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- Date on which Trump's campaign last aired a TV ad: May 4, 2016
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- Build a more diverse staff that isn’t “predominately white, male managers.”
- “More frequent and detailed communication from senior management,” including faster updates about staffing changes, IT breakdowns and the status of a possible move of the agency’s headquarters.
- Hold top managers accountable for “raising the quantity and quality of output from chronically disaffected and unmotivated employees.” If such employees don’t respond, managers must take “necessary steps to discipline and/or remove those employees who are not fulfilling their responsibilities.”
- Provide more opportunities to climb the agency’s job ladder. “[M]any employees feel discouraged about their changes for advancement and promotion. This has created high levels of frustrations among many,” the report states.
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KINGSTON, Tenn. — It was April 28, 2014, five years after Craig Wilkinson’s 12-month stint as a backhoe operator at a massive coal-ash spill in Tennessee. Wilkinson was desperate for answers. Bearing a list of metals — arsenic, lead, mercury and others concentrated in coal ash — he arrived at a clinic specializing in toxic exposures. Maybe someone there could tell him what was coursing through his body.
Wilkinson, then 56, adopted a “weather-through-it” mentality on the job. But his body had betrayed him since he had signed on as a cleanup worker following a dike failure that unleashed a billion gallons of ash from a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant.
His vision grew dull, his head dizzy. Within months, he experienced a cough so persistent that it left him gasping for breath. By 2012, he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung ailment. He attributed the condition to an old smoking habit — until his lungs worsened. A nodule sprouted on one lobe; pneumonia wreaked havoc on both. When he began coughing up blood, he suspected a connection to his work.
The TVA spill marked a turning point in the debate over the dangers of coal ash, an often-toxic byproduct of coal-fired electricity. In December 2008, an earthen dam collapsed at a pond brimming with ash generated by the utility’s Kingston Fossil Fuel Plant, 36 miles southwest of Knoxville. The cascading waste deluged nearly 400 acres in gray muck, destroying houses and dirtying a river, along with several inlets. It ranks among the largest industrial disasters in American history.
The disaster thrust coal ash disposal into the public consciousness. Immediately afterward, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pledged to regulate this industrial waste, sparking a battle in Washington that is still playing out. In 2014, the agency set national standards that amount to guidelines for the states — guidelines that call for treating the ash as if it were household trash. Weakened by loopholes, the EPA rule is the product of vigorous lobbying by the utility industry. Across the country, meanwhile, coal ash has fouled water sources and endangered public health.
But little attention has been paid to workers like Wilkinson. Records show employees at individual power plants have complained to federal health investigators about ill effects from ash exposure as far back as the 1970s. The broader question of occupational harm remains unknown. Overwhelmingly, the body of research on coal ash has examined its risks to the environment and the health of communities abutting the nation’s 1,400 ash ponds and landfills — not workers.
“This whole question of worker exposure has been vastly underexplored,” says Barbara Gottlieb, the environment and health director at Physicians for Social Responsibility, who co-authored a report on illnesses caused by the ash’s most common contaminants in 2010. There is scant information available on those working at regulated coal ash dumps, she says, let alone unregulated sites where the ash gets recycled.
“I’m sure there is a lot of routine exposure,” Gottlieb says, but “we aren’t paying attention to this class of workers.”
Now, some workers are stepping forward and filing lawsuits targeting specific ash sites. More than a half-dozen such cases have surfaced around the country in the past three years. Most of the litigation alleges workers handled coal ash without proper protection, exposing them to contaminants and making them sick; the workers say they were led to believe the ash was safe. Lawsuits are pending against an Ohio-based utility, a Utah ash-recycling company and a TVA contractor; each defendant has denied the allegations in court filings. A fourth case filed by a contractor against a Virginia utility was dismissed.
As for Wilkinson, tests revealed a frightening stew of chemicals in his urine.
Thousands of exposed workers
Maryland lawyer Roy Mason says worker exposure to coal ash remains “very much under the radar.” In 2013, he filed two wrongful-death suits in Utah district court against the ash-recycling company based in that state on behalf of the widows of two welders who, for 12 years, had repaired its ash-storage facilities. According to the complaints, the welders, wearing only safety goggles, stood inside metal silos, waist-deep in ash, as clouds of dust swirled overhead. In 2010, both developed cancer.
“I guarantee there are thousands of [workers] out there exposed to coal ash and sick because of it,” Mason says.
Dozens have surfaced in lawsuits involving the TVA spill. In 2013, 35 workers and 17 spouses sued the primary contractor for the Kingston cleanup, charging that the company knew about the ash’s risks but failed to protect them. Workers were sickened by “continuous, unlawful exposure to . . . hazardous substances associated with the toxic ash,” according to the complaint, and have suffered ailments such as skin irritations, and neurological, respiratory and pulmonary problems. The lawsuits accuse Jacobs Engineering Group — the contractor hired by TVA to manage hazards posed by the ash during the Kingston cleanup — of misleading workers about safety, as well as failing to provide proper protective equipment, air monitoring and safety training, among other allegations. Last year, another 15 workers, including Wilkinson, and two workers’ spouses filed similar claims.
Jacobs declined to comment for this article, citing the pending litigation. But in a 2013 court filing, it called the workers’ claims “scurrilous,” and moved to dismiss them. The company developed a safety and health plan for the TVA spill site that, according to its filing, “identifies various hazards . . . including constituents of [coal] ash,” which was approved by TVA and disseminated to subcontractors and their workers. Ash exposures, it said, never exceeded allowable limits.
Waste generator TVA declined interview requests and did not respond to written questions from the Center for Public Integrity. The utility, while not named a party in the workers’ complaints, cited the litigation in a brief statement provided to the Center. “TVA will not be part of trying a case in the media before the courts,” it said. During the cleanup, the utility issued statements touting its commitment to worker health and safety and its efforts to monitor coal ash exposures.
“Protecting public health and the environment has been a priority,” it said in a 2014 news release. “TVA partnered . . . to analyze thousands of air and water samples to confirm that the air and water continue to meet public health standards.”
Records suggest federal labor investigators rarely appeared on the spill site. A response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Center shows that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration received a complaint in 2009 about working conditions there. Workers were “over-exposed” to radiation and arsenic and “working without respirators,” the complaint alleged. OSHA deferred to TVA to investigate the alleged violations. The results of that investigation are unclear: 68 of the 93 pages in the OSHA file provided to the Center were redacted. Records show OSHA inspectors conducted only one health inspection at the site in 2011, which yielded no citations. By the time Wilkinson heard that cleanup workers were getting sick, he had already been wondering about his time at the TVA spill in 2009 and 2010. It seemed to coincide with what he calls his “downhill slide.”
At the clinic, Wilkinson gave urine samples. Tests revealed the presence of 11 metals in his urine, including unusually high levels of lead, mercury and uranium. A specialist suggested that two of the metals — cadmium and nickel — could have come from Wilkinson’s 30 years as a smoker, but not the rest.
“It was like the light bulb going on for me,” says Wilkinson, who no longer smokes. “That was an ‘ah-ha’ moment.”
‘They made it nice’
In Kingston, where grassy knolls and glistening rivers coalesce, it is hard to find signs of the nation’s largest coal-ash catastrophe. Once blanketed in dirty sludge, which ruptured gas lines, blocked rail cars and clogged the Emory River, the TVA spill site is now covered with vegetation; the area around the plant has been transformed into a public park, with fishing docks and manicured trails.
After an extensive cleanup and study — during which 100 scientists monitored everything from water quality to wildlife — government officials and academic researchers alike have concluded the coal-ash contamination will cause little lasting harm. In 2015, federal authorities shuttered the so-called Kingston Recovery Effort, declaring the remediated site mostly ash-free. By then, the cleanup had taken six years and cost $1.2 billion.
“They made it nice is all I know,” says Johnny Church, 66, a retired laborer who shoveled coal ash at the spill site for four years. Unlike most, Church wore some protective gear while doing what he calls “all the dirty work” — a Tyvek suit, a dust mask. Now diagnosed with leukemia, he is among the 6 percent of 900 total cleanup workers who have signed onto the coal-ash lawsuits.
Taking in the well-groomed parkland, he says, “It looks nothing like it did when we were in it, breathing this stuff every day.”
In the aftermath of the TVA spill, the ash slurry — enough to fill 153 Olympic-sized swimming pools — extended 300 acres beyond the plant’s 84-acre “containment area,” forming “ash bergs” up to 60 feet tall. The Emory turned thick and brown, like a chocolate milkshake. On land, the ash hardened into gray craters and mounds resembling the surface of the moon.
Workers spent much of the ensuing four years moving the ash — 5.4 million cubic yards in all. They used dredging machines to scrape it, excavators to scoop it, bulldozers to shovel it. “It was like an assembly line of ash,” says Wilkinson, who, stationed atop a backhoe, pushed ash piles from the shore toward a platform, where the material was loaded onto railroad cars bound for an Alabama landfill.
Many remember being immersed in this slurry, wading in it up to their knees. The sludge, dense and constricting, pulled boots off their feet. Wet ash doused their clothes. By the end of a 12-hour shift, workers found the ash caked on their hands, face, hair and teeth. “It was like working in a mud hole,” says Ansol Clark, 65, a retired truck driver who, from 2009 to 2013, traversed the site all day, every day, delivering fuel to 350 pieces of machinery. He wore the standard garb: a hard hat, safety glasses, gloves.
Once the coal ash dried, a gray dust overtook the site. Workers say it coated even the biggest machines; inside cabs, it covered floorboards, dashboards, windows. Some recount flipping on the heat, only to get a blast of it in the face. To them, ash dust seemed to infiltrate everything — the lunch trailer, the portable toilets, their own cars.
Many describe it as having a chalky taste, a chemical smell. At night, ash particles hung in the air, shining like crystals in the sky.
Those on this early cleanup had little reason to wonder what those particles contained. No one in authority discussed the ash’s hazards at first, workers say. They say they remember Jacobs supervisors playing down the dangers, likening the ash to dirt. A former employee of a subcontractor who took orders from TVA managers backs up these claims.
“They actually told us we could eat two pounds a day,” head foreman Bradford Green testified in a deposition associated with one worker’s case. “It wouldn’t hurt you.”
Such assurances echoed the official word at the time. In the aftermath of the spill, TVA — a federally owned utility — issued multiple statements on potential health hazards posed by coal ash. All were reassuring. In a 2009 report examining the initial response to the disaster, the TVA’s inspector general criticized the utility’s release of “inaccurate and inconsistent information.” TVA public-relations employees, for example, took a red pen to one “talking points” memo, deleting references to the ash’s “risk to public health and risk to the environment” and inserting descriptions of it as “mostly . . . inert.”
“TVA was downplaying and denying . . . the disaster,” says Gregory Button, a retired anthropology professor at the University of Tennessee who has studied environmental calamities. He interviewed dozens of residents, workers and officials about the spill, and remembers utility employees and contractors insisting the ash was harmless.
“They thought they could gloss over it,” says Button, who wrote about what he calls the “doubt and misinformation” generated by TVA in a 2010 book about disaster culture.
Government data contradicted the TVA rhetoric. In December 2008, the EPA tested river water after the spill and found elevated levels of eight heavy metals. Arsenic was present in the Emory in concentrations 149 times safety standards. Independent scientists concurred. A team of researchers mostly from Duke University also detected contaminants — especially arsenic — in surface waters. They found high levels of arsenic and radium in the ash itself and warned that airborne dust could pose “a severe health impact on local communities and workers.”
“It was a double whammy or worse,” Laura Ruhl, the lead Duke researcher and now a University of Arkansas earth sciences professor, says of the combination of toxic metals and radioactivity.
Shea Tuberty, a biologist and environmental toxicologist at Appalachian State University, worked with another team of researchers assessing the ecological fallout in the Emory River from the TVA spill — 17 metals in the ash, including arsenic in concentrations up to 300 times safety standards. What alarmed him most, he says, were cenospheres, components of coal ash produced by the combustion process.
Tuberty likens cenospheres to Christmas tree ornaments: They are round, hollow particles that break into tiny, sharp fragments. They consist mostly of silica and aluminum. His analysis of the TVA ash showed that some cenospheres contained what he calls “really interesting gel bubbles.” That gel turned out to be iron oxide coated with arsenic at levels exceeding by the thousands the health thresholds for aquatic and human life.
Inhaled, these microscopic particles can cause damage in two ways, he says: by their sharp edges and by the toxic metals they harbor.
To Tuberty, the implications for cleanup workers seem obvious. “Somebody standing in the ash, shoveling it in the truck?” he asks. “If they weren’t wearing masks, forget it.”
‘Dust, dust, dust’
In May 2009, the EPA became a presence on the TVA spill site, ironing out an agreement to oversee the utility-financed cleanup under the federal Superfund law. At the time, EPA officials were debating whether to categorize coal ash as “hazardous” — a distinction required by the law. Under an administrative order and consent agreement, they classified the TVA ash as a “pollutant” containing arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, selenium and zinc. All are hazardous substances as defined under Superfund.
The Superfund designation ushered in a methodical operation. Jacobs developed a 319-page plan addressing workplace safety and health for the Kingston cleanup. Its plan outlined mandatory training, testing requirements and use of protective equipment. It also identified “major hazards,” including “chemical hazards associated with handling [coal] ash.” Under the plan, workers attended safety briefings and training sessions at which, they say, TVA and Jacobs managers highlighted basic procedures — no eating or drinking in ash-laden trucks, for instance. EPA officials established a protocol for entering and exiting the site, complete with a wash station for vehicles and workers’ boots.
The EPA trained much of its attention on dust. It installed five air monitors around the spill perimeter, and implemented dust-suppression measures. Workers remember dousing areas around these monitors to keep billowing clouds on site from escaping into nearby neighborhoods. At one point, according to the EPA, eight “water pigs” circled the property, spraying down surfaces.
Craig Zeller, a project manager in the EPA’s Superfund program who oversaw the Kingston recovery effort, says the mission was simple: “Keep it wet. Keep it wet.” TVA executives attempted other tactics to prevent dust from blowing around — dropping grass seed on coal ash, for example, and sprinkling it with a dust suppressant known as Flexterra.
“On Day One we were keenly aware of dust, dust, dust,” Zeller says. The EPA maintained the dust controls and air monitoring over the next five years until 2014 to safeguard local residents.
TVA and Jacobs safety managers were tasked with monitoring occupational exposures to coal ash. On the job, supervisors handed out personal air monitors to select cleanup workers to test whether they were exposed to unsafe levels of “respirable dust, silica dust, silica quartz, silica cristobalite,” according to worker records. (Silica exposure can cause the deadly lung disease silicosis, as well as lung cancer). Small box-like badges were pinned on those deemed to be at “high risk” by the companies, Zeller says — those who came in frequent contact with coal ash.
