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- 01/04/17--02:00: _Barack Obama's amba...
- 01/06/17--02:03: _Medicare failed to ...
- 01/11/17--15:12: _Cities to Trump, Cl...
- 01/12/17--14:32: _EPA wants to restri...
- 01/18/17--08:48: _Military trainees a...
- 01/18/17--08:00: _A chat with our ta...
- 01/19/17--02:02: _With morale in tatt...
- 01/20/17--06:47: _Trump's nominees fa...
- 01/20/17--12:15: _EPA works to remake...
- 01/23/17--09:12: _How ‘Joe the Plumbe...
- 01/24/17--02:02: _Nonprofit tied to i...
- 01/25/17--09:50: _Rare discrimination...
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- 01/04/17--02:00: Barack Obama's ambassador legacy: plum postings for big donors
- 01/11/17--15:12: Cities to Trump, Clinton and Sanders: pay your police bills
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- 01/18/17--08:00: A chat with our talented FOIA fighter
- 01/19/17--02:02: With morale in tatters, Federal Election Commission eyes changes
- More rigorous reviews of, and enhanced training for, the law department’s managers
- Enhanced training opportunities for the office’s rank-and-file lawyers
- Increased pursuit of minority job candidates
- Creating a system for employees to anonymously submit complaints and suggestions directly to Stevenson
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- 01/20/17--12:15: EPA works to remake troubled Office of Civil Rights
- 01/23/17--09:12: How ‘Joe the Plumber’ wants Donald Trump to drain the swamp
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- 02/01/17--08:23: What's in Gorsuch's wallet, Trump's U.S. Supreme Court pick
- One of its most high-profile decisions came last year, when the CFPB fined Wells Fargo $100 million for opening accounts without customers’ consent, with another $35 million going to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and $50 million to the City and County of Los Angeles.
- The CFPB brought complaints in 2014 against Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit college accused of overselling the employability of its graduates, and ITT Educational Services, a for-profit institution accused of predatory student lending.
- On Jan. 18, the CFPB announced a lawsuit against Navient Corp., the nation’s largest student-loan servicer, for “systematically and illegally failing borrowers at every stage of repayment.”
- 02/02/17--11:38: One simple way the Senate could embrace the internet in 2017
- 02/06/17--07:52: Get up, stand up: California’s search for education equity
President-elect Donald Trump has begun nominating the people who he wants to represent U.S. interests abroad.
But even Trump, who despite his "draintheswamp" mantra has been rewarding major campaign donors with prime positions in his cabinet, will find it difficult to match President Barack Obama's legacy of sending top political patrons to the world's poshest capital cities, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis. (The practice has been embraced by Democratic and Republican presidents alike for generations.)
During his second term, Obama named 31 campaign "bundlers" — supporters who raised at least $50,000 to fund his presidential campaigns — as ambassadors. Obama tapped nearly all of these bundlers to serve in Western European nations or other highly developed and stable countries such as Canada and New Zealand.
Another 39 of Obama's second-term ambassador nominees are political appointees who either gave his campaign money or are known political allies. They, too, largely enjoyed postings to wealthy and peaceful nations — Ireland, Denmark and Australia, for example — or high-profile countries such as China and India.
Career diplomats, meanwhile, largely represent the United States in less developed (and sometimes, more violent) nations, from El Salvador and Haiti in North America to Somalia in Africa to Afghanistan and Pakistan in Asia.
Obama voluntarily identified his biggest campaign bundlers, making it possible to determine whether he was offering them ambassadorships. Trump, however, took what federal law allowed him during his presidential campaign — the ability to keep all his campaign bundlers secret, save for those who are federally registered lobbyists.
Here's a final, interactive look at Obama's ambassador-bundlers and other political patrons. Leaked documents indicate the fundraising totals below are likely conservative estimates:
Michael Beckel and Carrie Levine contributed to this report
Six years ago, federal health officials were confident they could save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars annually by auditing private Medicare Advantage insurance plans that allegedly overcharged the government for medical services.
An initial round of audits found that Medicare had potentially overpaid five of the health plans $128 million in 2007 alone, according to confidential government documents released recently in response to a public records request and lawsuit.
But officials never recovered most of that money. Under intense pressure from the health insurance industry, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services quietly backed off their repayment demands and settled the audits in 2012 for just under $3.4 million — shortchanging taxpayers by up to $125 million in possible overcharges just for 2007. The centers are part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Medicare Advantage is a popular alternative to traditional Medicare. The privately run health plans have enrolled more than 17 million elderly and disabled people — about a third of those eligible for Medicare — at a cost to taxpayers of more than $150 billion a year. And while the plans generally enjoy strong support in Congress, there are critics.
“It's unclear why the Obama Administration allowed CMS to overpromise and under-deliver so badly on collecting these overpayments,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told Kaiser Health News in an email response to the findings.
He said CMS “should account for why this process seems to be so broken and why it can't seem to fix it, despite recommendations to do so. The taxpayers depend on getting this process right.”
The failure to collect also alarmed Steve Ellis, vice president of the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington.
“They need to put up a bigger and stronger fight to make sure these programs are operated on the straight and narrow,” Ellis said.
Yet outside of public view, federal officials have been losing a high-stakes battle to curb widespread billing errors by Medicare Advantage plans, according to the records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Center for Public Integrity.
The Center for Public Integrity first disclosed in 2014 that billions of tax dollars are wasted annually partly because some health plans appear to exaggerate how sick their patients are, a practice known in health care circles as “upcoding.”
Last August, the investigative journalism group reported that 35 of 37 health plans CMS has audited overcharged Medicare, often by overstating the severity of medical conditions such as diabetes and depression.
The newly released CMS records identify the companies chosen for the initial 2007 audits as a Florida Humana plan, a Washington state subsidiary of United Healthcare called PacifiCare, an Aetna plan in New Jersey and an Independence Blue Cross plan in the Philadelphia area.
The fifth one focused on a Lovelace Medicare plan in New Mexico, which has since been acquired by Blue Cross.
Each of the five audits, which took more than two years to complete, unearthed significant — and costly — billing mistakes, though the plans disputed them.
For example, auditors couldn’t confirm that one-third of the diseases the health plans had been paid to treat actually existed, mostly because patient records lacked “sufficient documentation of a diagnosis.”
Overall, Medicare paid the wrong amount for nearly two-thirds of patients whose records were examined; all five plans were far more likely to charge too much than too little. For 1 in 5 patients, the overcharges were $5,000 or more for the year, according to the audits. None of the plans would discuss the findings.
As preliminary results of the audits started to roll in, CMS officials outlined steps to recover more than $128 million from the five plans at a confidential agency briefing in August 2010, according to a policy memo prepared for the meeting. The records don’t indicate who attended.
That day, CMS set Humana’s payment error at $33.5 million, PacifiCare at $20.2 million, Aetna at $27.6 million, Independence Blue Cross at nearly $34 million and Lovelace at just under $13 million. Those estimates were based on extrapolation of a sample of cases examined at each plan.
CMS “has developed a process for moving forward with payment recovery,” according to a briefing paper from the 2010 meeting.
But that process fizzled after two years of haggling with the plans and insurance industry representatives, who argued the audits were flawed and the results unreliable. In August 2012, CMS gave in and notified the plans it would settle for a few cents on the dollar.
“Given this was a new process, the decision was made at the time to tie repayments to the actual claims reviewed as part of the 2007 pilot audit,” said CMS spokesman Aaron Albright. “For subsequent audits, we said we intended to determine repayments by extrapolating the error rate of the sample of claims reviewed to all claims under the contract.” Albright said more of the audits are underway. Allowing the insurers to dodge liability dealt a serious blow to the government’s efforts to crack down on billing abuses — a setback one taxpayer advocate called alarming.
“That’s a very bad way to operate the system.” said Patrick Burns, acting executive director and president of Taxpayers Against Fraud in Washington, on hearing of the outcome. “Nobody is held accountable.”
Indeed, CMS kept the settlement terms under wraps until 2015, after an inquiry by Grassley. The senator had requested details about Medicare Advantage fraud controls in response to articles published by the Center for Public Integrity.
In a July 31, 2015 letter to Grassley, CMS Acting Administrator Andy Slavitt attached a table that showed the five plans repaid just under $3.4 million. The letter didn’t mention the earlier estimate that the government was due $128 million. Grassley said it should not have taken the FOIA lawsuit to make that information available to the public.
“Perhaps adding insult to injury, these numbers might never have seen the light of day without a lengthy lawsuit,” Grassley said this week.
Paying based on risk scores
When Congress created the current Medicare Advantage program in 2003, it devised a new way to pay the health plans.
The method, phased in starting in 2004, seemed simple enough: pay higher rates for sicker patients and less for people in good health using a formula called a risk score.
But CMS officials soon realized that risk scores rose much faster at some plans than others, a possible sign of upcoding, or other billing irregularities, records show. These overcharges topped $4 billion in 2005, one CMS study found.
The special audits, called Risk Adjustment Data Validation, or RADV, were designed to identify, and hold accountable, health plans that couldn’t justify their fees with supporting medical evidence.
Until these audits, CMS “pretty much went on the honor system with the plans,” an unnamed agency official wrote in an undated presentation.
In the five 2007 pilot audits, two sets of auditors inspected medical records for a random sample of 201 patients at each plan. If the medical chart didn’t properly document that a patient had the illnesses the plan had reported, Medicare wanted a refund. Auditors gave the plans the benefit of the doubt when auditors couldn’t agree, according to the CMS briefing paper.
Finally, CMS applied a standard technique used in fraud investigations in which the payment error rate is extrapolated across the entire health plan, which greatly multiplies the amount due. CMS said it was conservative in assessing the penalties and allowed the plans to appeal.
Appeals or no, the health plans recoiled at the prospect they could be on the hook for millions of dollars they hadn’t budgeted for and didn’t believe they owed. The actual 2007 overage for the 201 Humana patients, for example, was $477,235. Once extrapolated, it soared to $33.5 million.
Michael S. Adelberg, a former CMS official who is now an industry consultant in Washington, said that in retrospect the audit process was “probably rushed.”
Adelberg said the audits “raised strong industry concerns” on a variety of fronts, from whether CMS had the legal authority to conduct them to the soundness of their methods. CMS stands by its audit techniques and has defended RADV as the only way it can assure plans bill honestly.
Yet agency records released through the FOIA case suggest CMS lacked the will to press ahead with extrapolated audits for Medicare Advantage plans given the fierce industry backlash — even though they do so in overpayment cases targeting other types of medical providers.
One confidential CMS presentation dated March 30, 2011, notes that officials had received more than 500 comments expressing “significant resistance” to the RADV audits.
The presentation goes on to say the audit program’s success depended on its “ability to address the challenges raised.”
CMS didn’t overcome those challenges. Instead, it agreed to settle the five initial audits for $3.4 million, just what it found in the patient files it reviewed — without the extrapolations. And the center did the same for 32 additional 2007 audits, which officials had predicted would refund up to $800 million to the federal treasury. In the end, CMS wound up with $10.3 million from the 32 plans.
The RADV program’s shortcomings, though little known to the public, haven’t gone totally unnoticed. The program was the target of a sharply critical May 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office, which noted that Medicare Advantage plans have overbilled the government by billions of dollars, but rarely been forced to repay the money or face other consequences.
The GAO, the watchdog arm of Congress, called for “fundamental improvements.” The watchdogs also found that CMS has spent about $117 million on the audits, but recouped just under $14 million.
Government officials didn’t dispute that the RADV process had taken far too long and yielded way too little. But while CMS has resumed extrapolated audits, there’s little evidence it is speeding things up.
CMS expected to complete extrapolated audits for payments made in 2011 and finish the job in early 2014, agency records show.
But it has yet to do so. In late December, an agency spokesman said he had no new information about when the 2011 audits would be finished or how much the government would collect.
While the industry awaits the results, it has hardly warmed to the process.
America’s Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group, argued in a June 2016 position paper that RADV was “not yet stable and reliable,” adding that the audits “could disrupt the care being provided by plans that are working hard to meet the needs of their enrollees.”
John Gorman, a former government health care official and current industry consultant, said he expects RADV to forge ahead under the incoming administration. But he predicted efforts to collect overpayments will “slow down” because the Trump team will prove to be “more sympathetic” to business interests than the Obama administration. The Trump transition office did not respond to a request for comment.
Gorman said that while career civil servants at CMS decide which plans get audited, how much to assess the health plans as a result rests with “political appointees” who are susceptible to industry lobbying, which he termed “the old Potomac two- step.”
But Grassley said he is determined to keep a close eye on the audit program. “I intend to press the incoming administration on holding CMS accountable for overpayments that harm taxpayers," he said.
Taxpayer advocate Ellis said with so much public money at stake, the government needs to step up its game.
“You can presume that the more people get away with overpayments the more they are going to take,” he said. “As the program gets bigger the problem get bigger.”
Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit health newsroom whose stories appear in news outlets nationwide, is an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation. Schulte, formerly of the Center for Public Integrity, is now a senior correspondent at Kaiser Health News.
Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders may not remember much about the rallies they each held last year in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
But officials at Green Bay City Hall sure do. And they’re miffed the three politicos have stiffed them on police protection bills totaling $24,000.
“We appreciate, and we feel honored, when the candidates come to Green Bay,” said Celestine Jeffreys, chief of staff to Mayor Jim Schmitt. “We are also very appreciative when they honor their debts.”
Green Bay is no anomaly.
At least three-dozen municipal governments and law enforcement agencies say presidential campaigns have ignored hundreds of thousands of dollars in outstanding bills stemming from police security for campaign events — from Vallejo, California, to the University of Pittsburgh. That’s according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of federal campaign disclosures and municipal invoices, as well as interviews with more than 60 local government officials.
Presidential campaigns asserted in communications with some city governments that they’re not responsible for many security costs. But this widespread failure to pay follows an election season when many presidential candidates — particularly Trump — argued that law enforcement deserved both more resources and more respect.
Trump’s campaign alone hasn’t paid nearly $204,000 worth of police-related invoices, according to municipal billing records obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
And Trump arguably owes more.
That’s because the Trump campaign — despite receiving demand letters and collection notices — doesn’t acknowledge in federal campaign financial disclosures that it owes cities a cent. Nor does the Clinton campaign, which hasn't paid at least $25,000 in bills. The Sanders campaign, in contrast, says in federal campaign filings that it owes $449,409, spread among nearly two-dozen municipalities and law enforcement agencies.
The differing approaches make it difficult to determine just how many security-related bills have been sent to the major White House hopefuls since their campaigns began touring the nation in earnest in mid-2015. The Trump, Clinton and Sanders campaigns wouldn’t comment.
Complicating cities’ collection efforts: local officials often can’t force campaigns to pay unless they signed a formal, contractual agreement with the campaigns, which many have not.
Contract or not, many mayors, police chiefs and city managers say presidential candidates who profess to support law enforcement should back up their words with dollars.
“There shouldn’t be much debate about it — cities across America provided protection at a cost and should be reimbursed for it,” said Mayor John McNally of Youngstown, Ohio, which is still waiting for the Sanders campaign to pay a nearly $6,000 bill for security the city provided at a March 14 campaign event.
‘The City may pursue all of its remedies’
Rhetorically, Trump supports police with aplomb.
“The police in our country are not appreciated. We do not give them the kind of respect that they have to have,” Trump said in a campaign video from February. Several prominentlawenforcementorganizations later endorsed him.
On Monday, Trump marked National Law Enforcement Appreciation Day by tweeting six pictures of himself standing with police offers and other emergency personnel. “Thank you to all of the men and women who protect & serve our communities 24/7/365!” Trump wrote.
But Tucson, Arizona, officials say Trump owes them $81,837 for security and traffic control services during his “Make America Great Again Rally” on March 19 at the Tucson Convention Center.
Spokane, Washington, is still waiting for Trump’s campaign to pay a bill of $65,124.
Tucson, which signed a contract with the Trump campaign, is particularly adamant.
The March 18 contract signed by then-Trump Campaign Manager Corey Lewandowski and Tucson Convention Center General Manager Glenn Grabski stipulated that the Trump campaign was financially responsible for “security, crowd and traffic personnel” that convention center staff deemed necessary. The contract also stated that convention center staff reserved the right to “increase or change its security arrangements” — and that the Trump campaign “shall promptly comply with such request” and pay any additional fees.
“You are responsible for these payments,” Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin reiterated to the Trump campaign in a Sept. 20 letter, sent six months after the original bill. “If you fail to remit payment in a timely manner, the City may pursue all of its remedies,” including suing the Trump campaign.
In his letter, obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, McGahn disputed Rankin’s interpretation of Tucson’s contract with the Trump campaign and even criticized the Tucson police’s performance at the rally.
