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- 06/19/14--15:30: _FEC struggles to ap...
- 06/19/14--17:57: _Leadership at Chemi...
- 06/19/14--14:57: _IRS says liberal gr...
- 06/20/14--03:00: _25 years, countless...
- 06/20/14--03:00: _Finding the truth i...
- 06/20/14--13:09: _Supreme court justi...
- 06/20/14--17:38: _Conservative super ...
- 06/23/14--03:00: _Praise for UK-style...
- 06/24/14--11:57: _The beautification ...
- 06/25/14--06:40: _Kochs put a happy f...
- 06/25/14--11:29: _Medicare Advantage ...
- 06/25/14--12:16: _CPI-ABC black lung ...
- 06/26/14--02:00: _Happy birthday, sup...
- 06/28/14--06:50: _How politics derail...
- 06/28/14--00:02: _What to do if your ...
- 06/30/14--13:52: _Republicans continu...
- 07/01/14--03:00: _How cozy can candid...
- 07/02/14--06:34: _Saving the penny ma...
- 07/03/14--03:00: _Will migrant kids l...
- 07/03/14--06:02: _Manhattan just anot...
- 06/19/14--15:30: FEC struggles to appoint top lawyer
- 06/19/14--14:57: IRS says liberal group too political for 'social welfare' status
- 06/20/14--03:00: 25 years, countless investigations and 935 lies
- 06/20/14--03:00: Finding the truth in 935 lies about war with Iraq
- 06/20/14--13:09: Supreme court justices earn quarter-million in cash on the side
- 06/23/14--03:00: Praise for UK-style health system vindicates spurned nominee
- 06/24/14--11:57: The beautification of Thad Cochran
- 06/25/14--06:40: Kochs put a happy face on free enterprise
- 06/25/14--11:29: Medicare Advantage plans require more scrutiny
- 06/25/14--12:16: CPI-ABC black lung series wins Loeb award
- 06/26/14--02:00: Happy birthday, super PAC!
- 06/28/14--00:02: What to do if your drinking water contains arsenic
- 06/30/14--13:52: Republicans continue to capitalize on 'McCutcheon' ruling
Dan Logue in California’s 3rd Congressional District
Doug Ose in California’s 7th Congressional District
Jeff Gorell in California’s 26th Congressional District
Brian Nestande in California’s 36th Congressional District
Carl DeMaio in California’s 52nd Congressional District
Rick W. Allen in Georgia’s 12th Congressional District
Darlene Senger in Illinois’ 11th Congressional District
Bobby Schilling in Illinois’ 17th Congressional District
Tom MacArthur in New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District
Pedro Celis in Washington’s 1st Congressional District
- Alex Mooney in West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District
- 07/01/14--03:00: How cozy can candidates be with political groups?
- 07/02/14--06:34: Saving the penny makes cents for zinc-backed front group
- 07/03/14--06:02: Manhattan just another island haven for dirty money
The Federal Election Commission soon marks a dubious anniversary: one year with nobody directing its legal department.
That's no trifle for an agency tasked with regulating and enforcing the nation's campaign laws.
But for the FEC's most recent general counsel, Tony Herman, who officially resigned from the agency July 5 to re-enter private practice after a turbulent two-year tenure, the leadership vacuum is predictable.
"In view of what I have described as a lingering ideological chasm at the commission, I’m not at all surprised that the position remains vacant," said Herman, senior counsel at law firm Covington & Burling LLP.
Indeed, the six-member commission hasn't agreed on much this year, continuing a years-long status quo for agency overseers evenly divided between Republican and Democratic appointees.
And the commission couldn't agree on how to resolve several notable cases, such as whether to require disclaimers for mobile device-based political ads. Even when commissioners do agree on a high-profile matter — the acceptance of Bitcoin by political committees, for one — they sometimes don't completely agree.
Given this, it's perhaps little mystery why the commission hasn't yet settled on a general counsel — just one of two FEC staff officers (the other being staff director) prescribed by federal election law. No current staffer has been elevated to "acting" general counsel, either, as the FEC has done for several other high-ranking and vacant positions, such as chief financial officer and director of accounting.
Among the general counsel's numerous duties: managing about one third of the agency's staff, pursuing political scofflaws and advising the commission on "all legal matters," including how to interpret campaign statutes and regulations.
Without a general counsel, the FEC's legal office will likely operate "more cautiously, if not more timidly" in carrying out its work, said Larry Norton, a partner at law firm Venable LLP who served as FEC general counsel from 2001 to 2007.
For example, don't expect today's leaderless Office of General Counsel to tussle with commissioners on the issue of communicating with the Department of Justice, as it did under Herman.
"And there's probably little or no long-term planning going on," Norton added.
Several FEC officials confirmed that the commission has recently interviewed a small number of general counsel candidates, although no final selection appears imminent.
"We are currently reviewing applicants in a thoughtful and deliberative process," FEC chairman Lee Goodman, a Republican, told the Center for Public Integrity. "The selection of a general counsel is an important decision and we want to choose a well-qualified attorney who has all the necessary professional qualities to succeed."
Said Democrat Ann Ravel, the commission's vice chairman: "I believe that a general counsel probably will be appointed in the next few months. Although the GC staff is very talented, it is important to have a general counsel to provide guidance on legal issues and on how to navigate the political aspects of the FEC."
As a practical manner, a general counsel candidate that swings much to the political left or the right — no matter how talented and qualified — is unlikely to be seriously considered by the ideologically divided commission.
"Generally speaking, commissioners on both sides have at times viewed the Office of General Counsel with suspicion and regarded it as either supporting the other side on certain issues or taking OGC’s own position," said Eric Wang, special counsel at law firm Wiley Rein LLP and former staff attorney for FEC Commissioner Caroline Hunter, a Republican. "The position requires someone who not only knows the law well and is a good attorney, but also is a good mediator and not merely an advocate for his or her own views, or the views of certain commissioners."
With the commission so divided, it may behoove commissioners to take their time, several former FEC officials say.
"Having the wrong person as FEC general counsel would be worse than leaving the position vacant," said former FEC Chairman Dave Mason, who served on the commission from 1998 to 2008 and is now a senior vice president at campaign consultancy Aristotle. "If the commissioners can find the right person — and I’m sure they’d all be delighted — he or she might help forge consensus on some policy or enforcement issues."
All the same, it's "not ideal to have a vacancy for as long as it's been," said Michael Toner, another former FEC chairman (2002-2007) who is now a Wiley Rein LLP partner. The FEC as a whole, he added, would benefit from a general counselwith strong management and administrative credentials.
So who'd want the general counsel job in the first place?
By lawyerly standards, at least, it doesn't pay much: $147,200 annually, according to an official posting for the general counsel job.
That's less than a highly qualified executive assistant to an FEC commissioner stands to make, thanks in large part to Congress' unwillingness, so far, to give the agency more flexibility in determining a general counsel's salary.
In a fleeting show of unity, the FEC last year unanimously recommended to Congress that the general counsel position be given higher salary potential, arguing that the change "would ensure that the commission is better able to compete with other government agencies in recruiting and retaining key management personnel."