“If that was you, you had a personal air filter provided by TVA or Jacobs,” says Zeller, who never wore the device himself because “I was not outside eight hours a day.”
Many who were in the thick of the ash say they never received personal air monitors. Those who did say they rarely saw copies of monitoring results. If they did, their filters always seemed to register levels of exposures below permissible limits, records show. Most came to doubt the tests reflected an accurate workplace environment.
Former workers say other safety practices failed to materialize as well. They remember being told they would be fitted for respirators “but that never happened,” says Billy Gibson, 42, who was on the TVA spill site from 2009 to 2014 — first as a heavy-equipment operator and then as a foreman. Years passed before Gibson would request a respirator fitting, he says, to little avail. Some remember Jacobs executives stocking supply closets with dusk masks, only to let the masks sit on shelves.
“It was a common narrative that [workers] were being denied protective equipment,” says anthropologist Button. He recalls attending a public hearing held by the EPA and TVA, during which a worker’s wife complained that her husband kept bringing home ash-coated clothes.
Of the 900 cleanup employees, workers say only the 200 or so laborers were regularly issued protective equipment. They included Church, who shoveled coal ash out of bulldozer tracks and hosed it off dump truck fenders. At the start, he received Tyvek suits and “little old masks like the kind you wear cutting grass,” he says. The ash soaked his hazmat suit so thoroughly that he had to change it several times per shift, Church says. When he vacuumed vehicles, the dust burned his nostrils. “Those little masks did nothing,” he says.
By the fall of 2009, Church sensed that something was seriously wrong. He felt fatigued; his bones ached. A tingling sensation spread across his hands and feet. Within months, he would undergo a battery of blood tests revealing high levels of lead and a diagnosis of leukemia that his doctor would later attribute to “his exposures to acute concentrations of chemicals in the ash spill,” records show.
Over the ensuing months and years, other workers experienced their own symptoms. Some developed skin allergies, breaking out in red, itchy blisters on their arms and faces. Others endured recurring headaches, diarrhea and nosebleeds. Still others blew out black mucus and coughed up black phlegm. So many workers developed the same respiratory condition that they began calling it the “fly ash flu.”
No one dared to confront TVA and Jacobs supervisors, workers claim, fearing their complaints could cost them well-paid, steady jobs.
“Nobody talked about the coal ash,” says Mike McCarthy, a 53-year-old heavy-equipment operator who worked on the spill for nearly five years. “It was taboo to talk about anything.”
In the nearly eight years since the TVA disaster, a fundamental question has gone unanswered: What is the outlook for those, like Craig Wilkinson, who hauled, dumped, shoveled and spread coal ash with little or no protection?
It is not that the government has ignored the ash’s potential hazards. Days after the TVA spill, Kingston residents complained about worsening symptoms they feared were linked to ash exposures. In a 2009 survey conducted by Tennessee health authorities, 40 percent of 177 households within a mile and a half of the disaster zone reported developing respiratory conditions, such as wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. Some petitioned for a formal evaluation of the spill’s health impacts; in a 2010 assessment, state epidemiologists concluded the ash “should not have caused harm to the community’s health.”
TVA, for its part, commissioned a medical-monitoring program for residents of Roane County, in which the Kingston plant is located. Over eight months in 2010, people from 150 households within two miles of the facility underwent physical exams, blood counts, chest X-rays and other tests measuring “effects on the body related to exposure to [coal] ash,” a 2010 report states. Medical evaluators found there were “no expected long-term effects on physical health” caused by the coal ash spill.
Both evaluations sparked criticism for what Button calls their “soft-sell” conclusions. Neither considered effects on cleanup workers.
“They were treated like collateral damage,” says Anna Clark, the wife of Ansol Clark, the retired trucker.
The inattention to workers extends beyond Kingston. No one has done a comprehensive study on the health consequences of coal ash for the untold thousands handling the waste daily. Kristina Zierold, of the University of Louisville, who has studied the ash’s effects on human health, says few epidemiologists have explored the topic — partly because coal ash is an “emerging environmental problem,” and partly because American workers are “a forgotten population.”
She has scoured the scientific literature, finding fewer than a half-dozen occupational studies. Some date to the 1980s. Others examined utility employees in China. Taken together, the studies found higher rates of lung problems and cancer among workers exposed to coal ash.
Zierold’s own work suggests the ash can be harmful. In 2012, she looked at the prevalence of disease in communities abutting coal-ash dumps in Louisville. Over a year, she compared medical diagnoses and symptoms of 231 people in “exposed” neighborhoods to 170 “non-exposed” controls. The first group had higher rates of lung diseases, kidney problems and heart attacks, among other illnesses. The exposed residents also reported experiencing more ill effects, from skin rashes and respiratory symptoms to neurological conditions.
Zierold is now examining neurobehavioral symptoms like attention deficit disorder and other learning disabilities among children exposed to coal ash. Backed by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health, the five-year study is the only federally funded research exploring a possible link between coal ash and poor health.
Zierold says that no researcher has found a “direct hit that says [coal] ash is associated with this [ailment].”
But some things are known. Scientists and physicians say the biggest threat to human health — be it workers or anyone else — is airborne coal-ash dust. Because the ash is often fine and powdery, its particles can blow off dump trucks and disposal piles, easily becoming re-suspended in the air. Experts say this “fugitive dust” is extremely dangerous. It can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin or ingested.
Gottlieb, of Physicians for Social Responsibility, notes there was a problem with fugitive dust on the TVA spill site. This alone would have posed an “exceedingly high” risk to workers toiling on the site for long shifts over years, she says.
There are several ways airborne dust can make people sick, Gottlieb says. Fine-ash particles can adhere to the lungs and penetrate deep into the body. Many of these particles contain silica, scourge of the respiratory system, as well as metals such as arsenic, chromium and cadmium, which can cause pulmonary and neurological problems and cancer. The metals mix together in the dust and can attack the same organ at once — the kidneys, for example — amplifying the damage.
Gottlieb’s 2010 report summarizes health hazards posed by nine of the ash’s most common metals and concludes that these “coal ash toxics have the potential to injure all of the major organ systems, damage physical health and development, and even contribute to mortality.”
Physician Michael Harbut says he has seen firsthand the occupational harm caused by coal ash. He has long directed the Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Wayne State University in Michigan. Now semi-retired, he has treated steel-mill employees, construction workers and heavy-equipment operators exposed to the ash. The exposures have left many of his patients suffering from a variety of respiratory and pulmonary illnesses, as well as skin disorders.
Harbut says no one should be surprised that the Kingston cleanup workers have developed conditions such as asthma, bronchitis and emphysema. In 10, 20 or 30 years they could be afflicted with cancers of the “breathing apparatus,” as well as blood cancers. Some already may be developing such diseases.
“I’d expect this to be just the beginning,” Harbut says.
‘I wasn’t there to get sick’
For years, cleanup workers say they suffered in silence as their symptoms progressed — until they could no longer. Some, like Clark, quit working at the TVA spill site in 2013 after chest pains turned into a heart arrhythmia. One day, he collapsed on his bedroom floor. “I decided to pull the plug,” he says. He had passed every union physical except his last in Kingston; every year since, his health has gotten worse. In 2015, he suffered a stroke and was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder. His heart doctor has since attributed his atrial fibrillation in part to the coal ash, records show.
Others turned to supervisors for help. John Cox, a 54-year-old truck driver, says he is a non-smoker who never experienced breathing troubles before his four years cleaning up coal ash. By 2013, he had undergone four antibiotic regimens and was on an inhaler and medication for chronic bronchitis. His doctor wrote a prescription requiring him to wear a respirator on the site. Cox remembers handing it to a Jacobs manager.
“He said, ‘We’re not a drug store. We don’t fill prescriptions,’” says Cox, who paid $21 for a respirator from Lowe’s instead. He began hearing that co-workers were having similar encounters. Kevin Thompson, a 36-year-old truck driver, says he requested a break to administer a doctor-prescribed breathing test after producing multiple prescriptions for a dust mask; he was laid off “due to medical reasons,” records show. Foreman Gibson says he also presented a doctor’s note for a respirator when he made his request for a fitting; he was tested twice and laid off the following year. Brian Thacker, a 46-year-old heavy-equipment operator, says he requested a respirator fitting and a medical screening, only to be jettisoned within weeks.
“I done figured out I didn’t need to be there,” says Cox, who says he opted to quit rather than suffer the same fate.
By then, Cox and other cleanup workers had met Jim Scott, the Knoxville lawyer who has filed lawsuits on their behalf against Jacobs Engineering. In 2014, a federal judge dismissed the workers’ original complaint, ruling that the company had a legal protection of immunity because it was acting under the auspices of TVA — a governmental entity shielded from such claims. Last year, an appellate panel overturned the ruling, and Jacobs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In January, the justices declined to review the case, sending it back to federal court.
In May, Jacobs filed another motion to dismiss the litigation, again arguing it has “qualified immunity . . . as a contractor providing services to the federal government.” As part of its filing, the company submitted affidavits from former TVA safety managers who said that “work site health and safety was something TVA . . . took very seriously,” and that they were unaware of any instance in which “Jacobs inappropriately discouraged or prohibited appropriate use by site workers of equipment,” or “intimidated [workers] from reporting ... concerns.”
As the case has progressed through the courts — and a total of 51 workers have come forward to file claims to date — Scott has been tracking his clients’ health issues. He remembers cleanup workers arriving in his office in 2011 and 2012, their faces red, their breathing labored. “It was like they had come out of a coal mine,” he says. Today, according to his latest tally, 32 of 43 clients have respiratory and pulmonary problems including sinus infections, chronic bronchitis and lung diseases. He says he was prepared to see these ailments but not the 10 cancers, a number he calls “unusually high.” Some victims, like Mike Shelton, have died. Shelton endured five bouts of pneumonia and a heart attack while working as a truck driver at the TVA spill site from 2009 until last year, when, at age 51, he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
“He believed that place caused his cancer,” his widow, Angela, says. Her husband had quit smoking years ago, she says, and rarely had been sick before his time in Kingston. Shelton died within six weeks of his diagnosis, and after undergoing surgery to remove a lung.
Wilkinson has avoided a cancer diagnosis so far. But he needs a double lung transplant, a $1 million procedure he expects to get by next year. Every day, he uses six liters of oxygen to breathe, twice what he needed two years ago. He has such regular bouts of pneumonia — three or four in May alone — that his doctors write him prescriptions for antibiotics in advance. All attribute his lung disease in part to the coal ash, records show.
Wilkinson remembers his first day on the job at the TVA spill. “I specifically asked about the ash at orientation,” he says, and was told not to worry, it was safe. Looking back, he sees warning signs — the way his bones ached at night, for instance, the way his skin felt “sore sensitive.”
“I was there to do a job and to make a bad situation better,” he says. “I wasn’t there to get sick.”
July 20, 2016: This story has been corrected.
A left-leaning veterans’ organization made its first ad buy of this election cycle last week, telling voters that Donald Trump is “too dangerous for America.”
VoteVets, the super PAC that sponsored the ad, claims more than 400,000 supporters on its website and states its mission is to “use public issue campaigns to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans' care and every day issues” affecting veterans.
Its new ad received production assistance from Priorities USA Action, a super PAC that’s raised millions to support Hillary Clinton. The group was behind a well-known anti-Trump ad earlier this year that featured women lip-synching Trump quotes criticizing women.
Who’s behind it?
Leading VoteVets is Chairman Jon Soltz, a founder of the group and two-tour Iraq veteran. Soltz blogs for the Huffington Post and is a frequent media commentator, appearing on shows like "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" on MSNBC.
Last week, Soltz criticized Trump as not having the right temperament for commander-in-chief, stating that “emotion-based judgement will not ‘Make America Safe Again,’” in a blog post, penned with Paul Eaton, another VoteVets advisory board member. Eaton is also senior adviser to the progressive think tank National Security Network.
The VoteVets board of advisors is made up mostly of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, one of whom also served three terms as a Democratic member of the Ohio House of Representatives. Others include the former chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell and the executive director of the Union Veterans Council, AFL-CIO.
Formed in 2006, the group is also backed by a number of individual donors and trade unions.
VoteVets’ Eaton, a retired U.S. Army major general, starts off the ad from behind a desk, clad in a suit and tie, saying, “I know the sacrifices our military makes.”
The ad cuts to an old photo of an Air Force pilot as Eaton speaks about his father’s service as a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War. He points to his own 30 years of service, saying “I’ve been responsible for the lives of our sons and daughters.”
It’s because of those sons and daughters and the rest of the country that he cannot support Donald Trump for president, he says.
“Donald Trump doesn’t have the temperament or judgment to be our commander-in-chief,” he says as the ad comes to a close. “That’s why I’m speaking out, for America.”
The group has collected about $255,000 so far this election cycle, the majority of which came from individual donors. Among the donors were engineers at Raytheon and Shell Oil, a program integrator at the Department of Defense and a number of retirees.
About $50,000 in donations to VoteVets came from trade unions, including $10,000 each from the American Federation of Government Employees PAC and the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association PAC.
Other union donors included the Ironworkers Political Education Fund, Engineers Political Education Committee and the United Mine Workers of America Coal Miners PAC.
The new ad blitz cost VoteVets nearly $668,000, about $17,000 of which it paid to Priorities USA Action for advertising production costs.
VoteVets has aired more than 900 ads since July 12, according to data provided to the Center for Public Integrity by ad tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG, which monitors ads on broadcast television and national — but not local — cable.
The group’s TV ad blitz has been focused on viewers in the potential battleground states of Virginia, Colorado and Tennessee.
Why to watch this group
The group is a late-comer to what is shaping up to be the most expensive election on record. Its anti-Trump ad began airing less than a week before the Republican National Convention kicked off in Cleveland on Monday.
Correction, July 20, 2016, 11:05 a.m.: An earlier version of this article misidentified Paul Eaton's rank. He is a retired U.S. Army major general.
COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley can continue to use University of South Carolina season football tickets and keep access to Williams-Brice Stadium’s executive suites, but it must be for state-related business, the State Ethics Commission ruled Wednesday.
The commission revisited an opinion from September that determined the Governor’s Office could use the tickets for any purpose — as long as the priority is on state-related matters.
The issue initially arose after the Center for Public Integrity and The Post and Courier asked the Governor’s Office about the tickets as part of the Capitol Gains investigative series, which examined the financial perks South Carolina politicians enjoy while in public office. The series found Haley received more than $116,300 in free access to Clemson University football suites between 2011 and 2014, plus access to a USC suite.