The campaign “was, in fact, frustrated by the refusal of Tucson Police to do anything to control the violent and angry protestors outside the Convention Center,” McGahn wrote. “The Campaign has had numerous reports from people who attended the event that the on-site police officers refused to do anything to control protestors or otherwise protect attendees of the event.”
As of early January, Trump’s campaign had not paid its bill, and Tucson officials are still weighing their options.
Officials in Eau Claire are similarly steamed, noting in a Sept. 27 demand letter to Trump’s campaign that his visit on April 2 “incurred a significant amount” of costs for the city of 68,000.
The charges range from calling in help from three nearby police departments to providing cops with pizzas while they stood guard throughout the day.
In Green Bay, officials said the Trump campaign paid a $1,403 police bill for hotel security on March 29 and a $9,550 bill for an event Oct. 17. But the campaign hasn’t settled up on the $9,380 security tab from an Aug. 5 rally, and the city could not explain why.
The Trump transition team did not respond to numerous requests for comment regarding its unpaid police protection bills or how it determined which police bills to pay or not pay.
The Fraternal Order of Police, the world’s largest law enforcement officer organization, which endorsed Trump during the general election, also did not respond to requests for comment.
The Trump campaign in December disclosed having more than $7.6 million remaining in its account. The only debt it reported was a $766,756 campaign polling expense that it labeled as contested in federal filings.
Cities also want Clinton, Sanders to pay
Clinton, like Trump, talked a blue streak about boosting law enforcement.
“I want to support them, our police officers, with the resources they need to do their jobs, to do them effectively, to learn from their efforts and to apply those lessons across our nation,” Clinton said in August during a meeting with law enforcement officials. “Everyone is safer when there is respect for the law and when everyone is respected by the law.”
But Clinton’s campaign, too, has failed to pay some police bills.
Philadelphia officials, for one, sent the Clinton campaign a $2,678 invoice for security surrounding an April 25 campaign rally at Philadelphia City Hall.
Three months later, it sent the campaign a debt collection letter.
Still no response.
Officials are about to try one more time with a “final collection letter” and “additional steps” to contact Clinton’s campaign committee.
If that fails, the matter will be sent to the city’s legal department “for collective action at the appropriate time,” said Ajeenah S. Amir, a spokeswoman for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.
Curiously, Clinton’s campaign did pay Philadelphia’s $8,500 security bill from a Nov. 5 event Clinton conducted with musician Katy Perry at Mann Music Center, Philadelphia officials said.
In Wisconsin, Green Bay officials say the Clinton campaign has yet to pay off bills from events in March, September and November totaling nearly $12,800. Eau Claire, Wisconsin, says Clinton won’t pay a $6,812 from a visit in April. Spokane wants $2,793.
Clinton’s campaign committee has enough money to pay its bills, having last month reported carrying a more than $838,000 surplus on its books. It did not report police bills from Philadelphia, Green Bay or any other locality as campaign debt.
Clinton campaign officials would not talk about the campaign’s non-payment of police bills despite several calls and emails requesting comment.
In March, as the Democratic presidential primary raged, the pro-Sanders Veterans for Bernie organization chided the Clinton campaign for local news reports indicating Clinton was slow to pay her bills for police protection. It likewise boasted that the Sanders campaign showed “an understanding and respect for the challenges faced by municipalities and local police departments” by reimbursing local governments for police protection.
Many police departments would disagree: The Sanders campaign in December reported to the Federal Election Commission that it owed 23 local governments and law enforcement agencies a combined $449,409 for “event security.” In its filing, the Sanders campaign doesn’t dispute the debts.
The cities of Santa Monica, California ($117,047), Irvine, California ($67,000); Tucson ($44,013), Spokane ($33,318) and Vallejo, California ($28,702) are listed as Sanders campaign’s top creditors.
Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs declined to comment, referring questions to the Secret Service.
But Sanders campaign lawyer Brad Deutsch, in responding to a demand letter from Tucson, argued that the Sanders campaign shouldn’t have to pay bills for services that the Secret Service — not the campaign itself — requested. Tucson assigned 76 police officers to staff Sanders’ March 18 campaign rally at Tucson Arena.
“The Campaign did not contract for, not did it request or arrange for the Tucson Police Department to provide public safety at the Campaign event,” wrote Deutsch, who declined to speak on the record for this story. “The level of security or public safety requirements anticipated for any particular event were not dictated by the campaign.”
In Pennsylvania, Chief Mark Toomey of the Upper Providence Township Police Department attempted to convince Sanders’ campaign to pay a $25,620 invoice related to a Democratic primary campaign event in April.
“They said [the bill] was exorbitant and too high, and that they didn’t ask for the manpower,” Toomey said. “What if I said, ‘Look, you’re on your own, have fun,’ and a fight breaks out, or something terrible happens? I’m the one who gets skewered — the negatives are endless.”
Ultimately, the Sanders campaign gave the Upper Providence Township Police Department $2,250, and the two sides settled, Toomey said. Toomey added that he considered taking the Sanders campaign to court for non-payment but decided against it.
“Who wants to get bogged down in that?” he asked. “My goal is to make sure the candidate gets in and out — regardless of money or who they are — safely.”
Sheriff John R. Gossage of Brown County, Wisconsin, wasn’t pleased when Casey Sinnwell, Sanders’ national director of scheduling and advance, told him to contact the Secret Service to collect on a $2,883 event security bill.
“I am concerned that the campaign was overly selective as to what service/organization they would reimburse for protective services rendered,” Gossage wrote back, noting that the Sanders campaign did pay one of its bills — all $11,472 of it — that Green Bay’s city government sent it.
What happened then?
“I received no reply,” Gossage said.
Two-thousand miles away, Deputy Sheriff Christine Castillo of the Solano County Sheriff’s Office in California says the Sanders campaign never once responded to the more than $22,100 worth of invoices it sent after staffing campaign events before the state’s Democratic primary on June 4.
“We of course would like them to pay the invoices that we sent previously,” she said.
Sanders could conceivably pay all his police bills immediately: His campaign in December reported having more than $4.71 million cash on hand.
Who should pay for candidate safety?
When a barnstorming presidential candidate sweeps into a city for a campaign rally, often on just a few days notice, if that, it’s often unclear who’s financially responsible for securing the event.
Here’s how events typically unfold: Before a campaign event, the U.S. Secret Service, which is primarily responsible for ensuring the safety of presidential candidates, asks local police departments or other public safety agencies to assist them.
Local governments almost never refuse. They’ll then deploy officers to serve a variety of functions: crowd control, perimeter patrols, closing streets, escorting dignitaries.
After the candidate comes and goes, the host city sometimes bills the presidential campaign for police officer overtime and other related costs.
Why bill the campaign and not the Secret Service?
Because the Secret Service doesn’t reimburse local police jurisdictions, even when it asked for the help.
So … why not?
“The U.S. Secret Service is not funded during the appropriations process to reimburse state and local police departments assisting the Secret Service in protective operations,” Secret Service spokeswoman Cathy L. Milhoan said in a statement.
Senate Appropriations Committee spokesman Stephen Worley concurred, noting that Congress also does not provide funding to reimburse state and local law enforcement agencies for presidential visits, heads of state or other high-level dignitaries.
“The prevailing argument has been that state and local law enforcement are responsible for protecting public safety in these circumstances, just as they would around any other event,” Worley said.
It’s a situation that, for Mayor Dwight Jones of Richmond, Virginia, is perplexing.
When Trump conducted a last-minute rally on June 10 in Richmond, the city coughed up more than $41,000 for public safety efforts and police personnel. In a July letter to Douglas Mease, special agent-in-charge of the Secret Service’s Richmond Field Office, Jones argued that his city should be compensated for the “coordinated and massive planning and operational effort by a number of local public safety agencies.”
Richmond has yet to recoup its money, and Jones has now left office.
During presidential candidate events, police forces and municipalities arguably provided governmental services for which campaigns — absent a contract or other security services agreement — aren’t financially responsible, said Eric Wang, a Washington, D.C.-based election lawyer at Wiley Rein LLP and former counsel to current Federal Election Commission Vice Chairwoman Caroline Hunter.
“Reasonable people could certainly dispute whether there is any disputed debt to be reported here,” Wang said. “Just because the local police departments and governments may want the campaigns to reimburse them for the additional security costs doesn’t necessarily mean that, as a matter of law, there is a ‘debt.’”
After all, if candidates had to pay (or at least publicly disclose as “debt”) any bill they received, what would stop someone, particularly scam artists or unscrupulous political actor, from attempting to bleed a campaign of money it doesn’t owe?
Federal law doesn’t offer much clarity.
There’s a “significant amount of ambiguity” in FEC regulations regarding what candidates must publicly disclose as debt, said Brett Kappel, a D.C.-based election lawyer at Akerman LLP.
Deciding whether to fight
A city government’s decision to invoice a presidential campaign for police and security services depends on the city government itself.
While some do, others don’t even bother.
Officials in Cincinnati; Columbus, Ohio; Dallas; Detroit; Kansas City, Mo.; Milwaukee; Las Vegas and Orlando, Florida, for example, said their municipalities generally do not bill presidential campaigns for police protection they provide at campaign events staged within their cities’ limits.
Some officials explained that the exercise is pointless, as campaigns over the years have rarely paid them back. Others consider police protection of political events part of their taxpayer-funded responsibilities — similar to policing a holiday parade, or a peaceful public protest.
“In the interest of public safety and managing traffic, we just do the job,” said Steve Hegarty, spokesman for the Tampa Police Department in Florida.
Another reason for not sending bills: Local officials don’t want to dampen the economic benefits — full restaurants, busy storefronts, happy hoteliers — of an event attracting thousands of people. Some local officials said they feared the campaigns might go elsewhere if they haggled over bills.
Mayor Paul Finley of Madison, Alabama, estimated that his little city provided the Trump campaign $30,000 worth of city services related to a large rally in February. But officials chose to not bill the Trump campaign for them. (The Trump campaign paid up front and in full when renting Madison City Stadium.)
City Manager Tom Barwin of Sarasota, Florida, says his city also chose not to bill presidential campaigns for police protection they provided to Trump when he twice visited last year.
Offering presidential candidates security while they speak publicly to city residents is “part of our basic public safety mission,” Barwin said.
“We are also, however, not averse to being reimbursed,” he added. “We do realize that our communities face unique circumstances and costs may start to become oppressive in today’s world in which all communities around the globe harbor concerns over foreign and/or domestic terrorism.”
Just ask New York City. Since Election Day, it’s been in a fight with the federal governmentto recoup what it says are the roughly $500,000-per-day costs of securing Trump Tower in Manhattan, where the president-elect conducts much of his transition business.
While the financial condition of U.S. cities is returning to pre-Great Recession levels of health, municipal governments last year ranked public safety costs among factors that most negatively affect their budgets, according to the National League of Cities’ 2016 City Fiscal Conditions report.
Many municipal governments “face great difficulty in purchasing necessary public safety equipment because of budget constraints,” the National League of Cities further asserted in a resolution aimed at newly inaugurated federal lawmakers.
New duties placed on law enforcement related to federal homeland security mandates, as well as difficulty securing federal funds, have also constrained city budgets, the National League of Cities wrote.
It should be the purview of individual municipalities to decide whether they want to bill presidential candidates for police services they provide the candidates, said Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents top police officials in the United States and Canada.
And if a city government decides to bill a presidential campaign for its campaign-related police work?
“The campaigns ought to respect a city’s decision, whatever it may be,” Stephens said. “The campaign should pay for the services.”
‘Morally, it’s the thing to do’
One presidential campaign that municipal officials across the country consistently lauded for paying its local police-related bills was that of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
Back in Green Bay, Wisconsin, for example, which continues to wait for Trump, Clinton and Sanders to pay up, the Cruz presidential committee long ago settled a nearly $1,200 security bill related to Cruz campaign events in March and April, according to city records.
Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier declined to comment on the other presidential candidates’ debt situations, but said Cruz, who quit the presidential race in May, put “a high value on running an organized campaign” that promptly paid vendors and creditors.
Through November, Cruz’s still-technically-operational presidential committee reported owing no money to anyone, including municipal governments.
It had nearly $255,000 remaining it its account.
Many past presidential candidates, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Sen. Rick Santorum, the Rev. Al Sharpton and ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, remain in debt to a variety of non-law enforcement creditors. And it’s impossible to know how many presidential candidates of yore never paid police bills they received — and never reported them as debt.
“The senator wants to treat people well,” Frazier said, noting that paying bills “is ultimately a reflection on him.”
For his part, Mayor Dan Devine of West Allis, Wisconsin, which twice hosted Trump campaign events last year, wishes all presidential candidates would follow suit.
Devine notes that candidates often conduct campaign fundraisers before and after public events, and they receive municipal police services for them, too.
While West Allis, population 60,000, didn’t bill presidential candidates for event security costs during the 2016 election, Devine says he’ll push to change that.
“Morally, it’s the thing to do,” he said of candidates paying for local police protection. “City resources are already stretched thin without presidential candidates visiting. I’ll definitely be doing my homework before late 2019.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to largely ban the use of a chemical in paint strippers that has killed dozens of people, asphyxiating some and triggering heart attacks in others.
The agency announced the proposed rule today, a move that followed pleas from public-health officials to do something about methylene chloride, the chemical in many of the paint removers on home improvement store shelves. Until last year, the cans didn’t include warnings about the risk of death from use in enclosed spaces, which is where people have typically died amid its fumes — in bathrooms, basements, tanks and even a squash court.
A 2015 Center for Public Integrity investigation uncovered more than 50 accidental exposure deaths linked to the chemical since 1980 in the U.S. — a likely undercount, given its ability to bring on a heart attack — and showed that federal agencies had opportunities to act decades ago but did not. Deaths blamed on methylene chloride have been documented since at least the 1940s, and in 1976 two academics wrote a piece in which they detailed a consumer death and criticized the lack of federal action.
The EPA said it determined that methylene chloride in paint strippers poses “unreasonable risks” to workers and consumers, not only because it can kill rapidly as its fumes build up but also because it increases the odds of developing cancer and can harm organs such as the lungs and kidneys. The only exceptions the agency proposed to its prohibition are for certain national security uses, which it wants to exempt for 10 years, and for furniture stripping, because the agency said it needs more time to determine how best to regulate the use of the chemical in that industry.
The EPA would require paint strippers with methylene chloride be distributed in 55-gallon drums to make sure they don’t end up on shelves in cans that consumers and businesses might unwittingly buy. About 1.3 million consumers use these products every year, in addition to roughly 30,000 people at work, the agency estimates.
“There are many cases of people who have become ill or even died as a result of exposure to methylene chloride-containing paint removers,” the EPA said in its announcement of the proposal. “Today’s action, when finalized, will save lives and protect people from other serious health risks.”
The proposal — opposed by businesses that make and use the solvent — comes eight years after the European Union approved a ban on sales of methylene chloride paint strippers to consumers and companies, with the exception of businesses using it in industrial sites with protective equipment and other cautionary measures. The chemical is also known as dichloromethane.
The would-be rule is the third the EPA has proposed since December that would restrict chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act, reformed last year by Congress to give EPA the power to more effectively protect Americans from dangerous exposures at work and at home.
“For the first time in a generation, we are able to restrict chemicals already in commerce that pose risks to public health and the environment,” Jim Jones, assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, said in a statement last month.
But for the proposals to become rules, they will need the support of the incoming, regulation-adverse Trump administration. The president-elect has said that for every new rule his agencies enact, he wants to eliminate two. Billionaire investor Carl Icahn, tapped as a Trump adviser, said his role will be “rallying against this overregulation that we have.”
Trade groups and businesses, meanwhile, tried to kill the paint-stripper proposal before it could be unveiled for public comment. Meeting with the White House regulatory-review arm that is the gatekeeper for rules, the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance argued in December that the EPA action overstates the risks — though the group agrees that the chemical can be deadly in enclosed areas — and would leave people without a good paint-stripping alternative, according to the group’s presentation. As the EPA was working to finish its proposal last year, the trade group petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission to require stronger warnings on cans, then told the White House’s Office of Management and Budget that the EPA shouldn’t be “usurping” the CPSC’s authority.
W.M. Barr & Co., an employee-owned company that makes several methylene chloride paint stripper brands, including ones linked to worker deaths in recent years, said in its presentation to the Office of Management and Budget that the solvent “offers a truly unique set of benefits and can be safely used as millions of uses each year shows.” In an earlier interview with the Center, the company’s vice president of risk management pointed out that methylene chloride — unlike alternative chemicals for stripping — is nonflammable.
But the solvent is often paired with other, flammable chemicals in paint strippers, the EPA noted in its proposal. And chemical-safety advocates contend that there are safer, effective alternatives. Benzyl alcohol, which some state agencies haverecommended, is less toxic and poses what the National Fire Protection Association describes as a “fairly insignificant” fire hazard. The Institute for Research and Technical Assistance, which tests safer substitutes for popular solvents, said it found benzyl alcohol to be a reasonably good replacement for furniture stripping — an industry exempted in the proposed rule — because it loosens the same coatings for roughly the same cost overall.
