concrete,” contaminating plants and vegetation. Exposure to minute quanitities can increase the risk of contracting cancer.
Koide also was troubled by his discovery that levels of radon gas close to the mines and the tailing ponds were 160 percent higher than the limit set by the World Health Organization. Radiation levels in villages exceeded the Japanese safety limit by thirty-fold, as did levels at the Rakha Mines railway station where drums of uranium were transported to fabrication plants across India. Four miners who worked at the Rakha Mines station until they left their job in 2008 described to the Center frequent spillages of yellowcake from leaking drums, which they cleaned up with shovels, without gloves or masks, as none of them had been been issued with protective clothing or advice on possible contamination. A local journalist secretly shot video of them at work in the station.
Many Western nations have prepared “fact sheets” on yellowcake that warn against breathing its dust or fumes and say that workers should wash thoroughly and avoid eating, drinking or smoking while in contact with it. A safety alert prepared by the Australian government for those preparing to transport it warns that ingesting or inhaling it causes “damage to the kidneys, liver and lungs through prolonged or repeated exposure” and warns against release to the environment. But a BARC doctor working at its Health, Safety and Environment unit, U.C. Mishra, when confronted with footage of leaking drums and workers with no protective clothing, downplayed the risks in a press conference in 1999, an event that was filmed. “You can handle it,” Dr. Mishra said, “and nothing will happen to you.”
India’s Supreme Court began its own inquiry into the health crisis at the mines in 1998, in response to a petition filed by a pro-nuclear lawyer from Delhi who was upset by a news magazine’s photos of children with severe birth defects from villages near tailings ponds. The lawyer argued that “right to life” was enshrined in the Indian Constitution, but even so the court on April 15, 2004, said it believed an affidavit signed by its atomic energy department’s chairman that all radiological, safety and security issues at the mines had been resolved.
“The nuclear establishment is allowed to police itself, and to investigate itself, [with] the courts endorsing them,” Birulee said. “But out in the countryside, we are still living toxic lives.”
A series of radioactive leaks
Then, on Dec. 24, 2006, a pipe transferring toxic, radioactive slurry to the tailing ponds burst close to Dungridih village, 50 miles northwest of Jadugoda, and poured into a tributary of the Subarnarekha River for nine hours, causing shoals of dead fish to float on the surface. No government investigation was undertaken downstream and no thorough cleanup, upstream. Anil Kakodkar, head of the Department of Atomic Energy, described the incident as “a small leak” of no risk to anyone, according to an Indian analyst’s report. Five villagers interviewed by the Center described how they merely piled mud over the effluent.
Four months later, on April 10, 2007, “1.5 tons of solid radioactive waste and 20,000 liters of liquid radioactive waste” spilled from a new pipe, close to Jadugoda town, according to a corporation report, seen by the Center.
In Jardine’s cable to Washington in July of that year, he confirmed the leak and relayed widespread concerns about a recent expansion of UCIL’s operations. A new uranium ore mine in Banduhurang and a uranium mine located in Jharkhand’s Saraikela-Kharswan district were projected to produce 2,400 tons and 410 tons of uranium ore per day, respectively, he noted. These would add to the 2,090 tons of ore daily processed at a mill in Jadugoda and the 3,000 tons processed at a second in Turamdih. Local media and independent groups claimed that officials in Jadugoda dumped the waste from the processing of this ore into local fields, Jardine said, although UCIL denied it.
Photos of the leak cleanup he had seen “apparently show…workers with no safety equipment and wading in the tailing sludge,” Jardine wrote. He added that his staff had visited the mines and seen “lax safety and security measures.” Uranium ore was transported “by open trucks,” with “mine workers riding on top of the ore,” which often fell over the road. He signed off with a warning: “Given the existing conditions at India’s uranium mines, increasing the exploitation of domestic reserves will likely result in increasing radiation exposure.” The cable was disclosed by Wikileaks in 2011.
The following February, another tailing pipe burst, causing thick, gray sludge to snake into homes in Dungridih village and cover part of a road there, as well as carpet many residential front yards. Five months afterwards, record rains caused one of the tailing ponds to overflow into Talsa village. P. Dubey, a UCIL spokesman, told the Hindustan Times: “The radioactive waste flowing through the village is harmless, as incessant rains have diluted the intensity of radioactivity of the waste.”
Jardine told Washington, in a new cable on June 6, 2008 — four months before the U.S.-India nuclear pact was signed — that still another epidemiological study had concluded “indigenous groups … living close to the mines reportedly suffer high-rates of cancer, physical deformities, blindness, brain damage and other ailments.” He noted that UCIL “refuses to acknowledge these issues.” Jardine wrapped up: “Post contacts, citing independent research, say that it is difficult to point out any reason other than radiation for the apparent human and environmental problems at Jadugoda.” He criticized UCIL for not alerting communities living downstream about the February pipe burst and added: “The Indian nuclear establishment will have to adopt more transparent safety policies and procedures if it seeks to expand its capacity.”
The epidemiological study that Jardine referred to was written by Dr. Shakeel ur Rahman, of Indian Doctors for Peace and Development, a not-for-profit research group in Bihar. His team interviewed 2,118 families around the mines in May and June 2007 and found that those who lived closest had the best education, the most wealth, and a significantly higher incidence of “congenital deformities, sterility and cancer.”
K.S. Parthasarathy, a former secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, the industry’s safety watchdog, wrote to most of India’s national newspapers to dispute the research, claiming it had not been peer reviewed and relied on “cherry picked” data.
In August 16, 2008, yet another uranium waste pipe burst, this time inundating eight houses in Dungridih where the toxic slurry formed an ankle deep carpet, before pouring into the river. UCIL declined to comment, however a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Regulation Board, responsible for safety, and supposedly an independent body, said in a statement issued to reporters then that “uranium ore in these mines are of very low grade …. We checked the radiation level soon after the leak. It was much below the normal range.”
That same year, UCIL won an award from the Director General of Mines Safety, coming in second place among contestants throughout India. In 2013, it also received the Golden Peacock Global Award for Corporate Social Responsibility from India’s Institute of Directors, a national group of 35,000 business executives at India’s best known companies.
No government institution acted until last year, when the Jharkhand High Court in Ranchi ordered an inquiry into congenital diseases, mainly among children near the mines, after reviewing local coverage on the issue. But Chief Justice R. Banumathi said that “given the sensitivities surrounding the corporation, and the role it plays, that investigation is to be internal.”
Activist and former miner Birulee was furious. “They claim national security prevents any outside forces vetting them,” he said. “But given how long they have prevaricated, and the cost of these delays to the population, how can we trust them to inspect themselves?”
In response to detailed questions from the Center, UCIL’s spokesman and director both declined comment about its internal epidemiological and radiation studies, or about the court case. But its reputation hasn’t exactly suffered since the judicial inquiry began. Greentech, a Delhi-based, corporate-backed nonprofit that campaigns for industrial safety, last year complimented one of its mines for its “training excellence” and gave other operations commendations for safety, innovation and environmental policies, as well as its “compassionate outreach work.” Last year, UCIL’s chairman, Diwakar Acharya, was decorated, again by Greentech, as an “outstanding HR Oriented CEO.”
Last July, Acharya, who has been with the company since 1988, gave a rare interview to Bloomberg News, in which he dismissed the epidemiological and radiological studies pointing towards a link between radiation exposures and disease patterns. Radiation levels in the area are “quite low and short duration exposure has no adverse effect on health,” he said.
Commenting on reports connecting the mines to birth defects, cases of sterility and disabilities, Archaya said “I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of those [disabled children and sick adults] are imported from elsewhere.” He added: “See, what happens is, you say you are a specialist and you’ll come and treat. But all you do is, you are convinced UCIL is evil and you have come here only with the sole motive of finding reasons which would validate your preconceived notions.”
Another senior UCIL official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Center that everything happening in the mines was tied to the Bhabha Directive, an aspirational credo for the nuclear state named after Homi Bhabha, an Indian nuclear physicist considered the father of its bomb. “Radioactive material and sources of radiation should be handled … in a manner, which not only ensures that no harm can come to workers … or anyone else,” Bhabha wrote, “but also in an exemplary manner so as to set a standard which other organizations in the country may be asked to emulate.”
Around the villages of Jadugoda and out in the flood plain of the Subarnarekha River, however, residents told us repeatedly these words had lost their meaning. “Inside UCIL, they see themselves as under siege, defending the nation, one atom at a time,” Biruli said, “and outside … we are absorbing those atoms and whatever else the corporation spews out from its broken pipes and dams. We’re drinking it all up, feeding it to our kids, and our wives, if they can conceive, are absorbing them into their blood stream.”
This story was co-published with the Huffington Post.
Adrian Levy is a London-based investigative reporter and filmmaker whose work has appeared in the Guardian, The Observer, The Sunday Times, and other publications. His most recent books are: The Meadow, about a 1995 terrorist kidnapping of Westerners in Kashmir, and The Siege: The Attack on the Taj, about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
The Koch brothers are supersizing their already hefty investments into college students’ hearts and minds.
A pair of private foundations led by the billionaire industrialists poured more than $23.4 million into U.S. colleges and universities during 2014, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of tax documents recently filed with the Internal Revenue Service.
That’s several million dollars more than the $19.3 million the Charles Koch Foundation and Fred C. and Mary R. Koch Foundation together spread among schools during 2013 — and nearly double the $12.7 million they spent in 2012.
This increased funding in 2014 follows a recent Center for Public Integrity investigation that revealed the Koch brothers, Charles and David, consider the higher educational programs they fund a “fully integrated” part of a massive organizational network fighting to enact deregulatory government policies and elect conservative political candidates.