Ethics Commission attorney Michael Burchstead said the latest tweak in the rules came after Commissioner Frank Grimball asked for the opinion be reconsidered.
“Rather than saying ‘using the tickets for state-related purposes is a priority,’ the opinion states these tickets need to be used for state-related purposes, period,” Burchstead said.
Grimball said the opinion didn’t go far enough. He argued that allowing the governor’s office to use the tickets for any state-related business — and not specifically for economic development — would allow other state offices and municipalities to follow suit. He called the allowance vague in its scope.
Burchstead argued that the opinion was written with a limited scope on the Governor’s Office and couldn’t be applied to other entities.
Haley, and several governors before her for years have been provided use of a suite at Williams-Brice Stadium.
It’s not clear what that suite’s access value is worth, but the school advertises another suite as having indoor lounge seating, sliding windows, private restrooms, a sink, a refrigerator and high-definition television monitors. According to the Gamecock Club website, season tickets for non-suite seats directly beneath the press box cost at least $1,665 each. Leasing a 24-ticket suite that’s located between the end zones exceeds $100,000.
Haley’s office said the governor was following the previous pattern of governors showcasing the university football team.
“Like previous administrations, the office of Gov. Nikki Haley has used the University of South Carolina’s executive suite for state-related purposes, including economic development and business recruitment, because there’s no better way to showcase the great things going on in our state,” Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said.
The office does not keep a list of who uses the tickets and was unable to provide a list of attendees Wednesday from the 2015 season.
USC is classified under ethics laws as a “lobbyist’s principal,” which means the school pays lobbyists to court lawmakers and other state officials to get support for their budgets and initiatives.
As such, they can’t give state officials any gift valued at more than $60 a day, up to $480 per year.
But Burchstead said the tickets are given to the office — not an individual — adding that the governor does not continue to receive the tickets once he or she has left the position.
“I don’t understand how you could possibly separate the office of the governor from the governor,” said Grimball, who voted against the revised opinion.
“It seems to me that the person ultimately responsible for everything that happens within the office is (determined) by the governor.”
Clemson University, Haley’s alma mater, provides the perk differently. Clemson board members and others individually provide the governor a football suite to the Tigers’ home games.
Haley listed the worth of each of the 10 suites as $3,200 in her 2016 “statement of economic interest,” submitted in March. Officeholders are required to list gifts, their value and who gave them in the annual disclosure.
The Associated Press contributed.
New filings were released by the Federal Election Commission last night, and they show that the rich guy, Donald Trump, is thus far getting thumped by his Democratic opponent in the money race by a large margin. Include super PACs and the gap is even wider.
To see a breakdown, check out the Center for Public Integrity's handy campaign cash interactive feature here.
And now for the numbers you need to know:
In a huge month for politics in the United States, the federal politics team is taking its investigative focus on the road to look into the special interest circus at the conventions. Our ICIJ Director talks Panama Papers at TED and our Environment team goes deep on a looming and unreported health and environmental crisis.
John Dunbar, our deputy executive editor, comments on: "tireless senior political reporter Dave Levinthal, who has been in Cleveland since Saturday covering all the various influence peddling that’s been going on at the Republican National Convention.”
Dave’s coverage can be found here. In addition to writing an on-running blog/diary, along with help from the rest of the political staff, Dave’s also been crafting some provocative stories. Best among them so far, this piece on the never-ended fundraising duties that candidates face. The story was highlighted in the Baton Rouge Advocate.
Next week, reporters Michael Beckel and Carrie Levine will be in Philadelphia to follow the doings of the Democrats at their convention.
It’s all part of ensuring that our longer-term focus on U.S federal politics and the junction of money and politics for which the Center is famous, retains its immediacy and relevance in a fast-moving campaign where the rise of Donald Trump has challenged traditional notions of funding. Web editor Jared Bennett has done an elegant job of packaging the short-term reporting into context with our Buying of the President coverage.
[Belated recognition too for a piece by John Dunbar on U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, a Republican congressman from Texas who offered an amendment last fall that would directly benefit his car dealership. John wrote about it, the Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint and the House Ethics Committee has opened an investigation. The amendment would have excused car dealers from a law that prohibits dealers and rental car companies from renting vehicles that are subject to safety recalls. Read about the investigation here. More will be revealed as the committee reviews the complaint for possible sanctions.]
ICIJ at TED (and in NZ)
ICIJ Director Gerard Ryle was a featured speaker at the TED gathering in Banff, Canada this month. The Panama Papers impact is still reverberating and beyond the policy changes and resignations the project is regarded as a significant indicator to a future of collaborative reporting.
Gerard’s speech includes the lovely line — referring to the fact that the leak never leaked during the year 400 reporters were working on it — "In order to make the biggest kind of noise, we first needed the biggest kind of silence”. Very TED.
I have been in New Zealand this week speaking at slightly lower key events: the World Journalism Educators Congress and to a group of lawyers and judges in Wellington.
New Zealand, you may remember, was a surprise star in the Panama Papers revelations, exposed as a major destination for offshore trusts. Its Prime Minister, John Key, was the only world leader mentioned by name in the manifesto of the leaker. I can tell you the Panama Papers is still big news in New Zealand. The Key government announced last week that it would accept all recommendations of an official inquiry into whether the leak had exposed abuses.
That is the kind of policy impact the ICIJ and CPI can feel very proud of in assessing the impact of our projects.
Our business investigations team of Fred Schulte and Allan Holmes have been dogged in tracking abuses — frequently targeting the poorest in our society – of title loan companies and the like. The latest is a powerful piece on law firms exploiting mortgage holders who fall into arrears. Eight years after the global financial crisis and the bailout of banks it is still the poor, often minorities, who bear the brunt. USA Today partnered with us to publish the story nationally.
Famine, war and lobbying
Erin Quinn, shortly to leave our politics team to take up a language teaching post in France, has dug deep into the work of Washington K-Street lobbyists ready to take money from some of the worst regimes in the world in a rebranding effort. South Sudan, where civil war broke out again on the eve of us publishing this report, was the latest focus of her reports on rebranding failed states. Vice Newspartnered with us on publishing.
Coal ash — a looming environmental crisis
Kristen Lombardi has spent much of this year on a major investigation into coal ash and the health consequences for those caught up in the under-reported catastrophe that is treatment and disposal of this byproduct of coal-fired power stations. This week she looked at those suffering after a huge clean upBY the Tennessee Valley Authority. Grim reading. The Daily Beastpartnered on publishing. Her earlier report on an Oklahoma town where coal ash dust blows through the whole area is here.
What we’re reading and thinking about
Executive Editor Gordon Witkin notes an illuminating Washingtonian piece on “What Really Happened at Politico”. He was also reading a Nieman Lab story about the new investigative strategy at Gannett, which has become a frequent partner of ours.
I welcome feedback on this note, thank you.
CEO, The Center for Public Integrity
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CLEVELAND — Even for veteran rocker Rick Springfield, whose chart toppers date to Ronald Reagan’s first term, Tuesday night’s crowd across the Cuyahoga River from the Republican National Convention must’ve seemed decidedly unconventional.
Clusters of young men in standard-issue delegate garb — blue blazers, pleated khakis — milled about. Women shimmied to “Jessie’s Girl” in heels and skirt suits, convention credentials swinging from lanyards around necks.
The concert Tuesday night was “a tribute to the House Republican Whip Team” and was to benefit charity, even though there was no admission fee. So who picked up the tab? Sponsors. Lots of them, virtually all with business before Congress. How much money was going to which charity wasn’t foremost on anyone’s mind.
The show was really a thinly veiled schmooze-fest, where powerful members of Congress and their staffers drank free beer, listened to live music and ate free bratwurst while rubbing elbows with corporate lobbyists, all sanctioned by congressional ethics rules.
During the convention, dozens of organizations have sponsored such events, all with an interest in gaining access to lawmakers and political power brokers.
The events are almost all carefully crafted to fit into exemptions in congressional gift and ethics rules that allow members of Congress to attend, say, charitable fundraisers, or “widely attended events.” Even the honoree wording is particular. Honoring a delegation is allowed, but honoring a specific member, such as, say, House Speaker Paul Ryan, is against the rules.
“These exemptions very quickly become major loopholes to allow lobbyists and others to put on events for officeholders and allow officeholders to go to them for free,” said Lawrence Noble, general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit group.
The concert at Jacobs Pavilion, an amphitheater by the river, was a private, invitation-only event with its own special pass required for admission.
And prominently displayed — on massive video boards, signs, the amphitheater’s white overhang, the back of the plastic event credentials — were the event sponsors, a long list of blue-chip corporations, from tobacco company Altria, to communications giant Viacom, to political advertising and communications firm Harbinger Outreach, to conglomerate Koch Industries.
Materials promoting event sponsorship packages note “Concerts for a Cause Pavilion is supported by key convention stakeholders,” including “GOP House Leaders,” “GOP House Whip Leaders” and, for good measure, “Other Party Leaders.”
The event is “intended to comply with the charity fundraising event exception of the House ethics rules.”
The event organizer, Concerts for a Cause, is a charity — even though many sponsors aren’t. Ethics rules require the main purpose of the event to be the raising of funds for charity if members and staff are to accept free admission, and the organizer stresses that benefiting charities is indeed the point.
But attendees can be forgiven for thinking the emphasis was on mixing and mingling with other political insiders, and on Tuesday night, the names of the sponsors, not charities that will receive the money, were on prominent display.
“The conventions are a stocked pond for lobbyists,” Noble said.
The concert is just one of many events filling up the schedule of public officials at the two national conventions this month, almost all of which give lobbyists and professional influencers the opportunity to mingle in a target-rich environment of politicians and their staffers.
Robert Walker, a lawyer at the firm Wiley Rein who specializes in government ethics and has worked for both the House and Senate Ethics Committees, said the rules “do allow members and staff to legitimately attend a wide range of events.”
“Still,” he stressed, “that does not mean that anything goes. There are limits.”
Behind closed doors
The Center for Public Integrity was not invited to the Concerts for a Cause event but spent more than two hours there after gaining admission. The general public, for its part, rarely gets a good look at these affairs.
On Wednesday, the Western Caucus Foundation held a “Red, White and Western Whiskey & BBQ Reception” at Mabel’s BBQ in downtown Cleveland, just outside the Republican National Convention at Quicken Loans Arena.
A flier obtained by the Center for Public Integrity advertised the event as an opportunity for “invited guests” to meet with members of Congress.
A Center for Public Integrity reporter walked up, presented the invitation on his iPhone to a security guard, announced himself by name and organization and proceeded inside without issue.
A handful of people milled about the industrial-meets-rustic restaurant, chatting and ordering drinks. The doors to the 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. event had just opened, and no formal program had yet begun.
About a minute later, another security guard, earpiece in ear, approached, and ordered the reporter to leave.
The event flier encouraged potential financial backers to contact two event officials listed regarding “support opportunities,” but it’s unclear who sponsored and funded the event. There were no banners or placards visible in the restaurant’s foyer that listed its financial backers.
Still, there are clues as to the foundation’s funders.
The Western Caucus Foundation counts Republicans lawmakers of the Senate Western Caucus and House Western Caucus among its members. Individuals, corporations and other nonprofits may donate to the group and receive a tax credit for doing so.
It describes itself as the “voice of the West” and its mission as “informing and educating policy makers and the public on federal policy issues distinctive to western and rural communities.” It says it is “committed to advancing the following key principles: protecting private property, strengthening local control, promoting economic growth and increasing energy independence.”
The focus on energy issues perhaps explains why a powerful energy industry trade group, the American Gas Association, contributed $12,000 in 2014, when the foundation was still in its infancy, a Center for Public Integrity review of nonprofit tax filings found.
Darrell Henry, the executive director of the Western Caucus Foundation and a former lobbyist for the American Gas Association, the Western Business Roundtable and the Healthcare Waste and Emergency Preparedness Coalition, declined to discuss the event in detail.
“We’re looking forward to a great event with our Western members as our guests tonight,” he said Wednesday, before telling a reporter he was too busy to talk further and hanging up.
Concerts for a Cause
Concerts for a Cause put together three nights of shows at Jacobs Pavilion, featuring not just Springfield but country acts the Band Perry and Lee Brice.
The charity had previously held smaller, single-day events to raise money that was passed on to epilepsy-focused charities, according to the founder, Chad Barth, who created the group in honor of his sister, who has epilepsy.
In fact, Concerts for the Cause has reported less than $50,000 in income per year dating back to 2011, according to Internal Revenue Service filings — a sharp contrast to the sums connected to the Republican National Convention event.
The Jacobs Pavilion venue was at one point quoting a price of more than $2 million for a full convention week rental, according to information obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
Barth said the $2 million price was too high, calling it “far off,” and stressed that another group is holding concerts at the pavilion on two of the five nights this week.
Nonetheless, the Concerts for a Cause events at the Republican National Convention clearly involved significant money. Talent has to be paid, there are production costs, and the free bratwurst, liquor and at least five kinds of beer served to attendees has to be paid for somehow.
Packages ranged widely in price. For example, one package described in marketing materials was advertised as $875,000 and included 150 general admission tickets and 75 VIP tickets per concert, as well as private VIP event space and VIP viewing platform options.
A more modest emailed pitch for sponsorship packages in connection with Tuesday night’s concert offered a $10,000 “Gold Sponsor” package that included an invitation for one attendee to a VIP sponsor pre-reception, recognition on signage, four VIP tickets, 10 general admission tickets and VIP access during the concert.
Barth said Concerts for a Cause is something he started because of his personal connection to the epilepsy issue via his sister, and he takes the charitable mission seriously.
He said it is now expanding its mission to work with other types of charities, and he said the Republican National Convention events meet a test in House Ethics rules meant to determine whether an event qualifies as a charitable fundraiser members are permitted to attend. The test calls for more than half the amount of money paid for admission is tax-deductible as a charitable contribution.
Barth declined to name the groups that will receive the proceeds or estimate how much money the events would generate for charity. He would say only that the money will go to two Cleveland-based charities and a third charity based elsewhere. The charities are not focused on epilepsy work, he said.
“Everyone around here has become skittish of having their name attached to any of the convention events so we haven’t publicly disclosed those as of yet,” he said, adding that he expects to release the recipients of the money after the convention.
He declined to estimate the size of the contribution, saying costs and contributions were still being accounted for.
Sharing in the electoral process
Of course, sponsors are also paying for these events because it makes sense for business reasons, as well as charitable ones.
“Aflac believes that we are fortunate to reside in a country that enables such incredible opportunity to share in our nation’s electoral process, especially when we can further our philanthropic causes at the same time,” said Jon Sullivan, a spokesman for the company.