The EPA said methylene chloride does cause unreasonable risks in furniture stripping and wrote in its proposal that it intends to propose regulation for that use later, “after seeking additional information to further characterize the impacts of potential regulatory action.” It wants to enact both rules at the same time.
Furniture strippers who died from exposure to the chemical include 18-year-old Johnathan Welch. In 1999, the week before he would have started college, he was stripping paint over a tank in a business near Chattanooga, Tennessee, when co-workers left the room to eat lunch. When they returned 35 minutes later, he was collapsed over the tank, a burned, swelling arm in the liquid. Doctors tried in vain to revive him.
His mother, Rita Welch, said neither she nor her son had any idea the job he started at age 16 — after school at first, then full time — was putting him in contact with something that could kill him. “In his second year, he started having some dizzy spells and having problems with his sinuses, but I didn’t link it to the chemicals,” she said in 2015 interview, choked up with regrets over the still-keen loss.
The deaths in recent years have typically involved bathtub refinishing, with workers leaning over tubs to remove the finish, not realizing that that the fumes were building up to dangerous levels. The solvents industry agrees that methylene chloride is unsafe for bathtub work but wants warnings on labels rather than a ban.
Because methylene chloride is an anesthetic, it can knock victims out and shut down their ability to breathe. Gary de la Peña, who survived a near-death experience with the chemical at a California paint company five years ago, was overcome seconds after he rushed into a nine-foot-deep tank to rescue a collapsed co-worker who’d been using paint stripper inside it. His co-worker died. De la Peña was hospitalized for four days and told the Center in 2015 that his health had never been the same.
Methylene chloride transforms in the body to carbon monoxide, giving it another way to kill — by triggering a heart attack from lack of oxygen. And while methylene chloride isn’t flammable, an open flame can convert it to phosgene, the poisonous gas that killed tens of thousands in World War I.
Some paint-stripping alternatives carry their own health risks. Studies have linked N-methylpyrrolidone, or NMP, to miscarriages and other effects on unborn children, and EPA’s paint-stripper proposal covers that chemical as well. But the agency offered two possibilities it asked for comment on: Whether to ban NMP outright in paint strippers, with a temporary exemption for national-security uses, or to require more dilution of the chemical in paint strippers along with better warnings on labels and more worker protections.
This article was co-published with the Daily Beast.
The Defense Department trained at least 17 high-ranking foreigners at some of its top schools who were later convicted or accused of criminal and human rights abuses in their own countries, according to a series of little-noticed, annual State Department reports to Congress.
Those singled out in the disclosures included five foreign generals, an admiral, a senior intelligence official, a foreign police inspector, and other military service members from a total of 13 countries, several of which endured war or coups.
Several officers committed crimes within a few years of their training. Others committed crimes more than a decade later. Many of the officers were described in the reports as leaders or participants in high-profile scandals and conflicts in their countries — including extrajudicial killings in Colombia, torture during Nepal’s conflict against Maoists, and murder during a Bolivian internal conflict, according to the State Department reports.
A senior Congolese military officer who attended a year-long program at the U.S. Defense Institute of International Legal Studies, in 2007, for example, was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department last September for participation in “violent intimidation” of opposition political candidates, including death threats that prompted some of the candidates to withdraw.
The Defense Department’s training was partly intended to instill democratic values and respect for human rights, but at least 13 of the 17 were subsequently arrested or charged in their home countries for crimes such as genocide, murder, and rape, said the reports, one of which was labeled as “Sensitive but Unclassified.” Others named in the reports were accused of torture or murder by civil and criminal courts, human rights lawyers, or government investigators, but continue to work in their official capacity.
Among the Pentagon- and military-run schools they attended, from 1985 to 2010, were the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, the U.S. Army Engineer School in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and others.
Independent analysts, lawyers, and human rights experts say the actual number of U.S. foreign military trainees who committed human rights abuses and other crimes is almost certainly higher than 17, in part because the State Department reports to Congress — required under obscure language inserted into a military assistance bill in 2002 that may soon be removed — only encompass one of the more than fifty U.S. training and defense assistance programs.
At least 33 other foreign military officers who received U.S. military and police training later committed human rights abuses, according to a separate tally by researchers at the nonprofit Center for International Policy, who based their tabulation on U.S. and foreign press accounts of incidents of violence or abuse involving foreign government officials.
Several of those on the Center’s list — including Amadou Sanogo, a former captain in Mali’s army— notoriously led coups against their governments a few years after attending the U.S. institutions.
The reports to Congress account for a “very small universe” of all those trained, said Daniel Mahanty, who directed the Office of Security and Human Rights within the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor from January 2014 to September 2015. Mahanty said that he did not know the actual number of human rights abusers trained by the United States, because no effort has been attempted to monitor systematically the behavior of the military’s graduates.
Multiple agencies with little accountability
The reports to Congress specifically delineate those participants in the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program tagged in the State Department’s annual human rights reporting effort as having problematic behavior. As the main program that brings foreigners to the United States to attend U.S. military schools at Washington’s expense, IMET is now offered to select military and police officers in more than 120 countries worldwide. A much larger portion of the military’s foreign trainees is instructed in their own countries or at regional foreign centers.
Under a provision of the defense funding bill for fiscal year 2017 that Congress approved and Obama signed in December, the Trump administration will be required to certify that future security assistance “includes a comprehensive curriculum on human rights and the law of armed conflict.” But it does not specify what this should consist of.
The IMET training costs more than $100 million annually and in 2014 trained roughly 4,000 foreign military officers, amounting to 7 percent of the more than 56,000 foreign officers trained by the Defense Department yearly.
The IMET program, in turn, is part of a larger U.S. government effort to build up foreign police and military forces at a total cost of $250 billion since the September 2001 terror attacks. That larger effort is managed by roughly 46 government offices with little coordination and weak oversight, according to multiple critics. While the work is mostly funded by the Pentagon, the State Department is supposed to lead it, and to vet potential trainees.
“These dysfunctions include shortcomings in personnel and bureaucratic structure … a mismatch in planning cultures and budgeting timelines; a lack of policy prioritization and coherence [and] insufficient clarity, transparency, and monitoring and evaluation,” according to the Open Society Foundation’s Rose Jackson, who served as chief of staff in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor from 2013 until last April and recently completed a comprehensive study of the issue.
The IMET program was started in 1976 to foster closer relations with foreign militaries, but one of its three stated goals is to teach foreign military officers “basic issues involving internationally recognized human rights,” according to the Foreign Assistance Act.
That goal has been sketchily met, experts say. Most of the IMET courses concern war strategy, technical skills and management, and the participants read military history and are taught how to react in a crisis. The Defense Department says that human rights topics are woven into these courses. At the defense International Studies institute in Newport, Rhode Island, the naval school in Monterey, and the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in Georgia, for instance, IMET students take courses on international law, military ethics, and civil-military relations as part of yearlong master’s degree programs.
At most of the other service colleges, however, the officers instead participate in field trips to American cities, courthouses and nonprofit organizations meant only generally to expose the IMET students to American values, according to the State Department’s annual “Foreign Military Training” report and interviews with independent experts and international program directors at Defense Department service colleges.
While most of the 17 officers listed in the State Department disclosures took courses on command and strategy, the reports list only one as having completed a rule of law course.
Their experience was typical, not unusual, according to researchers at the Security Assistance Monitor, a unit of the Center for International Policy that tracks U.S. spending related to foreign militaries. In an analysis completed last year based on public reports, the unit concluded that only 11.7 percent of IMET-funded students in 2014 took courses focused on human rights or the rule of law.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Patrick L. Evans, said in an email to CPI that the department “is committed to providing comprehensive training” to foreign personnel on military budgeting, civilian control mechanisms, military justice systems, and following codes of conduct that meet international human rights standards.
But Shannon Green, a former senior director for global engagement at the National Security Council during the Obama administration who now directs the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said “the human rights training component is merely a check the box exercise.” She said she formed this conclusion after interviewing Pentagon officials about how to improve U.S. security assistance.
Colby Goodman, who directs the Security Assistance Monitor and oversaw its IMET research, said the U.S. military should not only give human rights a higher priority but take a broad view of how to instill it. Its courses, he said, should emphasize the importance of combating corruption and creating robust oversight mechanisms, while tailoring training to specific human rights gaps in countries where the officers are serving.
Convict regrets not getting human rights training
Charles Bowry, a former lance corporal in the Saint Kitts and Nevis defense force, said in a jailhouse telephone interview that he did not take a human rights course when he was in the United States at the U.S. Army Engineer School in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, in 2010. Instead, he participated in field trips — to Washington, D.C., and an Amish village — meant to satisfy that requirement.
Reached at Her Majesty’s Prison in Basseterre, where he’s serving a 16-year sentence for raping a 16-year-old girl, he said he would have liked to take human rights courses to learn more about “the culture and the rights” in the United States, because “knowledge is power.” Bowry, who was sentenced for the rape incident along with another U.S.-trained lance corporal, Jamal Phillip, complained that his conviction was a “political setup” but did not explain.
Even those who got more focused training have had stumbles. According to the State Department’s report to Congress in 2011, John Numbi, an advisor to Democratic Republic of the Congo President Joseph Kabila, completed a year-long training in 2007 at the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies, whose leaders say it focuses on rule of law, governance, and human rights studies. Three years later, Congolese authorities suspended Numbi from his post as head of police, after a human rights activist, Floribert Chebeya, was murdered the same night he was supposed to meet Numbi.
Numbi has denied any wrongdoing and hasn’t been charged in the case, but lawyers representing the victims filed an appeal after a related trial of a few police officers, in which they called for his trial too. “Almost 80 local and international human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also expressed serious concerns about the credibility and independence of the investigation and [police officers’] trial,” according to the State Department’s 2011 human rights report on the Congo. The government there has denounced the sanctions against Numbi imposed last year by the Treasury Department as grotesque violations of international law.
Paul Lambert, an assistant dean at Georgetown University who organized international student programs for the National Defense University from 2008 to 2015, said that training high-ranking foreign officers helps establish friendships and opportunities for future cooperation with foreign militaries and defense ministries. Lambert said in a phone interview that in 2012, when he surveyed IMET students after their training, he found that they were more critical of their home countries’ human rights records, while holding more positive views of the United States.
“It certainly changed the way they were thinking and opened their eyes about the U.S.,” Lambert said. But he added that the trainees are often cut off from the United States when they graduate and security partnerships are often under-utilized. Asked about students who went on to commit human rights abuses, Lambert said, “We’ve trained 8,000 people. There’s bound to be a few bad apples.” He said he understood the concern but considered it a “rare” occurrence.
Green, the former NSC official, said however that a “desire for strong security partnerships” often conflicts with the protection of human rights. U.S. security interests, she said, often override other considerations, and the United States ends up training militaries in countries with bad human rights records.
“I tried to put all the things I learned into practice”
Amadou Sanogo, who five years ago as an army captain led a coup against Mali’s democratic government that helped open the door to the growth of radical Islamists there, took courses at a Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, and at Army bases in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and Fort Benning, Georgia. He was jailed in 2013 by a new government, and his trial on charges of complicity in assassinations that occurred during the coup began in November and will resume sometime later this year.
Sanogo, who was promoted to general and remained Mali’s strongman for more than a year after the coup, said in a 2013 interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel that he had “saved the country” from its “sick” government. When asked what he learned in the United States while training there, Sanogo replied: “America is great country with a fantastic army. I tried to put all the things I learned there into practice here.”
In 2010, the United States trained 1,620 officers from Mali under multiple security assistance programs at a total cost of more than $5 million; during the past decade, it spent over $1 billion on military and development projects there. After the coup in 2013, Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, said in a Washington speech that the military had not spent enough time teaching Mali’s soldiers “values, ethics, and military ethos.”
Jose Zamora Induta, another of the 17 officers accused of abuses, trained with the U.S. Coast Guard in 2001 and 2002 and went on to run Guinea-Bissau’s armed forces after political violence in 2009. Induta became head of Guinea-Bissau’s armed forces after the murder of then-President João Bernardo Vieira and the armed forces’ then-Chief of Staff Tagme Na Waie.
According to the State Department Human Rights Report for 2009, Induta said initially that the president had “ordered the killing of Na Waie [but] Induta subsequently denied any connection between the killings.” After Induta took over the armed forces, a lawyer who criticized Induta publicly “reportedly was beaten and tortured for four days,” according to the report.
The next month, in April 2009, Marcia Bernicat, then-U.S. Ambassador to Senegal and Guinea-Bissau wrote in a cable leaked by Wikileaks that Induta had embraced “illegal and brutish tactics” and had either “contempt for rule of law and human rights or … lack of effective command and control over his troops.”
Induta was ousted as chief of staff in 2010. Guinea-Bissau continued to receive IMET funding until 2012, when the armed forces successfully ousted the president in a coup d’état. His lawyer did not return several phone calls.
Colombian Captain Ruben Blanco, who a State Department report said took a cadet orientation course at the School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, in 1994, was arrested in 2004 and accused along with others by the Colombian prosecutor general of associating with paramilitary groups that committed political killings, including of labor leaders, according to the report.
A separate State Department report in Aug. 2005 called the evidence in the case “credible.” The present status of the complaint is unclear.
According to the State Department reports and court records, former Bolivian army Gen. Roberto Claros Flores, a 1987 graduate of the U.S. Air Command and Staff College in Alabama, and former Adm. Luis Aranda, a Marine commander who completed a year of IMET training in 1987, were convicted in 2011 of crimes including genocide, stemming from their role in policing actions taken during Bolivia’s “gas war,” a confrontation in October 2003 between miners and indigenous protestors and the Bolivian government.
Claros remains imprisoned. Bjorn Arp, a lawyer who represents Claros, said in a telephone interview that the evidence in Bolivia used to convict Claros was not "credible" and called accusations against him "curious" and politically-motivated. Aranda could not be reached.
The annual State Department reports disclosing the names of human rights abusers that had received U.S. training under the IMET program would be eliminated under separate legislation proposed last year by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican member of the Armed Services Committee, and by Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat. Congressional aides who asked not to be quoted by name said the legislation’s aim is to alleviate administrative burdens imposed on the executive branch.
National security managing editor R. Jeffrey Smith contributed to this article. Lauren Chadwick is a Scoville Fellow at the Center.
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The Center for Public Integrity is proud to have been cited in a recent survey as among the news media leaders in its use of Freedom of Information Act litigation to obtain data from government agencies.
In fact, the Center ranked second among outlets in its filing of FOIA suits since 2000, with a total of 17, according to recently updated research by the FOIA Project, a new initiative from the Transactional Records Research Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. That put the Center behind only the New York Times.
The FOIA Project report said the Center was among the "small number of clearly dominant players" in filing FOIA suits." The report went on to say that the Center "has been a notable pioneer in creating and sustaining a new model for the delivery of investigative reporting," adding that the Center "also clearly demonstrated that it is not necessary to be a large legacy news organization to sustain an active profile in litigating FOIA matters."
Much of the credit for the Center's FOIA work belongs to our research editor, Peter Newbatt Smith. Smith is a man of many hats at the Center; he meticulously fact-checks every major story produced by our journalists, but as an attorney, he is also the Center's indispensible resource on all matters FOIA. Smith receive his bachelor's degree in medieval Europen history from Harvard University, and obtained his law degree from American University. He joined the Center in 1999.
Smith is planning to file another FOIA lawsuit this week. But he found time recently to discuss the FOIA process.
The Freedom of Information process begins with a letter, right? Why does it become necessary to sue?
We bring a lawsuit either when it takes too long for a government agency to respond to our request, or when they do respond but withhold records that we believe should be disclosed.
Why has the Center pursued FOIA suits so vigorously? How does the Center differ from other organizations in that regard?
In one sense, we’ve been very restrained — our reporters have filed thousands of FOIA requests since 2000, and we’ve sued 17 times. But we use FOIA, and FOIA litigation, more than most other newsrooms do. Most small news organizations can’t afford to bring a lawsuit because they don’t have an attorney on staff. At a larger media company, the legal department is probably focused on other issues, including business operations and libel claims. At the Center, the larger part of my responsibilities is editorial, working with the Center’s reporters and editors on fact-checking our reports, but I’m given the support I need when I have to devote a chunk of time to a legal case. Apart from news organizations, of course, there are also several advocacy organizations with in-house lawyers who regularly file FOIA suits.
How long does the litigation process typically take, and how does it work?