Meanwhile, private foundations led by liberal political bankroller George Soros — the Kochs’ de facto Democratic foil who also heavily funds higher education — spent slightly more money on a smaller number colleges and universities than the Koch foundations did during 2014.
The most notable difference: While some of Soros’ higher education grants go to programs aligning with his domestic policy priorities, the majority are focused overseas, tax records show.
Almost all of the higher education programs the Koch foundations fund cleave to the brothers’ philosophy of promoting free markets and laissez-faire capitalism in the United States.
In some cases, the Koch foundations have attempted, or succeeded, in attaching certain strings to their contributions, such as control over curriculum, and more recently, obtaining personal information about students. Dozens of college officials interviewed this year by the Center for Public Integrity assert that their professors retain full academic freedom and may teach as they see fit, regardless of who is funding their programs.
The vast number of agreements between wealthy donors and the college and universities they fund are never made public, so it’s impossible to comprehensively assess the conditions attached by such benefactors.
George Mason University, a public school in Northern Virginia about 15 miles from Washington, D.C., received almost $16.8 million — the majority of the money Koch foundations last year directed at higher education in 2014, and by far the most of any recipient.
Charles Koch has long maintained close personal and financial ties to the university, which hosts a pair of research centers specializing in free market economics and individual liberty: the Mercatus Center and Institute for Humane Studies.
Thirteen schools received six-figure amounts last year, led by Florida State University; The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.; Creighton University in Nebraska; Troy University in Alabama and Indiana University.
“Like many charities, the Charles Koch Foundation recognizes the importance of supporting a diversity of ideas so scholars and students can continue to push the frontiers of knowledge and help people discover new and better ways to live fulfilling lives,” Charles Koch Foundation spokesperson Trice Jacobson wrote in a statement. “Our giving has expanded to support new research and programs on critical issues ranging from criminal justice reform to corporate welfare.”
Beyond sheer dollars, the Koch foundations are also giving money to more U.S. colleges and universities than ever: 216 of them during 2014. That’s up from 210 schools in 2013 and 163 schools in 2012.
In all, 41 states and the District of Columbia house at least one college or university that received Koch foundation funding during 2014. (That represents a modest dip from 2013, when schools in 46 states and the District of Columbia got Koch foundation cash.)
In addition to direct college funding, the Charles Koch Foundation and Fred C. & Mary G. Koch Foundation also provided dozens of educational scholarships and grants — most valued between $2,000 and $4,000 each — to college students, tax records show.
The Charles Koch Foundation in 2014 also spread several million dollars more among various think tanks, educational centers and media organizations.
Soros also gives big
In contrast to the Koch foundations, Soros’ cash typically went to foreign schools, U.S. colleges and universities for use toward international or international-focused programs or to U.S. colleges for no earmarked purpose at all.
Take Bard College, a tiny school along New York’s Hudson River that Soros foundations last year gave more cash than any other. Of the more than $11.6 million Bard received, $6 million went toward general support while more than $4.1 million specifically helped fund the school’s international programs.
Soros’ Foundation to Promote Open Society last year gave Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, more than $1 million last year to “establish a formal debate association in China.”
The University of Maryland received $200,000 to support programs improving medical and public health systems in Myanmar, while Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., got $100,000 to host Guatemala’s former attorney general as a visiting scholar at the school’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security.
Some of Soros’ domestic contributions are, however, directed at interests here at home.
There are those that are decidedly noncontroversial, like the $100,000 Soros’ Open Society Institute gave Wesleyan University in Connecticut to fund military veteran scholarships.
But some contributions closely align with Soros’ domestic political and policy leanings, such as campaign finance regulation.
Soros’ Foundation to Promote Open Society directed $400,000 at Fordham University in New York City to conduct “field experiments on the role of money in the Democratic process.” The Ohio State University received $50,000 for a similar purpose — conducting research to “better understand the role that independent expenditures play in contemporary federal election campaigns.”
The Soros-backed foundations, which collectively operate as the Open Society Foundations, “put our money where our values are — promote human rights, strengthen the rule of law, make political and legal systems fairer—to meet our priorities the world over, including in the United States,” spokesman Jonathan Kaplan said in a statement.
“We constantly examine and fine-tune our grantmaking as situations and needs change," he added. "We do not compete with or judge what other philanthropies do with their resources.”
Soros remains one of the nation’s most significant and reliable liberal political donors, having this year personally contributed $1 million to Priorities USA Action, a super PAC that is supporting Democratic presidential candidate, and another $1 million to American Bridge 21st Century, a super PAC that advocates against Republicans.
Despite controversy, full speed ahead
The Charles Koch Foundation, the main Koch-led foundation to support higher education, ended 2014 with $527.7 million in its account, according to federal tax records.
There are a few schools, however, that are no longer interested in getting a piece of that money.
The University of Dayton in Ohio confirmed to the Center for Public Integrity that it is no longer accepting Koch-connected money.
And earlier this month, Suffolk University in Massachusetts split with the Beacon Hill Institute, a conservative think tank it helped fund — along with the Charles Koch Foundation. Beacon Hill Institute plans to continue operating without a college affiliation.;
These developments should “make other schools take pause and move them to be more transparent” about their relationships with Koch-led foundations, said Kalin Jordan, a student at Suffolk University who helps lead the anti-Koch activist group UnKoch My Campus.
They did at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, where numerous faculty members fought against the school creating a center for free enterprise that’s slated to receive Charles Koch Foundation support. Nevertheless, the school’s board of trustees this month approved the center.
The Koch foundations aren’t likely to submit tax returns covering their 2015 contributions until November 2016.
But the Charles Koch Foundation did indicate on its 2014 tax filing that it had already committed to divide more than $4 million among 11 schools, booking those payments in 2015.
Among them are West Virginia University ($2.32 million), Arizona State University ($831,000), Florida State University ($265,948), Purdue University ($184,000) and Emporia State University in Kansas ($100,000).
A copy of a grant agreement obtained by the Center for Public Integrity also indicates that the Charles Koch Foundation on April 13 agreed to pay Utah State University up to $1.54 million over three years to support the Institute of Political Economy in the university's Jon M. Huntsman School of Business.
Utah State University received a comparatively modest $65,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation in 2014.
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Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, INDIA — In a town riven by blackouts every summer, the startup in December of commercial operations for a multi-billion-dollar, Russian-built nuclear reactor near here would ordinarily have been a cause for celebration.
It was more than a billion dollars over its budget and six years late. But its full operation in Kudankulam, a remote fishing village in the southern tip of India, 1,700 miles from the capital, was portrayed by operators and builders from the two countries as the latest symbol of their national friendship and technical prowess, as well as a showcase step in India’s ambitious plan to bring a total of 57 reactors on line to power the subcontinent’s economic surge.
S.P. Udayakumar, a bespectacled 56-year-old schoolteacher and protest leader in the region, isn’t rejoicing, however. From his bungalow in Nagercoil, a town 30 miles west of the plant whose wealth rests on making coconut fiber and the spice trade, Udayakumar has organized a long-running protest movement that’s drawn in a large number of residents — hundreds of thousands.
It’s motivated, he says, by research that sympathetic lawyers and nuclear experts have conducted into the reactor’s problematic construction as well as the checkered safety records of the giant Indian and Russian consortiums that erected it. Although the reactor is now shuttered again for maintenance — due to problems with parts supplied by a Russian company that Moscow authorities have accused of wrongdoing — a second reactor at this vast nuclear park, India’s largest, should be completed soon, after fourteen years of construction and testing, to be followed by two more reactors next year.
Udayakumar worries that the massive new Russian pressurized-water reactors, of a size and type never before seen on the subcontinent, have been constructed of shoddy material; that their design and location leave them vulnerable to a flooding disaster like the one experienced by Japan’s Daichi reactor at Fukushima; and that India’s nuclear regulators are either asleep at the switch or under the thumb of pro-nuclear officials that he believes cannot be trusted. In Oct. 2011, the country's prime minister attempted at a direct meeting to persuade Udayakumar these concerns were unwarranted, but without luck.
His complaints — many of which are backed up by documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity from the country’s nuclear regulator, retired government officials, government auditors, and industry analysts — were echoed in an unprecedented letter sent in May 2013 to India’s prime minister by 60 of the country’s most prominent scientists, most of them pro-nuclear and working for elite state-run institutions. Their letter called for a moratorium in Kudankulam, while new inquiries were made into allegations of widespread corruption and a fraud associated with the fabrication of the reactor’s components in Russia.
The outcome of this bitter debate has implications far outside India's borders. Experts say that by mid-century, the country's coal-burning plants may make it the world's largest emitter of gasses that cause global warming unless it shifts rapidly to other sources of electrical power. Aording to a government plan announced in October, nuclear reactors are prized alternatives. But India's citizenry — and particularly activists like Udayakumar — seems unprepared to agree to such a shift unless the country's reactors are made more safe and operated more carefully than they have been.
In the vicinity of the Kundankulum reactor, the wives of some fishermen, political novices all, on October 18, 2011, started a rolling hunger strike that has continued for more than four years. Farmers, herders and shipwrights have several times laid siege to the 2,500-acre park since the reactor plans were announced in 1987. By 2012, the protests had grown so large and spawned so many others in nearby villages that police lines were reinforced with men bused in from all over India. Some of the police fired into crowds with live rounds on Sept. 9 of that year, killing one, while a second victim, 6 years old, died in the stampede that followed.