Sullivan added that the event “benefits charities like Luke’s Wings, an organization dedicated to the support of veterans who have been wounded in battle and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, two worthy causes that are near and dear to Aflac’s heart.”
Those two charities are also named in some marketing materials for Concerts for a Cause. Barth and representatives of the two charities did not immediately respond to requests for confirmation of the charitable beneficiaries named by Aflac.
Walter Lukens, head of direct marketing firm the Lukens Company, a Concerts for a Cause sponsor, said the company sponsored the event “to kind of elevate our name.”
A concert was a good fit, he said, because “you get decision makers who are 30 years old, and concerts are where those decision makers go. They’re not in a smoke-filled room in a steakhouse. They’re looking to have fun.”
“Concerts,” he added, “are fun.”
Meanwhile, Springfield, the headliner, was having a bit of fun of his own.
“We have a new record out — I’m sure you don’t give a s--- at this point, and neither do I,” he said as Tuesday night bled into early Wednesday morning.
At one point, he smiled wryly and threw his hands in the air, revealing the white letters on his size-too-small t-shirt: NOT AN ENDORSEMENT.
Editor's note: The Center for Public Integrity’s money-in-politics reporting team is bringing you news from the Democratic National Convention — focusing on special-interest influence, big-money politicking and corporate schmoozing. Reporters Michael Beckel and Carrie Levine are on the ground in Philadelphia. Please check back regularly as this article will be updated throughout the week. Click here to read our coverage of the Republican National Convention.
A BIT OF THE LONE STAR STATE IN PHILLY
7:00 a.m. Monday, July 25: The Texas Justice and Education Fund is hosting its “Texadelphia Celebration” today, which will honor Democratic Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson and Gene Green, both of Texas, for “continuing the great legacy of President [Lyndon] Johnson” in the area of civil rights and voting rights.
Donations to the Texas Justice and Education Fund, a charity organized under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, are tax-deductible for individuals, corporations and labor unions. The group isn’t legally required to disclose its funders, but on its website, it lists several prominent people, labor unions and blue-chip companies as its “sponsors” and “hosts” of the Texadelphia event, which will be held at The Olde Bar in Philadelphia.
And among the high-profile individual “sponsors” and “hosts”? Texas lawyer and Hillary Clinton campaign fundraiser Lisa Blue, AT&T lobbyist Lyndon Boozer and Martin Frost, a former Texas congressman who is now a lobbyist at Polsinelli PC.
Jack Martin, the CEO and global chairman of public relations company Hill+Knowlton Strategies, and his wife Patsy Woods Martin— the executive director of Annie’s List, a group that recruits, trains, supports and works to elect progressive women in Texas that support abortion rights — are also listed as “hosts” of the Texadelphia event.
— Michael Beckel
GREENBACKS GET YOU ON THE GREENS
7:41 p.m. Sunday, July 24:Southern Company, Altria, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Abbott Laboratories, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and T-Mobile are some of the corporate interests sponsoring the third annual No Greater Sacrifice Congressional Shoot-Out tomorrow as part of the Democratic National Convention.
Sponsorship packages for the golf tournament, which raises money for charity, range from as little as $15,000 to as much as $100,000, according to promotional materials obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
Give at least $25,000 and your players will be paired with VIP golfers, like celebrities, wounded service members or members of Congress. Other expected attendees include governors, mayors and lobbyists.
Nine members of Congress are listed as part of the event’s “honorary host committee.” They are Reps. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa.; James Clyburn, D-S.C.; Mike Doyle, D-Pa.; Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo.; Scott Peters, D-Calif.; and John Yarmuth, D-Ky.; and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Mark Warner, D-Va.; and Tom Udall, D-N.M.
Last year, the top golfer at the event was Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, who recently concluded a congressional investigation into the circumstances around the September 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that left U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.
— Michael Beckel
LET'S GET THIS PARTY STARTED...AGAIN
3:20 p.m. Sunday, July 24: The convention committee doesn’t have to reveal its donors until 60 days after the Democratic National Convention, but the Center for Public Integrity has already unearthed some major backers, including a seven-figure contribution from the bricklayers’ union.
Of course, companies are also finding quiet ways to give — such as sponsoring private parties that don’t have to be disclosed, but allow them to rub elbows with lawmakers. Want to see Snoop Dogg? Sorry — invitation only.
For more, check out our story here— and remember, we’ll be on the lookout for special interest influence throughout the convention.
— Carrie Levine
New revelations published today by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), in collaboration with more than a dozen news organizations in Africa, expose fresh details about the misuse of corporate secrecy and hidden wealth in Africa, the world’s poorest continent.
Released nearly four months after ICIJ and more than 100 media partners first published what is now known as the Panama Papers, 11. 5 million files from the Panama-based law firm, Mossack Fonseca, today’s investigations include new details about the middleman at the center of a probe into hundreds of millions of dollars in suspected bribes paid for oil and gas contracts awarded in Algeria.
The files also reveal the offshore assets, including a luxury yacht and jet, of a Nigerian aviation and oil magnate who is reportedly close to a former oil minister and has recently had some of his assets seized as part of a $1.8 billion probe into oil sales.
The revelations published by ICIJ and media partners include investigations from countries that are being examined for the first time, including Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mozambique and Togo.
Companies in 52 of Africa’s 54 countries used offshore companies created by Mossack Fonseca, a law firm that specializes in creating companies often sold and used for anonymity or lower taxes. In 44 countries, offshore companies were used to assist oil, gas and mining deals and exports, concerning advocates and governments in a continent where many nations rely on revenue from natural resources. In total, the Panama Papers include more than 1,400 companies whose names alone indicate activity in the extractive industries. Although many of these companies do legitimate business, ICIJ identified 37 companies within the Panama Papers that have been named in court actions or government investigations involving natural resources in Africa.
In the oil-rich North African country of Algeria, for example, investigations continue into nearly $275 million in alleged bribes paid through a cluster of offshore companies to secure energy contracts. Twelve of the 17 offshore companies listed by Italian prosecutors as belonging to the alleged middleman, Farid Bedjaoui, were set up by Mossack Fonseca. Italian investigators described one of those companies, Minkle Consultants S.A., as a “crossroads of illicit financial flows” that channeled millions of dollars from subcontractors to an array of recipients whose identities are still being untangled.
In a written response to ICIJ, Mossack Fonseca said it follows “both the letter and spirit of the law. Because we do, we have not once in nearly 40 years of operation been charged with criminal wrongdoing. We’re proud of the work we do, notwithstanding recent and willful attempts by some to mischaracterize it.”
The release of today’s investigations is a major collaboration of media organizations in Africa that range from traditional newspapers in Namibia, to popular radio stations in Ghana and to innovative start-up websites in Morocco. The reporting partners include journalists who have previously published stories as part of Panama Papers as well as journalists from Ghana, Tanzania, Niger, Mozambique, Mauritius Burkina Faso and Togo who are publishing stories for the first time. Many of the journalists worked in collaboration, exchanging contact information and court documents and with the editorial assistance of the African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting, an ICIJ partner.
Fatal Extraction, our multimedia investigation into the environmental and social impact of Australian mining companies in Africa, has been nominated for an Emmy Award: the most prestigious U.S. television industry honors.
A joint project of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and its parent the Center for Public Integrity, Fatal Extraction involved our own staff reporting from four countries and formed part of a large-scale media collaboration between a dozen journalists in Africa. Many of these journalists continue to collaborate with ICIJ, most recently on the Panama Papers.
Fatal Extraction combined video and still photography shot across the continent with data and long-form journalism in a new format developed the team at the Center. The nomination is in the News & Documentary Emmy Awards "New Approaches: Documentary" category.
ICIJ Africa desk editor Will Fitzgibbon and Center for Public Integrity multimedia editor Eleanor Bell Fox reported from the field and produced the package. Fitzgibbon and ICIJ data reporter Cécile Schilis-Gallego analyzed thousands of documents to reveal the scale of Australia’s mining presence in Africa and the number of fatalities reported by companies operating across the continent.
Center for Public Integrity News developer Chris Zubak-Skees designed and developed the platform in a continual process of refinement with Bell Fox. Former Center for Public Integrity chief digital officer Kimberley Porteous was executive producer.
"I'm thrilled to receive such recognition for a project that brought an unfamiliar subject to audiences by combining months of shoe-leather reporting, difficult data analysis and creative in-house visual innovation," Will told me today.
Eleanor added: "It’s an honor to be nominated among so many esteemed colleagues. I hope the recognition of this project will draw new audiences to the deeply harrowing stories shared by people across Africa. Their courage breathed life into incontrovertible data uncovered over months of reporting."
Fatal Extraction is a personal favorite of mine among the work from the Center and the ICIJ over the past year with its blend of video and text and the way it brings the stories of individuals to life. The project had specific support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for which we are grateful.
Other nominees in the same category at the Emmy's are: PBS Frontline for "Inheritance", PBS Independent Lens for "After the Storm", The New York Times"Walking in War's Path" and National Geographic and the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism for "Wiped, Flashed and Rekitted".
Bickering commissioners, ineffective managers and lousy internal communication rank among the top reasons why the Federal Election Commission staff is one of the federal government's most bedraggled.
That's the dispiriting — if unsurprising— conclusion of a new report from the FEC's Office of Inspector General, which for months had conducted employee surveys and interviews in hopes of answering a nagging question: why, specifically, is agency morale so consistently rotten?
Investigators dump the most blame on the FEC’s six commissioners: three Democratic appointees and three Republican appointees who have regularly criticized one another and frequently (but not exclusively) deadlocked on high-profile political issues before them.
“Tone and attitude perceived as poor,” the report said of the commissioners.
“Too many disparaging public statements … employees feel work not valued,” it continues.
The report also scolds the commissioners for failing to hire for top management positions, either placing people in “acting” roles or simply leaving key jobs unfilled.
The FEC, for example, has gone three years without a permanent leader for its legal department — despite its congressional mandate to administer and enforce federal election laws.
For those managers in place? The staff views them with “suspicion and distrust,” the report states. Staffers also routinely questioned why a single person, Alec Palmer, served as both staff director and chief information officer.
A culture of favoritism and fear also persists, according to the inspector general’s report.
“A number of people believe that rewards, good assignments and promotions unfairly go to managers’ favorites,” the report states. “A sign of the major gulf between employees and upper management was the fear that employees have of retribution should they voice their concerns.”
In all, only about one in four FEC employees agreed that the tone set by top FEC officials is “generally positive” and that their work is “valued by the commissioners.”
Fewer than one in four surveyed agreed that Palmer, the staff director and chief information officer, is an “effective leader” — the rest either disagreeing or expressing no opinion.
The Office of Inspector General Report undertook its research in response to a separate U.S. Office of Personnel Management report that last fall ranked FEC staff morale second to last among 41 small federal agencies studied.
More than half the FEC’s staff — 185 people — completed a detailed survey circulated by the Office of Inspector General, which also personally interviewed 78 agency staffers and conducted four focus group sessions.
“It's sobering and sad to hear that our hardworking and committed employees feel that their important work is disrespected by the commission and by senior staff,” said Ann Ravel, a Democratic commissioner who served as FEC chairwoman during 2015. “Low morale exacerbates and is exacerbated by the dysfunction at the Commission.”
The agencies five other commissioners could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.
In a previous interview with the Center for Public Integrity, FEC Chairman Matthew Petersen expressed optimism that the commissioners could improve morale not only among staffers, but the commissioners themselves.
“I have no personal animus for any of them,” he said. “I don’t feel like this is a miserable place to be.”
So, what do FEC employees believe would improve their job satisfaction and outlook?
Among their suggestions, according to the report:
Investigators reported that they “heard few stories in our interviews with employees in which they said their thoughts were solicited and acted upon by upper management. What we heard more frequently from employees was the belief that their thoughts were either not welcomed or unlikely to impact decisions of top management.”
The report concluded with a warning to agency brass: "Commissioners and top management would not be serving the agency well by seeking reasons to discount the findings in this study. Instead the commissioners and leaders need to make a commitment to improve agency morale and invest the necessary time and resources to make a real difference."
Ravel, who has herself frequently sparred with her Republican colleagues on numerous matters before the agency, concurred.
“Management and the commission must improve communication, and make the employees a priority, including by providing a path to advancement,” she said. “The commission itself should make personnel decisions based solely on the best interests of the FEC, and should make those decisions thoughtfully and in a timely fashion.”
Despite their misgivings, FEC employees overwhelmingly said they still believe in the agency’s congressionally defined mission: “to disclose campaign finance information, to enforce the provisions of the law such as the limits and prohibitions on contributions, and to oversee the public funding of presidential elections.”
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The Center for Public Integrity is your source for intelligence on who's trying to influence the direction of U.S politics in this extraordinary presidential election year.
This week our federal political reporters Michael Beckel and Carrie Levine are at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. As always our focus is on money and politics, who is paying to get access to your politicians and what are they receiving in return.
Michael and Carrie are updating "The Influence Diaries" we kicked off last week at at the Republican convention in Cleveland, detailing the corporations vying to get their messages in front of politicians at parties, receptions and other sorts of schmoozefests. Today, they're writing about telecommunications giant Comcast, which has a huge presence in its home town. Among others pitching to the Demoracts: Microsoft, AT&T and medical care provider Blue Cross Blue Shield.
There's a much stronger corporate presence at the DNC than there was at the Republican get-together after several major companies apparently decided the messages from candidate Donald Trump were too divisive to risk associating their brands with at this juncture in the campaign.
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Founded in 1989, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity is one of the country's oldest and largest nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organizations.
Our mission: To serve democracy by revealing abuses of power, corruption and betrayal of public trust by powerful public and private institutions, using the tools of investigative journalism.
PHILADELPHIA — Political candidates should not “depend on large contributions from the wealthy and the powerful,” Democrats on Monday declared while kicking off their national convention.
But the rest of the week made this clear: Democrats have a light year to go before ever reaching that goal.
Banners decorating lampposts along major thoroughfares carried the names of top convention sponsors, such as Comcast, AT&T and Amalgamated Bank.
Corporations such as oil giant Chevron sponsored state delegation lunches.
And the swank lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, with its marble columns and soaring, domed ceiling, was packed all week with the Democrats’ most stalwart bankrollers.
The irony wasn’t lost on anyone.
At the Ritz, which housed elite contributors, donors mingled with lawmakers, shaking hands and greeting their benefactors and other acquaintances.
A long line of dark SUVs lined the sidewalk outside the Ritz, waiting to ferry deep-pocketed contributors from luncheons to cocktail hours to special briefings with top officials.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, while surveying the Ritz lobby, said he and many other lawmakers live a “dual existence.”