Then there's the issue of working for six bosses who often harbor wildly different views on legal and policy questions.
Nevertheless, "I'd encourage people to go for it," said Kenneth Gross, a former FEC associate general counsel who's now a political law partner at law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP & Affiliates.
"They have to have their eyes open to some of the battles at the commission level," Gross said. "But there are a lot of good lawyers who work hard at the FEC. You'd provide substantive advice and direction."
Added Toner, the former FEC chairman: "It's almost likemanaging a mid-sized law firm in D.C. It's an important job."
New, damning evidence of management failures within the U.S. Chemical Safety Board was presented Thursday at a congressional hearing.
The board is responsible for investigating accidents such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But its effectiveness has languished since 2006, an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found last year. While its accident investigations are supposed to be completed within a timely manner, there remains a significant backlog, drawing the ire of victims’ families as well as members of Congress.
The board's investigation into the 2010 Tesoro Corp. refinery fire in Anacortes, Wash., that killed seven workers was completed just last month, more than four years after the accident. Its Deepwater Horizon report, released June 5, also was four years in the making.
Testimony Thursday before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform blamed the backlog on poor leadership by Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso, appointed by President Obama in 2010.
Former board member Beth Rosenberg resigned from her position last month, a little over a year into her five-year term. She cited the agency's "level of dysfunction," including what she described a widespread fear of disagreeing with management, creating a high amount of attrition.
“Those whose opinions differed from those of senior leadership or the chair are marginalized and vilified,” Rosenberg testified. “Disagreement is seen as disloyalty.”
At least nine experienced employees have departed the agency since 2011, which has only made the backlog of cases more burdensome.
Rosenberg also said there is no clear plan to tackle the number of cases that remains. "The action plan consists of a list of unfinished investigations, but they are not prioritized, nor is there any discussion of the priorities," she said.
In his testimony and under questioning, Moure-Eraso attributed the slew of unfinished reports to a lack of resources.
“We are a very small agency charged with a huge mission of investigating far more accidents than we have the resources to tackle,” he said.
The board's reports are of the highest quality and have contributed to several new safety regulations, Moure-Eraso said.
A report by the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general last year, however, found that the backlog of cases has undermined the board's ability to fulfill its mission.
After this report was released, EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins Jr. opened a new investigation into the CSB after discovering that a number of messages were sent between the personal e-mail accounts of Moure-Eraso and board Managing Director Daniel Horowitz to conduct official business. These emails may implicate CSB leadership in the improper firing of agency employees or retaliation against those who have spoken out against the culture of the agency, Elkins said under questioning.
Despite repeated requests, Moure-Eraso has refused to release the requested documents, citing attorney-client privilege. Thursday's hearing was called as a result of Elkins's issuing a “seven-day letter,” a tool reserved for urgent matters when there is non-compliance with an inspector general's investigation.
Elkins said throughout the hearing that the chairman had "stonewalled the investigation," which hasn't progressed in nearly a year due to the missing documents.
Many members of the committee had choice words for the chairman. While Moure-Eraso fiddled with his pencil and looked down at his papers, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said, “All the fingers are pointing at you, here.”
In an interview after the hearing, Rosenberg told the Center for Public Integrity that while Moure-Eraso appears to have good intentions, his tenure has suffered as a result of poor judgment and bad advice from within the CSB.
“The next steps are that leadership needs to be changed,” she said.
The Internal Revenue Service wasn’t just targeting tea party organizations and other conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status.
The agency recently denied the application of a liberal group that played a prominent role in the failed re-election bid of Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln in 2010.
In a letter dated March, 19, 2014, and publicly released last week, the IRS told liberal group Arkansans for Common Sense that it did not qualify for tax-exempt status under Sec. 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code — the section for organizations “operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.”
“You are not primarily operated for the promotion of social welfare of the people of the community because your primary activities are the participation in a political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to a candidate for public office,” stated the letter, which was redacted, as required by law, to omit identifying information about the group and candidates in question.
An initial rejection letter from the IRS to Arkansans for Common Sense was dated May 7, 2013 — just three days before IRS official Lois Lerner acknowledged the targeting of applications from political advocacy groups for 501(c)(4) status.
The March 2014 letter rejects Arkansans for Common Sense’s appeal and notes that the group is now required to file income tax returns.
Ahead of Lincoln’s contentious 2010 primary battle against fellow Democrat Bill Halter, Arkansans for Common Sense spent $192,000 on advertisements urging voters to support Lincoln. After Halter forced Lincoln into a runoff, the group launched a $446,000 negative ad blitz against him.
Those expenditures — which were reported to the Federal Election Commission because they expressly advocated for Lincoln’s election or Halter’s defeat — constituted 49.5 percent of Arkansans for Common Sense’s total $1.3 million in spending in 2012, according to the group’s 2010 tax return.
When the FEC asked who was bankrolling the groups’ ads, Arkansans for Common Sense told the agency that its donors made contributions to support its “general purpose of educating the public on a wide range of issues of general concern.” Social welfare nonprofits are only required tell the FEC the names of donors who give to help produce specific ads — something that rarely happens.
Arkansans for Common Sense continued to run pro-Lincoln advertisements ahead of the general U.S. Senate election, which she ultimately lost to Republican John Boozman.
According to its 2010 tax return, Arkansans for Common Sense spent $1.2 million on “radio and television time in order to educate Arkansas on key issues facing the state.” Based on records Arkansans for Common Sense later submitted to the IRS, the agency concluded that “about 85 percent” of the group’s expenses for media buys were incurred “during periods leading up to the primary and general elections.”
Nonprofits organized under Sec. 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code have played an increasingly important role in elections following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling in January 2010.
That decision held that corporations, including certain nonprofit corporations and unions, could spend general treasury funds on advertisements that called for the election or defeat of candidates.
Critics have contended that some political groups are masquerading as social welfare nonprofits to avoid disclosing the names of their donors. Campaign finance reform groups have repeatedlyasked the IRS to investigate big-spending social welfare nonprofits such as the pro-Republican Crossroads GPS and pro-Democratic Priorities USA.
At the same time, the IRS has been the focus of Republican-led congressional inquiries and withering criticism stemming from its practiceearlierthisdecade of targeting primarily conservative organizations for heavy scrutiny while reviewing their applications for tax-exempt status.
Weeks after I quit my job as an investigative producer at 60 Minutes, in defiance of the overwhelming advice of many respected people inside and outside of CBS and declining job offers from other TV networks and elsewhere, I decided to begin a nonprofit investigative reporting organization. I knew almost nothing about the nonprofit world, had no management, financial, or fund-raising experience, and also understood the bleak reality that most new ventures fail. Illogically, I hoped that mine would somehow succeed.
I saw an opening for an organization dedicated to digging deep beneath the smarminess of Washington’s daily-access journalism into the actual records and documents few reporters seemed to be reading, which I knew from experience would reveal broad patterns of cronyism, favoritism, personal enrichment, and outrageous (though mostly legal) corruption. My dream was a kind of journalistic utopia—an investigative milieu in which no one would tell me who or what not to investigate and in which the final story would be unfettered by time and space limitations, and untrammeled by the power of corporate or government interests bent on burying the truth.