Most of our lawsuits have lasted from several months up to a couple of years. After we file a lawsuit and serve process, a federal agency has 30 days to file a response with the court. After that, the assigned judge will set a schedule for the remainder of the case. Typically, that includes a deadline for the agency to finish processing the FOIA request. It’s often possible for the Center and the agency to reach a compromise and settle the case. If not, the agency files a “motion for summary judgment,” together with a written legal argument that attempts to demonstrate that the agency has produced all the records it is legally required to and is justified in withholding the ones it has not. I then file a “cross-motion,” arguing why the agency should release additional records or make fewer redactions. After one more round of written arguments from each side, the judge gets the case and prepares a written opinion that decides the issues based on the evidence and arguments.
What kinds of information has the Center gotten from FOIA suits that it couldn’t obtain elsewhere?
Some examples include records involving government contracts related to Iraq and Afghanistan, George W. Bush’s initiative to fight AIDS in foreign countries, and audits of the Medicare Advantage program.
For which Center stories/projects have FOIA litigation results proved essential?
I’d say that litigation has been critical in several projects that centered on the analysis of government data. For instance, through a settlement in 2010, we were able to obtain about two terabytes of Medicare claims data that we used in “Cracking the Codes” to show how some medical providers were inflating the bills they submitted to the federal government.
Which agencies have proven particularly difficult to deal with regarding FOIA requests?
The State Department stands out in that respect. For as long as I’ve been at the Center and involved in FOIA requests, State has been taking not weeks or months to respond to their average FOIA request, but years. That’s according to their own reports. In addition, they handle almost all FOIA requests through one central office, so there aren’t some divisions that do better and some worse — the delays are uniformly terrible.
President Obama talked a strong game about transparency and freedom-of-information, but what was the reality?
Obama and his first attorney general, Eric Holder, announced some changes that were supposed to direct federal agencies to withhold or redact less information in response to FOIA requests, but those were relatively small changes at the margins. The available statistics suggest that FOIA requests still get denied at the same or higher rates and that response times are still unacceptably long. The most significant improvement I’ve seen, which was beginning to occur before the Obama administration but has continued, is that most agencies have become more professional and organized in the way they respond to FOIA requests. When you try to ask them, “When will you have a response to my FOIA request?” you can usually get a response by phone or email. But the answer is likely to be, “Another month or two.”
Do we have any signals/indications about President-elect Trump’s policies in this regard?
I’m not aware that President-elect Trump has said anything specifically about FOIA. It’s not clear how much practical effect the president’s attitude has on how FOIA is implemented, but the signals Trump has sent by refusing to disclose his personal tax returns aren’t encouraging. At his recent news conference, he said, “You know, the only one that cares about my tax returns are the reporters, okay? … I don’t think [the American people] care at all.”
Given your depth of experience in these matters, what quick tips would you give to journalists pursuing FOIA requests?
As best you can, try to describe the records you’re looking for in a way that will make sense to the agency employee searching for them. So mention the name the agency uses for the program you’re looking into, and give them a case number or other identifying number if you have it. Remember that FOIA doesn’t require government employees to answer the questions you have; it only requires them to give you copies of the records that you specify.
Another tip: When you know of one specific record, and you also want other records like it, give a description of both. For example, “Inspector General’s Report #16-301, dated March 2016, and all other Inspector General reports from January 2016 to the present concerning allegations of sexual harassment by agency employees.”
Federal Election Commission leaders — dogged by abysmal staff morale and a top manager improperly obtaining employees’ confidential critiques— are considering changes to how the agency operates in a bid to restore staff trust.
Chief among them: the creation of a new “ombudsman” office dedicated to investigating and resolving staff complaints and internal conflicts, according to an internal proposal written by the agency’s chairman and obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
As written, the proposal further calls for formal, anonymous reviews of agency managers by subordinates, as well as better manager training.
Staff Director Alec Palmer would also be required to file quarterly reports with the agency’s six commissioners detailing, among other things, “the status and success of efforts made to establish and maintain high morale among agency staff.”
Many staffers are still reeling from an incident last year in which FEC Inspector General Lynn McFarland said a top manager — identified as Chief Compliance Officer and Deputy Staff Director Patricia Orrock — duped her into releasing hundreds of confidential employee surveys critical of agency leaders.
FEC Chairman Steven Walther, a Democratic appointee who identifies as an independent, acknowledged being the primary author of the four-page proposal, entitled “staff rights and management responsibilities.”
Walther stressed that the proposal is not yet finalized and is still being circulated among FEC staffers for input. He wouldn’t predict when the full commission would vote on a final proposal for the roughly 350-employee agency that enforces the nation’s campaign finance laws.
“The goal is to restore some trust and not just walk away,” said Walther, who along with Republican Commissioner Matthew Petersen has conducted more than 12 hours of meetings with rank-and-file employees to calm nerves and solicit input. Walther added that he hopes to make a more finalized version of his proposal public “very soon.”
Added Commissioner Ann Ravel, a Democrat: “There isn’t any question in my mind that something needs to happen. We had actions that constituted a breach of trust, and it’s really important that we take this, and morale in general, seriously.”
Neither Petersen nor fellow Republican commissioners — Vice Chairwoman Caroline Hunter and Lee Goodman — responded to requests for comment. Nor did Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub.
Palmer, the staff director, also did not return requests for comment. But in a Dec. 19 email to FEC commissioners and other top staffers, Palmer listed several efforts his management team has undertaken to address morale concerns.
Palmer also praised the embattled Orrock for “her outstanding leadership within the compliance division” and reported witnessing “overwhelming joy and happiness” among FEC compliance division staff as they gathered during a December holiday party.
Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents FEC employees, said FEC leaders must “be prepared to arrive at a concrete plan to improve employee morale.”
Reardon added that FEC leaders are including union representatives in their deliberations. “There is a lot of work to be done at the FEC, but the conversations we are having now are the right first step,” he said.
The FEC’s Office of the General Counsel is also making changes in this year to “address areas of concern” and foster “growth and improvement,” according to a separate letter written earlier this month by Acting General Counsel Lisa Stevenson to her staff.
Changes in this office, which houses more than one in three FEC employees, include:
“I assure you that OGC Management doesn’t see improving morale as a one-off, ‘check-the-box’ project,” Stevenson wrote. “We’re committed to investing the resources and effort needed to make lasting changes.”
A president-elect’s Cabinet choices provide an early and often-illuminating marker of where the new administration is headed in both tone and policy. The confirmation process is an enduring slice of Washington Kabuki theater, complete with contentious hearings and the thrust-and-parry of politicians scurrying to make their partisan points.
But even by the usual standards, Donald Trump’s Cabinet-level selections and their hearings are displaying a stunning level of drama. Trump famously vowed to “drain the swamp” in the nation’s capital, and believes his choices are no-nonsense achievers unencumbered by political correctness. But many of those choices are facing sharp questions from Democrats about alleged conflicts-of-interest and ethical dilemmas. The Senate’s top Democrat, Charles Schumer of New York, calls the group a “swamp Cabinet.”
Each nominee is profiled below. The Center for Public Integrity has collected all available federal financial disclosures for the nominees, including ethics agreements and questionnaires submitted to Senate committees for many. Documentation was not yet available for several.
To find disclosures about a particular business or topic, type search terms in the box (for example, "Goldman") and hit return. Or, scroll down to read the profiles and click on the disclosure links below.
In the waning months of the Obama administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights took modest steps toward repairing its tattered image.
The office, which investigates complaints from communities alleging environmental racism, issued new manuals to govern how cases are handled, delivered a strong rebuke to a state environmental agency and rescinded a proposed rule that would have removed deadlines for resolving cases.
It would be easy to consider the flurry of activity a tacit commentary on the incoming Trump administration, but many of the changes have been in the works for months or even years. The timing was merely coincidental.
In eight years under Obama, the EPA “took steps that would lead to civil-rights compliance in the long run,” said Marianne Engelman Lado, visiting clinical professor of law at Yale Law School and a former attorney with the public-interest law firm Earthjustice, which lodged several complaints with the office on behalf of minority communities alleging discrimination. “But we may be waiting for our grandchildren before meaningful enforcement [occurs].”
A Center for Public Integrity investigation in 2015 revealed the office’s lackluster enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The analysis showed that the office hadn’t made a formal finding of discrimination in 22 years, despite having received hundreds of complaints. Last year, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights cited the Center’s work in a performance review that found the EPA was failing to meet its obligations under the act.
The EPA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Among the agency's recent actions: releases of a strategic plan to guide the civil-rights office, a first-ever case-resolution manual for investigators and a compliance toolkit for state agencies that receive federal funding. The EPA also did away with a common defense used by agencies named in complaints, saying adherence to environmental laws would not shield them from civil-rights challenges.
On Jan. 9, the EPA withdrew a proposed rule that would have removed statutory deadlines for resolution of complaints. The move would have brought the EPA in line with other federal agencies, but civil-rights advocates feared a lack of deadlines would make it harder to hold the EPA accountable.
On Jan. 12, the EPA issued a letter expressing “deep concern” that the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality discriminated against people of color by failing to adequately regulate massive hog farms. The letter, which urges state officials to correct deficiencies even before the civil-rights investigation is completed, represents a bold move by the EPA, Engelman Lado said.
In December, the EPA decreed that its Office of General Counsel would begin handling discrimination complaints filed on behalf of communities like Uniontown, Alabama, leaving the Office of Civil Rights to field complaints only from inside the agency. Engelman Lado said it remains to be seen whether civil-rights investigators will be free to do their jobs while housed in the office responsible for defending the EPA in litigation.
All the recent changes have come under office director Lilian Dorka, who succeeded Velveta Golightly-Howell in June 2016. Dorka had been the office’s deputy director since 2014.
In 2008, Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher became a symbol of everyday, working Americans and earned the moniker “Joe the Plumber” after pointedly asking then-presidential candidate Barack Obama about his tax policies.
Wurzelbacher served as a surrogate for Republican John McCain’s failed 2008 presidential campaign, and he then entered electoral politics himself, unsuccessfully running for Congress in 2012. A favorite among many tea party activists, Wurzelbacher raised about $426,000 for his campaign and won the GOP nomination in Ohio’s 9th Congressional District, but he ultimately lost the general election to Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur.
These days, Wurzelbacher is a vocal supporter of Republican President Donald Trump. Wurzelbacher traveled to Washington, D.C., for Trump’s inauguration, where the Center for Public Integrity caught up with the plumber-turned-conservative activist in a VIP section ahead of Trump’s swearing-in ceremony.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Center for Public Integrity: What are your aspirations for a Trump presidency?
Samuel "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher: A strong economy and a strong military and more security for the American people.
One of the big promises that Trump has made is “draining the swamp.” What does that mean to you and how do you think he’s going to do that?
That means getting rid of some career politicians that sit on their butt. Essentially, they’re like the people who take advantage of welfare — they’re not actually doing anything; they’re just filing a seat. That’s what a lot of politicians around here do, Republicans and Democrats alike. And I think Donald Trump’s going to make people work, and when they don’t work, he’s going to call them out by name.
Are there particular politicians that you’d put on the top of that list?
There’s a lot of them. I’m not going to name names only because we’d be sitting here for the next 20 minutes.
As a former candidate yourself, what do you think about the amount of money it takes to run for office?
It’s gotten to be ridiculous. It makes it harder for a regular guy who probably has a better pulse of what’s going on in America to run and actually represent his fellow Americans. When you have very rich people trying to tell me what’s it’s like to be middle class, or trying to tell me what it’s like to pay my bills, I don’t buy into it because they haven’t been there. They don’t know the struggles of every day. They don’t know the struggles of a small businessman who can’t get around the regulations — or lobby to get themselves around them.
What do you think it means when politicians do spend so much time dialing for dollars to raise campaign contributions?
They’re not doing their job, and that’s the problem. These guys are spending half the day dialing for dollars, not serving the American people. They’d be fired in any other industry in the world.
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If you thought Election Day marked the end of political ads clogging up your television and web browser, think again.
Here come the issue ads.
As a newly inaugurated President Donald Trump and a freshly elected Congress turn to governing, politically active groups want to influence the debate.
Leading the way: nonprofit American Action Network, which this month launched a series of television and digital ads promoting House Republican efforts to overhaul health care.
The ads, which are running in both English and Spanish, feature a voiceover set against a montage of images. There are people jogging. A toddler plays on a playground. Patients confer with their doctors.
“Imagine a new path forward,” intones an off-screen voice that goes on to describe a health care system that provides “more choices and better care,” “puts patients and doctors in charge” and encourages new cures “by eliminating senseless regulations.”
House Republicans, it promises, have a plan that will do those things without disrupting existing coverage. The ad directs viewers to a website paid for by the American Action Network.
Who’s behind it?
American Action Network describes itself as an “action tank” with a mission to promote “center-right policies based on the principles of freedom, limited government, American exceptionalism and strong national security.”
The group has close ties to House Republicans. It was founded in 2010 by former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and major GOP donor Fred Malek. The current board includes both men, as well as former Republican Reps. Vin Weber of Minnesota and Tom Reynolds of New York, among others.
American Action Network is affiliated with a super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund. Both groups share the same leader: Corry Bliss, a former Republican political operative who most recently ran the re-election campaign of Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and began his job with American Action Network and the Congressional Leadership Fund earlier this month.
American Action Network is a nonprofit organized under Section 501(c)(4) of the federal tax code, which means its primary mission must be the promotion of social welfare, not politics. Such nonprofits don’t have to reveal their donors.
Nonetheless, some information about American Action Network’s donors has trickled out over the years. Several of the publicly identified donors have to do with health care, including the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a trade group; insurance company Aetna; and the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care. A longer list is available via the Center for Responsive Politics.
According to the group’s most recent tax filing, it took in $26.4 million total between July 1, 2014, and June 30, 2015 — a period that includes the 2014 midterm elections.
According to an American Action Network press release, the group is spending at least$1.4 million on this latest TV and digital ad campaign. The group said it is running some national ads, but also targeting a series of House districts held by Republican incumbents.
The Spanish-language ads are running on Univision and Telemundo, targeting “six key congressional districts with significant Hispanic populations,” American Action Network said.
American Action Network spent nearly $5.6 million on the 2016 elections, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. Since politics cannot be the primary purpose of a nonprofit social welfare group, such direct spending on supporting or opposing political candidates cannot constitute the bulk of a group’s spending.
Issue ads, such as the healthcare ads the group announced this month, do not typically count as political spending under Internal Revenue Service rules.
Why it matters
Republicans have promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the health care overhaul frequently referred to as Obamacare.
But the issue is fraught, and Trump, House Republicans and Senate Republicans haven’t yet agreed on how best to proceed.
The challenges, meanwhile, are significant.
Republicans have disagreed over whether to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act immediately, even if a replacement plan is not ready at the same time.
A recent analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found 18 million people could lose health coverage in the first year if Congress repeals the law without replacing it. Trump, meanwhile, has said his plan is almost ready. It will offer insurance for everyone, Trump said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s civil-rights office has made a rare finding of discrimination, saying the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality treated African American residents of Flint unfairly during the permitting of a power plant more than two decades ago.
In a letter dated Jan. 19, the last full day of the Obama administration, the EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office said the evidence showed that “African Americans were treated less favorably than non-African Americans” during permit hearings for the Genesee Power Station– which burns wood waste and other debris – from 1992 through 1994. A “preponderance of the evidence in EPA’s record would lead a reasonable person to conclude that race discrimination was more likely than not the reason …,” office director Lilian Dorka wrote to the complainant, Father Phil Schmitter of the St. Francis Prayer Center in Flint.
In a statement, Schmitter said, “Communities of color and schoolchildren have had to grow up near this horrible power plant and be subjected to its harmful emissions. It’s unbelievable that it took EPA decades to make this finding, but it’s important to send a clear message to MDEQ, even now, that it needs to change the way it does business.”
A Center for Public Integrity investigation in 2015 detailed the EPA’s anemic enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin by recipients of federal funding. The analysis showed that the civil-rights office hadn’t made a finding of discrimination in 22 years – apart from a preliminary one in 2011 – despite having received hundreds of complaints. Last year, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights cited the Center’s work in a performance review that found the EPA was failing to meet its obligations under the act.
In last week’s letter to Schmitter, the EPA found that MDEQ officials “deviated from … standard operating procedures [at public hearings] on more than one occasion to the detriment of African Americans.” For example, it said the department used armed guards to intimidate speakers and closed hearings before all who wanted to speak had done so. The letter recommends, among other things, that the MDEQ improve its public-participation policies and add information about non-discrimination laws to its website. The department has failed to operate a “foundational nondiscriminatory program” for almost 30 years, the letter said.
In a statement, the department said it “disagrees with the EPA assertion that MDEQ has not taken sufficient action to address public participation, especially in minority communities… Above all, our purpose is to respect Michigan residents and to protect public health and the environment.”