The central and state governments have responded brutally. They cut electricity to the most restless districts around the plant in 2011 and 2012, and police officers smashed up homes in the village of Idinthakarai while residents were out at sea. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India complained that police officers demolished and urinated on two statues of the Virgin Mary at the village’s church of Our Lady of Lourdes. A school for underprivileged children run by Meera Udayakumar, the activist’s wife, was vandalized and the families who attended it scared away, he says, in an operation he worries was masterminded by local agents for the Intelligence Bureau. His passport was seized by the police, and last September he was blocked from attending a conference in Nepal organized by the United Nation’s special rapporteur on human rights defenders.
The police also engaged in a campaign of mass arrests, having issued 227,000 charges against protestors, including those of sedition and assault. While India’s Supreme Court in May 2013 called for these charges to be set aside, the state government has only partially complied, leaving thousands still facing court appearances for allegedly laying siege to the power station, ringing it with their boats, and of assaulting police officers. Like Udayakumar, who faces more than 380 charges, many have had their passports confiscated, blocking some of them from reaching jobs they held outside the country.
Internal government documents and interviews conducted by the Center make clear, however, that Delhi’s brook-no-dissent insistence of nuclear expansion in a region framed by palms and crisscrossed by red earth tracks not only has made the local citizenry angrier, but hindered resolution of technical problems that critics depict as a series of calamities-in-waiting.
The dangerous signposts so far include a false government claim that no tsunami could endanger the coastal Kudankulam reactors; a leaked revelation that one of the containment domes for the new reactor was finished without critical cabling; and allegations arising in an official Russian corruption probe that an unknown number of substandard parts were installed in critical areas of the nuclear facility.
In their 2013 letter, the scientists called for “a fresh independent and thorough quality inspection of the components used in the two reactors.” The scientists warned: ”The ramifications of such corruption need to be taken very seriously as they have implications for the long term-safety of the nuclear plant.”
No public inquiry was launched. Instead, the state hit back in August 2014, leaking a report by the government’s interior Intelligence Bureau into the activities of 65 non-governmental organizations, including some of those that supported the Kudankulam protests. The report, stamped “secret,” and entitled, “NGO Activism against development projects in India,” warned that these groups’ activities were “stalling development projects” and were “tools for the strategic foreign policy interests of Western Governments.” An addendum to the report, seen by the Center, warned that Udayakumar not only was American-educated but an “anti-national, American-backed stooge,” and “a threat to the economic security of India.” The main report that also cited Udayakumar described him as having a “deep and growing connection with … U.S. and German entities” that were anti-Indian.
The addendum identified “key conspirators,” singling out one as a man with the last name of Athilingham who was described as “a ringleader.” The Center for Public Integrity found him in Kudankulam, a balding blind man, less than five feet tall, who personally faces hundreds of charges laid by the authorities, including one for “waging war against the state.”
“I’m the mastermind,” Athilingham conceded, laughing, as his friends guided him to a rough-hewn bench, beside an Airtel phone booth, where he produced a court file as thick as a city telephone directory that recorded the many months he had spent in jail while his friends and family fought to win him the right to pay bail.
The main report further warned that churches in southern India, which cater to fishermen and their families that in this region are predominately Christian, were inappropriately funding and stoking the activism. In 2012, bank accounts for two nonprofits run by Bishop Yvon Ambroise, of the Catholic diocese of Tuticorin, a port city on the Bay of Bengal, were frozen. The government claimed the diocesan association and its welfare arm had channeled foreign funds to anti-nuclear protestors.
The Bishop responded testily to the accusations. “This is a people's struggle and is fully financed by them,” he said.
But it’s not one that the people here are winning. And so the safety concerns will persist. The public's anxieties may in turn affect whether India is able to build as many nuclear plants as it wants, and at the pace it has planned — a question with international implications, since India's anticipated shift from high-polluting energy sources such as coal to nuclear energy figures prominently in global efforts to stem climate change. (India is one of the world's largest producers of coal.)
Using a PR campaign to fix safety problems
The Indian government’s confidential plans for responding to public anxieties about the Kudankulam reactors and others like them were put into motion shortly after an earthquake triggered a tsunami off the coast of Japan in March 2011, causing three of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant to melt down.
Within six weeks, the office of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sent a series of memos containing key elements of a new public relations campaign to the key organizations pushing the Kudankulam project forward: the Atomic Energy Commission, which governs the Department of Atomic Energy that oversees training and research for both the civilian and military sector, and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd., which supervises the construction and operation of reactors. Inspectors in charge of safety and security at the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, supposedly an independent organization, received the same memorandums.
Officials were tasked with contacting journalists on an annotated list that described their politics, religion and affiliations, as well as their pliability, according to a copy of the messages obtained by the Center for Public Integrity from a former government official. These reporters and commentators were to be paid — out of the national coffers — to write and broadcast about the Indian civil nuclear sector’s culture of “unparalleled watchfulness,” a message dated July 2011 from the Department of Atomic Energy Secretariat, Anushakti Bhavan, Delhi, to the Principal Secretary for the Prime Minister, stated. It said the payments would be in exchange for accounts depicting India’s safety record as second to none and highlighting “the natural catastrophe that occurred in Japan,” rather than the underlying human failings and technological mistakes.
The Center could find no evidence that such payments were made, however, and India’s official spokesman at the Ministry of External Affairs, Vikas Swarup, declined any comment about them.
One of the memos suggested executives and scientists should “emphasize India’s resilience as compared to Japan,” and note that in India there had been “no Three Mile Island or Windscale,” referring to the 1979 meltdown of a reactor in Pennsylvania and a catastrophic fire at a British reactor in 1957. The Indian system was underpinned by “rigorous oversight,” another of the memos stated, according to copies seen by the Center. Critics should be described as “anti-national,” as Western nations “prompted agitation” inside the country to suit their own “economic and strategic objectives.” These hostile Western nations could also be referred to as “neo-colonial,” it said.
Srikumar Banerjee, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, subsequently appeared on channel NDTV in 2012 to say that “Kudankulam has one of the world’s safest nuclear reactors.” S.K. Jain, chief managing director at the state-owned nuclear corporation, reframed what happened at Fukushima. “There is no nuclear accident or incident,” he said, even as the situation was unfolding. “[Fukushima] is a well-planned emergency preparedness program … to contain the residual heat after the plants had an automated shutdown following a major earthquake.” He similarly emphasized there were “zero casualties.”
But Udayakumar and other residents described the official responses as “glib and misleading.” “No one died in Japan,” Udayakumar said, but a World Health Organization report that “everyone [here] read” predicted that girls living in areas worst affected had a 70% higher risk of developing thyroid cancer. If nuclear chiefs wanted ordinary people to feel reassured, he argued, they should openly discuss preparedness for a disaster like Fukushima, and conduct training workshops.
But the government’s detailed safety analyses have been kept secret. The plant operators argued they were commercially sensitive documents, explaining that their Russian partners demanded confidentiality. During a test run of the reactor in July 2011, the authorities instead published public service advertisements in local newspapers suggesting that villagers “cover their nose and mouth, after closing doors and windows, in case of a radioactive release,” according to a copy seen by the Center. A health ministry official conceded at a parliamentary hearing in 2010 that India was “nowhere” on the path to dealing with “nuclear and radiological emergencies” and that lack of preparedness at hospitals and other response systems would only ensure that “mortality and morbidity … could be on a very high scale.”
Facing increasingly volatile demonstrations, and pressure from right-to-information laws, the government finally released a 12-page summary of the atomic park’s emergency and security plan, which stated that at least three routes existed for possible evacuation, and that schools and other public structures had been designated as temporary shelters. It failed to mention, however, that one million people live within a 20 miles radius of the reactor, and did not explain how many shelters had been allocated for these residents.
There likewise was no mention that many of roads that evacuees would have to travel down were still hewn from mud, making them impassable after a downpour. There was no reference to the 30,000 people living within three miles of the plant, thousands of them within a zone that supposedly has been cleared, as safety laws requested. And it gave no indication that officials have yet to set aside any boats for a potential seaside evacuation of these villagers, as the state government confirmed to the Center, even though this method has been referred to in the plan as “preferential.”
Under a subheading, “Tsunami,” the document states: “Not significant.” Referring to seismic activity, it concludes: “No active fault within 5km.” But M.V. Ramana, a physicist at Princeton University’s Nuclear Futures Laboratory, said these conclusions reminded him of an assertion by the atomic energy department in 1986 that tsunamis did not occur in India. That was eighteen years before a tsunami, triggered by an earthquake, devastated India’s southern coast, killing an estimated 18,000 people and displacing another 600,000 while inundating homes in Idinthakarai village, twenty minutes from the new atomic park. Three miles of coastline to the west of Kudankulam were smashed by waves as high as 31 feet.
Villagers were also alarmed by disclosures of construction flaws at the plant, where operators repeatedly missed construction and budgetary deadlines. Soon after the double containment domes topping the first reactor in Kudankulam were finished, for example, contractors were forced to crack them open so they could rethread power and control cables that somehow had been left out by Indian engineers. According to a 2010 report from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board prepared for the Atomic Energy Commission, seen by the Center, the initial build, especially the wiring, did not match the specifications sent from Russia. The nuclear corporation said Russian manuals for the reactor’s control system had been delivered late, and said the engineers had been forced to improvise, as they were “unfamiliar with the system they were dealing with.”
Russian engineers subsequently told the Indian regulator and plant operators in 2012, in a note dated September 16, and seen by the Center, that the repairs were so poor that “magnetic interference” now hampered critical safety equipment in the reactor, rendering it ineffective. The Indian regulator, department of atomic energy and spokesman at the Ministry of External Affairs declined to comment on these conclusions, or to say whether the faults were ever fixed.