I recruited two trusted journalist friends, Alejandro Benes and Charles Piller, to serve on the board of directors of this new organization, and with their assent I assumed the roles of board chairman and executive director. In part because the words “investigative reporting” had already been used in the names of other nonprofit organizations (including the Center for Investigative Reporting, in California), we named our new group the Center for Public Integrity.
Although this title sounded a little odd and somewhat pretentious, we had a definite rationale in mind. It seemed to us that on some level, all investigative reporting focuses on affronts to public integrity—violations of the way things ought to be. So our name was intended to emphasize not just the process but the ultimate purpose of investigative journalism: to hold those in power accountable and to inform the public about significant distortions of the truth.
I had no political or ideological agenda. Then and now, as stated on the Center’s website, its mission has been “to serve democracy by revealing abuses of power, corruption and betrayal of public trust by powerful public and private institutions, using the tools of investigative journalism.”
The Center for Public Integrity was incorporated in Washington, D.C., on March 30, 1989, and months later the IRS approved its tax exempt status as a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit educational organization. On October 1, 1989, I began working full-time as the Center’s sole employee, from the guest bedroom of my suburban Virginia home.
The first self-assigned project was a fuller version of my 60 Minutes“Foreign Agent” story, whose partial suppression still stuck in my craw. It became the Center’s first report, “America’s Frontline Trade Officials,” a 201-page study published in December 1990 and presented at a National Press Club news conference covered by C-SPAN, CNN, the ABC News program 20/20, and many other networks. It disclosed that 47 percent of White House trade officials over a fifteen-year period became paid, registered “foreign agent” lobbyists for countries or overseas corporations after they left government—a vivid illustration of the “revolving door” problem that encouraged government officials to develop cozy relationships with the very organizations they were supposed to be monitoring or regulating, in hopes of landing lucrative private-sector jobs after leaving office.
Our report prompted a Justice Department ruling, a General Accounting Office report, a congressional hearing, and it was partly responsible for an executive order issued by President Bill Clinton in January 1993, placing a lifetime ban on foreign lobbying by former White House trade officials. This response was deeply gratifying to me—it showed that our approach of conducting systematic investigations and announcing our findings to the national news media could actually lead to media coverage and to systemic change.
We were starting to be noticed. At the same time, we had assembled an advisory board of distinguished Americans, including Pulitzer Prize–winning historians Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and James MacGregor Burns, Notre Dame president emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh, and veteran journalist Hodding Carter. And by May 1990, the Center had secured enough money from a foundation, some companies, and labor unions, and a consulting contract with ABC News to open its first office in downtown Washington, D.C. (My home was required as collateral on the lease.)
The issue of perceived financial “purity” and the sources from which the Center should accept money has been an important topic at nearly every board meeting since 1989. The Center bends over backward to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest and has never accepted donations from government, political parties, or advocacy organizations. And beginning in 1995, we stopped raising funds from companies and labor unions because of their direct economic interests in influencing public policy. Transparency and accountability have always been core values for us. The Center’s major donors are disclosed online, along with annual reports, IRS 990 disclosure forms for at least the past ten years, and brief bios of every employee.
Our editorial approach reflects an investigative methodology combining prodigious research and reporting, “peeling the onion” by extensively consulting secondary and primary written sources, then interviewing several—sometimes hundreds—of people. Center projects usually take at least a few months from idea to publication, and sometimes they have taken years. The writing and editing, optimally by at least two layers of editors, takes weeks and multiple drafts, and the fact-checking and libel review by outside counsel can also be elaborate and time-consuming. No reporting project is initiated or published without the personal approval of the executive director, who functions essentially as both the executive editor and publisher.
This brand of no-stone-unturned journalism, which has been the hallmark of the Center’s work since its inception, is increasingly rare in for-profit newsrooms, because today’s advertising-supported, major-media journalists are generally expected to run full-speed on “the hamster wheel,” as Dean Starkman so insightfully put it in the Columbia Journalism Review. The advent of the Internet, which makes publication so much easier and faster from a technical standpoint, is a mixed blessing in this regard.
Of course, the Center for Public Integrity has also embraced online distribution, albeit in a different way than commercial news outfits. The Center website went live in 1996, and our first online reports appeared in 1999.
The release of reports on the web and distribution of major works via the nation’s bookstores represented an important change in the amplification and dissemination of the Center’s investigative findings. The Center no longer has to depend solely on coverage by the news media to inform the public about its findings; now the organization is reporting directly to citizens, and if mainstream journalists also deem the work newsworthy, all the better.
The Center’s investigative reports are probably best known for exposing political influence and its impact on public policy decision- making in Washington, D.C., and state capitals.
We like to think that the Center for Public Integrity’s publication of thoughtful, in-depth investigative reporting—and the public’s growing embrace of that work—provides a potent counterweight to some of the disturbing trends unfolding in American media: the rise of the cable TV shout-fests; talk radio’s derisive invective; and the flight to shorter, lighter local and network television news stories, sometimes augmented with cartoonish graphics to make sure the audience actually understands the point of the reporting.
We’ve learned at the Center for Public Integrity that there are in fact large audiences interested in long-form, detailed, public-affairs reporting, be it on domestic subjects or on global issues. In fact, the Center’s forays into international reporting have demonstrated that the dumbing down of the news by media corporations—including the shuttering of numerous overseas news bureaus by American media companies—by no means jibes with the interests of all news consumers.
In October 2003, for example, the Center published “Windfalls of War,” which examined the major US government contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq, definitively revealing Halliburton and its subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown and Root, to be the overwhelmingly largest financial beneficiary of our invasions of those countries.
For six months, twenty researchers, writers, and editors had worked on the project, filing seventy-three Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and even suing the US Army and the State Department (and ultimately winning the release of key, no-bid contract documents). That report, which won the first George Polk online investigative reporting award, was prepared by the Washington staff of the Center’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which I began in 1997 and which is helping to fill the void for aggressive reporting left by the contraction of commercial media.
The idea of investigative reporters working with one another across borders first became a gleam in my eye after an international conference in Moscow in 1992. By 1997, after close consultation with colleagues, including Bill Kovach, then curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, a precise idea had taken shape, and it finally appeared that I would be able to secure sufficient funds. ICIJ was born.
ICIJ is the first working network of some of the world’s preeminent investigative reporters collaborating to produce original international enterprise journalism, its ranks now comprising 175 people in over sixty countries on six continents. Indeed, the ICIJ-generated investigative online content transformed the Center for Public Integrity into “the first global website devoted to international exposés,” according to the Encyclopedia of Journalism.
One mark of an enduring institution is the ability to survive one or more leadership transitions. In 2004, after fifteen years at the helm of the Center for Public Integrity (and having celebrated my fiftieth birthday), I came to the sober realization that at some point, the founder would simply have to leave the building for the long-term health of the enterprise. It was painful for me to watch the ensuing two transition years, but in late 2006, the board of directors chose a fine new executive director. Bill Buzenberg is a veteran journalist who has worked as innovative news executive at newspapers and public radio for more than thirty-five years.