The EPA’s finding on the Genesee plant is separate from “additional and current serious concerns” the agency has expressed about the MDEQ’s handling of the drinking-water crisis in Flint. There is no public record of any civil-rights cases having been filed, but the EPA told BNA it received at least two emailed complaints alleging discrimination by state, county and city officials after Flint’s water supply was tainted with brain-damaging lead in 2014.
In another letter on Jan. 19, the EPA announced that the New Mexico Environment Department had agreed to take steps to improve the public-participation process for a proposed hazardous-waste disposal site in the southeastern part of the state. A group called Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping had filed a civil-rights complaint against the department in 2002, alleging it had shown a pattern of discrimination against Spanish-speaking residents. Under the agreement, the department said it would “develop, publish and implement written procedures to ensure meaningful access to all of NMED’s programs and activities by all persons, including access by limited English-proficient individuals…”
Deborah Reade, who filed the complaint on behalf of the citizens’ group, said in a statement, “It took far too long to get to this point. But finally there’s an agreement in place that should lead to more equitable public participation so communities’ voices are heard when permits to pollute are being considered. We’ll be watching to make sure that New Mexico implements the agreement.”
The EPA’s findings in the Michigan and New Mexico cases represent an uptick in activity by a civil-rights office – recently moved into the agency’s Office of General Counsel – long criticized for failing to act on complaints alleging Title VI violations.
“Credit for the EPA’s movement on civil rights complaints goes to the communities and groups that pushed hard for discriminatory practices to be addressed,” said Marianne Engelman Lado, a visiting professor at Yale Law School and a former attorney with the public-interest law firm Earthjustice, which has lodged several complaints with the office on behalf of minority communities.
The EPA did not respond to requests for comment.
A barrage of legal and fiscal challenges is sure to dog two executive orders President Trump signed Wednesday that reflect his promises to build a “great wall” and attack cities sympathetic to undocumented residents. On Wednesday, Trump ordered the Department of Homeland Security to begin planning for a 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico wall, as well as the addition of additional border agents, more detention centers and a plan to withhold federal funds from so-called “sanctuary cities.”
The president said his executive orders would restore “rule of law” and control of the border. “What I’m doing is good for the United States,” he said. “It’s also going to be good for Mexico.” But his actions set off angry denunciations from civil rights groups that accuse Trump of scapegoating immigrants by feeding the public only negative portrayals of Mexicans, Muslims and undocumented people generally.
“President Trump made a campaign out of demonizing immigrants and spreading lies…Today, he is poised to use those lies as a cornerstone of public policy, and the consequences are devastating for all of us,” said Marielena Hincapié, Executive Director of the National Immigration Law Center. “These new executive actions are extremist, ineffective and expensive.”
She also said Trump’s rhetoric has put those who “look like” immigrants or Muslims in danger.
The NILC and other organizations—and U.S. business associations as well—have long pushed for compromise immigration solutions that would split apart fewer established families, allow some people to legalize and require U.S. businesses to use electronic checks on work documents, as the Center for Public Integrity has reported. But now civil rights groups are vowing to go to court to challenge Trump’s policies as he rolls them out. Rights advocates say they’re developing lists of lawyers to defend individuals’ access to due process, including those seeking asylum from violent countries, as CPI has reported.
Civil rights groups have also contended that Trump’s rhetoric about “sanctuary cities” is built on myths, including the belief that such cities block federal immigration agents from conducting enforcement. No city can block such enforcement, which is a federal responsibility. The concept of a sanctuary city is loose, with some cities, for example, issuing no more than proclamations that they welcome immigrants and others adopting official policies that prohibit their police officers from quizzing people about immigration status.
While many municipalities say they work with immigration agents on serious crime investigations, multiple chiefs of police argue that involving city cops in quizzing people on their status destroys trust in officers, harms crime-fighting efforts and increases the possibility of discrimination and rights violations. Federal officials and cities and states have long fought over expenses for prolonged holding of suspected undocumented immigrants on “detainer” requests. Some groups, representing residents who’ve been held, argue agents should get warrants for those they’re seeking.
Some cities, like San Francisco, have sparked outcry by declining to hold onto jailed people who don’t have recent violent crime records or for whom federal officials don’t file a warrant. A woman was killed in 2015 by such an undocumented immigrant who was charged with second-degree murder. In his defense, the man said he picked up a gun he said he had found, and it discharged, accidently. San Francisco officials said if federal agents had provided a warrant the man would have been held.
Trump’s plans to build wall could cost as much as $20 billion, according to some experts. Taxpayers would have to foot the bill to get the initiative started, while also paying out for a proposed surge in border agents. Trump said his administration is working on a plan to force Mexico to reimburse the costs of the wall, but Mexican leaders have said repeatedly that they won’t pay for it. Since the early 1990s, the border has been gradually fortified in many stretches, with high fences, some multiple, and tall metal barriers. Construction has continued to fill in some areas that officials deem are priorities.
Homeland Security has also supplemented fencing with sensory devices implanted in the ground, as well as an array of cameras and Border Patrol agents. Remote stretches of river, extremely rough terrain and harsh desert divide the two countries and make constructing and maintaining barriers challenging. As urban areas in California and Texas were fortified in the 1990s, many migrants headed into harsh desert terrain in Arizona, where thousands have perished. Although some fencing—with gates—runs through their Arizona reservation, tribal leaders of the Tohono O’odham Nation west of Tucson say they’ll refuse to allow a solid wall to be built through the 75 miles they control. Landowners and those concerned about environmental damage will also have a say over construction as Trump’s plan moves forward.
All three of President Donald Trump’s likely nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court appear to be millionaires, just like the majority of their potential colleagues already on the nation’s highest court and many of Trump’s other picks for senior positions.
Those reportedly on Trump’s short list to fill a vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia are all federal appellate judges: Judge Neil Gorsuch of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Thomas Hardiman, based in Pittsburgh, and 11th U.S. Circuit Court Judge William Pryor, who works in Birmingham, Alabama.
Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning that he plans to make his pick on Thursday, Feb. 2. So what do we know about the possible nominees?
The Center for Public Integrity reviewed the three judges’ annual financial disclosures, including those covering 2014 — the most recent immediately available — that were gathered by the National Law Journal. To be sure, the judges’ financial situations could have changed since then.
Only Hardiman appeared to own stock directly in companies, a potential “mousetrap” for judges due to the potential for conflicts of interest with their caseloads. Such financial holdings can lead to recusals that could have dramatic effects in a court where decisions are often split 5 to 4. In a 2014 investigation, the Center for Public Integrity found 24 cases in which federal appellate judges owned stock in companies before them yet did not step aside, a violation of federal law. Five of the cases were subsequently reopened.
Here’s what to know about Trump’s possible Supreme Court picks. To find disclosures about a particular business or topic, type search terms in the box (for example, "eBay") and hit return. Or, scroll down to read the profiles and click on the disclosure links below.
Twitter is abuzz over a pro-President Donald Trump television advertisement that urges viewers to call a toll-free number and “pledge your support to defend Donald Trump.”
“We need every Trump supporter to pick up the phone now!” the ad’s fast-talking narrator says as he also slams “liberals in the Democratic Party” and the “crooked media” for attacking the newly inaugurated president.
The narrator continues: “They think they are going to destroy Trump’s presidency, but they are wrong! … Make your voice heard and help drain the swamp!”
The ad became too much for “@Jess4_RK,” an unverified Twitter user, then with a few hundred followers.
On Saturday, she tweeted a video of herself watching the ad on CNN and included this all-caps commentary: “WHAT IN THE HELL DID I JUST WATCH???????????????????????????WHEN HAS A PRESIDENT EVER DONE THIS???! IM SCREAMING!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Legions of people — including celebrities — began retweeting @Jess4_RK and commenting on her post, which garnered more than 30,000 retweets before she blocked public access to her account.
“WTF?!?!?” tweeted actress Debra Messing.
“This is just pathetic. Sounds like a commercial for aluminum siding you see on AMC in the middle of a Gunsmoke marathon,” snarked musician Mikel Jollett.
Many outraged commenters believe that Trump himself — or those within Trump’s inner circle — were responsible for the ad.
They are mistaken. Not only is there no connection to Trump, the ad is made possible by a group that employs a one-time Trump hater who is making a pretty penny.
Who’s behind it?
As noted in the fine print displayed in the ad’s final few seconds, the ad is sponsored by the “Committee to Defend the President.”
As it described itself in its own fine print, the Committee to Defend the President is a “project of Stop Hillary PAC” and “not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.” (On Saturday, Stop Hillary PAC officially changed its name to “The Committee to Defend the President,” according to federal records.)
Guy Short, vice president of fundraising for political consulting firm Campaign Solutions, is a Stop Hillary PAC consultant and, according to an advertising disclosure document filed on January 16 with the Federal Communications Commission, “founder.” Campaign Solutions, it so happens, is also Stop Hillary PAC’s top vendor, according to federal records.
Short, who madeheadlines earlier this decade for his political work with ex-Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., is never mentioned in Stop Hillary PAC’s public communications to supporters and potential donors. And he’s no unabashed supporter of Trump.
For example, Short last year served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention — and pledged to back Sen. Ted Cruz, the Republican U.S. senator who ran against Trump. Short last year also called Trump a “liar,” telling Reuters in April that he “spent thousands of dollars of my own money campaigning to become a delegate because it's that important to make sure Donald Trump is NOT our nominee."
In an opinion piece published last year in the Colorado Statesman, Short further accused Trump of “spewing his usual fiction” and trafficking in “insults, lies, distortion and vulgarity.” He also lamented: “It’s very worrisome to wonder how a man like Trump would exercise the powers of the presidency.”
In an email Monday, Short noted that he and many other Republicans, including Trump’s general election campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, didn’t support Trump during the party’s primary.
“After the primary was over and my preferred candidate lost the nomination, I worked hard to defeat Hillary Clinton and elect Donald Trump — just like I have in the past five presidential cycles when my preferred candidate didn’t win,” Short said, adding that he contributed $5,000 to Trump’s transition committee. “The President has my full support. This is about as common in politics as its gets. I fail to see how this is newsworthy.”
Dan Backer— a Virginia-based lawyer and political consultant who serves as Stop Hillary PAC’s treasurer — confirmed Short has worked with Stop Hillary PAC since its inception in 2013.
“Guy regularly talks to media vendors on behalf of [the Committee to Defend the President] to ensure digital and non-digital communications are in sync,” Backer said. “He was tasked with point on this particular project.”
Initially, Stop Hillary PAC made its most notable mark on politics by feuding with the Federal Election Commission over whether it could even use its own name.
Federal law stipulates: “No unauthorized committee shall include the name of any candidate in its name." And while the FEC prodded Stop Hillary PAC to comply, it refused, even after Hillary Clinton in April 2013 announced she’d seek the Democratic presidential nomination.
Then, last year, Stop Hillary PAC raised eyebrows when it emailed fundraising pleas— signed by “Donald and Ted,” sans last names — at a time when Trump and Cruz were still battling to win the Republican presidential nomination.
The PAC later explained to the Center for Public Integrity that “Donald” is Donald Ferguson, the PAC’s political director, and “Ted” is Ted Harvey, its chairman.
Indeed, when someone calls the phone number provided in the Committee to Defend the President’s TV ad, Harvey — a former Colorado state senator — delivers a message to anyone who presses “1” to that reiterates the TV ads’ themes of Democrats and journalists attacking Trump. But then, Harvey gets to the underlying point of the ad campaign: money.
“Can we count on you to make a contribution to help us support Donald Trump?” asks Harvey, who in a radio interview last year with Stephen K. Bannon — the Breitbart honcho who’s now one of Trump’s top aides — asserted that Stop Hillary PAC is “the largest right-of-center organization in the country.”
Those who press “1” are forwarded to a call center to make a donation. Those who press “2” get another message from Harvey.
“I understand a donation is a lot to ask for,” he says. “But now is our time to stand up and support President Trump. Your support is critical in this effort … If you can make even a modest donation, please say ‘yes’ or press ‘1’.”
Backer declined to discuss the Stop Hillary PAC ad campaign’s scope or cost, explaining that “my client isn’t interested in sharing the details or results of its strategy at this time.”
But the ad run appears limited. Kantar Media/CMAG, a firm that tracks TV advertising, had no record of Stop Hillary PAC’s pro-Trump ad appearing on broadcast or national cable TV. That means the ads likely ran on local cable and/or satellite TV systems.
(Update, 5:52 p.m., Feb. 1, 2017: A new purchase order document filed with the FCC indicate the Committee to Defend the President purchased at least $16,830 worth of TV ads through satellite system DirecTV.
The purchase order asks that the ads run six times on DirecTV's "news cluster," which according to DirecTV's ad sales listing includes CNN, Fox News, Fox Business, Bloomberg Television, CNBC, HLN and the Weather Channel. The "news cluster" also includes MSNBC, but the purchase order specifically asks that the ads not run on MSNBC.)
When it comes to fundraising, Stop Hillary PAC is nothing if not aggressive.
Since October, a Center for Public Integrity reporter who signed up to receive updates from Stop Hillary PAC received 126 emails from the group. Almost all of them asked for money, or featured gimmicks — polls, surveys, online “focus groups” — that led supporters to a donation page.
In the weeks before Election Day, Stop Hillary PAC peddled yard signs that were nearly indistinguishable from those marketed by Trump’s own campaign committee. The difference: Stop Hillary PAC’s signs earned money for Stop Hillary PAC, not Trump.
The incessant fundraising has worked: After raising about $1.1 million during 2013 and 2014, Stop Hillary PAC’s fundraising exploded during 2015 and 2016, generating more than $6.3 million from donors, according to federal filings.
Nearly four-fifths of that amount came from people contributing $200 or less, a Center for Public Integrity analysis of FEC data indicates.
Of those who contributed more than $200, the most common occupation listed for such donors is “retired.”
Stop Hillary PAC spent more than $6 million during 2015 and 2016 combined, according to FEC records.
But federal records likewise indicate that only about one-fourth of this amount went toward advertisements or other communications, such as robocalls, that overtly supported or opposed a political candidate.
The rest of the money went toward a variety of other expenditures, most notably fees paid to political consultants in Northern Virginia and Ohio.
Among them: Infocision, an Akron, Ohio-based telemarketing company that consumer advocates have criticized for using misleading tactics that target the elderly. (Infocision officials havedefended company practices as lawful.)
Stop Hillary PAC’s single largest vendor is Campaign Solutions, for which Stop Hillary PAC vendor Short serves as a vice president. Stop Hillary PAC paid Campaign Solutions about $1.5 million during the 2015-2016 election cycle, according to federal disclosures. That includes about $800,000 to obtain the personal information of potential donors and another $400,000 in fundraising fees.
The PAC also directly donated about $52,000 to a handful of Republican candidates, including $5,000 to Trump’s presidential campaign.
Why it matters
Stop Hillary PAC’s pro-Trump ad is a prime example of how political ads aren’t always what they seem.
What some lay viewers may interpret as a straightforward call to arms from Trump himself is really a fundraising effort for an unaffiliated political group that’s in part operated by a man who’s openly questioned Trump’s fitness for the presidency.
But Backer, who says he’s received several harassing phone calls about the ad in recent days, makes no apologies to those who feel misled or assume Trump is behind the ads.
“The ad is fully compliant with applicable law as to disclaimers, and my client can’t control the unreasonable inferences drawn by unreasonable people,” Backer said.
Chris Zubak-Skees and Michael Beckel contributed to this report.
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Big corporations with money riding on President Donald Trump’s policies helped pick up the tab for Trump’s inaugural festivities earlier this month, new disclosures show.
The companies’ five-to-seven-figure contributions earned company representatives prime perks, including access to events featuring the newly inaugurated president, Vice President Mike Pence, the Trump and Pence families and prospective Cabinet members and administration officials.
According to Microsoft’s report, half its contribution was in cash and half in “in-kind contribution, products and services.”
Exxon Mobil Corp. reported making its contribution on Dec. 19, the week after Trump announced he would nominate Rex Tillerson, the company’s chairman and CEO, as secretary of state. Tillerson’s nomination is still pending.
General Motors Co. reported giving $200,000. Six companies reported $100,000 contributions: Verizon Communications Inc., Valero Energy Corp., MetLife Group Inc., Clean Energy Fuels Corp., Anthem, Inc., and Aetna Inc.
According to inauguration donor packages previously obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, donors in the “$1,000,000+” tier were to receive four tickets to a “leadership luncheon” billed as “an exclusive event with select Cabinet appointees and House and Senate leadership to honor our most generous inaugural supporters.”
Donors in the $500,000 tiers also got access to a dinner with Pence and his wife, a candlelight dinner with Trump and Pence, and other festivities. Donors in lower tiers received more limited ticket packages to inaugural events.
The inauguration committee doesn’t have to file detailed reports listing contributors until 90 days after Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration.