Then, on May 21, 2013, the Russian Federation’s Investigative Committee announced that officials at ZiO-Podolsk, a subsidiary of Rosatom, a state nuclear corporation, had deliberately substituted cheap, substandard steel to fashion components for nuclear reactors sold to India, Korea, Bulgaria and China. The Chinese authorities had triggered the committee’s inquiry after engineers found more than 3,000 inferior components at its Tianwan Nuclear Power Plant, on the Yellow Sea, in Jiangsu.
Activists in Kudankulam demanded to know what engineers at the atomic plant knew, submitting a Right to Information (RTI) request. The plant operators initially responded by stating that they had “no information regarding any investigation against [the Russian supplier].”
However, one of the Russian investigators told the Center in an interview in January that Indian officials had travelled to Russia for a three-day trip in July 2012, five months after an executive in ZiOPodolsk had been arrested in connection with the fraud. During this visit, the Indian delegation was briefed on the official inquiry. A document later released under Indian RTI laws named the officials as “Special Secretary Mr. A. P. Joshi, Deputy Secretary Mr. Ninian Kumar and the Manager of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Mr. Dzhogesh Pady,” confirming the account given by Russian investigators. According to an official on the Russian inquiry team, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the issue, Russian investigators “felt certain” that those under arrest in Russia had “Indian accomplices” who “were paid to conceal complaints on component failures.”
The Center put these allegations to plant operators, the Department of Atomic Energy and to the official government spokesman, but all declined to comment.
In January 2013, an internal Indian nuclear corporation report, seen by the Center, acknowledged that “engineers are still reviewing thousands of the components” sent by ZiO-Podolsk. But four months later, Nalinish Nagaich, the nuclear corporation’s executive director, claimed that only four faulty valves had been detected and replaced at the plant, according to media reports. Since then, and despite repeated requests for information by Indian scientists and local residents, the plant operators and their bosses at the Department of Atomic Energy have declined to talk about the investigation.
Warnings met by secrecy
A. Gopalakrishnan, a lanky, long-faced south Indian nuclear engineer, has spent his professional life posing awkward questions to industry colleagues, and as a result, he regards the problems at Kudankulam as systemic rather than isolated.
Educated in India, Gopal, as he is known, completed his doctorate at U.C.-Berkeley, before working on NASA projects and at the Argonne National Laboratory. He missed his homeland, however, and in 1976, two years after the Republic conducted its first nuclear tests, he returned to work on India’s covert civil and military nuclear program. He became chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board in 1993 and left his post in 1996 to embark on a teaching career, after warning his superiors, in a damning report, of 134 safety problems, some of them critical, at Indian nuclear installations, 95 of which were “top priority” — and some of which reached back to 1979 when they had been marked as requiring “urgent action.” His contract subsequently was not renewed, an unusual event. But he is still a powerful critic of India’s nuclear establishment and much-respected, remains close to his country’s nuclear researchers, engineers and scientists.
The construction problems at Kudankulam, he said in an interview in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, were “an astonishing if not disastrous miscalculation.” Reflecting on the wiring crisis that had knocked out safety systems, he said he worried that Indian technicians “will not hesitate from bending or breaking the rules to meet deadlines.” The subsequent scandal at the nuclear park involving ZiO-Podolsk was “the latest in a long line of crises that could have been learned from but instead have been buried.”
One of the first reactors Gopal comprehensively reviewed after becoming chairman of the regulatory board was at the Narora nuclear power station, 90 miles southeast of Delhi. There, on March 31, 1993, one of two Canadian-designed reactors began making rumbling noises. Seconds later, choking smoke clogged the control room, triggering panic, and the electricity failed. The reactor failed to shut down automatically, and when an engineer activated a manual override, he discovered its backup systems did not work.
R. Chidambaram, secretary to the Department of Atomic Energy that runs India’s nuclear project, told reporters that “there was no problem at Narora.” He added: “This kind of failure … has happened for the first time.” But Gopal learned that a turbine had lost some blades due to fatigue, and that the resulting shrapnel had clattered into others, rupturing a coolant pipe. The heating that followed sparked a fire fed by leaking lubricating oil, and flames chewed through four unshielded power cables, cutting off electricity, triggering the blackout. The electric cables were supposed to have been clad in fire-retardant insulation, a recommendation accepted globally after a blaze at the Brown’s Ferry nuclear reactor, on the Tennessee River in Alabama, in 1979. General Electric’s technicians had also warned manufacturers in India about the turbine blade flaws years earlier, with local supplier Bharat Heavy Electricals making drawings for new blades, designs that were rejected. A panel convened by the plant operator concluded, in a report submitted three months after the disaster, and seen by the Center, that a “catastrophic explosion and meltdown” had been narrowly avoided.
These were not isolated errors, according to a survey published in an academic journal in 2013. Conducted by M.V. Ramana, the Princeton physicist, and Carnegie Mellon mechanical engineer Ashwin Kumar, who analyzed data sent by India to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, they learned that a station known as RAPS 1, in the western desert state of Rajasthan, had been shut down twice in 1981 and once in 1982 because of vibrations caused by failing turbine blades — well before the Narora incident. Turbines at other reactors experienced vibrations from faulty blades, and in 1985, a reactor at a plant known as MAPS, 30km outside Chennai, India’s fifth largest city, was shut down repeatedly due to vibrations; it happened again in 1989 and 1990.
Then, on May 13, 1994, the inner containment dome at Kaiga nuclear power station, in the western state of Karnataka, crumbled, dropping 130 tons of concrete 90 feet. If the reactor’s control rods had been present they could have been destroyed, preventing the reactor from being regulated. It was the first incident of its kind anywhere in the world.
Gopal said his investigation showed the existence of a “corrupt nexus” of local builders and plant engineers that had used unsuitable materials to build the domes, without appropriate testing — a theme that would reoccur in Kudankulam in 2014. Gopal tried to establish a special inquiry into the causes but says he was discouraged from doing so.
A month later, in June 1994, the Kakrapar power station in India’s western state of Gujarat flooded when engineers opened a nearby dam after heavy monsoons. Although the nuclear corporation said that “nothing untoward happened,” Manoj Mishra, the head of a local trade union, said in an interview that managers had failed to install flood protection and that when it occurred his men watched as dozens of canisters of highly radioactive waste that were supposed to have been submerged in a pond floated away. No one would tell him how many canisters were missing.
Horrified, and ignored by his superiors, who had failed to notify the local authorities, as was required, Mishra wrote a letter revealing what had happened to the editor of the Gujarat Samachar, a large local newspaper, only for the corporation to fire him. Mishra fought the decision until 2013, when the Supreme Court finally dismissed his case. The court recognized that Mishra “can appropriately be described as a whistleblower for the system who has tried to highlight the malfunctioning of an important institution,” but added that, because he was “neither an engineer, nor an expert on the functioning of the Atomic Energy Plants,” the motive behind his revelations was not “in furtherance of public good.”
Ramana at Princeton was incredulous: “In what way is the education level of Manoj Mishra relevant to deciding if he was a whistleblower?” He added: “For Mishra to become an expert, he would necessarily have to have spent several years at the Department of Atomic Energy’s training school, during the course of which he would likely not just have learnt about nuclear reactor physics and engineering, but also become indoctrinated to trust authority and support … policies of secrecy unquestioningly."
This troubling record on safety, oversight and accountability extends to facilities that support India’s nuclear weapons program. Gopal said he discovered during his tenure that the Dhruva reactor — which makes weapons-grade plutonium at the Bhabha Atomic Research Center in Trombay, a suburb of Mumbai — was allowed to run for almost one month with an emergency coolant valve fused shut. At the nearby CIRUS research reactor, which produced India’s weapons-grade plutonium for the country’s first nuclear explosion in 1974, an underground pipeline carrying radioactive fluids burst in 1991, “contaminating hundreds of tons of subsoil,” with cesium-137 and a cocktail of “other lethal isotopes,” Gopal said. A second leak, on May 14, 1992, in a waste treatment plant in the same complex, “contaminated the location,” he added. At fuel reprocessing and fabrication units, from Hyderabad in the South to Maharashtra in the West, there were “high levels of airborne radioactive dust.” He heard of “frequent minor explosions in active chemical reactors.”
Similar alarms have been sounded by Buddhi Kota Subbarao, a highly-decorated former Naval captain and electrical engineer working on submarine nuclear propulsion. In 1988, a year after retiring, he was arrested on his way to a presentation in the United States and charged with attempting to smuggle secrets out of the country. He subsequently spent twenty months in custody, during which he studied to become a lawyer, and then fought for five years to clear his name. The Supreme Court of India finally quashed all charges in 1993, and a former judge of the Supreme Court, Justice V.D. Tulzapurkar, who had not sat in on the case, wrote in support to local newspapers, warning that Subbarao had been subjected to a “miscarriage of justice” by nuclear officials keen to discredit a critic and salvage their own reputations.
Undaunted, in 1999 Subbarao published a report for a nonprofit group called Manushi that revealed how both the CIRUS and Dhruva reactors had contaminated soil, water and vegetation near their discharge lines with cesium-137, a radionuclide that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns significantly increases the risk of cancer. Some of the irradiated waste flowed through the plant’s storm drains and into a creek that runs into Mumbai’s port, poisoning fish and leaching into grassland nearby. He also said India had tolerated radiation levels at its nuclear facilities that exceeded limits set by international agencies.
After Gopal submitted his report criticizing the Department of Atomic Energy for tolerating safety practices “far below” international standards and outlining 95 “top priority” issues, he was let go, in his view, for “telling the truth too loudly.” However, he developed a following. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties, a citizens’ legal group, filed a public interest petition in the Bombay High Court to get Gopal’s report published, as did a second, pacifist organization based in Mumbai. His successor at the AERB, R. Chidambaram, declined to say if the critical flaws identified by Gopal had been fixed, and claimed that to publish information on this issue would “cause irreparable injury to the interests of the State and will be prejudicial to national security.” The Bombay High Court dismissed the petitions for the report’s release, and when an appeal was lodged in India’s Supreme Court, Gopal attached his name to it, warning that “serious nuclear accidents” could take place at some facilities if the issues he had identified were not remedied. In January 2004 the Supreme Court rejected the appeal, ruling that information concerning nuclear installations should remain secret.