The Center’s work has often had a feisty irreverence, which has excited, amused, or enraged readers, depending on their point of view. Of course, no one at the Center has ever harbored any fantasies about being invited to dinner at the White House, regardless of occupant. Subjects of Center investigations, regardless of ideology or political party, are usually neither pleased nor amused. Indeed, over the years Center reports have generated angry newspaper op-eds, incensed calls to radio programs, and even sneak attacks by public relations people posing as reporters to ask distracting questions at nationally televised Center news conferences. Our advisory board members and donors have been personally pressured, as well.
And yet another occupational hazard of afflicting the powerful with inconvenient truths is that they may decide to sue you.
Weeks after we had published a story about Dick Cheney’s years as the CEO of Halliburton, in August 2000, we found ourselves being sued in U.S. district court in Washington by two Russian billionaire oligarchs represented by the powerful D.C. law firm of Akin Gump Strauss, Hauer, Feld, LLP. Published within days of the Republican National Convention in which Cheney was nominated to be the party’s nominee for vice president of the United States, the story showed that Halliburton had doubled its lobbying, campaign contributions, and federal government contracts/loans during Cheney’s five years as CEO, compared to the five years preceding his tenure there—and that among the apparent beneficiaries of Cheney’s influence-peddling were the powerful owners of one of Russia’s biggest banks.
OAO Alfa Bank v. Center for Public Integrity was one of the largest libel cases brought in the United States in a quarter century. It ultimately entailed five years of discovery, twenty depositions (including my own two-day, videotaped interrogation), and 107,000 pages of documents. To our astonishment, Joel Kaplan, the associate dean of the Syracuse University S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and a former board member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, testified under oath that he had been paid at least $400,000 as an expert witness to help the oligarchs. Even more amazing, it was Kaplan’s tenth libel case as an “expert witness” on behalf of plaintiffs suing journalists.
This David versus Goliath struggle cost each side millions of dollars. My major goal was to shield the Center newsroom and allow our ongoing investigative reporting to be relatively undeterred and undistracted. It worked: during the five-year siege of litigation, we still managed to publish one hundred investigative projects, including four books. The case was finally dismissed in September 2005, upholding the vital principle that public figures cannot prevail in a libel suit against journalists unless they can demonstrate “actual malice” or “reckless disregard” for the truth—an appropriately high standard that clearly exonerated the Center.
Of course, we were delighted that the suit was unsuccessful. But it illuminated the immediate need for an institutional bulkhead protecting the organization from future storms of litigation. To provide such a shield, the Fund for Independence in Journalism, a 509 (a) (3) endowment and legal defense support organization, was created. Initial foundation contributions totaled $4 million, and, in addition, five of the most prestigious law firms in America pledged, on a case-by-case basis, to defend the Center for Public Integrity in any future actions, pro bono.
Journalists and news organizations inevitably make mistakes, and the Center is no different in that regard. The way an organization (or a person, for that matter) stands up, takes responsibility, and perseveres through serious challenges and adversities says as much about its character as its successes and awards.
We once discovered, to our horror, that we had a plagiarist on our staff; he was fired immediately, and after a careful investigation lasting months, we apologized to the public and personally to the individual journalists and their editors who had been victimized. Moreover, very painfully, but appropriately, we returned a prestigious national journalism award for a Center book in which his “unattributed material” unfortunately had been published.
In 2011 and 2012, it became uncomfortably apparent that an extremely ambitious new digital business plan for the Center, including an audacious rebranding as iWatchNews.org, had been wildly unrealistic, causing great internal personnel strife and overall financial hardship. The organization’s board of directors (including yours truly) and its senior staff had succumbed to that familiar bane of many institutions: hubris. But the organization subsequently corrected that misstep and recalibrated its focus on the possible.
Today, in its global editorial reach, the Center for Public Integrity is the largest nonprofit investigative reporting organization in the world. In the United States, its work has been recognized in almost every conceivable way: the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, two George Polk Awards, two Overseas Press Club Awards, a Robert F. Kennedy Award, and a total of more than seventy major journalism awards to date.
The future of truth and accountability can be great if “we, the people” choose to demand it.
This is an excerpt from Charles Lewis's new book 935 Lies: the Future of Truth and the Decline of America's Moral Integrity, reprinted with permission from Charles Lewis and Public Affairs Books. Find out more at www.935lies.com.
Some of the research included in 935 Lies was published by the Center for Public Integrity in January, 2008. Iraq: The War Card, a 380,000-word chronology and analysis of the pre-war public rhetoric by leading members of the Bush administration, identified 935 “false statements” about the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Center for Public Integrity founder Charles “Chuck” Lewis has just published a new book with the provocative title, "935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity." I can highly recommend this work.
Chuck tells the story of the founding of The Center for Public Integrity in 1989, after he had worked in television with ABC News and then CBS News, including producing investigative reports for the late Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes.
“My dream was a kind of journalistic utopia,” he writes, in explaining the original idea for the Center. It was to be “an investigative milieu in which no one would tell me who or what not to investigate and in which the final story would be unfettered by time and space limitations, and untrammeled by the power of corporate or government interests bent on burying the truth.”
With that founding vision, The Center for Public Integrity was born and so it has continued for 25 years to its Pulitzer-Prize-winning prominence today.
The book’s title comes from a major series of reports Chuck produced and the Center published in January 2008, five years after the start of the war with Iraq. It was called Iraq: The War Card: Orchestrated Deception on the Path to War. Working with a staff of reporters and researchers over three years, Chuck sought to document the misinformation coming from top government officials leading up to the start of the Iraq war in March of 2003. The project overview is called False Pretenses.
Chuck writes in the prologue to the book that “as a professional truth-seeker, I have always been skeptical of statements by those in power, preferring to ignore the official versions of events in my quest for the (sometimes ugly) underlying realities.”
The realities he found in regard to misinformation on Iraq were stunning. “Our report found that in the two years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush and seven of his administration’s top officials made at least 935 false statements about the national security threat posed by Iraq. The carefully orchestrated campaign of untruths about Iraq’s alleged threat to U.S. national security from its WMDs or links to al Qaeda (also specious) galvanized public opinion and led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses.”
“Their shameless manipulations and misrepresentations,” Chuck writes, “ … were a crucial element in the tragedy of that dubious war of choice, and therefore deserving of investigation and analysis in their own right.”
In his new book, Chuck asks, “Could the Iraq War have been prevented if the public had been better informed before the invasion about the specious official statements, faulty logic, and breathtaking manipulations of public opinion and governmental decision-making processes?”
He responds this way: “I believe the answer to that grim question is very possibly yes, and it will haunt me and others in my profession for years to come.”
With approval of the publisher, Public Affairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group, we are publishing an excerpt from the chapter of "935 Lies" that describes the founding of The Center for Public Integrity.
Until next week,
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All but one of the nine high court justices earned teaching income or book royalties in 2013, hauling in a quarter of a million dollars for their work shaping young legal minds in the classroom or through the written word.