By day, Wyden said, he crafts and fights for legislation that would require more disclosure and transparency in campaign finance and reduce the influence of big donors.
And then, he said, “my staff sends me home at 7 or 8 o’clock at night with a bunch of call sheets to call people on the West Coast … and I’m calling with my little tin cup out.”
“After you’ve done that for a couple of hours you want to drown yourself in the bathtub.”
Reform the system, just not tonight
Both U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agitated during the Democratic presidential primaries against the unbridled influence of money on the political process.
Sanders and Clinton have, for example, both called for the overturning of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which opened the door to unlimited political spending by corporations, unions and other special interests.
But the Democrats’ week in Philadelphia also highlighted other, more traditional avenues of big-money influence that have made a comeback of sorts during 2016.
Democrats this election cycle reversed an Obama-era ban on accepting lobbyist and corporate political action committee contributions for use by the Democratic National Committee and Democratic National Convention. Freed from restriction, professional political influencers may fully participate in a parade of perks, parties and access opportunities.
Lobbyist Tony Podesta, whose brother, John Podesta, is Clinton’s campaign chairman, hosted brunches on Monday and Tuesday for clients and friends at Barbuzzo’s, a chic Mediterranean restaurant downtown. The bar was laden with marcona almonds, prosciutto and other goodies. Attendants passed pan-seared gnocchi and meatballs in polenta.
On Tuesday night, law and lobbying firm Dentons welcomed guests to a reception at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Two former heads of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean and Joe Andrew, held court as guests noshed on sliders and sipped drinks from the open bar.
Hillary Action Fund, a joint fundraising committee that raises money for Clinton’s campaign and for the Democratic National Committee, feted donors at a Tuesday night reception at Reading Terminal Market, a trendy, bustling food hall next to the Pennsylvania Convention Center offering everything from Chinese food to chocolate-covered pretzels and — for that particular event — former President Bill Clinton.
On Wednesday night, law and lobbying firm DLA Piper hosted an intimate dinner at Del Frisco’s, a tony steakhouse downtown that boasts interior balconies and a three-story wine tower.
On Thursday morning, big donors to the Democratic Party’s Senate campaign arm trickled into the same Del Frisco’s, this time for a brunch celebrating retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
The brunch itself was up a short flight of stairs that were framed by enlarged black-and-white photographs of Reid as a young boxer.
Super PACs and outside political groups also made Philadelphia their playground.
Corporate sponsors also courted convention delegates at every turn — although not always with the luxurious touches afforded to lawmakers or prominent influence peddlers.
“Yesterday, I ate a lunch at a Pennsylvania delegation lunch that was sponsored by Chevron,” said Daniel Doubet, a Pennsylvania delegate from Erie.
Doubet, who is an organizer for Keystone Progress, an organization that campaigns for progressive policies in Pennsylvania, said he would like to see a system of public financing for campaigns and conventions.
But on Tuesday, he ate the cheese steaks and pasta, because “I’ll do what I have to do to survive” and attending the convention is expensive.
The 'unilateral disarmament' argument
Campaign finance reform advocates, political donors and current and former members of Congress acknowledge the tension between the money-in-politics policies Democrats advocate for and how they conduct themselves at events like the Democratic National Convention.
But most chalk it up to political necessity. Several of them parroted liberals’ favorite campaign finance trope — Democrats can’t be expected to unilaterally disarm in a world of super PACs and secret money — and insisted Democrats must play by existing rules until those rules change.
“As it is now, you operate by one set of rules that incentivizes behavior that involves getting large gifts from donors,” said Nick Nyhart, the president and CEO of Every Voice, a group that advocates for campaign finance reform.
The answer, he said, is to make sure candidates publicly commit to changing it.
Sandy Newman, head of Voices for Progress, another group that advocates for money in politics reform, said, “No one should expect Democrats supporting reform to fight with one hand tied behind their backs by restricting their own fundraising while the other side is fighting a no-holds barred attack with big guns.”
Democrats “will continue to fight for campaign reform and citizen-funded elections while Republicans will work to further erode our campaign finance laws,” said millionaire investor Sean Eldridge, who himself ran for Congress in New York in 2014.
Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts said it was important to elect Clinton because, as president, she could nominate a Supreme Court justice who would “overturn Citizens United and all the other bad decisions that freed up money from any restriction.”
The Democrats’ official party platform endorses a “small donor matching public financing system.” It also calls for Citizens United to be overturned, as well as a 1976 Supreme Court case called Buckley v. Valeo that voided some campaign spending limits enacted following Watergate on First Amendment grounds.
In contrast, the Republican Party’s main campaign finance reform-related platform plank calls for raising or eliminating political contribution limits altogether.
"Overturning Citizens United is not going to solve the problem of money in politics," said Jonathan Soros, son of billionaire financier George Soros, a top Democratic funder who has so far given $7 million to the main pro-Clinton super PAC this election, but reportedly plans to spend upward of $25 million aiding her and other Democratic candidates and groups.
A major Democratic donor in his own right, Jonathan Soros in 2012 helped create the Friends of Democracy super PAC, which aimed to “stop the power of big money.” He has also called for the adoption of public funding systems based on the government matching people’s small-dollar contributions to political candidates.
Raising money ‘at every levelpossible’
Other left-leaning donors say they, too, are supporting candidates who they believe will change the current system for the better.
For now, said donor Laetitia Garriott de Cayeux, the founder of Entrepreneurs for Hillary and a member of the campaign’s national finance committee, “we do what we can to raise at every level possible.” She highlighted the campaign’s efforts to give donors who raise as little as $45 access to events.
Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, with his wife, is the top individual donor at the federal level this cycle, according to campaign finance data tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics. They’ve together given more than $31 million, nearly all of it to NextGen Climate Action Fund, the super PAC Steyer founded.
Steyer, in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity after a panel event sponsored by NextGen Climate on Wednesday in Philadelphia, said big money in politics is “a huge problem.”
"But we also understand that these are the rules right now,” he said. “And so we’re participating in a system, and we’re trying to do it in a very transparent way, not hiding anything that we’re doing.”
Daniel Simon, a New York City-based donor who advises Voices for Progress, said Democrats have attempted to sponsor legislation calling for campaign finance disclosure and reform. Meanwhile, Republicans have done everything they can in an attempt to block it, Simon said.
Simon, who took the train from New York to Philadelphia to attend party events for donors held during the convention, said lawmakers often bring up how much they dislike having to spend so much time fundraising.
“I believe this is a bad system, but I also think that this is the system we have until we have the votes to change it,” he said.
Until then, the high-dollar hobnobbing among those in power and those who seek access to it continues.
On Thursday night, after Clinton ceremonially accepted the Democratic presidential nomination, three super PACs — Senate Majority PAC, which works to win a Democratic Senate majority; House Majority PAC, which does the same for Democratic House candidates; and Priorities USA Action, which supports Clinton’s presidential bid — co-hosted a “unity concert” featuring rapper and event headlinerSnoop Dogg.
Together, the super PACs have already raised money into the nine-figure range.
While selling foreclosure-protection services from a high-pressure telemarketing room in South Florida, Patrick Sweeney had quick comebacks to ease a customer’s doubts.
He simply made up an answer that sounded good enough to close the deal.
Sweeney helped sell legal-services programs for Prime Legal Plans, which enlisted attorneys to help struggling homeowners reduce their monthly mortgage payments through a review process known as loan modification. But he and other salespeople in the Fort Lauderdale phone room admitted that they routinely deceived customers to persuade them to keep paying thousands of dollars in fees for the plans, court records show.
“I generally told consumers that Prime Legal Plans achieved loan modifications for a percentage of its consumers that was in the ‘mid to the high 80s,’ although I made up that number,” Sweeney said in a sworn statement to federal investigators in 2012.
For decades, Sunbelt cities, notably spots in South Florida and southern California have been hotbeds of telemarketing scams that rely on misrepresentations, if not outright lies, to fleece the public. Gunning from aging offices pre-equipped with multiple phone hookups, scammers have hawked near-worthless certificates for dream vacations in the Bahamas, dubious precious metal investments, even shares in ostrich farms, often closing up shop a step ahead of authorities, then moving on to a new product and site.
Federal officials unwittingly handed scammers a new and highly profitable product in 2009 when they launched the Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP. The voluntary campaign, hatched after the housing bubble burst in 2008, encouraged lenders to offer loan modifications, which officials hoped would prevent millions of people from being forced out of their homes. But HAMP quickly spawned a new financial menace for the very people it was intended to save: Telemarketers bilked vulnerable people out of thousands of dollars by charging them advance fees for loan modifications that never materialized, or for other foreclosure “rescue” services that they didn’t provide.
The following year, officials banned advance fees for loan modifications in a move to snuff out scams run by boiler room pros. But they yielded to pressure from the legal community and exempted attorneys from the ban. That decision turned lawyers into valuable allies in the burgeoning loan-modification racket.
A Center for Public Integrity investigation identified more than 1,000 attorneys nationwide who have since signed on to loan modification ventures that have drawn law enforcement scrutiny, at least partly, because they attracted clients through misleading, if not downright false, promises made by telemarketers, deceptive mailings or websites.
Most of the lawyers played no direct role in hiring or supervising marketers, though they accepted referrals from attorney-directed companies that often did. These hybrid firms have been accused by state and federal consumer-fraud investigators of cheating desperate homeowners out of tens of millions of dollars, court records show.
Stamp of Approval
The cachet of having “law firm” in the corporate name has clearly been a major selling point for many people fearful of losing their homes to foreclosure.
That was true for James Lorde, of Bridgeport, Connecticut, who was behind on his mortgage payments and had been denied a modification by his lender.
“This made me feel more comfortable about working with them because I expected lawyers to perform the mortgage modification process competently,” he said in a 2014 affidavit.
Lorde agreed to pay an upfront fee of $1,200 to the California-based operation, and $800 a month for three months in hope of making his mortgage more affordable. He became concerned when the emails he sent to check on the progress of his case bounced back. He later learned that the law firm’s office was a mail drop.
When he finally reached the lawyer in charge of his case and demanded a full refund, the lawyer refused, saying the firm “had spent considerable time and effort on my case,” according to Lorde’s affidavit. The lawyer promised a $500 partial refund within five days, but Lorde said he never received it.
In a separate case, an Orange County, California, lawyer’s office had telemarketers tout its legal pedigree to set itself apart from the competition.
“First let me start by saying that we are NOT a loan modification company. We are a law firm made up of real estate attorneys who have been helping homeowners save their homes from foreclosure and battling mortgage lenders for more than a decade now,” according to a script. Federal authorities said the firm had no such network.
Thomas McNamara, a California lawyer who as a court-appointed receiver has reviewed several defunct loan-modification businesses involving attorneys, believes that sales tactics employed by boiler rooms, so-called for their high-pressure atmosphere, simply don’t mesh with the practice of law. For starters, he noted most states prohibit lawyers from splitting fees with nonlawyers.
Then there’s the commission-payment structure that rewards hype and overselling over prudent counsel. McNamara concluded the degree of deception was so great at one firm, A to Z Marketing, that it could not be profitable if run legally and ethically.
“They are not law firms or even legal service providers. They are sophisticated telemarketing sales operations targeting distressed homeowners and charging illegal advance fees,” according to a 2013 document MacNamara filed in a lawsuit headed by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. “They deceptively portray themselves as service providers for lawyers, but this is all fiction – the telemarketers are the drivers of the business. … The associated lawyers provide nominal services and serve primarily to promote the illusion that the consumer has retained a law firm.”
The FTC has since won a judgment against A to Z Marketing.
‘Network of Attorneys’
Court records in other cases show that telemarketers have often appealed to raw emotions, such as fear of losing a home, or a deep-seated feeling that the homeowner had been victimized by a bank and deserves a break. That so many homeowners had been unable to get a loan modification on their own — government figures show rejection rates as high as 75 percent — undoubtedly has helped make these pitches enticing.
Another South Florida telemarketer stated in an affidavit that she used an auto dialer to make on average at least 100 calls per day to homeowners behind on their mortgages.
She billed herself as an “intake case manager” and told customers they would receive “expert” legal advice from a “network of attorneys who were the best in their field and had won cases across the nation,” according to an affidavit.
Authorities say such claims are dubious at best. So was the oft-repeated suggestion that lawyers might uncover misconduct by mortgage lenders that could yield huge rewards for the homeowner.
The woman said the bosses instructed her to tell customers that judges were ruling in favor of homeowners over banks. Some clients, she told them, had seen “reductions of up to 75 percent” in the balance of their loans, while other customers “received their homes free and clear or had their entire mortgages rewritten.”
Authorities say these sorts of fantastic results seldom are achieved by any lawyer in any case. But touting the possibility clearly offers hope, which some marketers have exploited from their first contact with a homeowner.
“The reason I am calling you today is about your mortgage. It appears that you may be having some problems with your mortgage and might be in a predatory or fraudulent loan created by your lender. It’s not your fault you’re in this situation,” reads the opening of one script.
When people hedge or raise questions about loan modifications, telemarketers have written answers to bulldoze through their reluctance. These are called “rebuttals” or “objections” in the trade, and telemarketers often have dozens of them to refer to in a pinch.
Telemarketers who sensed a sale was slipping away because the customer wanted more time to think about it had a snappy comeback to keep them on the line: “You should think about your options. You can continue on your current path that will lead you to losing your home, usually with very little notice.”
When the homeowner seemed resigned to losing property to the bank, the telemarketer suggested an upset win for the little guy could happen.
“You have to understand during the last 10 years, millions of loans were given to homeowners whether they qualified or not and a lot of predatory lending was done during that time, meaning many errors whether intentional or not were committed,” the telemarketer’s script read. “The banks know this and they usually don’t like to do battle with expert attorneys in court.”
Fees for the “expert” legal services were negotiable. The sellers tried to talk the homeowner into a plan that cost them $750 a month, but had the discretion to reduce the fee to $595 a month to close a deal. Telemarketers were paid commissions of $350 to $400 for each deal, according to an affidavit.
Many telemarketers banked on the fact that consumers had no way to verify many of the sales claims they made, such as success rates for loan modification. There’s no place to verify who gets the best results, or whether it is worth even hiring an attorney, for instance.
That didn’t stop telemarketer Sweeney from making up a figure that would convince just about any customer to stick with the plan.
Sweeney’s job in the Fort Lauderdale sales room was to keep homeowners paying fees month after month, usually through automatic withdrawals from their bank accounts. He testified that he was hired on the spot in 2011 after a five-minute interview.