Gopal said in the interview that secrecy and the absence of an independent nuclear regulator still create huge risks. At present, the chairman of the six-person board of regulators, the Atomic Energy Regulation Board, reports to the overall head of the Department of Atomic Energy that it is supposed to regulate, and to the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, the country’s apex policy making body on nuclear issues. Gopal said: “I cannot imagine a more subservient existence.”
The arrangement also makes American officials who help oversee the safety of nuclear reactors uneasy. According to a State Department cable obtained by Wikileaks, when Dale Klein, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Committee, met with Shyam Saran, the Indian prime minister’s special envoy, in November 2008, Klein stressed the need for “a strong, independent regulatory body.” But no change has occurred since then and in August 2012, India’s comptroller and auditor general similarly criticized the board for remaining “subordinate to the central government” and said “the failure to have an autonomous and empowered regulator is fraught with grave risks.”
The government proposed a reform bill in 2011 that created a Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority, but it still called for members to be appointed by those in power, and it still gives the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission a leading role in its operation. The Indian Parliament has not yet approved it, and in March the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a special statement reminding India that the new board’s regulatory independence should be enshrined in law and “separated from other entities having responsibilities or interests that could unduly influence its decision making.”
Experts in Australia, a key nuclear trading partner with India, are also worried. The Australian Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Treaties recommended on September 8, 2015, that until this measure and other new safety and security practices are implemented, no Australian uranium should be sold to India. Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull responded in November, however, that sales would go ahead anyway.
Gopal’s view is that nothing has changed. If anything, the authorities and regulators have clammed up even more, he says. “No one seems to be worried, even though the government seems less and less interested in the public’s safety.”
The AERB, India’s regulator, the government’s official spokesman and the plant operators NPCIL were all asked for comment, as was the Department of Atomic Energy, but they all declined.
Adrian Levy is an investigative reporter and filmmaker whose work has appeared in the Guardian, The Observer, The Sunday Times, and other publications. His most recent books are: The Meadow, about a 1995 terrorist kidnapping of Westerners in Kashmir, and The Siege: The Attack on the Taj, about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
Rubio and his super PAC allies aired more than 2,500 TV ads during the first two weeks of December, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of preliminary data provided by Kantar Media/CMAG, a firm that tracks TV ads on broadcast and national — but not local — cable.
That amounted to nearly two TV ads every hour targeting voters in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire — and about five-and-a-half TV ads every hour in Iowa, which hosts the nation’s first nominating caucus on Feb. 1. None were attack ads. All praised Rubio.
Television advertisements are a crucial way of reaching voters. They can also be incredibly expensive, with groups sometimes paying tens of thousands of dollars to air a single spot during a prime programming window.
Team Rubio’s early December advertising barrage represented more ads supporting any other candidate in the race except one — fellow Floridian Jeb Bush, the state’s former governor, who has struggled to gain traction despite a months-long advertising blitz underwritten by his super PAC supporters.
Bush and his supportive super PAC aired about 3,000 TV ads during the first two weeks of December, according to Kantar Media/CMAG. But all the ads — or money — in the world don’t necessarily buy a candidate love, said Iowa State University political science professor David Andersen.
“Bush is coming across as kind of bland and stale,” Andersen said. “He’s having a really tough time resonating with voters.”
More than 90 percent of the pro-Bush ads were sponsored by Right to Rise USA, the super PAC that Bush helped found and for which he helped raise millions of dollars prior to officially entering the 2016 White House race.
Slightly more than half of the pro-Rubio ads so far in December have been sponsored by Rubio’s own campaign. Unlike super PAC ads, candidates have full control over the ads their own campaigns sponsor.
And Rubio now ranks second behind Trump among New Hampshire voters, according to an aggregation of polls by Real Clear Politics. The Granite State holds the first primary of the presidential race on Feb. 9.
To fuel his campaign spending, Rubio has also been endeavoring to win over Republican rainmakers such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., which owns the Venetian casino, where tonight’s GOP presidential debate will be conducted.
Throughout much of 2015, Rubio was boosted on the TV airwaves by a nonprofit group called the Conservative Solutions Project. Because it is organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, is not required to publicly disclose its funders despite engaging in election season politics.
The group reportedly spent more than $8.5 million on ads touting Rubio between June and late November. Since then, it’s been off the airwaves, and its sister super PAC — known as the Conservative Solutions PAC — has revved its political engine.
Filings with the Federal Election Commission show the Conservative Solutions PAC has spent more than $3.9 million so far this month on media buys and online advertising.
The pro-Rubio super PAC's major funders include billionaire auto dealer Norman Braham of Miami, a former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles NFL team, and billionaire Larry Ellison of California, the founder of computer technology company Oracle Corp.
Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said it was a “smart move” for Rubio to wait until closer to the start of the primaries to begin advertising in earnest.
“What residual benefit remains from running ads in October now?” he said.
“I don’t even know if there is any,” he continued. “The effects [of TV ads] can be fleeting.”
Overall, the Republican presidential race has already seen more than 47,000 ads this year, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s review of Kantar Media/CMAG data.
Candidates' own campaigns have been responsible for about one of every five TV ads in the race — a percentage that has been increasing in recent weeks.
Well-funded outside groups — including super PACs and "dark money" nonprofit groups — have, meanwhile, been responsible for about four of every five TV ads in the contest.
Right to Rise USA — which has spent more than $40 million promoting Bush’s candidacy so far — has alone been responsible for about one of every three ads in the Republican presidential race.
Unlike candidates' own campaigns, super PACs and politically active nonprofits can collect contributions of unlimited size from individuals, corporations and labor unions.
Presidential candidates can only raise up to $5,400 per person, and they may not accept money from companies or unions.
Notably, Trump, the Republican Party front-runner, has not aired a single TV ad, according to Kantar Media/CMAG.
His campaign, however, has paid for at least $200,000 in radio advertising, and it has also benefited from extensive exposure on news and entertainment programs.
The campaigns of Bush, Rubio and Trump did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did representatives of the Conservative Solutions PAC, Conservative Solutions Project or Right to Rise USA.
This story was co-published with Al Jazeera America.
Challakere, India— When laborers began excavating protected pastureland in India’s southern Karanataka state in 2012, members of the nomadic Lambani tribe were startled. For centuries, the scarlet-robed herbalists and herders had freely crisscrossed the undulating meadow there, known as kavals, and this uprooting of their rich landscape came without warning or explanation.
By autumn, Puttaranga Setty, a wiry groundnut farmer from Kallalli, encountered a barbed wire fence blocking off a well-used trail. His neighbor, a herder, discovered that the road from this city to a nearby village had been diverted elsewhere. They rang Doddaullarti Karianna, a weaver who sits on one of the village councils that funnel India’s sprawling democracy down to the grass roots.
Karianna recalls being baffled and frightened by the news. He said the 365,000 residents of the farming and tribal communities that live in over sixty villages alongside the kavals believe they are protected by a female deity that rises from the pasture, and so the “thought of not having [access to] the kavals was terrifying; like saying there will be no Gods.”
Officials with India’s state and central governments refused to answer his questions. So Karianna sought legal help from a combative ecological-advocacy group in Bangalore that specializes in fighting illegal encroachment on greenbelt land. But the group’s lawyers were also stymied. Officials warned its lawyers that the prime minister’s office was running the project from New Delhi.
“There is no point fighting this, we were told,” Leo Saldanha, a founding member of the advocacy group recalled. “You cannot win.” Indeed, an unprecedented election boycott and protests by thousands of local residents, some violent, have had no effect.
Only after construction on the site began that year did it finally become clear that two secretive agencies were behind a project that experts say will be the subcontinent’s largest military-run complex of nuclear centrifuges, atomic research laboratories and weapons and aircraft testing facilities. Among the project's aims: to expand the government’s nuclear research, to produce fuel for India’s nuclear reactors, and to help power the country’s fleet of new submarines, one of which underwent sea trials in 2014.
But another, more controversial ambition, according to retired Indian government officials and independent experts in London and Washington, is to give India an extra stockpile of enriched uranium fuel that could — if India so decides — be used in new hydrogen bombs (also known as thermonuclear weapons), substantially increasing the explosive force of those in its existing nuclear arsenal.
Such a move would be regarded uneasily by India’s close neighbors, China and Pakistan, which experts say might respond by ratcheting up their own nuclear firepower. Pakistan in particular considers itself a fierce military rival, having been entangled in four major conflicts with India, as well as frequent border skirmishing.
New Delhi has never published a detailed account of its nuclear arsenal, which it first developed in 1974. Until now, there has been little public notice, outside India, about the construction at Challakere and its strategic implications. The government has said little about it, and made no public promises about how the highly enriched uranium to be produced there will be used. As a military facility, it is not open to international inspection.
But a lengthy investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, including interviews with local residents, senior and retired Indian scientists and military officers connected to the nuclear program, and foreign experts and intelligence analysts, has pierced some of the secrecy surrounding the new facility, parts of which are set to open next year. It makes clear that it will give India a nuclear capability – the ability to make many large-yield nuclear arms – that most experts say it presently lacks.
And if these tasks require the trampling of the kavals, so be it.
The independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that India already has between 90 and 110 relatively low-yield nuclear weapons, as compared to Pakistan’s estimated stockpile of up to 120. And China, to India’s north, is estimated to have more than 260 warheads.