Top earner Justice Antonin Scalia raked in more than $100,000 in book royalties for his 2012 tome "Reading Law: Interpretation of Legal Texts" and teaching wages from Southern Methodist University, Duke University, Tufts University and Pennsylvania State University, according to new financial disclosure reports released Friday and reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor did not report any outside income in 2013, despite the recent success of her memoir, "My Beloved World," for which she received $1.9 million in advances from her publisher Knopf Doubleday in 2012. In a footnote, Sotomayor explained that her publisher paid for nearly $27,000 in travel and lodging last year for the justice to promote the book.
Such earnings are in addition to what the jurists earn from their investments and their judicial salaries. Associate Supreme Court justices earn a salary of $244,400 dollars, while the chief justice earns $255,500, according to the Federal Judicial Center. Many of the judges also hold significant investments that have helped turn most of them into millionaires.
Despite Chief Justice John Roberts' recent support for online disclosure, he and his colleagues’ annual financial reports are not available online. Members of the public must request the documents by snail mail from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, pay for reproduction costs then pick them up either in person or have them sent in the mail.
The Center for Public Integrity has made them available online as PDFs below.
Republican super PAC American Crossroads received a cash infusion last month from a mysterious limited liability company that lists its address as the Tempe, Ariz., training facility of the Arizona Cardinals football team, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of campaign finance records filed today.
On May 23, Cholla West LLC contributed $50,000 to American Crossroads, the super PAC co-founded by GOP strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, which, this year, has actively supported Republican candidates such as Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Dan Sullivan of Alaska.
What is Cholla West LLC, and who's behind it? That's not immediately clear.
There is no business registered with that name in Arizona, according to the Arizona Corporation Commission. But other business records show that a "Cholla West LLC" was incorporated in Delaware in October 2013. That filing lists a company that specializes in business incorporation and compliance issues as its registered agent.
The address American Crossroads listed for Cholla West LLC on its new filing with the Federal Election Commission, which shares the address of the Arizona Cardinals football team's training facility, is also listed in business records as the address for other LLCs operated by members of the Bidwill family. The family's patriarch, William V. Bidwill Sr., is the owner and chairman of the Cardinals.
Bidwill's sons William and Michael also both serve as Cardinal executives. All three men have previously contributed to politicians — mostly Republicans — according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
None of the Bidwills could be reached for comment this evening. The Cardinals media relations office had no immediate comment.
American Crossroads spokesman Paul Lindsay confirmed that the address was "properly listed" but declined answer additional questions about who was behind the LLC.
For its part, the Cardinals became the first National Football League team to contribute to a super PAC in 2012, when they donated $5,000 to a group affiliated with Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer.
Since January 2013, American Crossroads has raised more than $11 million, including nearly $1.7 million in May.
Last month, the super PAC's top donor was hedge fund executive Paul Singer, who contributed $1 million.
A super PAC Singer co-founded called American Unity PAC also gave American Crossroads an additional $125,000.
American Crossroads ended May with $4.6 million cash on hand.
In April 2010, President Barack Obama nominated Donald Berwick, a widely respected physician and health policy expert, to lead the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Despite having broad support among other health care leaders and a long history of patient advocacy, most Republican senators were adamantly opposed to having Berwick in charge of one of the country’s largest government agencies.
Obama decided against putting Berwick through the confirmation process after it became clear that the GOP senators would stage a filibuster. Berwick’s sin: expressing admiration for the United Kingdom’s single-payer health care system in a 2008 speech commemorating the 60th anniversary of the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS).
The headline of a story on the website of the conservative Heartland Institute summed up the GOP’s feelings about Berwick at the time: “CMS Nominee Favors Government-Run Rationing of Health Care.”
The story went on to quote Berwick as having said in England, “I am romantic about the NHS; I love it. All I need to do to rediscover the romance is to look at health care in my own country.”
Obama didn’t give up entirely on Berwick. The Constitution allows presidents to make short-term appointments without Senate approval when Congress is not in session, and that is what Obama did. He appointed Berwick as CMS head when Congress recessed for the July 4th holiday in 2010. He served until December of 2011 when his recess appointment was scheduled to expire. Obama decided not to try again to get him confirmed after 42 of the Senate’s 47 Republicans, many of whom had claimed during the health care reform debate that the U.S. had the best health care system in the world, signed a letter of protest over the recess appointment and made it clear they would never vote for Berwick.
Although Berwick could not have transformed CMS into an American version of the NHS even if he had wanted to — the health insurance industry’s friends on both sides of the political aisle in Congress would never have allowed that to happen — Berwick has not backed down from his admiration of the NHS and a single-payer system. If anything, he has doubled-down on it. He has made his pledge to create a single-payer health care system in the U.S. a central part of his campaign for another high-profile job: governor of Massachusetts.
Last week, Berwick got closer to that goal during the state’s Democratic Party convention when he became one of three candidates to qualify for the Sept. 9 Massachusetts primary. State Treasurer Steven Grossman and Attorney General Martha Coakley were the other two qualifiers.
Two days after securing a spot on the September ballot, Berwick got what could be a boost to his campaign, not to mention vindication: evidence that Americans should indeed look to the Brits when it comes to health care.
In a research report by the New York-based Commonwealth Fund that evaluated the health care systems of several countries on dozens of performance measures, the U.K.’s National Health Service ranked No. 1 in the world. The U.S. didn’t come close to the top. It finished dead last.
In fact, since the Commonwealth Fund began assessing the world’s health care systems in 2004, the U.S. has consistently trailed every other country studied.
“Over the past decade, leaders in the United States have begun to recognize that the nation’s health care system is far more costly than any other system in the world and does not produce demonstrably better results,” the researchers wrote. “The claim that the United States has ‘the best health care system in the world’ is clearly not true.”
In order to make it true, they said, “The U.S. must adopt and adapt lessons from effective health care systems both at home and around the world.”
And the one country with the most lessons worth adopting and adapting is the very one Don Berwick is romantic about.
The Commonwealth Fund’s report includes 80 indicators grouped into five dimensions of performance: quality, access, efficiency, equity and healthy lives. The U.S., regrettably, ranked last overall and last or close to last on four of the five dimensions. The only area in which the U.S. even joined the top half of the countries evaluated was quality of care.
The U.K., on the other hand, not only ranked first overall, it also scored highest on quality, access and efficiency.
The research was conducted before many of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act went into effect, so there is hope the U.S. will move up in future rankings. But for now, if I were Don Berwick, I’d try to get a copy of the Commonwealth Fund report in the hands of every Massachusetts voter. And he might be tempted to send an “I told you so” note to a few folks in Washington.
To avert the end of Thad Cochran's political career tonight, moneyed allies of the six-term Republican U.S. senator from Mississippi have invested in sunshine and rainbows.
During the three weeks since June 4, when Cochran and tea party-backed opponent Chris McDaniel advanced to Mississippi's GOP primary runoff, super PACs and nonprofits have spent $1.25 million on advertisements and other communications that specifically promote Cochran's candidacy, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of federal spending disclosures.
In contrast, such groups spent a tiny fraction of that amount — $83,000 — attacking McDaniel from June 4 through today.