But companies that lobby the federal government are legally required to file so-called “lobbying contribution” reports twice a year, and contributions to inaugural committees must be disclosed. The reports only cover the second half of 2016, so any 2017 contributions companies made to the inaugural committee aren’t included.
Trump’s inaugural committee raised more than $100 million, according to a report in the New York Times earlier this month, far more than previous inaugural committees. Tens of millions of dollars in inaugural contributions have yet to be disclosed.
The White House press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday night.
This article was co-published by the Buffalo News.
President Donald Trump named his pick for the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday night, tapping Judge Neil M. Gorsuch of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Gorsuch would fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
Like Trump, he’s an Ivy Leaguer: He attended Columbia University, Harvard Law School — and also the University of Oxford in England. His mother, Anne Gorsuch Burford, served as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Ronald Reagan.
And just like the majority of his potential colleagues already on the nation’s highest court, his holdings indicate he’s a millionaire with an investment portfolio worth at least $3.1 million. (Judges report their investments in ranges so it could have been worth as much as $7.2 million.)
The Center for Public Integrity reviewed the judge’s recent annual financial disclosures, including the most recent covering 2015. To be sure, his financial situations could have changed since then.
As of 2015, he did not own direct stock in any companies but had a diverse portfolio including mutual funds, municipal bonds and 529 college tuition savings accounts. The 49-year-old also has owned what he lists as a “mountain property” he estimated is worth up to $500,000 that is held as a limited liability corporation called Walden Group LLC.
He has supplemented his judicial salary, which is currently $217,600, by teaching. In 2015, he earned $26,000 from the University of Colorado Law School. And he received $5,300 in book royalties that year, in part for his book, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia.
The Colorado native was nominated to the federal bench in 2006 by George W. Bush. Gorsuch had donated $250 to Bush’s presidential campaign in 2000, and another $2,000 to Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004.
Federal campaign finance records also show that Gorsuch once donated to one senator who will vote on his confirmation: He donated $250 in 2000 to the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Explore the judge's disclosure below:
Reporter Michael Beckel contributed.
Feb. 1, 2017: This story has been clarified.
Now that Donald Trump is president, the banking industry is well on its way to accomplishing what has been its top priority goal for years: upending Dodd-Frank, the massive regulatory law that emerged from the financial crisis.
Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010, two years after the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression vaporized about $14 trillion in wealth, according to the Federal Reserve. Taxpayers spent more than $300 billion to bail out the banks and investment firms behind the collapse, and they recovered sufficiently to repay almost all of that.
Dodd-Frank instituted safeguards designed to protect consumers and the economy from future crises. To that end, the law created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and fundamentally changed the way regulators watch over Wall Street by designating certain large institutions for regular scrutiny so that watchdogs weren’t caught off guard by bank failures. The banking lobby and its friends on Capitol Hill have complicated implementation by watering down some Dodd-Frank rules and delaying others, but the law survived mostly intact during President Barack Obama’s tenure.
That’s likely about to change. The Trump transition team website said it “will be working to dismantle the Dodd-Frank Act and replace it with new policies to encourage growth and job creation.” President Trump, while signing an executive order Monday to limit new regulations, told reporters he planned to “do a big number on Dodd-Frank.”
Members on the Republican-controlled House and Senate banking committees, many of whom received some of the heftiest sums of campaign donations from banks, have readied bills that would weaken many of the law’s protections; they argue the changes are necessary to reduce costly regulations and give consumers more choice in the financial services market. With that kind of influence, Wall Street will probably get much of what it wants.
Even one of the laws’ namesakes, former House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., said there is room to improve Dodd-Frank.
“We’re always changing something this big,” Frank said in an interview.
Some reforms, like changes to the CFPB, seem a certainty, mostly because they can be accomplished without legislation. Others will probably meet resistance, and a full repeal is unlikely, according to Frank. Dodd-Frank is “a popular law,” he said, and “very skillful people” such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, will strongly defend the legislation. In addition, Frank said, “I think Republicans who are up [for re-election] in 2018 are going to be reluctant” to dramatically weaken the law.
Even so, critics of altering Dodd-Frank believe the signs point to a regrettable return to a pre-recession era when large banks operated without significant regulatory oversight, said Marcus Stanley, policy director at Americans for Financial Reform, a coalition of civil rights, consumer and business groups that formed after the 2008 crisis.
“We had experience with Wall Street self-regulation prior to the financial crisis, and it did not work out well,” Stanley said. “When you let industry determine its own rules, it’s going to create more risks. The downside of those risks is going to be pushed to taxpayers and working families.”
The Trump administration has a ready blueprint for dismantling Dodd-Frank. It’s called the Financial Choice Act.
While the bill was introduced just last year, the ideas behind it aren’t new. The Choice Act includes language from 40 previous bills that made it to the House floor but stopped short of becoming law. One bill would have exempted manufactured-home retailers from the law, exposing borrowers to costly loans, the Obama administration argued. Another expanded what kinds of up-front costs (called points and fees) could be considered a so-called qualified mortgage, which are eligible to be insured by the federal government. That change would have eroded consumer protections, the Obama White House said.
The Choice Act wouldn’t completely repeal Dodd-Frank, but rather change those provisions the banking industry particularly dislikes: Regulators’ “orderly liquidation authority” for winding down failing banks, a “stress test” system banks consider opaque and burdensome, and the government’s discretion in deciding what institutions warrant heightened scrutiny, among others.
Doing away with Dodd-Frank completely would be impossible without convincing Senate moderates. And scrapping it would be costly for industry in its own way, because institutions have already adapted to many of the laws’ changes. Some of those changes have actually improved business, according to a study by the consulting firm Accenture. Almost three-quarters of the 132 business executives surveyed by the firm in 2012 said “Dodd-Frank will increase their company’s profitability over the lifetime of the program.”
Still, the Choice Act — which stands for Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs — puts major components of Dodd-Frank on the chopping block. The most notable Choice Act provision is a so-called regulatory “off ramp,” which would free an institution from regulatory scrutiny if it holds 10 percent of its assets in reserve to cover potential losses — regardless of the bank’s size or the complexity of its business.
As it stands, Dodd-Frank creates tiered regulation for financial institutions and oversees large non-banking financial institutions such as giant insurance firms. The largest banks must complete “stress tests” to ensure they can withstand an economic downturn and have a plan for liquidation in the event of a major failure.
The new one-size-fits-all regulation would make compliance simpler and be less costly for banks to comply with, supporters say. But Dodd-Frank backers and regulators doubt whether the 10-percent-reserve cushion would be large enough to prevent another crisis should some of the largest U.S. banks fail.
Federal Reserve Gov. Daniel Tarullo said at a Wall Street Journal event in July that the “10 percent number would have to be substantially higher to have regulators comfortable that there were not substantial safety and soundness considerations.”
Reviews of Dodd-Frank have found it has had a positive effect on bank safety and the economy, with few significant downsides. A 2015 Government Accountability Office study found an “increase in compliance burden” for smaller banks and credit unions but also concluded that “the act has had little effect on the funding costs of these companies and may be associated with improvements in some measures of their safety and soundness.”
Another GAO report issued late last year that the regulatory structure that Dodd-Frank builds upon “has contributed to the overall growth and stability in the U.S. economy.” Auditors did find “inefficiencies in regulatory processes” due to overlap and fragmentation that predated Dodd-Frank and are still persistent in the regulatory structure.
The banking caucus
Economic stability and improved bank safety haven’t stopped supporters of the Choice Act from moving forward with tearing down Dodd-Frank. The bill was introduced in September by Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican who is a deregulation crusader and friend of Vice President Mike Pence; Pence represented Indiana in the House from 2001 to 2013 and was a critic of Dodd-Frank when the law passed in 2010.
“This so-called financial reform bill will kill jobs,” Pence said in a statement days after Dodd-Frank passed.
Hensarling managed Pence’s unsuccessful campaign for House minority leader in 2006. When Pence left Congress to become governor of Indiana, Hensarling invoked scripture in a farewell speech from the House floor.
“Mike Pence is my friend that sticketh closer than a brother,” Hensarling said.
In November, Hensarling told members of the Exchequer Club in Washington, a group of professionals from trade associations, regulatory agencies and the financial industry, that “there has been a fairly constant dialogue with the Trump transition team about the Choice Act.”
Hensarling is a member of the so-called “banking caucus,” a group of lawmakers the Center for Public Integrity identified in 2014 as having close ties to the financial industry and having received some of the largest campaign contributions from banks. Along with Hensarling, three of the five Republican cosponsors of the Choice Act also were members of the banking caucus: Sean Duffy from Wisconsin, Blaine Luetkemeyer from Missouri and Scott Garrett from New Jersey, who lost his 2016 re-election bid. Two other sponsors of the bill were Reps. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., and now-retired Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas.
As chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Hensarling is the ringleader. For years, he has tried to unwind Dodd-Frank and end what he calls the “regulatory waterboarding” of the financial sector.
“I will not rest until Dodd-Frank is ripped out by its roots and tossed on the trash heap of history,” Hensarling told American Bankers Association members last year.
Over the course of their careers, Hensarling and the three cosponsors who are included in the banking caucus have raised more than $2.8 million from commercial banks, $4 million from securities and investment firms, and $3 million from insurance companies, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The financial sector is Hensarling’s top campaign donor. Since first coming to Congress in 2002, commercial banks have given Hensarling more than $1.35 million in contributions, just behind the insurance industry ($1.4 million) and the securities and investment industry ($1.41 million), according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Hensarling’s take from the financial industry dwarfs his colleagues. On average, active House members have received about $162,000 from the financial sector.
Among Hensarling’s top donors are the nation’s two-largest banks — JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Bank of America Corp. — and the fourth largest, Wells Fargo & Co. Commercial banks gave $390,150 to Hensarling’s campaign committee and leadership PAC for his 2016 re-election campaign, behind only the insurance industry ($430,850) and securities and investment firms ($414,945).
Hensarling’s office confirmed he plans to re-introduce the Choice Act in this Congress.
Financial institutions gave similar amounts to the other banking caucus members who sponsored the Choice Act. In 2016, insurance, commercial banks, and securities and investment firms combined to contribute $658,754 to Duffy, $899,077 to Luetkemeyer and $571,755 to Garrett.
Huizenga, another sponsor of the bill, has received over $1 million from the financial industry since he was first elected in 2009, and sponsor Neugebauer, who retired from Congress last year, collected over $1.8 million since 2001.
Waiting in the Senate is Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Utah, who took over the Senate Banking Committee this session. He has collected over $3 million from the financial industry since first coming to Congress in 1991, including top donor JPMorgan Chase.
One of the trade groups that has given mightily to the banking caucus is the Consumer Bankers Association, which counts Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Chase as members. The group gave more than $400,000 to political campaigns in 2016 according to data collected from the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Choice Act presents “a chance to look at [Dodd-Frank] to ensure it will be good for banks and consumers,” said Richard Hunt, president and chief executive officer of the association.
Financial Services Committee Ranking Member Maxine Waters, D-Calif., is less enthused. “This bill is so bad that it simply cannot be fixed,” she said during a committee session discussing the bill. “It’s clear that this is a rushed, partisan messaging tool.”
‘Sea change at the CFPB’
The Choice Act also targets the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which Dodd-Frank established to protect consumers from “unfair, deceptive or abusive practices” of the financial sector, according to the law.
But Hensarling believes the agency is an example of government run amok, claiming the CFPB has “infringed on the economic freedoms of consumers.”
That sentiment, along with Trump’s election win, “will result in a sea change at the CFPB,” said Alan Kaplinsky, who leads the Consumer Financial Services Group at the law firm Ballard Spahr. “There’s a lot of discontent among the companies that are regulated and supervised and who have become the target of the CFPB.”
The most likely change would replace the CFPB’s individual director, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, with a five-member commission that would have three Republicans during the Trump administration. The panel would be subject to congressional oversight and appropriations. Bank executives and their allies in Congress say the agency’s current director — former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, a controversial Obama appointment initially made during a congressional recess and confirmed by the Senate only 18 months later — has too much power and is unaccountable to Congress.
CFPB crackdowns on practices the agency deems “abusive” have led some Republicans to charge that the agency is straying from enforcement into advocacy. When the CFPB announced new rules regarding the payday-loan industry, which has been charged with targeting low-income individuals with high-interest loans that can trap them in long-term debt, Hensarling fired back at Cordray.
“Accountable to no one, he alone decides for all Americans whether they can take out a small-dollar loan to meet emergency needs,” Hensarling said in a press release.
The proposed changes to the CFPB, which include repealing the CFPB’s authority to ban products and services that regulators deem abusive, are aimed at reducing what some Congress members believe are controversial actions, like the payday-lending rules.
But the agency still should enforce the law under a Republican-led CFPB, Kaplinsky said. “There are plenty of clear cut violations of law that [the CFPB] can target without taking extreme positions where the industry is caught off guard and surprised,” he said.
Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Ben Sasse, R-Neb., wrote a letter to Pence this month urging the administration to fire Cordray. Neugebauer, one of the sponsors of the Choice Act, is said to be Trump’s choice to head the agency.
Proponents of reform also say a five-person commission would allow for more industry input in CFPB decision making. Changing the CFPB’s funding source from the Federal Reserve to congressional appropriations also would make the agency more accountable by placing it under the supervision of elected officials in Congress.
Or, the change could inject politics into the agency, say CFPB supporters.
“What we know about commissions is they tend to be gridlocked,” said Yana Miles, policy counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit research organization that advocates for fair lending practices.
A divided commission may prevent the agency from quickly responding to abusive practices by financial institutions, critics of the proposed structure argue.
“It wasn’t that long ago that we saw the waves of predatory lending that nearly destroyed our economy,” Miles said. The CFPB “is the one thing out there standing between consumers and the wild wild west of the days leading up to the crisis.”
CFPB critics, nevertheless, have the courts on their side, so far. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled last year that the agency’s single-director structure is unconstitutional. The CFPB has asked the full D.C. Circuit to rehear the case.
Supporters say the CFPB is accountable to consumers, as illustrated by a record of punishing banks’ wrongdoing. Since opening its doors in 2010, CFPB actions have resulted in more than $11 billion in compensation or debt reduction to consumers. Among its major cases:
The CFPB relied partly on its mandate to prevent abusive practices to pursue the Wells Fargo case, Miles said. Under changes in the Choice Act, “a Wells Fargo situation could pop up again and it would either not be addressed or would take a much longer time to get to it,” Miles said.
Not so fast
Changing the CFPB may not be so easy, despite Republicans’ control of Congress and a new White House occupant they see as an ally. Sen. Warren, who spearheaded the creation of the agency, warned Hensarling and his colleagues about the CFPB’s importance during a November conference of the Wall Street Journal’s CEO council, a group of influential business leaders.
“The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is doing the people’s business. And it has its own fan club out there: It’s got the people it’s working for,” Warren said. “You try to take the legs out from underneath the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — I think that’s not only a problem for Donald Trump and for the Republicans. I think this is something that the American people will say ‘enough.’”
Indeed, 56 percent of Trump voters want the CFPB either left alone (41 percent) or expanded (15 percent), according to a Morning Consult poll conducted in December. Likewise, 71 percent of Republican and Democratic voters said they supported the CFPB, according to a 2016 poll by Lake Research Partners.
In addition, Trump, himself a highly-paid business mogul, made Wall Street excess one of the boogeymen of his campaign.
He told CBS in a 2015 interview that CEO pay on Wall Street was “a total and complete joke.” Dodd-Frank instituted a policy known as “clawback,” which allows regulators to penalize executives who take home bonuses based on accounting fraud, and implemented say-on-pay rules designed to allow employees to have more input in the compensation of their bosses on Wall Street.
Trump said hedge-fund managers were “getting away with murder” on taxes and talked of closing the carried interest loophole that allows income from hedge-fund profits to be taxed at a lower rate than most forms of income.
He and the Republican platform called for a new Glass-Steagall Act to separate banks’ risky investments from customer’s deposits, something Warren and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., proposed in 2015. Trump’s nominee for Treasury Department secretary, Steven Mnuchin, offered tentative support for “a 21st-century version” of Glass-Steagall during his confirmation hearing.
Still, Trump’s position, like on so many others, can change. A look at who has run his transition teams and his appointments may signal where policy is really headed. And by that measure, the future doesn’t look promising for Dodd-Frank.
Trump’s transition team on financial regulation has been led by Paul Atkins, CEO of the financial services consulting firm Patomak Global Partners. Atkins is a former commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission and a deregulation advocate who called Dodd-Frank a “calamity” in 2011 when testifying before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.
A Trump administration also will include financiers. Mnuchin, senior adviser Steve Bannon and director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn all currently or previously worked for Goldman Sachs. Commerce Department Secretary nominee Wilbur Ross is a billionaire investor who in 2010 called“government intervention” one of the biggest problem for investors.