He said he was assigned 180 clients and told to “keep them enrolled from month to month,” with the understanding that if he didn’t retain a high percentage, management would fire him. Ideally, the company wanted to keep each customer long enough to generate about $5,000 in fees, he said.
Sweeney said in early 2012 the company began offering a free credit report to people who had had made payments over five months, which he described in testimony as a tactic “to throw consumers a bone and keep them in the program and making monthly payments.”
Sweeney said he often received complaints from people who had been paying for months without seeing any progress on their loan modification. He blamed any delays on the banks.
People who tired of the delays and wanted a refund had to kick up a major fuss to get it. Those who complained to a state attorney general went to the top of the list, according to Sweeney. Many other sales rooms also made refunds to the small number of angry customers who complained to law enforcement or state legal authorities; failing to do so could bring official heat down on the boiler room.
The bottom line, according to California lawyer McNamara: Businesses such as A to Z Marketing took advantage of people who were in desperate financial straits and wanted a glimmer of hope for a way out.
“Its real business model,” McNamara said, “was to target the large number of vulnerable homeowners who would pay $2,500 - $5,000 to an anonymous voice on the phone offering them hope and affordable legal representation.”
In 2011, three attorneys set up a firm called The Mortgage Law Group that took advantage of a federal program aimed at helping people threatened with foreclosure to stay in their homes.
Business boomed. In just over two years the Chicago firm signed up more than 5,200 clients who paid more than $18 million in advance fees for legal services they hoped would either reduce the size of their mortgage payments or hold off foreclosure.
But federal regulators say the firm was little more than a sophisticated telemarketing scam that masqueraded as a law practice and cheated thousands of financially vulnerable people.
Most Mortgage Law Group clients received little for their money, according to federal officials, who in a lawsuit filed in 2014 accused the firm of employing misleading and deceptive sales tactics to lure in customers.
One telemarketer deposed in the federal court case described the high-pressure atmosphere on the sales floor in the firm’s Chicago offices as straight out of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Wolf of Wall Street. He said some sales agents even posed as lawyers to close deals.
Attorney-affiliated firms that aggressively market mortgage reduction plans have mushroomed in the past few years because of a loophole in a government program called “loan modification.” Created in 2009, the program was designed to help struggling homeowners facing foreclosure brought on by the recession. But a government decision to exempt lawyers from a ban on charging advance fees for modification services has led to scams that have cheated thousands of homeowners.
Many homeowners who were supposed to benefit instead lost millions of dollars to firms that promised them loan modifications and other foreclosure-relief services that they failed to deliver, a Center for Public Integrity investigation has found.
Since 2010, these practices have drawn tens of thousands of consumer complaints to federal and state authorities, sparked multiple legal and ethical concerns over what constitutes the legitimate practice of law, and raised questions about how aggressively states have monitored the conduct of lawyers who profit from the schemes, the Center’s investigation found.
The Center identified more than 1,000 attorneys — more than one-third of them in California and Florida — who participated in loan-modification and foreclosure-prevention schemes that resulted in either law enforcement actions or disciplinary reviews by state legal authorities.
The Mortgage Law Group, based in Chicago’s iconic Willis Tower, boasted more than 120 “partner” attorneys in 48 states, though some have since testified that they did little work for, and never met, clients and were paid as little as $40 for each loan-modification file they reviewed. Two lawyers said they often spent five minutes or less reviewing each file.
The Mortgage Law Group, which has been mired in bankruptcy court since 2014, was formed by attorneys Thomas G. Macey, Jeffrey J. Aleman and Jason E. Searns. They say the firm never turned a profit and lost money.
In a deposition last year, Macey, who owned 76 percent of the firm, said its goal was to offer a “suite of services to clients to … either keep them in a home and try to get them a lower mortgage payment, or keep them in a home for as long as they can.”
Aleman, in a 2013 affidavit, called the law group “a consumer protection law firm that specializes in mortgage relief” and “has helped thousands of consumers rebuild their lives and save their homes.”
The federal government created a boom market for loan-modification services when it launched the “Making Home Affordable” program in February 2009, at the depth of the nation’s financial crisis.
Unfortunately for struggling homeowners, many entrepreneurs who promised to guide them through the review process were scam artists who routinely collected hefty fees upfront, only to disappear or do little to help. Federal officials believed that banning all advance fees for arranging loan modifications would protect consumers from rip-offs. The Federal Trade Commission, which protects consumer interests, proposed the ban in June 2009.
But the proposal raised the ire of the American Bar Association, which represents the economic interests of lawyers, who typically collect at least some of their fees upfront.
The ABA and some state law groups argued in a March 2010 letter to the FTC that a ban on advance fees would discourage lawyers from helping people navigate the loan-modification system and impose “excessive new regulations on lawyers engaged in the practice of law.”
The American Bar Association also argued in the letter that the rule would undermine state courts, which “subject attorneys to stringent duties of competency, diligence, confidentiality, undivided loyalty, and the obligation to charge reasonable fees.”
In late 2010, when the FTC issued the final rule, called Mortgage Assistance Relief Services, or MARS, the agency exempted lawyers from the advance-fee ban under certain conditions. For instance, lawyers must be licensed in the state where the client’s property is located and must deposit advance fees in a trust account. They could lose the privilege for misleading clients and other infractions.
How and when the conditions apply — and who qualifies for them — has yet to be decided in the courts.
Leah Frazier, an attorney in the FTC’s Division of Financial Practices, said it’s not clear what role the MARS rule played in spreading loan-modification schemes.
“We acknowledge that attorneys are heavily involved,” Frazier said. “This is an issue that FTC is trying to tackle. It’s something we all have had our eyes on and are making efforts to address.”
The Consumer Financial Protection Board, which oversees lenders and financial companies, would not comment on the rule or its impact.
Yet the damage caused by attorneys fronting advance-fee loan modification plans, often in concert with aggressive marketing schemes, has been apparent for years.
Since 2010, a coalition of consumer and law enforcement groups that tracks foreclosure fraud has tied more than $60 million in consumer losses — many incurred by minorities and low-income people — to alleged misconduct by lawyers or their associates.
In a 2013 report, the Government Accountability Office cited the MARS rule for contributing to a surge in complaints about foreclosure “rescue” attorneys.
Cracking down on errant lawyers presents “unique challenges” to law enforcement, the GAO said, noting that attorneys can claim “attorney-client privilege” to duck subpoenas or slow down investigations.
In addition, courts and state bar groups, which work to discipline attorneys, conduct their investigations in secret and often take several years to share their results with law enforcement or the public.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s civil suit that accused the Mortgage Law Group lawyers of running a telemarketing scam is testing the limits of federal government authority over the practice of law.
For starters, the law group claimed attorney-client privilege in refusing to turn over consumer complaints sought by the government. In response, government lawyers took affidavits from 10 former clients to back up their claims that consumers were routinely misled and have tried to get the complaints before the judge.
Mark Pultz, of Waupun, Wisconsin, was one. He became a client after losing his job and failing to stay current on his mortgage payments.
He said he was told “there is no reason in the world” why he couldn’t get a loan modification and that “by hiring lawyers I would have an advantage,” he stated in a May 2015 affidavit.
Pultz said he paid $1,195 upfront and $795 a month over seven months, but received nothing in return and “never once communicated with a lawyer.”
Others said the sales team also left them with the impression they would be approved for a loan modification. The firm’s business records show that just 26 percent of clients received relief. The firm employed as many as 60 salespeople in Chicago with at most five attorneys on site, according to evidence in the suit.
If customers wondered why they should pay for a Mortgage Law Group attorney when nonprofit groups in their communities were offering to do the job for free, they were told the nonprofits often took too long, according to sales scripts. The company’s website added: “By not paying you may not have any leverage when something goes wrong or the process drags on for a dangerously long time.”
The telemarketer deposed by the government said he would tell customers it was okay to “strategically fall behind” in paying a mortgage. Asked in his deposition what that meant, he replied: “to stop paying your mortgage and then pay us instead.”
In court filings, The Mortgage Law Group denies that clients were misled. It says its employees were “client intake specialists,” not sales agents, who stuck to lawyer-approved scripts. The firm noted that clients signed retainer agreements which said it “could not guarantee a particular result.”
In January, a federal judge partly invalidated the MARS rule, but deferred a decision on whether the Mortgage Law Group qualified for the attorney exemption.
Lawyer Brian J. Burke found out the hard way how quickly a dubious loan modification firm could set up shop once it found a willing attorney. He was living in Chicago and looking for a new legal position. So Burke replied to a posting on Craigslist, an internet classified advertising site, searching for attorneys licensed in multiple states. At the time, he was licensed in Illinois and New Jersey and could quickly gain active status in California and Pennsylvania.
He heard back from a southern California real estate broker with a company called Smart Funding Corporation. The man said he worked with an attorney who was retiring and that the pay would be $7,500 a month for handling loan modifications.
“I became very interested as a result because he had previously said the work required 15-20 hours a week and would allow me to continue my own practice,” Burke wrote in a sworn statement in June 2013.
The company said it would locate clients and “all I would have to do would be to review client files and occasionally talk to clients,” Burke said.
Up went a website introducing the Burke Law Center as a “full-service consumer protection law firm that provides affordable nationwide representation to clients.”
The Burke Law Center “was created to assist Americans facing financial hardship,” and boasted a “network of more than 40 experienced attorneys throughout the country to help you understand your options in a financial crisis,” according to the website.
The Burke Law Center kept a “virtual” office at a mail drop in Matawan, New Jersey, which forwarded all mail to Santa Ana, California, where the selling took place.
Burke said he soon learned that peddling legal services nationwide was an apparent violation of the MARS rule and was “shocked” to hear that within two months marketers had signed up 450 Burke Law Center clients in 45 states. Some turned up at the mail drop demanding to see their attorney, or left angry messages, according to Burke.
Burke said he severed ties with the California firm and reported his experience to state authorities. He could not be reached for comment. The Federal Trade Commission obtained a civil judgment against the marketers and the California attorney.
There’s been no shortage of attorneys willing to take a stab at handling loan modification applications in bulk — often for would-be national law firms that authorities say exploit the MARS rule.
Several law offices which had charged customers thousands of dollars for loan modifications paid “affiliated” lawyers licensed in the states where customers lived $50 or so for doing a quick review of their applications. Much of the loan-modification paperwork was done by nonlawyers, they said.
The Center for Public Integrity identified more than 700 attorneys who accepted this sort of work from 11 loan modification practices that drew law enforcement scrutiny. Several lawyers have testified in these cases that they spent five minutes or less reviewing individual files.
Some drew rebukes from their state Bar Associations, but most did not. In May 2015, the North Carolina State Bar reprimanded F. Grey Powell for his role in assisting an Orange County law firm called Granite Law that solicited business in North Carolina. He was paid $50 for each loan modification file he checked primarily for “spelling and clerical errors,” according to the Bar.
No central repository exists of lawyers punished for their roles in suspect foreclosure and loan-modification deals.
The Center for Public Integrity reviewed hundreds of disciplinary cases, most of them in California and Florida, the nation’s hotspots for such scams, and found that legal authorities in both states have warned lawyers for years that these deals are illegal — but haven’t been aggressive about disbarring attorneys who ignored the warnings.
Of 244 California disciplinary cases, just 31 percent ended in disbarment or resignation. Fifty-three lawyers who came up on these charges had been disciplined previously, about a dozen of them for similar conduct involving loan modifications.
Charges are pending against 26 lawyers, while another 68 remain under investigation, according to California Bar officials.
In Florida, less than 15 percent of the 68 lawyers who faced charges involving loan modifications were disbarred. Most received reprimands or suspensions of one year or less.
Jacksonville lawyer Michael W. Lanier’s law license was suspended for 45 days in 2013 for failing to supervise a nonlawyer who marketed loan-modification services to out-of-state residents.
Though he agreed to accept the penalty, Lanier denied wrongdoing and defended his high-volume legal practice, which also relied on “of-counsel” attorneys in other states.
“I know personally we helped 3,500 people save their homes,” he said in an interview.
Lanier, a West Point graduate and former U.S. Army artillery officer, also is fighting a 2014 lawsuit filed against him by the FTC. The suit accuses him of attempting “an end run around the MARS rule” on advance fees, according to court filings.
Lanier in an interview accused federal authorities of “overreach,” and said they were “doing the bidding of banks” by trying to restrict people from obtaining legal help to defend their property.
“I think if you are adult enough to get a mortgage, [you] should be able to decide if you want representation or not,” Lanier said. “If you want to engage a law firm, you should be able to do that.” Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled in favor of the FTC and indicated she would order restitution of more than $13 million.
Just what’s acceptable legal practice is being tested in a criminal case filed against the operators of a Utah firm. Federal prosecutors charge that the operators of CC Brown Law cheated homeowners out of $33 million in a major loan-modification scam.
The firm was run by Chad Gettel, a former Arizona car salesman who served prison time on federal drug charges in 1999. Gettel moved to Salt Lake City in 2008 where, with the help of attorneys and telemarketers, he soon set up the enterprise, according to federal prosecutors.
In July 2009, Gettel placed ads on Craigslist seeking a Utah attorney to help him get started. Charles Craig Brown, a Utah attorney whose license had just been reinstated after a five-year suspension, fit the bill.
Thus was born CC Brown Law LLC. Attorney Brown had “virtually no involvement in the operations,” according to prosecutors. They said Brown’s family members and company employees had indicated that Brown “had mental incapacities” but was still paid a salary to be the “licensed attorney of record.”
Gettel also hired John McCall, an attorney licensed in three states but not Utah, in response to a Craigslist ad, and in 2010, McCall became the second in command, according to prosecutors.
The two men set up teams of telemarketers to hawk loan modifications, for which clients each paid $4,000 or more. The telemarketers told customers that CC Brown was a national firm that had over a 90 percent success rate in obtaining loan modifications and “would not accept a case they could not win,” according to prosecutors. CC Brown’s success rate was no more than 20 percent, according to prosecutors.
A federal grand jury in February 2015 indicted Gettel, McCall and four others on mail fraud, wire fraud and money laundering charges. All have pleaded not guilty and trial is set for early next year. Brown, the firm’s namesake, was not charged.
There’s been sharp disagreement in the case over whether CC Brown ever was a law firm. McCall contends his practice was a law firm because at times it had a dozen or more Utah attorneys on the premises as well as at least two dozen co-counsel lawyers in other states.
Prosecutors counter that no firm existed because the attorneys were hired solely to get around the MARS rule “without providing any real legal services in connection with loan modifications,” according to court filings.
In-house attorneys didn’t do much, either, the government charged. Their chief responsibility was to make “welcome calls” to clients, which they read off a script. McCall would often make the calls while walking on a treadmill, prosecutors alleged.