This late-stage boosterism represents a monumental departure from the scorched-earth tack pro-Cochran organizations took prior to the runoff phase of this intra-party brawl that's been most notable for its negativity, dirty trickery and cost.
Consider that outside groups spent just $682,000 on ads and messages boosting Cochran — and about $2.1 million on ads and messages attacking McDaniel — during the months leading up to the race's June 3 primary election, the Center for Public Integrity's analysis indicates.
During the runoff period, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Realtors Congressional Fund, social welfare nonprofit Main Street Advocacy and the Mississippi Conservatives super PAC have led Cochran's positivity parade.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent $700,000 in the runoff phase, trotted out football legend Brett Favre to pitch Cochran to voters. "Thad Cochran always delivers," Favre says as cheery music plays in the background.
The messages of Cochran's outside allies tracks with the runoff period ads of Cochran's own campaign, which this month have largely depicted Cochran as an upbeat political veteran who "can do more for Mississippi."
The National Republican Senatorial Committee — an official GOP party committee — also on Saturday gave Cochran a decidedly positive media phone banking boost worth $175,000. This represents its one and only independent expenditure during the race.
McDaniel's backers have been must more cutthroat this month in their ads and messaging.
Of the nearly $2 million they've together spent during the runoff period, the majority — about $1.1 million — funded efforts attacking Cochran. Super PAC Club for Growth Action accountedfor more than half this amount and 501(c)(4) nonprofit Independent Women's Voice adding another $209,000.
The rest of pro-McDaniel groups' spending went toward messages directly advocating for McDaniel's election.
In the end, Mississippi's GOP primary will be a more than $17 million affair when candidate fundraising and outside group spending are accounted, Federal Election Commission records show.
When the money the candidates themselves raised for their primary campaigns is added to the money spent by supportive outside groups, the results are nearly even: Team McDaniel controlled about $8.8 million, Team Cochran nearly $8.6 million.
Cochran's campaign committee has trounced McDaniel's team in money raised — $4.46 million to $1.54 million through June 4, the last date through which comprehensive financial disclosures are available. (These numbers will certainly grow after the campaigns disclose runoff contributions next month.)
But when it comes to outside group support? Advantage McDaniel. The tea party favorite enjoyed nearly $7.3 million in spending from organizations backing him, compared to the $4.1 million in spending by pro-Cochran organizations.
Overall, outside groups' spending has easily outpaced the candidates' own fundraising — only the second time this has occurred in a U.S. Senate primary since the 2010 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The winner of tonight's runoff faces Democrat Travis Childers, a former congressman, in November's general election.
Editor’s note: This story is one in a continuing series on Washington, D.C.’s information industry. The series seeks to illuminate the sometimes-misleading methods used by special interest groups to gain support for their agendas from government and average Americans.
When Arthur C. Brooks stepped on stage in December, the influential conservative’s mission was simple, yet ambitious: “If I do my job,” Brooks began his speech, “in the next few minutes I’m going to give you the secret to happiness.”
Standing before large block letters that spelled “H-A-P-P-I-N-E-S-S,” the charismatic president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, explained how genetics, major life events and choices all contribute to one’s well-being.
Brooks mentioned the importance of forging close relationships with family, promoted charitable giving and emphasized that “money doesn’t buy happiness.”
Nearing the end of his nearly 20-minute speech, Brooks said happiness also depends on … free markets?
“The earned-success system that brings you happiness is the system of free enterprise that lifts people out of poverty,” Brooks said. “Don’t work for the stateism, the collectivism that suppresses this,” he added. “Work for the free enterprise that makes this possible.”
Don’t worry, be happy
Proponents say the free market system encourages investment, stimulates innovation and increases efficiency. But according to Brooks, it also makes you happy and improves your well-being — even if you’re poor.
The message appears to be part of a new public relations initiative spearheaded by America’s most high-profile free-market advocates: Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who have built a powerful political empire based on libertarian principles.
Brooks, whose high-profile think tank receives Koch funding, was recently tapped to serve on the advisory board of the Charles Koch Institute’s “Well-Being Initiative,” which “aims to advance our understanding of the meaning, foundations, and drivers of human flourishing” through research, education and discussion.
The initiative may be billed as a way to explore well-being, but some critics of the Koch brothers are skeptical.
“The question needs to be: Whose well-being are we talking about?” asks Tony Carrk, a director at the Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy group that serves as a counterweight to the Koch brothers’ political operation. “The policies that the Koch brothers have promoted and put forward seem to only benefit those at the very top, at the expense of everyone else.”
Officials from the Charles Koch Institute did not respond to requests for comment.
The Kochs oversee a political ecosystem whose influence stretches far and wide — from think tanks and universities to trade associations and political action committees. As their public profile has risen, so too has criticism.
In January, Koch Industries, America’s second-largest privately held company, hired Steve Lombardo of global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller as “part of an effort by the Koch brothers to tell their story better,” according to Politico.
“Koch Industries is working to improve the daily life of people around the world,” he said, “and I look forward to working with the team to bring this story to the global marketplace.”
In May, Politico reported on a memo from the Koch brothers’ powerful political group Americans for Prosperity, which laid the groundwork for its future political operations.
“[W]e consistently see that Americans in general are concerned that free-market policy — and its advocates — benefit the rich and powerful more than the most vulnerable of society,” the memo read. “We must correct this misconception.”
Koch and the ‘true nature of well-being’
Charles Koch informally introduced the Well-Being Initiative in a January blog post titled, “The importance of well-being.”
“Through sound research, broad education and robust discussion, the Initiative aims to advance understanding of what it means to flourish, how to understand and measure the various aspects of well-being, and how to empower individuals to live better lives,” he wrote.
The Charles Koch Foundation, a separate nonprofit from Koch Institute and supporter of the Well-Being Initiative, recently posted on its website calls for research proposals, seeking “doctoral students interested in contributing to the academic exploration of the role free societies play in advancing human well-being and prosperity,” one proposal request states.
Before it recently underwent a redesign and many old links died, the Charles Koch Institute’s website had highlighted past well-being events and work published by Brooks and other board members dating back to last fall. It also linked to Brooks’ “Secret to Happiness” speech.
In December, Brooks published an op-ed in The New York Times titled, “A Formula for Happiness,” which mirrored his American Enterprise Institute speech. A few months later, in a Times op-ed about income inequality and what he referred to as the “rising sympathy for income redistribution,” he argued that there is “a strong link between economic envy and unhappiness.”
And in February, Brooks even managed to pull off the unthinkable: He got the Dalai Lama, a self-described socialist, to visit the American Enterprise Institute, which decries socialism.
The title of the panel discussion featuring the Tibetan leader: “Happiness, free enterprise, and human flourishing.”
Brooks did not respond to requests for comment.
On Wednesday, the Charles Koch Institute will host what it’s calling its “Inaugural Well-Being Forum” at the Newseum in downtown Washington, D.C.
The five-member advisory board of the Well-Being Initiative includes Ángel Cabrera, president of George Mason University and Tyler Cowen, a popular libertarian professor at the school who has been dubbed “America’s Hottest Economist.”