In May, Trump told Reuters he would release a plan to overhaul Dodd-Frank.
“Dodd-Frank has made it impossible for bankers to function,” Trump said at the time, even as banks have reported increasing profits year over year since the passage of Dodd-Frank.
Trump’s plan has not yet been released.
Clarification, 2:20 p.m., Feb., 1 2017: An earlier version of this story attributed the "growth and stability in the U.S. economy" to Dodd-Frank, but the GAO report concluded the overall financial regulatory structure that Dodd-Frank built on contributed to the growth and stability.
Will 2017 be the year the Senate fully embraces the digital revolution?
Sure, senators use Twitter, Facebook and even Snapchat. But they’re strictly analogue when disclosing information about their campaign finances.
That’s where a new bill from Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, comes in.
Dubbed the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act, Tester’s legislation, which the Center for Public Integrity has learned will be formally introduced today, would require U.S. Senate candidates to file their campaign finance reports electronically like all other federal candidates — not on paper, as is the current practice.
“It’s hard to say this is a bad bill," Tester told the Center for Public Integrity in an interview. "It saves money and adds disclosure, so what could be bad about that?”
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that taxpayers would save about $500,000 a year if senators electronically filed these reports.
Nearly all federal candidates and committees began electronically filing their campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission in 2001. But the Senate was exempted from the e-filing requirement.
Tester’s proposal is popular on both sides of the aisle. More than 60 sitting senators plan to co-sponsor the bill this year or have previously supported Senate e-filing, according to research and reporting by the Center for Public Integrity.
McConnell’s plans this year for the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act are unknown. Representatives of the Kentucky Republican did not respond to a request for comment for this story, nor did spokespeople for President Donald Trump.
Tester said his goal now is to get a "good bipartisan push" for the bill so that McConnell "won't be able to say no."
Tester added that he will also introduce two other campaign finance-related measures today. One targets politically active "dark money" nonprofit groups and the other seeks to amend the U.S. Constitution to clamp down on corporate politicking. Both face long odds in the Republican-controlled Congress.
Here’s how support for e-filing breaks down:
Thirty-four members of the Senate’s Democratic caucus co-sponsored the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act in the last Congress, as did 11 sitting Republican senators.
That includes conservative Republicans — such as Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley of Iowa — as well as liberal darlings like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Then add at least three of the five newly minted Senate Democrats — Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. All are expected to co-sponsor Tester’s bill.
Meira Bernstein, Hassan's press secretary, told the Center for Public Integrity that “increased transparency in campaign spending is critical to our democracy.”
Added Van Hollen: “I strongly support the effort to make the electronic filing of campaign finance reports mandatory so that everyone can easily find out who is contributing to candidates for U.S. Senate.”
Meanwhile, four other sitting Democratic senators, each of whom did not sponsor the bill in the last Congress — Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Patty Murray of Washington — expressed support for Senate campaign finance e-filing.
“This is a common-sense reform that will also save taxpayers money,” Baldwin told the Center for Public Integrity.
“Sen. Murray plans to co-sponsor this bill when it is reintroduced,” said Eli Zupnick, a spokesman for the assistant Democratic leader.
“We plan to co-sponsor,” said Bennet spokeswoman Laurie Cipriano.
“We support the policy and have no other comment at this time,” said Casey spokeswoman Jacklin Rhoads.
Furthermore, seven other sitting Republican senators and two other sitting Democrats have previously co-sponsored the e-filing bill, some as recently as 2014.
Those lawmakers are Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, John Cornyn of Texas, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, John McCain of Arizona, Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
Cornyn himself is among the roughly one-fifth of sitting senators who already voluntarily e-file copies of their campaign finance reports.
It’s unclear whether any of these senators plan on co-sponsoring the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act this year. Spokespeople for these lawmakers either did not respond to requests for comment or said the senators were still in the process of reviewing the legislation.
Then there’s first-term Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who also voluntarily e-files copies of these disclosures. Her spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.
Officials for the Senate’s two newest Republican members — John Kennedy of Louisiana and Todd Young of Indiana — declined to comment for this story, as did a spokesman for first-term Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada.
The Senate’s two other Democrats — Bill Nelson of Florida and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan — have never previously co-sponsored earlier versions the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act.
Nor have the 31 other Senate Republicans, even though 12 of them had prior experience e-filing campaign finance reports as members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
For his part, Tester is determined to keep fighting for progress.
"E-file is a good enough bill to stand on its own feet," he told the Center for Public Integrity.
"The House already does it. The Senate needs to do," he continued. “This doesn’t do anything more than add more accountability to the process.”
Nobody told the students to remove their hoodies, or stash their snacks.
Instead, a brief dose of hip-hop eased 10th-graders into their seats at Oakland High, a campus locked behind metal doors in this city by San Francisco Bay. Teacher Earnest Jenkins III, a towering man in a baseball cap, turned off the music. And he asked his class to reflect on a vocabulary word — mendicant, or beggar — and a quote: “Use missteps as stepping stones to deeper understanding and greater achievement.”
“You’ve got to do it yourself,” a student offered, “because it’s got to be genuine.” Jenkins smiled. “Way to sum that up,” he said.
Next, Jenkins guided students in writing questions about college admissions — questions for an upcoming guest, a black University of California at Berkeley vice chancellor who had also attended Cal. The campus enrolled about 5,500 freshmen in the fall of 2015, only 157 of them black. “Think about what she may have thought about when she was in there,” said Jenkins, who is 35 and also black. “Maybe she was the only African-American in a classroom. Maybe the only one in the dorm room. Maybe the only one on that floor.”
With that, he hit a key on a computer and treated the all-male, all-black class to a soundtrack of Bob Marley singing: “Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights.”
Unorthodox? Perhaps. Jenkins’ reading, writing and reggae style clearly suits Oakland, a city that embraces its multiculturalism with pride. But the popular Manhood Development class that Jenkins teaches is more than a cool elective. It exemplifies the range of experimentation that’s becoming possible as a massive new school-financing formula takes root in California.
The new initiative suffers from a numbing moniker — the Local Control Funding Formula — but it represents nothing short of a revolution in how education is financed for more than 6.2 million students in the country’s biggest state.
As in many states, California’s school districts are funded with a mix of local property taxes and state money. This has tended to mean that spending on kids from affluent communities has been higher — a dilemma that’s led to unequal-funding lawsuits nationwide, starting with a landmark 1971 California case, Serrano v. Priest, and continuing even now in Connecticut, where the latest battle is raging. Despite reforms to create more equity in the wake of that 1971 suit, California’s convoluted distribution system continued to shortchange some of the state’s poorest kids. And strict funding rules foiled educators' attempts to try local approaches tailored to their specific school population.
But over the past four years, circumstances in the Golden State have come together to change the game — radically. In 2012, voters approved Proposition 30, a temporary state sales tax and income tax hike on the wealthy aimed at filling in deep recession-era cuts to state school funding. The measure has raised about $8 billion a year. A white-hot, tech-driven economic recovery has raised many billions more in revenue for education. And although tax collections have dipped recently, the state’s basic budget for K-12 schools and two-year community colleges has rocketed from $47.3 billion in 2011 to a projected $71.4 billion this year.
The bid to fundamentally change how education funds were distributed met skepticism at first because of its aggressive “equity” push. But eventually it found bipartisan support in California's ethnically diverse, mostly Democratic legislature. Lawmakers approved the new formula in 2013, and an eight-year phase-in plan began that fall.
The new system affords far greater local control and guarantees that districts with substantial populations of disadvantaged kids receive more state money — lots more.
This is how it works: All districts get higher per-pupil basic grants that vary by grade level. On top of that, districts also receive 20 percent more in “supplemental” per-pupil dollars based on the number of students identified as disadvantaged. If more than 55 percent of a district’s students are disadvantaged, the district also receives “concentration” funding — tied to the percentage of disadvantaged kids above the 55 percent threshold. Concentration funding is equal to a hefty 50 percent of basic per-student base grants.
The bottom-line increases can be stunning. In 2020, for example, when the formula is expected to be fully phased in, districts could receive a projected basic rate of about $9,115 for every high school student. But a supplemental grant would bump that up to $10,978. A concentration grant would bump it up to more than $14,128 for every disadvantaged high school student above the 55 percent threshold.
Disadvantaged students are those who qualify for a free or reduced school lunch because their families are low-income (about half the state’s students are low-income, as students nationally are), or who are English-as-a-second language learners or high-risk foster kids. Kids in more than one target group are only counted once.
The statute creating the LCFF requires that supplemental and concentration money be invested in ways that “increase or improve” education for these disadvantaged students.
As the LCFF unfolds, complaints are surfacing about dubious expenditures — on school policing or across-the-board staff pay raises that state officials warn should be “targeted” to benefit disadvantaged kids. Not enough time has passed to conduct comprehensive evaluations. Critics are also assailing confusing “local control and accountability plans,” or LCAPs, that districts must create using a state template. The state isn’t collecting data on spending of earmarked money either.
Still, if students start showing academic gains, California’s experiment could provide a blueprint as other states struggle to close their own gaps between affluent and disadvantaged students. If achievement remains stagnant, though, that will no doubt threaten the formula’s future — and embolden those who argue that additional spending has little to do with educational quality.
In the meantime, some educators are seizing the moment — and the extra money — to institute homegrown experiments aimed at transforming school culture in some of the toughest neighborhoods of Los Angeles and Oakland.
“School should be fun,” said Cliff Hong, principal of Oakland’s Roosevelt Middle School, which serves mostly low-income Latino, black and Asian kids, some of whom will later attend Oakland High. Hong said he wants “high will, high skill” staff who don’t write off kids as failures when they’re in seventh and eighth grade.
“When I started working here six years ago,” Hong said, “we had adults who referred to students as ‘repeat offenders’ and asked: ‘When are we going to get better kids?’”
A fall to bottom sparks call for change
Like many states, California has struggled with a disturbing academic “achievement gap” that’s developed along socio-economic and ethnic lines — which is what the new funding formula is supposed to address.
In 2013, as schools reeled from recession-era cuts, 68 percent of African-American and less than 76 percent of Latino students graduated high school in four years, compared to 92 percent of Asian-American and just under 88 percent of white students. That same year, only 39 percent of all California graduates took and passed sequences of courses that made them eligible to apply to four-year state colleges.
The problems were a long time coming. In the early 1970s, local property taxes covered most Golden State school districts’ budgets. The state was starting to supplement poorer districts. But when voters dramatically capped property tax increases in 1978 with Proposition 13, an anti-tax revolt, the state was forced to take over most school financing.
To manage the task, legislators set limits on a mix of local and state revenues districts could receive to fund basic school costs. A minority of wealthy districts rich enough in property taxes to cover basic costs without state aid were exempted from the local limit. Over time, legislators added a laundry list of reasons — a small district’s rural setting is one — for why certain districts merited state aid beyond the state limit. Urban districts with large numbers of low-income kids often ended up the losers. In 2005-2006, about 60 percent of all California students were concentrated in large urban districts whose per-pupil base state grant was $85 less than the average grant statewide. That meant millions of dollars less a year in basic support.
The 2008 recession made things worse. Nearly one-fifth of state K-12 funding was chopped as legislators faced plunging state revenues from shrinking income and sales taxes. California hit 46th among states in per-pupil spending, and at or near bottom in librarians and counselors.
“A lot of my students didn’t have books. A lot of my students didn’t have after-school programs,” said Geordee Mae Corpuz, who provided college-prep support at Sacramento and Bay Area schools. “Students of color didn’t feel that there was much expected out of them.”
Corpuz quit and joined Californians for Justice, a civil-rights group that teamed up with others to sue the state in 2010, arguing that unfair school funding was depriving children of constitutional rights to a “meaningful education.”
The suit ultimately failed, but it did change the atmosphere.
Enter Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, who was also on the board back when Gov. Jerry Brown was governor in the late 1970s. Brown re-appointed Kirst in 2011 after being re-elected. A Stanford University professor emeritus of education and business, Kirst was an expert in Title I federal school aid for low-income students, and a former director of K-12 planning at the U.S. Department of Education. He urged reforming California’s basic funding criteria, as well as a parallel system that sent districts extra dollars that could only be spent on specific “categorical” programs.
“The local districts ended up with maybe a good school garden but no money to clean the bathroom,” Kirst said. It wasn’t hard to get superintendents statewide to support throwing out most categorical restrictions, and Brown embraced the “local control” idea.
Civil-rights groups championed Kirst’s push for “concentration” funding: Poorer kids who attend schools with affluent peers benefit from high expectations and greater opportunities available, he said. If disadvantaged kids are essentially segregated in schools, Kirst wrote in a policy paper, staff tend to expect less of kids, and kids “tend to have lower aspirations [and] more negative attitudes toward achievement.”
By 2020, Kirst believes, California’s LCFF will create “one of the most radically equalized” education financing systems in the country. Overall, the state still lags behind a few others with higher per-pupil spending, and school officials say they’d still like more to serve kids. But the surge in revenue has already helped get more money to the poorest districts. Some are currently receiving the equivalent of 90 percent of their projected full entitlements.
The new challenge is making sure the funding is efficiently targeted locally. From right to left, legislators remain concerned about accountability. They approved a bill this year imposing a litany of tests and other measurements to hold schools accountable. But Brown vetoed the bill, arguing that it was too soon to start imposing more mandates.
Kirst has urged patience, comparing the new formula in a mammoth state like California to “an oil tanker” passing beneath the Golden Gate Bridge: “You’ve got to nudge it, and you’ve got to keep it moving over time.”
Meanwhile, the State Board of Education is developing an "evaluation rubric" to be released next year to judge how districts are doing. And a new public California Collaborative for Educational Excellence is tasked with collecting and distributing “best practices” for improving education for the neediest kids.
County offices of education are responsible for approving accountability plans. In theory, if student progress isn’t clear over a period of several years, the state can withhold money. For now, though, there’s an existing group of annual tests and yardsticks schools can use to check their pace.
A list of eight priorities set by the state are mostly conventional — like student achievement. But two stand out: more parent involvement and improved “school climate.” Districts are now required to form parent committees and seek parent and student input on their spending decisions.
Surveys suggest parents remain largely unaware of the grander role that the state imagined for them — although some places, such as Oakland, have created active parent committees. The goal of a healthy “school climate” reflects growing consensus that students can't do well academically if they don't feel “connected” to school.
Districts are investing most extra funding now to replenish teaching ranks cut during recent hard times and add strategic staff, without controversy. But dissent over some investments is growing.
Bilingual K-9 officer and dog?
Last April, Public Advocates, one of the civil-rights groups that sued the state in 2010, said that multiple school districts’ plans showed a “near universal failure” to identify and justify expenditures of dollars whose purpose was to benefit disadvantaged students. There’s no prohibition on combining that money with other funds as long as disadvantaged students benefit proportionately. But John Affeldt, Public Advocates’ managing attorney, said districts are required to explain that benefit and why using these funds to hire a cop or to increase salaries, for instance, actually helps those kids.
Public Advocates joined the American Civil Liberties Union in filing a complaint last year against the Los Angeles Unified School District, accusing the giant district of “undermining” the LCFF by diverting $450 million in money for disadvantaged students in 2014 to cover special-education costs for students with disabilities. The L.A. district, 84 percent disadvantaged, argued that the diversion was legal because the majority served were disadvantaged. The California Department of Education, however, released an opinion this past June essentially limiting use of these funds in a proportionate manner to support special education for disadvantaged students.
The Long Beach Unified School District, 69 percent disadvantaged, drew fire for a multi-year plan to use funds to serve disadvantaged kids to finance $14.4 million in pension and employee benefits payments and $7 million for salaries this year.
The district’s plan reasoned that compensation attracts qualified staff to support students, “particularly the low-income and other historically disadvantaged subgroups.” Civil-rights groups objected, and in September the district amended its plan, although not to activists’ satisfaction; instead, the district is investing $12 million in salaries and more than $2.5 million in benefits, arguing that these investments translate into “supplemental education support” for disadvantaged kids. In the coming academic year, these same expenditures jump to $16.5 million and $3.6 million.
More than one district has used extra funding for disadvantaged kids, rather than general grant money, to augment school policing.
For instance, the Stockton Unified School District, 88 percent disadvantaged, has invested more than $2 million for its own sworn police officers, adjunct safety officers, an alarm system, a crime data analyst and a bilingual K-9 officer and dog. The district plan asserts that security investments improve “school climate.” But some parents are unhappy because of Stockton school police officers’ forays into discipline that have led to arrests, tickets and restraints — including a 5-year-old whose hands and feet were bound with zip ties after an officer got involved in a discipline issue.