China successfully tested a thermonuclear weapon — involving a two-stage explosion, typically producing a much larger force and far greater destruction than single-stage atomic bombs — as long ago as 1967, while India’s scientists claimed to have detonated a thermonuclear weapon in 1998. But test site preparations director K. Santhanam said in 2009 it had “fizzled,” rendering the number and type of such weapons in India’s arsenal uncertain to outsiders.
India, according to a recent report by former Australian nonproliferation chief John Carlson, is one of just three countries that continue to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons (the others are Pakistan and North Korea). The enlargement of India’s thermonuclear program would more clearly position the country alongside Britain, the United States, Russia, Israel, France, and China, which already have significant stocks of such weapons.
Few authorities in India are willing to discuss these matters publicly, partly because the country’s Atomic Energy Act and the Official Secrets Act shroud everything connected to the Indian nuclear program, and in the past have been used to bludgeon those who divulge details. Spokesmen for the two organizations involved in the Challakere construction, the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), which has played a leading role in nuclear weapons design, declined to answer the Center’s questions about the government’s ambitions for the new park, as did the Indian ministry of external affairs.
Western analysts, speaking on condition that they not be named, say however that preparatory work for this effort has been underway for four years, at a second top-secret site known as the Rare Materials Plant, 160 miles to the south in Rattehalli, close to the city of Mysore. Recent satellite photos of that facility have revealed the existence of a new nuclear enrichment complex that is already feeding India’s weapons program, and some Western analysts maintain, laying the groundwork for a more ambitious hydrogen bomb project. It is effectively a test bed for Challakere, they say, a proving ground for technology and a place where technicians can practice producing the highly enriched uranium the military would need.
The environment ministry approved the Mysore site’s construction as “a project of strategic importance” that would cost nearly $100 million in Oct. 2012, according to a letter marked Secret, from the ministry to atomic energy officials that month. Seen by the Center, this letter spells out the ambition to feed new centrifuges with fuel derived from yellowcake — milled uranium ore named after its color — shipped from mines in Jadugoda, 1,200 miles away in India’s north, and to draw water from the nearby Krishna Raja Sagar dam.
Finding authoritative information about the scope and objectives of these two massive construction projects is not easy. “Even for us, details of the Indian program are always sketchy, and hard facts thin on the ground,” a circumstance that leaves room for misunderstanding, a senior Obama administration official said in Washington.
But Gary Samore, who served from 2009 to 2013 as the White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, said "I believe that India intends to build thermonuclear weapons as part of its strategic deterrent against China." Samore said it is unclear when India will realize this goal of a larger and more powerful arsenal, but “they will.”
A former senior British official who worked on nuclear issues likewise said intelligence analysts on both sides of the Atlantic are “increasingly concerned” about India’s pursuit of thermonuclear weapons and “actively monitoring” both sites. U.S. officials in Washington said they shared this assessment. “Mysore is being constantly monitored, and we are constantly monitoring progress in Challakere,” a former White House official said.
Robert Kelley, a former project leader for nuclear intelligence at Los Alamos, who served twice, from 1992-1993 and 2001-2005, as the director of the Iraq Action Team at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said that having analyzed the available satellite imagery, as well as studying open source material on both sites, he believed that India was pursuing a larger thermonuclear arsenal. He warned that its development “will inevitably usher in a new nuclear arms race” in a volatile region, where India, China, and Pakistan have border disputes, wary militaries, and diplomats who sometimes deploy incendiary rhetoric.
However, Western knowledge about India’s weapons are stored, transported and protected, and how the radiological and fissile material that fuels them is guarded and warehoused — the chain of custody — remains rudimentary.
After examining nuclear security practices in 25 countries with “weapons usable nuclear materials,” the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, in January 2014 ranked India’s nuclear security practices 23rd, only above Iran and North Korea. An NTI analyst told the Center India’s score stemmed in part from the country’s opacity and “obfuscation on nuclear regulation and security issues.” But the group also noted the prevalence of corruption in India and the insecurity of the region: the rise of Islamist jihad fronts inside India and in nearby Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as home-grown leftist insurgencies.
“Many other countries, including China, have worked with us to understand the ratings system and better their positions,” but India did not, the analyst said.
Spokesmen for the two organizations involved in the Challakere construction, the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), which has played a leading role in nuclear weapons design, declined comment about the government’s ambitions for the new park.
Like the villagers nearby, key members of the Indian Parliament say they know little about the project. One veteran lawmaker, who has twice been a cabinet minister, said his colleagues are rarely briefed about nuclear weapons-related issues. “Frankly, we in Parliament discover little,” he said, “and what we do find out is normally from Western newspapers.” In an interview with Indian reporters in 2003, Jayanthi Natarajan, a former minister for environment and forests and past member of a parliamentary committee on defense and atomic energy matters, said that she and other members of Parliament had “tried time and again to raise [nuclear-related] issues … and have achieved precious little.”
Starting work while the nuclear deal’s ink is still wet
Nonetheless, lawyers acting for the villagers living close to Challakere eventually forced some important disclosures. The Parliament’s representative for the region heard about plans for the park from the Indian defense minister as early as March 2007, according to a copy of personal correspondence between the two, seen by the Center.
This was the very moment India was also negotiating a deal with the United States to expand nuclear cooperation. That deal ended nearly three decades of nuclear-related isolation for India, imposed as punishment for its first atom bomb test in 1974. U.S. military assistance to India was barred for a portion of this period, and Washington also withheld its support for loans by international financial institutions.
The agreement was highly controversial in Washington. While critics warned it would reward India for its secret pursuit of the bomb and allow it to expand its nuclear weapons work, supporters emphasized language in which India agreed to identify its civilian nuclear sites and open them to inspection by the IAEA.
India also said at the time that it would refrain from conducting new atomic weapons tests. And in return for the waiving of restrictions on India’s civil nuclear program, the President was required to determine that India was “working actively with the United States for the early conclusion of a multilateral treaty on the cessation of the production of fissile materials for use in nuclear weapons.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 2006 that the deal would not trigger an arms race in the region or “enhance [India’s] military capacity or add to its military stockpile.” Rice added: “Moreover, the nuclear balance in the region is a function of the political and military situation in the region. We are far more likely to be able to influence those regional dynamics from a position of strong relations with India and indeed with Pakistan.”
Opponents of the deal complained, however, that it did not compel India to allow inspections of nine reactor sites known to be associated with the country’s military, including several producing plutonium for nuclear arms. The deal also allowed 10 other reactor sites subject to IAEA inspection to use imported uranium fuel, freeing up an indigenously-mined supply of uranium that was not tracked by the international community and could now be redirected to the country’s bomb program.
Given India’s “need to build up [its] nuclear deterrent arsenal as fast as possible,” it should “categorize as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones, to be refueled by imported uranium, and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons grade plutonium production,” strategist Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam, a longtime adviser to the Indian government, notoriously wrote in December 12, 2005, in The Times of India.
By May 2009, seven months after the US-India nuclear cooperation deal was ratified by Congress, the Karnataka state government had secretly leased 4,290 acres adjacent to Varavu Kaval and Khudapura villages in the district of Chitradurga to the defense research group and another 1,500 acres to the Indian Institute of Science, a research center that has frequently worked with the DRDO and India’s nuclear industry, the documents obtained by lawyers showed.
In December 2010, a further 573 acres were leased to the Indian Space Research Organisation and 1,810 acres were bought by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Councilor Karianna said the villagers were not told at the time about any of these transactions, and that the documents, which they saw two years later, “were stunning. We were being fenced in — behind our backs.”
Srikumar Banerjee, the chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, first offered an official glimpse of the project’s ambitions in 2011, when he told CNN’s Indian news channel that the enrichment plant could be used to produce nuclear fuel, or slightly enriched uranium, to power India’s heavy and light water reactors. However, Banerjee added that the site would also have a strategic use, a designation that would keep international inspectors away.
Erecting barricades and draining the local water supply
The sensitivity of the Challakere project became clearer after the legal team filed a lawsuit in 2012 at the High Court of Karnataka demanding a complete accounting of pasture land being seized by the authorities, only to learn from the state land registry that the Indian army was to be granted 10,000 acres too, as the future home for a brigade of 2,500 soldiers. The State Reserve Police, an armed force, would receive 350 acres, and 500 acres more was being set aside for a Commando Training Centre. The nuclear city close to Challakere would, in short, be ringed by a security perimeter of thousands of military and paramilitary guards.
In July 2013, six years after the plans were green-lit by Delhi, the National Green Tribunal — India’s environmental agency — finally took up the villager’s complaints. It dispatched investigators to the scene and demanded that each government agency disclose its ambitions in detail. The DRDO responded that national security trumped the tribunal and provided no more information.
While the IAEA would be kept out, villagers were being hemmed in. By 2013, a public notice was plastered onto an important shrine known as Boredevaragudi warning worshippers it would soon be inaccessible. A popular altar for a local animist ceremony was already out of bounds. The route for a festival of Hiriyara Habba at Khudapura, which celebrated the community’s ancestors, was also blocked.
“Then the groundwater began to vanish,” councilor Karianna said. The district is a semi-arid zone, and local records, still written in ink, show that between 2003 and 2007, droughts had caused the suicides of 101 farmers whose crops failed. Now, due to the construction, a critical man-made reservoir adjacent to Ullarthi was suddenly fenced off. Bore wells dug by the nuclear and military contractors as the construction accelerated siphoned off other water supplies from surrounding villages.
Seventeen miles of 15-foot-high walls began to snake around the villagers’ meadows, blocking grazing routes, preventing them from gathering firewood or herbs for medicine. Hundreds rallied to knock holes into the new ramparts. “They were rebuilt in days,” Karianna said, “so we tried again, but this time teams of private security guards had been hired by someone, and they viciously beat my neighbors and friends.”