As the Center reported in March, two of the six private charitable foundations the Koch brothers control and personally fund combined in 2012 to pump more than $12.7 million into colleges and universities. George Mason University has received more Koch money than any other school.
“The Charles Koch Foundation has been generous to the university, and they have supported various efforts in areas that are important to us, so this time around they wanted my guidance and advice, and I thought it would be a great thing to do,” Cabrera told the Center for Public Integrity in an interview.
Cabrera — not a libertarian, he says — explained that the Koch’s Well-Being Initiative lines up with the university’s strategic plan, which includes a well-being component. He refuted the idea that this initiative was all about promoting the Koch brothers’ libertarian ideology.
“If they had a pre-defined definition or ideology that they wanted to push with this effort, the last thing you want is free, independent thinkers telling you what to do,” he pointed out.
The initiative seeks to explore various research areas, including something called “neuroeconomics” — a field of study that merges brain science and economics to explore economic decision-making.
Advisory board member Paul Zak, aka “Dr. Love,” is a neuroeconomist and founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University. He is widely known for his research into the brain chemical oxytocin — which he calls the “moral molecule” that is key to improving social interactions, including those involving financial transactions.
Zak has concluded in his research that free markets are inherently moral.
In an interview, Zak told The Center for Public Integrity that he had reservations about joining the advisory board when he was first approached by Koch Institute officials about nine months ago.
“I said, ‘You guys have kind of a dicey reputation,’” Zak recalled, noting that he disagrees with some of the Koch brothers’ political efforts. “And they said, ‘Yeah, we know, and we want to start funding some good science so that we can allow people to draw their own conclusions.’”
Zak said officials convinced him that the Well-Being Initiative is apolitical.
“It seems non-agenda driven,” he said. “We really want to understand [well-being] better and we want lots of people to use this. Let’s try to make a really global, useful, broad index and just see what it tells us about government policies, about economic growth, about all of these things that can affect people’s well-being.”
Still, Zak acknowledges that the initiative’s advisory board is dominated by libertarians. “Could [the board] be more diverse?” he asked. “Probably.”
The other two advisory board member positions are filled by William Inboden, a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas-Austin, and Chris Rufer, the president and founder of the Morning Star Company.
A former fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Inboden was previously the senior vice president of the London-based Legatum Institute, which publishes the “Prosperity Index,” ranking countries based on wealth, economic growth and quality of life.
Rufer is a board member of the Free to Choose Network, which produces broadcast programs that air on PBS stations. Last November, the network produced “Economic Freedom in Action: Changing Lives,” a documentary about how the “rise in economic freedom has led to increased prosperity and longevity, allowing more people to rise out of poverty and build positive futures for themselves and their children.”
The program, funded in part by Chris Rufer and his wife, aired on stations all across the country.
In an interview with the Center, Rufer said the Koch brothers’ message has been misinterpreted by the liberal media.
“Is it a PR move?” he asked. “Call it PR. What do you do when you put on a better shirt so you think the girls will look at you? Is that fraud? It’s not fraud. You’re just trying to represent yourself.”
This initiative, though, is good PR to a good end, he said.
“If you’re maliciously trying to deceive, well that’s bad,” he said. “But look at well-being and look at libertarianism and I think you’ll see it’s pretty consistent … because that is the objective of libertarianism: human welfare.”
Erin Quinn contributed to this story.
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Federal officials need to step up efforts to investigate fraud and abuse in Medicare Advantage health plans treating millions of elderly Americans, a top government investigator says.
Gary Cantrell, a deputy Inspector General with the Department of Health and Human Services said reviews are “hampered by a lack of accurate, timely and complete data that would facilitate oversight” of the fast-growing health insurance plans.
His comments came in testimony prepared for a Wednesday hearing of the oversight subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
The hearing was called to assess fraud and abuse safeguards in Medicare, which last year covered about 51 million people at a cost to taxpayers of about $604 billion. Officials estimate that almost $50 billion of that amount was paid improperly, including $11.8 billion to Medicare Advantage plans.
A Center for Public Integrity investigation published earlier this month found as much as $70 billion of improper payments to Medicare Advantage plans from 2008 through last year.
The Center’s investigation attributed the suspect payments — mostly overcharges — to abuse of a government payment formula known as a risk score. Under the risk scoring method, health plans are paid higher rates for sicker patients and less for those in good health. But government officials have struggled for years to prevent health plans from overstating how sick patients are and driving up their Medicare payments.
At the hearing, federal officials touted a number of successes in their war on health care fraud — a record $4.3 billion was recovered in 2013 — even as they conceded that more needs to be done to protect tax dollars.
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) officials unveiled a new data analysis system to identify overpayments and catch culprits. CMS said software prevented $210 million in improper payments in its second year of operation, including bogus billings for home health care services in South Florida, long a hotspot for Medicare fraud.
Officials also reminded lawmakers of a host of well-publicized busts, including a sweep last month that brought 90 arrests of individuals alleged to have bilked the government out of some $260 million in fraudulent services from mental health care to fabricated lab tests. The cases focused on payments to doctors, hospitals and medical equipment suppliers which bill Medicare for each service they provide.
Officials call that “fee-for-service” Medicare.
But Medicare Advantage plans, which are often run by large insurance companies and accept a set monthly fee from the government for each patient, have largely avoided scrutiny despite their growing popularity.
Cantrell’s written testimony, which brought little in the way of comment from lawmakers, offered an unusually blunt assessment of the difficulties officials face in overseeing Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D, which covers prescription medicines.
Cantrell cited “limited data availability” and “difficulties with access to information” held by the private insurance companies. He wrote that fraud investigators have no central place to access Medicare Advantage data, which he said “hinders the ability to identify and investigate” fraud in the program.
Cantrell said that CMS officials, who directly oversee the program, need to begin requiring Medicare Advantage plans to report fraud to the government.
Congress created Medicare Advantage in 2003 to encourage private insurance companies to jump into the senior care market without hesitation. Since then, the program has hit its stride as a health care colossus that now cares for nearly 16 million elderly and disabled people, nearly a third of those eligible for Medicare. Medicare Advantage costs are expected to top $150 billion this year.
While officials have broadened investigations into medical providers, Medicare Advantage has drawn little audit review despite longstanding concerns that the government overpays the health plans— and that some plans overbill.
The Center for Public Integrity last month sued HHS under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a wide range of records, including Medicare Advantage program audits, billing data and the identities of any health plans suspected of overcharging the government. The Center did not request the names of patients. The case is pending.
Ranking member Diane DeGette, D-Colo. suggested at Wednesday’s hearing that officials need to broaden examinations of the Medicare Advantage plans, known as Medicare Part C in bureaucratic lingo, as well as the prescription drug plan called Part D.
“We know there is a lot of fraud in Medicare Part C and Medicare Part D,” she said.
Medicare Advantage plans are proving popular with seniors because they often provide extra benefits, such as eyeglasses and dental care, and can cost less out of pocket than standard Medicare.