“CC Brown operated as a boiler room telemarketing business, preying on vulnerable victims in a floor to ceiling fraud,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing.
Prosecutors offered no commentary on the responsibility of the dozens of lawyers that either worked for the firm or accepted referrals from it.
Charles Lichtman, a Florida attorney who has served as a court-appointed receiver responsible for finding assets left when these firms collapse, said he has little sympathy for lawyers that he says “betray the public trust and harm innocent American citizens.”
He urged tougher penalties to discourage more attorneys from signing on to deals such as loan-modification schemes that take advantage of people with financial hardships.
“Throw the book at them, take away law licenses, put them in prison and give very stiff sentences,” Lichtman said. “That may well be a deterrent.”
Money in politics is the essence of what the Center’s U.S journalists focus on: whether the traditional influence peddling we track constantly or in the Buying of the President project this year, or the more subtle impact, such as the “No Way Up” project on inequality, as exemplified by Fred Schulte’s dogged recent expose' on lawyers exploiting a program intended to support distressed home owners.
In Philadelphia, federal political reporters Michael Beckel and Carrie Levine kept up the spot coverage and deeper analysis of where big money is being directed from those who seek to influence government decisions. Their stories showed companies firmly targeting Democratic Party legislators in this presidential election year – despite the protestations of politicians saying they recognize the need to wean themselves off corporate money. It’s been a valuable exercise to cover the conventions with those two and David Levinthal at the Republican get-together. Dave finished with a nice piece with Reveal News, at minute 44 here.
Running the reporting diary on influence was an unusual approach for us and required big back-up at headquarters from web editor Jared Bennett and deputy executive editor John Dunbar.
Multi-media nomination for an Emmy
Fatal Extraction, a terrific joint project by the ICIJ and CPI teams on the political, personal and environmental damage wrought by Australian mining projects in Africa, has been nominated in the News & Documentary Emmy Awards “New Approaches: Documentary” category.
The nomination is a great credit to the work of ICIJ Africa desk editor Will Fitzgibbon and Center for Public Integrity multimedia editor Eleanor Bell Fox who reported from the field and produced the package. CPI news applications developer Chris Zubak-Skees built the platform and our former digital head Kimberley Porteous was the executive producer. Will and ICIJ data reporter Cecile Chilis-Gallego researched thousands of documents to get to the bottom of the scale of the miners’ activities and the damage left. A key element I particularly like about Fatal Extraction – apart from the innovative presentation methods — was the way Will worked with more than a dozen African investigative journalists who moved from that project on to the Panama Papers, building their skills and effectiveness which each report.
Other nominees in the same category are: PBS Frontline for "Inheritance", PBS Independent Lens for "After the Storm", The New York Times "Walking in War's Path" and National Geographic and the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism for "Wiped, Flashed and Rekitted”. The Emmys are announced in September.
Africa Panama Papers package
Will Fitzgibbon launched that Africa package on the Panama Papers in the past week. It’s another remarkable expose of the way money flows out of many African nations into the web of offshore secrecy which the ICIJ has torn a hole in with its global investigation.
Working with a network of African investigative journalists to expose the relevant details in the 11.5m documents from Panama-registered law firm Mossack Fonseca, Will and the team found businesses in 52 of Africa’s 54 countries used offshore companies created by Mossack Fonseca. Will wrote a clear summary of the project and its major revelations. The ICIJ team also built an interactive game for the African elements of the Panama Papers. See how you score. The package with its stories of graft, corruption and luxury yachts is here.
Standing up for the ordinary person
Fred Schulte’s series on the derailing of a scheme intended to help people in trouble with their mortgages is a small classic of its kind. Determinedly following the money and finding it leads to unethical law firms who turned what was supposed to be a program to help keep people in homes a way to take them away from them.
What we’re reading and thinking about
Executive Editor Gordon Witkin notes sobering news about mounting losses and massive staff cuts at The Guardian, and a Nieman Reports story on the wave of collaboration in investigative journalism in the United States, rather than the international arena in which the ICIJ has been the pioneer.
I welcome feedback on this note. Thank you.
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Investigators for the United Nations found 48 child soldiers in Afghanistan last year, with more than half working for government-backed forces such as the Afghan National Army and the Afghan Local and National Police. But that news somehow never made an impact in Washington.
In an annual report released on June 30 that names 10 foreign countries known to use and recruit child soldiers, the State Department didn’t include Afghanistan -- a country with forces labeled as “persistent perpetrators” by the United Nations in a report issued just two months earlier.
The discrepancy is partly a matter of legal interpretation but mostly one mired in international politics, it turns out.
Countries that employ child soldiers in their armed forces are barred from receiving specific types of U.S. military assistance or weapons, under a U.S. law enacted in 2008. But the Obama administration says Afghanistan is not subject to the law because its Local Police force -- which uses child soldiers, and experts say operates like a militia or a paramilitary group -- is not part of the armed forces.
This claim has allowed the U.S. Defense Department to give the Afghan Local Police a total of $470 million as of April 2015, according to a tally made by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. But nonprofit groups and independent experts on Afghanistan and the use of children in armed conflicts say the administration has misinterpreted the U.S. law or abused some ambiguities in its text.
“Not including Afghanistan sends out the message that children who have been recruited by police forces deserve less protection,” said Charu Lata Hogg, an associate fellow at the independent London-based institute Chatham House, who has worked extensively on the issue of child soldiers. “More children are likely to be recruited and used by militias than the military themselves.”
Even if the decision is not a violation of the law, it constitutes a breach of the “spirit of the law,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at the nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch in New York.
The law states that certain types of military assistance and armaments cannot flow to countries with “government-supported armed groups” that use child soldiers. It also makes clear that these groups include “paramilitaries, militias [and] civil defense forces.” The law does not explicitly mention police, however. Child soldiers are defined as those under the age of 18 who are recruited by such groups to work as soldiers or perform other tasks, including working as cooks or porters.
In 2015, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani signed a presidential decree criminalizing the recruitment of child soldiers, but the problem persists, experts say. The U.N. report, which included Afghanistan in a list of 14 countries that use and recruit child soldiers, noted that the number of verified cases last year was double that in 2014. It said the majority of the cases involved the Taliban and other armed groups, but five children were in the Local Police, five in the National Police, and three in the National Army.
“There is continuing concern about allegations of cross-border recruitment of children and of use of religious schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan for child recruitment and military training by the Taliban and other armed groups,” said the report, which was issued under Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s name. “I am concerned … about the lack of oversight mechanisms for Afghan Local Police recruitment” involving children.
The State Department, in its annual human rights report for 2015, itself takes note of these and other "reports." But when asked to explain why Afghanistan was not included on the U.S. list of nations with child soldiers, a State Department spokesman in the Bureau of Public Affairs, who said he could not be named, wrote in an email that “although the Afghan Local Police is a government security force, it falls outside of the armed forces of Afghanistan.” The spokesman also wrote that in the administration’s view, Afghanistan is taking useful steps to address the use and recruitment of child soldiers.
A somewhat different account of the Local Police’s role in armed conflict is given in Kabul. The Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs, asked in an email if it should be considered part of the national government, said it is an “armed defense force” funded by the national government and that its purpose was to operate at the village level to “secure the insecure areas.”
Other documents make clear the force is not like police in Western nations: It does not investigate crime or arrest suspects. Its only function is instead to fight the insurgency, much like a militia. This is what NATO and the U.S. military state in a 112-page 2011 guide to the function and structure of Afghan police forces, labelled “for official use only” but posted online and confirmed as authentic by a NATO spokesman. The account is echoed in the Ministry of Interior Affairs' 11-page procedural guide for the Afghan Local Police, prepared by four high ranking members of the Afghan Local Police and the nation’s Deputy Minister for Security in 2010.
The Afghan Local Police constitute an armed group because they “are engaging in conflict with other security groups against the Taliban,” said Becker, who investigates the use and recruitment of child soldiers by armed forces around the world. Therefore, “Afghanistan belongs on the list,” she says.
Experts note that a 10-year-old member of the Afghan Local Police, Wasil Ahmad, became famous in the region after fighting the Taliban in 2015; he clutched a machine gun to his chest in photos taken before he was killed by insurgents earlier this year. As recently as last October, a 17-year-old member of the Afghan National Police told the London-based advocacy group Child Soldiers International that at the age of 15 or 16 he used a false identification card to register for the force, according to the advocacy group’s March 2016 report on Afghanistan. He said the only person who questioned his age was the doctor who completed the medical examination. The boy also told them he met roughly 15 kids younger than him at police training in Kabul.
One of the drafters of the 2008 law, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said in an email that in his view “the use of child soldiers is unacceptable in any nation’s military, and the United States has an added responsibility to help eradicate the practice in countries where we are engaged.” In Afghanistan, he said, there does “seem to be a greater problem in the Afghan police forces” than in the military. But he also said the law’s provisions do not cover police, highlighting what he considers a loophole that “warrants a closer look.”
Congress already amended the law once before, Durbin wrote, and it can do so again. He was referring to a change made in 2013 to amend the law to prohibit providing peacekeeping funding for countries with child soldiers, a type of aid that had not originally been included in the law. This occurred after the U.S. listed Somalia -- a country that has long employed child soldiers -- but continued sending military aid through peacekeeping accounts.
Ironically, even if the provisions of the law were drawn tightly enough to cover all the foreign forces that might employ child soldiers, the president still has the authority to exempt countries from the funding ban, keeping aid going if needed for U.S. national security -- a waiver that Obama issued last year for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan.
In the Congo alone, U.N. investigators verified the recruitment of 488 children in 2015 by 12 different governmental and non-governmental armed groups. In some cases in the DRC, children were abducted from their homes, according to Marie de la Soudière, an expert consultant who led Child Soldiers International’s field work in the country. The United States authorized roughly $14 million in peacekeeping funds for the DRC for 2016.
In Nigeria, children manned checkpoints and operated as spies in a government militia, known as the Civilian Joint Task Force, according to the U.N.’s report. In Somalia, the army recruited 218 children; in South Sudan, U.N. investigators said they saw children wearing military outfits throughout the country. Many children engaged in direct conflict.
Afghanistan is not the only country that the United States omits. Unlike the U.S. list, the U.N. list of nations with child soldiers includes Colombia, the Central African Republic, the Philippines and Mali. The U.N. has a more comprehensive definition for countries on the list; it includes all governmental and non-governmental armed groups that use and recruit child soldiers in each nation -- including police. But while the U.N. list has remained relatively stable since 2010 at roughly 14 countries the U.S. list has grown from six countries in 2010 to 10 countries in 2016.
This dismal trend has generally not, however, impeded U.S. foreign aid to the problem countries, despite the ambition of the 2008 law’s drafters to use such aid as a cudgel to force improved behavior.
The Obama administration has authorized over $100 million in peacekeeping funds for Somalia and roughly $30 million for South Sudan for 2016 alone, according to estimates provided by the Stimson Center, a nonprofit Washington-based global security think tank. Overall, it withheld just 5.8 percent of roughly $1 billion in military assistance and 1.7 percent of over $300 million worth of arms sales from 12 countries that have been identified on the U.S. child soldiers list since 2010, according to Stimson’s analysis of funds subject to the law. In that same period, the administration authorized at least $7.8 billion in military assistance and arms sales for Afghanistan that would have been prohibited by the child soldiers’ law.
Experts say that putting countries onto the “child soldier list” sometimes has useful consequences. After the United States put Chad on the list in 2010, 2011, and 2013, the government signed an action plan with the United Nations in 2011 to address the issue; by 2014, the U.N.’s own list of groups that use and recruit child soldiers no longer included Chad.
Leaving Afghanistan off the U.S. list of nations that employ child soldiers -- even if it subsequently gets a waiver -- gives others “a clear roadmap [to] get around the law,” says Jesse Eaves, who works with the U.S.-based foundation Humanity United on issues related to human trafficking. “These countries can just change the name of their armed forces … and not even get lsted. It’s just a blatant runaround of what the law was intended to do."
Lauren Chadwick is a Scoville Fellow at the Center.
The Center downloaded 850,000 forms from about 250,000 nonprofits that were recently released in electronic format by the IRS; we extracted the grant data and made $170 billion reported over five years searchable.
Nonprofits, while not required to publicly disclose donors, are required to report grants given to other nonprofits. The new tool allows researchers, reporters and average citizens to search for a so-called “dark money” group, or any other nonprofit, and find out if it got money from another nonprofit.
For example, conservative American Future Fund has spent at least $9.8 million in the 2016 election cycle on political expenditures, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. But unlike super PACs, dark money nonprofits like American Future Fund are not required to reveal donors.
A search using the Center for Public Integrity’s new tool shows the group received $300,000 from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America in the tax year ending December 2010.
Search Patriot Majority USA, a Democratic dark money group, and find a $1 million donation from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union representing government workers, for the tax year ending December 2012 and another $650,000 for the tax year ending December 2014.
“The tool reveals some of the funding sources of nonprofits active in politics and policy that were previously invisible,” said Chris Zubak-Skees, the news developer who created it. “Or the sources were visible, but you would have to sort through a million tax forms by hand to find those.”
The database does not contain grants from tax forms filed on paper. And it doesn’t yet include grants from private foundations or from some nonprofits which received less than $200,000 in a tax year. The Center for Public Integrity’s analysis included about a quarter of the 3.4 million forms filed over five years on which grants must be disclosed. The search is just one small step toward transparency for the billions of dollars nonprofits exchange.
The vast majority of grants go to charitable causes. Readers can find thousands of grants unrelated to political dark money using this search, but more and more nonprofit giving has come under scrutiny in recent election cycles.
That’s because the role of nonprofits became much more important following the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The court ruled that corporations — including nonprofit corporations — could spend an unlimited amount on political races provided the corporations did not coordinate with candidates.
Those nonprofits are permitted to accept unlimited amounts from for-profit corporations and labor unions. But the IRS is required to keep the identity of the donors secret. And the Federal Election Commission does not require these donors to be disclosed.
John Dunbar, politics editor and deputy executive editor at the Center for Public Integrity, said the new search tool will be a valuable resource for those who value transparency in elections.
“We were using it in-house at first,” he said. “But we decided it was too valuable and too important not to share with the world.”
The clandestine group’s goal was clear: Obtain the building blocks of a so-called radioactive “dirty bomb” – capable of poisoning a major city for a year or more – by openly purchasing the raw ingredients from authorized sellers inside the United States.
It should have been hard. The purchase of lethal radioactive materials – even modestly dangerous ones – requires a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a measure meant to keep them away from terrorists. Applicants must demonstrate they have a legitimate need and understand the NRC’s safety standards, and pass an on-site inspection of their equipment and storage.