BARC and the DRDO still provided no detailed explanations to anyone on the ground about the scope and purpose of their work, Karianna added. “Our repeated requests, pleadings, representations to all elected members at every level have yielded no hard facts. It feels as if India has rejected us.” Highlighting local discontent, almost all of the villagers ringing the kavals boycotted the impending general election, a rare action since India’s birth as an independent democracy.
The growing local discontent, and the absence of public comment by the U.S. or European governments about the massive project, eventually drew the attention of independent nuclear analysts.
Suspicions stoked by satellite photos
Serena Kelleher-Vergantini, an analyst at the Washington, D.C., based nonprofit, the Institute for Science and International Security, scoured all the available satellite imagery in the summer of 2014. Eventually, with the help of the Bangalore-based environmental group, she zeroed in on the construction site in the kavals. The journal IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review was separately doing the same in London, commissioning Kelley, formerly of the IAEA, to analyze images from the Mysore plant.
What struck both of them was the enormous scale and ambition of the projects as well as the secrecy surrounding them. The military-nuclear park in the kavals, at nearly 20 square miles, has a footprint comparable to the New York state capital, Albany. After analyzing the images and conducting interviews with atomic officials in India, Kelleher-Vergantini concluded that the footprint for enrichment facilities planned in the new complex would enable scientists to produce industrial quantities of uranium, although the institute would only know how much when construction had progressed further. As Kelley examined photos of the second site, he was astonished by the presence of two recently expanded buildings that had been made lofty enough to accommodate a new generation of tall, carbon-fiber centrifuges, capable of working far faster to enrich uranium than any existing versions.
Nuclear experts express the productiveness of these machines in Separative Work Units, abbreviated to SWUs (pronounced swooz). Kelley concluded that at the second site, the government could install up to 1,050 of these new hyper-efficient machines, which together with about 700 older centrifuges could complete 42,000 SWUs a year — or enough, he said, to make roughly 183 kilograms (403 pounds) of weapons-grade uranium. A new H-bomb, with an explosive force exceeding 100,000 tons of TNT, would require just 4 to 7 kilograms of enriched uranium, according to the International Panel on Fissile Materials, a group of nuclear experts from 16 countries that seek to reduce and secure uranium stocks.
Retired Indian nuclear scientists and military officers said in interviews that India’s growing nuclear submarine fleet would be the first beneficiary of the newly-produced enriched uranium.
India presently has one indigenous vessel, the INS Arihant, constructed in a program supervised by the prime minister’s office. Powered by an 80-megawatt uranium reactor developed by BARC that went critical in August 2013, it will formally enter military service in 2016, having undergone sea trials in 2014. A second, INS Aridaman, is already under construction, with at least two more slated to be built, a senior military officer said in an interview. Each would be loaded with up to 12 nuclear-tipped missiles. The officer, who was not authorized to be named, said the fleet’s expansion gained a new sense of urgency after Chinese submarines sailed across the Bay of Bengal to Sri Lanka in October 2014, docking in a port facility in Colombo that had been built by Chinese engineers.
Asked what else the additional uranium would be used for, a senior scientist at the DRDO, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it would mostly be used to fuel civilian nuclear power reactors and contribute to what he called “benign medical and scientific programs.” The government has not made such a promise publicly, however, or provided details. India does not have to report what it does with its indigenous uranium, "especially if it is not in the civilian domain,” said Sunil Chirayath, a research assistant professor at Texas A&M University who is an expert on India’s civilian nuclear program.
A senior Obama administration official in Washington, who was not authorized to be quoted by name, expressed skepticism about the government scientist's private claim. The official said that India’s civilian nuclear programs, including power stations and research establishments, were benefiting from new access to imported nuclear fuel (after the embargo’s removal) and now require almost “no homemade enriched uranium.”
India has already received 4,914 tons of uranium from France, Russia, and Kazakhstan, for example, and it has agreements with Canada, Mongolia, Argentina and Namibia for additional shipments. In September 2014, Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia signed an agreement to make Australia a “long-term, reliable supplier of uranium to India,” a deal that has sparked considerable controversy among Australians.
The International Panel on Fissile Materials estimates that the Arihant class submarine core requires only 65kg of uranium, enriched to 30 per cent. Using this figure and the estimated capacity of the centrifuges India is installing in Mysore alone — not even including Challakere — Kelley concluded that even after fueling its entire submarine fleet there would be 160kg of weapons-grade uranium left over, every year, or enough to fuel at least 22 H-bombs.
His calculation presumes that the plant is run efficiently, and that its excess capacity is purposeful and not driven by bureaucratic inertia – two large uncertainties in India, a senior U.S. official noted. But having a “rainy day” stockpile to deter the Chinese might be the aim, the official added.
Attempting to match China’s nuclear arsenal?
A retired official who served inside the nuclear cell at the Indian prime minister’s office, the apex organization that supervises the military nuclear program, conceded that other uses besides submarines had been anticipated “for many years.” He pointed to a “thermonuclear bomb program” as “a beneficiary,” and suggested India had had no choice but to “develop a new generation of more powerful megaton weapons” if it was to maintain “credible minimum deterrence.” Once this meant the bare minimum required to prevent an attack on India, but a new Indian doctrine adopted in 2003 — in response to Pakistan’s increasingly aggressive nuclear posture — altered this notion: “Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.”
The official said: “China has long had a thermonuclear capability, and if India is to have a strategic defense worth its salt, and become a credible power in the region, we need to develop a similar weapon and in deployable numbers.” U.S. and British officials affirmed that they have been aware of this discussion among Indian scientists and soldiers for years.
Asked for comment, Vikas Swarup, India’s official spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi did not respond to email or calls.
In an interview, General Balraj Singh Nagal, who from 2008 to 2010 ran India’s Strategic Forces Command within its Nuclear Command Authority, declined to discuss specific aspects of the nuclear city in Challakere or the transformation of the Rare Materials Plant close to Mysore. But he said that keeping pace with China and developing a meaningful counter to its arsenal was “the most pressing issue” facing India.
“It’s not Pakistan we are looking at most of the time, like most in the West presume,” General Nagal said. “Beijing has long managed a thermonuclear program, and so this is one of many options India should push forwards with, as well as reconsidering our nuclear defense posture, which is outdated and ineffective. We have to follow the technological curve. And where China took it, several decades before us, with the hydrogen bomb, India has to follow.”
The impact of the U.S.-India deal and India’s fissile production surge on the country’s neighbors can already be seen. “Pakistan recently stepped up a gear,” the recently retired British Foreign Office official said. He pointed to an increase in Pakistan’s plutonium production at four new military reactors in Khushab, a reprocessing plant known as Pinstech, near Islamabad, and a refurbished civilian plutonium reprocessing plant converted to military use in Chashma, as well as “the ramping up of uranium production at a site in Dera Ghazi Khan.”
The retired foreign office official added: “India needs to constantly rethink what deterrence means, as it is not a static notion, and everyone understands that. But the balance of power in the region is so easily upset.” The official said that in choosing to remain publicly silent, the United States was taking a risk, evidently to try and reap financial and strategic rewards.
Officials at the Pentagon argued before Washington reached its 2008 nuclear deal with India that lifting sanctions would lead to billions of dollars worth of sales in conventional weapons, according to a U.S. official privy to the discussions.That prediction was accurate, with U.S. exports of major weapons to India reaching $5 billion from 2011 to 2014, and edging out Russian sales for the first time.
“But the U.S. is also looking for something intangible: to create a new strategic partner capable of facing down China,” and so India has taken advantage of the situation to overhaul its military nuclear capability, the British official noted. Pushing back China, said the official, who has worked for 30 years in counter terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and nonproliferation, especially in Southern Asia, is regarded as being “in everyone’s interest.”
White House officials declined to comment on this claim on the record. But Robert Einhorn, the State Department’s former top nonproliferation official, told the Carnegie conference in March that some officials in the Bush administration had the ambition, in making a nuclear deal with India, to “work together to counter China, to be a counterweight to an emerging China.” He added that in his view, that ambition has not been realized, due to India’s historic insistence on pursuing an independent foreign policy. He also said the nuclear deal had unfortunate repercussions, because other nations concluded that Washington was playing favorites with India.
In Challakere, construction continues despite a ruling by the National Green Tribunal on August 27, 2014, that called for a stay on all “excavation, construction and operation of projects” until environmental clearances had been secured. Blocked roads were to be re-opened with access given to all religious sites, said Justice M. Chockalingham and Dr. R. Nagendran of the tribunal. But when villagers have attempted to pass over or through the fences and walls, they are met by police officers who hand out photocopied notes in English: “Environmental clearances has (sic) been awarded [to BARC] dated 24 July 2014, which is a secret document and cannot be disclosed.”
Councilor Karianna said: “Still, to this day, no one has come to talk to me, to explain to us, what they are doing to our land,” which he depicted as being at the “epicenter of historic India.”
The kings of Mysore once used the kavals as a crucible for experimental breeding of the muscular cows, known as Amrit Mahal, recognizable by their ebony hump and ape-hanger horns, which hauled chariots and six-ton cannons into four, bone-crushing campaigns against the British Empire fought in the last three decades of the 18th century. The cattle remain, picking their way between towering rough stone walls and barbed wire fences patrolled by private security guards, while weavers like those in Karianna’s village continue to manufacture thick, black kambli or goat-wool blankets that are bought in bulk by the Indian army for its troops facing down Pakistan and China, and stationed in the thin air of the Himalayas to the north.