Oakland's district is spending almost $4.4 million in funding for disadvantaged students on security officers at select schools. The security staff are going through training to de-escalate conflict, however. The 78 percent-disadvantaged Oakland district has limited the role of actual sworn police at schools. Opinion on the need for security guards is split. The district is mindful that in 2015 it paid a $550,000 settlement to a disabled Oakland High student in a wheelchair whom a former security guard struck and dumped to the ground after the two argued.
Kirst, for his part, seems philosophical about controversies he believes will get hashed out over time. There may be a justification, he said, for limited raises for teachers paid substantially less than prevailing area pay, or to finance security, if there is consensus these decisions support students.
Once failing schools strive to connect
In Los Angeles, in the gang-plagued neighborhood of Watts, teachers and principals are already deepening a culture of restorative practices they believe is key to improving academics by changing the atmosphere in school.
The concept of restorative justice strives to resolve conflict by bringing parties together to air grievances, with a coordinator, to hold people accountable but also repair relationships. With White House support, a growing number of schools nationally are turning to restorative methods because of research suggesting that it is a more productive way — compared to suspensions — to support students who are caught up in cycles of disruptive behavior.
This year, the WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center, which provides research to schools, concluded that “preliminary evidence does suggest that [restorative justice] may have positive effects [on] discipline, attendance and graduation, climate and culture, and various academic outcomes.”
A short walk from Watts’ housing projects, at the corner of East 103rd and Grape Streets, the mostly Latino and black children who attend the Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School raced around a playground at recess. Some shot baskets or skipped rope. Two girls sat under a tree organizing piles of twigs and pebbles, as another girl stood over them, concentrating.
“I’m the judge,” she explained. “And they’re the cooks. I pick which one made the best brownie.”
Joyner staff say their job requires more than just ushering students into seats, going through lesson plans and organizing activities. Two critical positions — an attendance counselor and a restorative justice teaching adviser — have been added since the adoption of the LCFF.
“We have to deal with the impact that crime and poverty have on the children, before we can actually teach the whole child,” said Akida Kissane Long, Joyner’s principal. In 2015, Joyner’s students were 97 percent disadvantaged.
Watts, the scene of devastating riots in 1965, is transforming for the better, many say, putting the worst of its high-crime days behind it. But the South Los Angeles neighborhood is still punctuated by gunfire, sirens and police helicopters. It’s hard to miss drug dealing on some corners. Kids have seen people shot not far from school.
Long said she’s been a principal long enough to not presume what another school needs. But she says she knows what is working for Joyner — and quite a bit of it is “social emotional learning” that helps kids develop empathy and positive relationships.
To help kids process experiences, teacher Raquel Williams has her fifth-graders regularly gather in a circle and, if they wish, take turns picking up a “talking stick” and sharing thoughts about a topic that Williams introduces. Williams says circling helps kids listen more to one another. She says they’re more articulate and seem happier. And she’s noticing improvements in their ability to focus on school work — exactly what LCFF supporters hope districts can accomplish with flexibility.
“It’s a really good use of class time,” Williams said. The gamut of what kids discuss, she said, “is wide and vast.”
Joyner is a Los Angeles Unified School District school, but it’s run by a nonprofit called Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which took over management in 2010. Leveraging donations from businesses and foundations, along with district funding, it manages a number of L.A. schools where test results were poorest, dropout rates highest, suspensions rampant and parents dissatisfied.
L.A. Unified made a commitment in 2013 to institute restorative practices to all campuses by 2020. During this academic year, however, the district plans to invest only about $10.8 million in this goal out of more than $870 million in funds specifically to support disadvantaged kids. That’s a slight increase from $7.2 million invested last year, an amount critics argued was paltry in a district of more than 600,000 kids. Teachers in the district last year complained that not enough was invested in restorative initiatives, while at the same time they were expected to reduce suspensions.
Initially, in 2014, a draft accountability plan proposed shifting $13 million out of funds for disadvantaged students to the district’s large police force, which has an annual budget of about $57 million. The grassroots Labor-Community Strategy Center, which organizes students and parents, successfully fought that proposal. Between 2009 and 2011, citation data showed that school police were sending thousands of kids to court for tardiness and middle-school student fights, mostly from low-income areas like Watts.
Other district plans for $870 million in targeted money this year have broader support. There’s $145 million for “high need” campuses to beef up afterschool programs, counselors, and support for kids taking college-required classes. Another $115 million was slated to cut the size of math and English classes, link older kids to careers and prepare kindergarteners for reading. Some $70 million was budgeted to support English learners and libraries. About $15 million was earmarked to create learning plans for each foster child in the district, and $5.7 million is for hiring more psychiatric social workers. About $500 million goes right to campuses to invest.
Last spring, at Joyner’s campus, Williams’ students formed a restorative circle, and Williams asked them for their thoughts about “happy places.” Snuggling in a warm bed, one child said. The school library, a boy said, because “it’s soooo quiet.”
Williams then asked about places, real or imagined, that made them “shudder.” Kids giggled when classmates talked about Halloween, or roller coasters or going to middle school. One girl said she gets scared seeing a “crazy man” taking drugs near her home.
A boy took the talking stick and said: “There’s a secret place and a whole bunch of people hide bullets.” Boys and girls rose from seats at times to pat one another on the back and offer each other tissues if classmates looked sad.
About 37 percent of Joyner’s kids are classified as English learners, but Williams’ fifth graders spoke English with ease.
“It’s like a relief,” student Melanie Sanchez said of the circles. “Whatever happens in circle, say people say something very personal, everything stays inside the circle.”
“In math,” Melanie also said, “we really didn’t have the confidence to talk about to speak in front of our classmates.” But after kids got used to speaking in circles, she said, teachers didn’t have to make kids pick sticks to try to get them to talk.
"I agree with her," said Ricardo Vargas, Melanie’s classmate. "Because at first we didn’t really have trust in one another — to stand up and say we know the answer [and] this is how I found it. But now we feel like we can express our feelings and talk to each other.”
Joyner appears to be making progress. Seventy percent of third-graders in 2015 scored “standard not met” in English language arts. Last year, as fourth-graders, the proportion of students who scored at the bottom was 59 percent, an improvement. In math, 64 percent were below standard in 2015, and 49 percent below in 2016.
One of the foundational LCFF principles is for schools to show “continuous improvement.” No longer will schools be threatened with takeover by the state strictly because of test scores. The State Board of Education envisions its evaluation rubric — an annual school “report card” — as empowering parents with information so they can demand attention to failings. The report cards will reveal how well students are doing on proficiency tests, graduation and college readiness rates, but also the progress schools are making with parent engagement, school climate and suspension rates.
Brenda Ponce, a Watts native and mother of a first- and a third-grader, volunteers at Joyner and believes restorative practices have made it a better school. And she’s happy that her kids are already talking about college—a goal she said no one discussed with her in Watts until she was almost done with high school. Joyner’s walls today are plastered with college pennants and inspirational slogans.
The rampant suspensions that plagued the school are now rare, Ponce said. “The children tend to want to study more,” she said. “And that’s a big difference from before.”
In 2010-2011, 15 percent of Joyner students were suspended at least once. In 2015-2016, that figure dropped to less than 2 percent. Joyner’s black students in 2010-2011 were disproportionately affected, with 32 percent of all African -American kids suspended at least once. That figure dropped to less than 5 percent last year.
Ponce said Joyner has also worked harder to involve parents. She helps organize support for parents who want to be able to help their children, including parents hesitant to speak up because their English is limited. "We give them ideas,” Ponce said. “If the kids want to use a tablet, here’s a reading application that they can use so they can learn to read.”
Spreading funding strategically
Just southeast of Watts and north of Compton, also known for its mean streets, Paul Gothold is the superintendent of the smaller Lynwood Unified School District: 14,776 students enrolled in 18 schools. The students are 96 percent disadvantaged, with a third classified as English learners.
The district developed a strategic plan six years ago that emphasized approaching “each child holistically.”
“A lot of the things were aspirations that we may not have had the money to afford, to be honest with you,” Gothold said. The new way of funding schools “has been beneficial to us without a doubt.” In 2013-2014, the district received an allotment of $103 million. The next year it received $120 million. And last school year, funding rose to $141.3 million. Its estimated full-funding target in 2020 will be $160.9 million.
The new money has been used for a variety of initiatives. Staff identified 2,000 families without health care and has since matched 1,500 to services. The district is working more intensively with programs like the National College Resource Foundation, which sends college mentors to work daily with kids, tutoring them and assisting with college planning. Another priority: college mentoring services specializing in working with African-American and Latino students.
“Whatever we need to do to make our kids feel connected at school,” Gothold said.
The district has also invested in coaches for teachers and in career technology classes organized into “academies” for biomedical science, engineering, culinary arts and television and film. It has expanded its student support division from three to 15 employees, and now has a restorative justice center. There are no at-home suspensions of kids. Instead, they’re matched to services.
In addition, Lynwood has used some of the extra cash to bring in new counselors for high schools and middle schools, two specific counselors for foster youth, nurses, psychiatric social workers, case managers to develop relationships with kids and families, athletic support and “credit recovery” so students can catch up and a variety of extra staff to work with English learners.
“Our philosophy in this district is simple: We’re going to prepare you for college,” Gothold said. “And if you decide not to go, it’s going to be your choice, but it’s not going to be the system.”
Graduation rates six years ago were under 60 percent. In 2015, Lynwood High’s rate was almost 89 percent, and the rate at Firebaugh High, also part of the district, was 90 percent. That same year, 47 percent of Lynwood and 49 percent of Firebaugh seniors had completed the requirements to apply to four-year state colleges — healthy comparative percentages for high-poverty schools.
Making school relevant
Back at Oakland High, the bell rang and case manager Percy Foster was ready, with tardy slips to hand to students as they entered — late. If students accumulate too many slips or they aren’t in class on time, there are consequences.
But not detention. Instead, they’re assigned to after-school Academic Hour, with tutoring and support to catch up on any missed assignments.
It’s a positive spin on undesirable behavior that Foster and another case manager created, part of the cultural remaking of this campus of mostly low-income African-American, Latino and Asian kids. Detention sounds like prison, the case managers decided.
“You’ll be doing your work during your Academic Hour,” Foster said. “You’ll be catching up on your assignments. When is detention ever used to do those things?”
Were it not for the LCFF, Foster might not be there.
The total amount of money drawn in by disadvantaged kids for the Oakland Unified School district this year is $66.6 million, on top of $292.2 million in base funding — a total of about $358.8 million.
Like other districts, Oakland is pouring new money into hiring more teachers and adding services to upgrade academics. But Oakland is also putting almost $2.3 million into “parent engagement,” nearly $3.7 million into restorative justice and other behavioral and emotional support, almost $1.4 million of this directly from funds for disadvantaged kids. About 34% of supplemental and concentration money is allocated directly to school sites and to programs. The earmarked money is supporting a full-time restorative justice coordinator at the Oakland High School campus. And it’s supporting some of the costs of case managers like Foster — who are critical to running the school, according to Oakland High Principal Matin Abdel-Qawi.
Oakland High has a menu of sports and clubs, but “street culture,” Abdel-Qawi said, has its lure, and he’s investing to create a “counter-narrative.”
“We’re talking about going to Google, going to Facebook, going to the Port of Oakland, going to several different organizations around the Bay Area that are important for our students to see,” the principal also said. “One of the things young people suffer from is lack of exposure to what’s available to them.”
One of the district’s deepest concerns is its abysmal on-time graduation rates for African-American students, who are 29 percent of enrollment, and Latino students, 45 percent of enrollment. Only about 56 percent of Latino students graduated in four years in 2015, compared to 83 percent of all seniors statewide. For African-American students, the on-time graduation rate fell just short of 61 percent.
Some metrics, though, have begun to move in the right direction.
The on-time graduation rate in 2015 for African-American males, for example, actually improved by 7 percentage points in just one year — jumping from almost 53 percent the year before to almost 60 percent. The district saw an even bigger surge in on-time graduation for foster youth, from about 34 percent to 58 percent.
The district attributes this gain to more engaging material, including those Manhood Development classes, and more emotional support. In fact, the Oakland district is so bullish on the success of African-American-focused curriculum and activities that this year it’s investing more than $1.6 million in a new Office of Equity to start replicating the model for Latino males and African-American females. More than $1.2 million of that investment comes from funding for disadvantaged kids.
At Oakland High, Manhood Development teacher Jenkins’ salary is partially paid for with these same funds. He’s also in charge of the new entrepreneurial Khepera Academy, an option for students with an African-American focus and links to local businesses. Heftty portions of the funding specifically for disadvantaged kids is boosting Pathway Programs, academies that match teens with potential career interests.
For Jenkins and Abdel-Qawi, the bottom line is basic: Black boys don’t see themselves enough in a positive light. Jenkins and Abdel-Qawi believe African-American boys benefit from time with role models, and from access to history — back to the contributions of Africa — which hasn’t always been emphasized.
“When we come in thinking about ourselves and thinking about our place in this country, what happens is we start thinking about ourselves as a slave first,” Jenkins said. “There’s no reference to the old kingdoms and dynasties of Africa at all.”
“The only thing we get to hear about is maybe a little bit of Egypt,” he said, “a couple of pyramids, and then boom, the slave trade.”
Josiah Harris, 14, took versions of the Manhood Development class in seventh grade and eighth grade. He also joined a leadership group associated with the district’s office of African-American Male Achievement. He said the courses were a "a brotherly space" he'd never found before in a classroom setting.
"Brothers can go in there and feel love. They can go in there and feel they can't be stopped," Josiah said. "We have a man to talk to about certain stuff. We can let out our feelings."
Between African-American literature and Manhood Development and the Khepera Academy curriculum, students can satisfy English and elective courses they need for eligibility to apply to four-year state colleges.
Jenkins’ class — for which there’s a waiting list — makes time for students to get personal about being black males. Students conduct research and write essays, but Jenkins also keeps things loose with techniques like rewarding boys with fake money for exceptional work. The cash can be traded for snacks. “It translates into a life lesson,” Jenkins said. “It builds up the work ethic.”
Senior Sky Lowe took Jenkins’ class as a 10th-grader and thinks all kids should get their history with diverse perspectives. “I thought it was more of a fun way to relax,” he said, “and just be happy in school.” He says there were times he thought he wouldn’t make it to school, but thought: “I’ll go — because I don’t want to miss Earnest today.”
Sky’s family has moved repeatedly, resorting to shelters and staying with relatives because of high housing costs in the Bay Area. He’s had to scrape for city bus money to get to school, and a stipend from an internship with Californians for Justice buys basic needs. The 17-year-old serves on a student advisory committee at Oakland High that holds brainstorming sessions about what they, students, would like to see schools invest in using the new money from the state.
Geordee Mae Corpuz, the former college-prep advisor, advises that committee.
“Even if a school can’t solve the family problems a kid may have, can’t provide a job for parents or a place to live,” Sky said, “how can schools help the student still engage at school and do well?”
Part of the answer: Percy Foster.
As classes were changing, Foster cruised halls, checking with kids. Why was a boy in a shirt that said “Trouble Follows Me” not in his seat? How was that kid doing who’d been in the juvenile justice system? He corralled a boy who’s a talented artist and told him to consider careers in digital media. He helped calm two girls who got in a screaming match. He answered texts endlessly from both parents and students. Every student is assigned a case manager when they enter Oakland High. Not every kid needs help. But many do.
“I’ve seen the worst kids make turnarounds,” said Foster.
“We’re dealing with grades — grades not being good, how to get them back up. Transportation issues to and from school,” Foster said. “Pregnancies, to not having somewhere to live, lunch money, daily food, whatever.” Kids, he said, “really want somebody to really listen to them and really act on their behalf.”
Jenkins and Foster have the credibility of being Oakland natives— they’ve cruised the same streets as these kids. “You’re somebody they can connect with,” Jenkins said. “You’re not something that popped off the TV. You’re authentic.”
Oakland’s own tracking since more funding began rolling in shows the percentage of graduates completing required college courses is up, from just below 40 percent in 2014 to almost 46 percent in 2015. The district also exceeded its goal to increase the percentage of third-graders reading on or above grade level by five points each year. Other benchmarks are headed north as well. Suspensions of black male students have dropped by more than half in six years, and juvenile lockups have dropped by 40 percent.
Principal Abdel-Qawi is encouraged.
“I have to believe that the funding that we have is enough for what we need to do to change the trajectory of some of our young people from the streets to the university,” he said. “I have to believe that we can create the climate and culture for all of our young people to be successful.”
On Nov. 9, Californians weighed in with their own vote of confidence. They passed Proposition 55, a measure that extends the 2012 temporary income tax hike on the wealthy that helped fire up the school funding revolution. The measure extends those taxes for 12 years, until 2030.
A lot of folks will be watching what that extra investment in disadvantaged districts yields — watching not only here in California, but across the country as well.
This story was supported by a grant from Solutions Journalism Network.
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