But this secret group of fewer than 10 people – formed in April 2014 in North Dakota, Texas, and Michigan – discovered that getting a license and then ordering enough materials to make a “dirty bomb” was strikingly simple in one of their three tries. Sellers were preparing shipments that together were enough to poison a city center when the operation was shut down.
The team’s members could have been anyone – a terrorist outfit, emissaries of a rival government, domestic extremists. In fact, they were undercover bureaucrats with the investigative arm of Congress. And they’d pulled off the same stunt nine years before. Their fresh success has set off new alarms among some lawmakers and officials in Washington about risks that terrorists inside the United States could undertake a “dirty bomb” attack.
Here’s how they did it: In Dallas, Texas, they incorporated a shell company they never intended to run and rented office space in a nondescript industrial park, merely to create an address for the license application. In a spot on the form where they were supposed to identify their safety officer, they made up a name and attached a fake resume. They claimed to need the material to power an industrial gauge used in oil and gas exploration.
Last year, their application was sent not to Washington but to Texas regulators, who had been deputized by the NRC to grant licenses without federal review. When the state’s inspector visited the fake office, he saw it was empty and had no security precautions. But members of the group assured him that once they had a license, they would be able to make the security and safety improvements.
So the inspector, who always carried licenses with him, handed them one on the spot.
The two-page Texas document authorized the company to buy the sealed radioactive material in an amount smaller than needed for any nefarious purpose. But no copies were required to be kept in a readily-accessible, government database. So after using the license to place one order, the team simply made a digital copy and changed the permitted quantities, enabling it to place a new order with another seller for twice the original amount.
“I wouldn’t call what we did very sophisticated,” Ned Woodward, the mastermind of the Government Accountability Office’s plot, said in a phone interview with the Center for Public Integrity. “There was nothing we had done to improve that site to make it appear as if it were an ongoing business.”
In 2007, Woodward’s colleagues in the GAO similarly set up fake businesses, got licenses to purchase low-level radioactive material and altered them to buy larger quantities. The NRC promised “immediate action to address the weaknesses we identified,” according to the GAO’s report on that incident.
The auditors’ aim this time around was to see if the government had cleaned up its act, and taken steps to close some simple gateways to obtaining the ingredients for a dirty bomb.
It turns out, the government had not.
While the purchases that Woodward’s team set in motion were never completed, if they had been, his group would have had enough radioactive material to create the type of dangerous dirty bomb that terrorists may seek, according to David Trimble, director of Natural Resources and Environment at the GAO and Woodward’s boss. It would have been within the group’s reach to spread cancer-causing americium and beryllium dust over many blocks, threatening the health of anyone who breathed it.
The quantity each seller could have sent was dangerous, and together the quantity was “significantly dangerous,” Trimble said in a GAO podcast.
Trimble said that he is confident his investigators could have altered the license again and again, allowing them to amass an even larger quantity. “It’s a back door,” he said in an interview. “We walked through it and we showed the door was still open. We could have kept doing it. If you can forge [a license] once, there’s no reason you can’t forge it again and again.”
Texas nuclear regulatory officials have responded by quietly firing two managers and organizing new training efforts.
NRC Commissioner Jeff Baran, an attorney and former House of Representatives staff member, wrote a swift letter to the two other current NRC commissioners (two positions are vacant) stating that even if Texas changed its procedures, “GAO’s covert testing identified a regulatory gap.” He urged his colleagues to consider creating a system for tracking licenses and sales of low-level radioactive materials – an idea that its members rejected seven years ago under heavy state and industry pressure.
The GAO’s July 15 report on the episode, which described the bare bones of its scam without naming any of the states involved or identifying the precise materials that were improperly ordered, similarly said that the NRC and state regulators aren’t doing enough to keep such materials out of terrorists’ hands.
It criticized the state regulator for granting the licenses, but also said the commission needs to act to block license alterations and track sales and shipments of lower-level radiological materials, using measures like those already in place for the sale of more hazardous fissile materials.
Billions of dollars in potential economic harm
Unlike a nuclear detonation, which could destroy a large city, the explosion of a dirty bomb would provoke more chaos than immediate fatalities, according to a 2007 study commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security.
“A terrorist attack using a dirty bomb in the United States is possible, perhaps even moderately likely, but would not kill many people,” two professors at the University of Southern California wrote in the study, which was conducted with advice from government scientific and counterintelligence experts. “Instead, such an attack primarily would result in economic and psychological consequences.”
The explosion could be lethal to someone nearby or to the first emergency personnel to arrive. But cleaning up the contaminated area would cost billions of dollars and take about a year in the scenario examined by the study’s authors – a dirty bomb targeting the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which together constitute the third busiest in the world. At its worst, the resulting economic harm could exceed $250 billion.
One key to keeping the ingredients out of terrorists’ hands, the authors concluded, is “being more proactive in controlling and protecting the original sources of radioactive material.” But they also warned that “an attack that involves relatively low-level radioactive material from a U.S. facility” – the precise scenario tested by the GAO – is more likely to be successful than an attack using imported material, because the chances of detection are so much less.
“Why bother smuggling it if you can just order it with a fake license?” said Trimble, in the podcast.
Radioactive materials considered useful in a dirty bomb are widely present in U.S. and international commerce, used legitimately for medical and industrial purposes in more than 70,000 high-risk devices located at 13,000 buildings, according to a 2013 Energy Department estimate. These include machinery that irradiates food or blood products or is used to diagnose illness. In the United States alone, roughly 21,000 licenses for the purchase of these materials are active – and in some states they are reviewed by regulators only once a decade.
The Obama administration highlighted the dangers associated with loose radioactive materials at international summits in 2010, 2012, 2014, and this March. The summits inspired more than a dozen countries to adopt stronger physical security standards at sites that house radioactive materials and during their transportation, while others held special exercises for law enforcement and health workers who’d likely respond to a dirty bomb. Still others installed radiation detectors to prevent smuggling, or pledged money to other countries to help them develop stronger safety and security standards for radiological materials.
But on March 31, Obama’s deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes warned reporters at a press briefing that while terrorists would have a hard time building or stealing a working nuclear weapon and delivering it, making a “more rudimentary dirty bomb” would be less challenging.
Coordinated suicide bombings in Brussels nine days earlier had stoked special anxiety about dirty bombs, because two perpetrators had secretly surveilled a senior researcher in a Belgian radioactive isotope program as he came and went from his home. The resulting videos, which police seized, prompted worries that the terrorists wanted to kidnap the man to force a handover of radioactive materials.
“The Belgium example – I think it reinforces what we’ve seen for many years, which is that we have seen indications, both through their public statements and through their actions, that terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and ISIL have an interest in getting their hands on these types of materials,” Rhodes said at the summit press briefing. “They want to do as much damage as possible. That was al Qaeda’s position for many years; we have no reason to doubt that that is ISIL’s position as well.”
The Obama administration’s ambition in convening the summits, Rhodes said, was to “bring the standard up around the world so that it is at the level that we see certainly here in the United States.”
That level, it turns out, isn’t so high.
Tighter regulation rejected in 2009
In a written statement about the report, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Homeland Security, who asked for the GAO’s investigation, said, “radiological and nuclear terrorism remains a threat to our nation’s security,” and the GAO’s scam showed how easy it is to exploit gaps in the NRC’s oversight that should have been fixed years ago.
“The NRC should re-evaluate its licensing requirements to ensure those who want to do us harm cannot obtain a license to purchase radioactive materials as easily as covert testers did,” Thompson said.
Similar demands were made, but refused, after the GAO’s sting operation in 2007 exposed the same weaknesses. Then, NRC staff proposed requiring that all licensing and sales involving so-called Category 3 radioactive materials – those in types or quantities considered less dangerous than others – be tracked in a single national database, as they already were for higher-risk Category 1 and 2 materials. Otherwise, it said, these Category 3 materials might be accumulated surreptitiously – through the process the GAO used – “for potential malevolent use.”
The NRC staff estimated that such a system would cost between $11 million and $14 million over a decade, with the federal government bearing 47 percent of the cost, licensees paying 39 percent and state regulators shouldering 14 percent. But companies that sell radiological materials complained in response that they couldn’t even begin to guess how burdensome an expanded tracking system might be for them.
“We do not consider that the supposed benefits of the expansion … justify this potential expenditure,” Hugh Evans, secretary and treasurer of the Council on Radionuclides and Radiopharmaceuticals, a trade association that lobbies on behalf of companies that sell radioactive materials, wrote in a letter to the NRC on May 9, 2008. The co-chair of the Nuclear Sector Coordinating Council for Radioisotopes – an industry task force recognized by the government as a partner in combatting radiological terrorism – sent a separate letter with some wording identical to that in Evans’s letter, suggesting a well-organized campaign.
Regulators in 24 of the states that had been deputized by the NRC to issue licenses also registered their opposition to the expanded tracking, partly because the system for tracking more dangerous quantities was then not working well.
Only Minnesota supported the proposal, calling it one of several “essential steps” that were “long overdue.” Then-NRC member Peter Lyons, a former official at the Los Alamos weapons laboratory, similarly argued at the time that expanded tracking “will further reduce the potential for aggregating sources” to a dangerous level. But Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, a nuclear engineer who had worked on the civilian side of the Energy Department, said she thought the on-site inspections would be enough to stop thefts or diversions.
In June 2009, the radioactive material sellers and state regulators got their way. The NRC rejected on the plan with a 2-2 tie vote.
Egregious behavior didn’t stop a Texas license
That left in place regulations for keeping low-level radioactive materials out of terrorists’ hands that were written in 1978. While the NRC is technically responsible for overseeing these rules, in practice it has granted only 13 percent of the active purchase licenses, relying instead on inspectors in 37 states to oversee the rest. They are supposed to get NRC training, and to follow the NRC’s 14-point checklist rules for inspections.
This is what the GAO sought to verify: “We designed our test to fail” through egregious behavior during on-site visits, the report said.
In its latest investigation, the GAO deliberately focused on two states – North Dakota and Texas – with robust oil and gas extraction industries, which issue many licenses for well-logging equipment, including gauges powered by radioactive americium combined with a lightweight, cancer-causing metal, beryllium, that are plunged into the ground to predict whether a prospective drill site would be productive.
In 2014, the GAO reported that it had caught companies licensed to use well-logging equipment storing large quantities of radioactive materials that auditors said could have been easily stolen. Officials from the NRC and state regulators told the GAO “the security controls are adequate.” But an official from the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration determined “the security measures employed by some well loggers could put the sources at risk.” No policies have been changed, however.
The NRC had previously judged North Dakota’s on-site inspections deficient. With high staff turnover fueled by higher-paying jobs in the state’s booming oil and gas industry, the NRC decided in 2011 to put its radiation protection office into a remedial “heightened oversight” program. But the GAO’s experiment failed there, showing the state had turned around.
The applicants’ facility was unsuited for the kind of work they said they intended to do. They “couldn’t even get a well-logging truck through the door of this building they’d rented,” said Dale Patrick, manager of the radiation program at the North Dakota Department of Health, in a telephone interview. Similar concerns arose during a second GAO licensing application attempt in Michigan, where NRC regional inspectors from Illinois also blocked the GAO’s scam.
Unlike North Dakota, Texas was considered a strong performer. In 2014, an NRC audit of its licensing declared it “adequate to protect public health and safety,” according to an 82-page assessment.
But Texas failed the GAO’s test last year because its inspector didn’t follow agreed procedures “to make sure this unknown entity was a legitimate company and did not question that the applicant was not a registered business with the Texas Secretary of State,” according to Christine Mann, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Texas’s on-site inspectors routinely carried licenses with them and commonly handed them to applicants on the spot without consulting anyone else about what they’d observed. The practice meant that a single person, operating in the field and without independent scrutiny, functioned as the sole obstruction to improper sales.
“Yes, that did happen but we no longer allow that to occur,” Mann said.
The GAO’s sting spurred change in Texas. The state fired two managers and sent letters of reprimand to two members of its licensing staff, according to Mann. The radiation control department retrained its personnel, and altered its procedures to require supervisory reviews of all licenses. A new NRC review last February, however, noted that the division still had “budgetary shortfalls” because the state was using its regulatory fees to raise revenues that it then spent for other purposes. It had 42 personnel to oversee more than 1,570 licensees and shippers and thousands of transactions each year.
After being briefed by the GAO on what had happened, the NRC immediately revoked the license Texas had granted the GAO’s shell company and told the vendors to cancel the orders. The NRC also asked all its state-level partners and regional NRC offices to review their licensing practices and updated its training courses to emphasize the need for heightened scrutiny. But unnamed NRC officials told the GAO that “NRC had no current plans to take action” to enact stricter regulations, because the issue had been considered and rejected in 2009.
After the report’s release, however, Duncan White, a senior health physicist at the NRC, wrote in an official blog post that NRC staff will restudy the issue and discuss it further with the commission later this year. A spokeswoman for the NRC, Maureen Conley, declined to add to what the blog said.
“We’re encouraged that NRC appears to be looking closely at this issue and considering the merits of the recommendation that we made,” Trimble said, “which we believe is on point.”
Abolishing student debt. Increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Guaranteeing a right to health care.
Sound familiar? Those issues — which wouldn't be out of place in a Bernie Sanders stump speech — are also among the top priorities of Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, who won her party's nomination today in Houston.
And during an election season in which many voters and donors unexpectedly flocked to Sanders, Stein is hoping to harness some of that energy for her longshot presidential bid now that Sanders has conceded and endorsed former Democratic Party rival Hillary Clinton.
Stein — a medical doctor and activist from Massachusetts — was also the Green Party's presidential nominee four years ago. Then, she earned about 0.36 percent of the vote nationally and appeared on the ballot in 36 states and the District of Columbia. She only garnered more than 1 percent of the vote in two states: Maine and Oregon.
But that hasn't deterred Stein from calling for a "Green New Deal" and a "truly representative democracy," which would include "open debates" as well as ranked-choice voting and public financing of campaigns.
During her 2012 campaign, Stein raised about $1.3 million, including $64,000 of her own money and about $370,000 in public funding.
Stein is again expected to receive some public financing for her 2016 presidential bid, as is Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson. The better-funded campaigns of Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump are raising their funds strictly from private sources.
Here are nine other things to know about the Green Party's presidential standard-bearer.
Sources: Center for Public Integrity reporting as well as Jill2016.com, Wikipedia and filings with the Federal Election Commission and Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
Image sources: Tar Sands Blockade/Flickr, Gage Skidmore/Flickr, Stephan Savoia/AP, Brynn Anderson/AP
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