“Is this what ‘national interest’ means?” Karianna asked, looking out over the rolling pasture, enveloped in the red dust kicked up by diggers. “We sit beneath out ancient trees and watch them tear up the land, wondering what’s in store.”
National security managing editor R. Jeffrey Smith contributed to this article from Washington, D.C.
Adrian Levy is an investigative reporter and filmmaker whose work has appeared in the Guardian, The Observer, The Sunday Times, and other publications. His most recent books are: The Meadow, about a 1995 terrorist kidnapping of Westerners in Kashmir, and The Siege: The Attack on the Taj, about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
As the kickoff of state legislative sessions approaches in January, the State Integrity Investigation is yielding calls for change from lawmakers, good-government advocates and editorial boards across the country.
In Massachusetts, the House passed an overhaul of the state’s public records law last month, for example, while lawmakers elsewhere have just begun announcing reform proposals for the upcoming sessions.
The investigation, published in November, is a data-driven ranking and assessment of each state’s transparency and anti-corruption measures conducted by the Center and Global Integrity. No state earned better than a C grade.
In several states, publication of poor grades coincided with ethics scandals that have prompted a growing number of political leaders to call for a transformation in how business is done in state capitals. In New York, for example, a series of recent corruption cases culminated this fall with convictions of the former leaders of both the state Senate and Assembly.
Days after the release of the State Integrity Investigation, a coalition of New York advocacy groups issued a press release citing both the lawmakers’ trials and the state’s D- grade to call for substantive ethics reforms. A pair of state legislators, including Assemblyman Michael Montesano, a Republican, did the same. “The great people of New York deserve far better than a D- rated government,” Montesano said in a release.
After trials of both former Senate leader Dean G. Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver ended in convictions just in the past few weeks, more officials joined the chorus. Earlier this month, a group of Independent Democrats in the state Senate said they would renew their push for the adoption of a set of ethics and campaign finance reforms that have failed to pass in recent years. And on Sunday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he would propose several measures next year on campaign finance and public records laws.
Meanwhile, some 1,500 miles to the west, a group called South Dakotans for Ethics Reform submitted more than 25,000 signatures in November to place a measure on the 2016 ballot that would limit lobbyist gifts, strengthen campaign finance disclosures and create in independent ethics commission. South Dakota received an F from the State Integrity Investigation, ranking 47th overall. In a column in the Argus Leader, the group’s co-chairmen, Don Frankenfeld and Rick Weiland, said that the grade “should be setting off alarm bells.” The campaign initially grew out of the first State Integrity Investigation, published in 2012, which also gave South Dakota an F.
Over the past month, dozens of newspaper editorial boards across the country have reacted to the State Integrity Investigation with calls for reform, including the Washington Post, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Seattle Times, Miami Herald and many others.
The Washington Post called for “sustained pressure” on state officials to implement greater transparency and stronger ethics laws. “Anyone who cares about good government will be stunned by the extent to which states lack rules to minimize conflicts of interest, insider deals between lawmakers and lobbyists, and outsize influence for deep-pocketed special interests,” the paper’s editorial board wrote.
The Santa Fe New Mexican lamented New Mexico’s D- grade, writing that the state “doesn’t have to remain mired in the muck of unethical behavior and weak laws.” Less than two weeks later, a group of House Democrats announced plans to introduce a package of ethics bills in the 2016 session, which will last just 30 days. At a news conference, House Minority Leader Brian Egolf told reporters that the recent guilty plea of former Secretary of State Dianna Duran, for embezzling campaign funds, pushed the group to seek an overhaul of the state’s campaign finance and lobbyist reporting system and to create an independent ethics commission.
Lawmakers in Pennsylvania and Tennessee have said their state report cards highlight the need for changes, while officials in several others have said they plan to discuss in their ethics committees or commissions just how they might improve their state’s grade.
In Massachusetts — which earned an F in the category for public access to information in both the first and second State Integrity Investigations — advocacy groups and editorial boards have seized on the grades as part of a campaign to transform the open records law. Good-government groups have said the bill passed by the House in November contains some improvements, such as introducing the possibility for those wrongly denied records to recover legal fees, but also some steps backwards, such as codifying a longer deadline for agencies to comply with requests.
“There has been a growing consensus and now I think it is really understood across the board that our public records law is broken,” said Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, who has lobbied to pass a bill. Wolfe said he’s optimistic the Senate and House can work together to pass a strong law next year, and that citizens in a state so proud of its universities don’t like the idea of getting a failing grade. “I think that, together with a commitment from our local press and organizing by advocates, has really come together to get our policy makers to take this seriously.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed into law on Wednesday measures that transform campaign finance rules and a government accountability board — two bills pushed by the very same conservative political groups implicated in an investigation into his campaign.
The new laws arrive five months after Wisconsin’s state Supreme Court closed a three-year investigation into whether Walker and moneyed conservative nonprofits illegally coordinated campaign strategy during the Republican's 2012 recall campaign for governor. The court cleared Walker and conservative allies of any wrongdoing on the basis that Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws were “unconstitutionally vague and broad,” opening the doors for legislative rewrite.
Then the same groups named in the investigation, Wisconsin’s Manufacturers and Commerce and Wisconsin Club for Growth, pushed for the bills through lobbying and robocalls.
Now, with the victory in hand, they and other groups will be permitted to coordinate more with candidates on campaign strategy, the same activity that prompted what was known as the John Doe investigation.
A separate measure dismantles the Government Accountability Board, the same state agency that launched the probe into Walker's purported coordination with his conservative allies.
“Wealthy, special interests are having a field day in Wisconsin,” said Daniel Tokaji, an election law professor at Ohio State University.
State records show only three groups registered to lobby in favor of the two measures, one of them a familiar name: Wisconsin’s Manufacturers and Commerce, the state chamber of commerce.
Its business advocacy arm — WMC Issues Mobilization Council — was one of the groups named in the John Doe investigation into Walker’s alleged coordination. The group spent an estimated $4.8 million on state-level ads in 2014, running more than 2,000 negative ads targeting Mary Burke, a Democrat who lost to Walker in the gubernatorial race.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin Club for Growth launched a robocall campaign asking voters to ask their legislators to support restructuring the Government Accountability Board, according to The Capitol Times. The conservative nonprofit filed the lawsuit to end the John Doe investigation into its communication with Walker’s campaign team.
Court documents from the John Doe investigation revealed that Walker and Wisconsin Club for Growth coordinated campaign activity in 2012. A Walker aide directed Walker’s donors to conservative nonprofit Wisconsin Club for Growth, which “can accept corporate and personal donations without limitations and no donors disclosure,” as the aide said in an email revealed in court documents.
The two groups themselves are also connected to each other. WMC Issues Mobilization Council received $500,000 from Wisconsin Club for Growth in 2013, according to tax records. Both groups report to the Internal Revenue Service that they do not engage in any political activity.
Neither group responded to requests for comment.
Separately, Americans for Prosperity, a politically active nonprofit backed by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, also lobbied for the bills, according to state records.
Americans for Prosperity, which has staff in 35 states, typically supports conservative Republicans by building a strong ground force in its states. The organization increasingly engages in state and local politics, throwing its hat into the ring in elections as local as school board races.
Though it is not clear how much time Americans for Prosperity spent lobbying for the election bills, the group's lobbying seems to be growing. In just the first half of 2015, the nonprofit spent over $250,000 on lobbying in Wisconsin, more than twice as much as it spent in 2013 and 2014 combined.
Under the new law, groups like WMC Issues Mobilization Council will be permitted to coordinate with candidates on campaign ads, so long as the ads avoid key words like “vote for” or “vote against.”
The law also doubles contribution limits for candidates and removes a measure that required donors to disclose their employers.
Campaign finance lawyer Mike Wittenwyler said the campaign finance law simply codifies pre-existing behavior shaped by previous court decisions.
“It provides some clarity, but it doesn’t do much beyond that,” said Wittenwyler, who represents interest groups both on the right and left.
But Jay Heck, executive director of advocacy group Common Cause in Wisconsin, said the new law will allow for more secret money to flow into the state.
“Wisconsin will become much more ripe for corruption,” Heck said.
Already, Wisconsin scored a D in the Center for Public Integrity’s 2015 State Integrity Investigation. It ranked 20th in the nation largely because of the public’s lack of access to information before these laws were changed.
The second law dismantles the Government Accountability Board, replacing it with two commissions: one that oversees elections and another that oversees ethics. The new boards will each be comprised of six partisan appointees from both parties in a setup that mirrors the gridlocked Federal Election Commission.
The composition of the boards, Heck said, was intentional.
"It’s going to be a toothless agency of partisans,” Heck said. “It’s designed to fail.”
But others see it as a way to prevent witch hunts.
“It’s my hope that the new bi-partisan agency will protect the rights of Wisconsinites instead of trampling them,” read a statement by Eric Bott, director of Wisconsin’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity.
One person familiar with the influx of money in Wisconsin elections is Penny Bernard Schaber, a former Democratic assemblywoman who ran for state Senate in 2014. WMC Issues Mobilization Council aired about $153,000 worth of TV ads attacking Bernard Schaber for raising taxes while taking a pay raise, a claim she says was factually untrue.
“Tell Penny Bernard Schaber not every piece of the pie belongs to the government,” the ad’s narrator says.
The new laws, she said, will only continue to saturate Wisconsin politics in money from “untraceable” sources.
“It’s nearly impossible to fight these kinds of ads and spending,” Bernard Schaber said.
And regulating the flow of money will be much more difficult with the dismantling of the Government Accountability Board, said Tokaji at Ohio State University.
“If in the future, people in Wisconsin see their politics becoming more corrupt, they can look back at this year and the signing of these bills as a pivotal moment,” Tokaji said.
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