With nearly 16 million patients to track, CMS largely trusts health plans to make sure risk scores are accurate. But when the agency has checked, it has exposed errors — mostly scores that were too high — in nearly a third of patient files examined. Given the magnitude of program spending, even a small error rate can bleed millions of dollars from the federal treasury.
Subcommittee chairman Tim Murphy, R-Pa. said that overall fraud, waste and abuse in Medicare “has gone on for too long.”
Citing the $50 billion in improper payments annually, Murphy said: “This is a shocking amount of taxpayer money to lose every year, especially considering that some experts tell us that we do not even know the full extent of the problem.”
A Center for Public Integrity/ABC News investigation of the flawed federal benefits system for coal miners with black lung has won a Gerald Loeb award for business reporting.
The project, “Breathless and Burdened,” was honored in the investigative reporting category at a ceremony in New York on Tuesday evening. Named on the award were Chris Hamby and Ronnie Greene, formerly of the Center; CPI’s Jim Morris and Chris Zubak-Skees; and ABC’s Brian Ross and Matthew Mosk.
The investigation, which also won the Pulitzer Prize and the Goldsmith award from Harvard University, revealed how ailing miners have been deprived of modest benefits by a law firm and doctors hired by coal companies. It has resulted in significant policy reforms.
The Loeb awards, presented by UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, were established in 1957 by the late Gerald Loeb, a founding partner of the investment firm E.F. Hutton.
Other news organizations honored include the Tampa Bay Times, the New York Times, the Huffington Post and Bloomberg.
Congratulations to all of the Gerald Loeb Award winners, which are listed here.
If you Googled “super PAC” during early 2010, you would have most likely read about Super Pac-Man, the dot-gobbling protagonist of a vintage arcade game.
Today, the term that became shorthand for the comparatively clunky “independent expenditure-only committee” turns 4 years old, having become a main character both in real political battles and fictional political dramas like House of Cards. Even the Federal Election Commission has adopted the term and uses it widely.
Credit a Roll Call reporter for coining“super PAC” as it’s known today.
Then writing for National Journal, Eliza Newlin Carney first used the term in a column published on June 26, 2010, doing so to describe a new group called Workers’ Voices that intended to raise unlimited amounts of money to create political ads.
“I can’t say that I sat around for days or even hours to come up with this term,” Carney told the Center for Public Integrity, although she emphasized that she is particularly conscious of word choices in her writing. “I’m someone who often reaches for the thesaurus or the dictionary.”
”Super PAC” wasn’t an instant hit, however.
A search of news archive database Nexis indicates that the second time super PAC appeared in an article, Carney again wrote it, this time in August 2010.
Other journalists and politicos sporadically used the term during late 2010, then hundreds of times during 2011.
But it wasn’t until December 2011 when the usage of super PAC skyrocketed — at the height of a multi-episode arc in political comedy show “The Colbert Report.”
As part of the gag, host Stephen Colbert created his own super PAC, then transferred its control to Comedy Central colleague Jon Stewart upon announcing his bid for “President of the United States of South Carolina.” Colbert ultimately regained control of his super PAC — a legitimate, federally registered entity that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars — before converting it into a nonprofit organization in order to dodge disclosing its donors.
While the stunt was all in good fun, Colbert helped publicize the controversial issue of coordination in super PACs. Although technically independent, they are often run by people who are personally close to the candidates they support.
The FEC, which regulates political committees, has also adopted the term super PAC. On its website, the section on “recent developments in campaign law” began employing the term around October 2011, according to the Wayback Machine, which archives old versions of websites. The expression “aka Super PACs” was added to a page subhead that previously referred to “Independent Expenditure Committees” alone.
The FEC did not respond to a request for comment on why it decided to adopt the term when it did.
In all, the term super PAC has been mentioned in news articles more than 60,100 times since Carney’s article. The greatest number of these mentions occurred during 2012 — the first presidential election year to feature super PACs.
“I can’t remember when the last time was that there was a story about the growth of independent expenditure-only committees,” said Michael Toner, a partner at law firm Wiley Rein LLP and a former FEC chairman.
In fact, the technical term independent expenditure-only committee has only been used 347 times since Carney first published the term super PAC.
The term super PACs became popular first and foremost because it is so accurate,” said Rick Hasen, a law professor who is an expert in election law. “It also connotes the idea of something with extraordinary strength — like Superman — and these PACs have played a major role in elections.”
The proper style for super PAC remains an issue, though.
While super PAC prevails — the Associated Press Stylebook and Merriam-Webster dictionary prescribe this spelling — variations such as Superpac, “super PAC” and super-PAC have all appeared in publications within the past week. A recent article in Talking Points Memo spelled it out in two different ways within the same article.
In 2010, the political fundraisers who were registering independent expenditure-only committees also tried out other terms among themselves.
“We used to call it an ‘independent expenditure’ and then started referring to it as IE for short,” said Adrian Eddleman, a Tennessee investment adviser who registered a super PAC called Conservatives for Truth on Aug. 2, 2010, the fourth oldest, according to FEC data.
“There were no other terms that I knew of,” he added, explaining that he did not adopt the term super PAC until a press article he read about his own Conservatives for Truth PAC referred to it as such.
Super PACs — before they were known as super PACs — were born in early 2010, the offspring of two separate federal court cases.
The first case, Citizens United v. FEC, reached the Supreme Court, which concluded that corporations, associations and trade unions should be allowed to fund political expenditures as long as they did not directly coordinate with candidates’ campaigns. The second case, SpeechNow v. FEC, concluded that the government couldn't limit how much money people donated to groups that made independent political expenditures.
Together, they allowed for the existence of political action committees that could raise and spend unlimited amounts of money (hence the “super” in super PAC) for political expenditures as long as the expenditures were independent from any official political campaign.
The catchiness of the term contrasts with the relative obscurity of other post-Citizens United political vehicles, such as social welfare 501(c)(4) nonprofits and 501(c)(6) trade associations. While these nonprofits’ donations are sometimes referred to as “dark money” because of the anonymity their funders enjoy, no popular term has trumped their legalistic names.
“It’s in part because of the complexity of the tax code. It’s difficult to shorthand something that involves so much nuance from one group to the next,” Carney said, referring to the different types of nonprofits organized under section 501(c) of the tax code.
While the distinctions are clear and important — super PACs must disclose their donors, for one — politically active nonprofits have sometimes been confused with super PACs, perhaps because both kinds of groups are spending major cash in political races.
Salon made the same mistake, calling Americans for Prosperity “the Koch brothers’ personal super PAC.”
Reuters got it wrong, too, calling Americans for Prosperity “one of the country's most prominent conservative super PACs.”
Sometimes the mistake is not confusing super PACs with nonprofits but forgetting that the two are different kinds of organizations.
In a photo caption about Karl Rove, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote: “Karl Rove: ‘Bush’s brain’ helped organize the super-PAC Crossroads GPS, a ‘nonprofit’ that hides the identity of its donors.”
Perhaps by the super PAC’s fifth birthday — just as the 2016 presidential race heats up — the body politic will have straightened it all out.
MOUNT VERNON, Maine — Living in the lush, wooded countryside with fresh New England air, Wendy Brennan never imagined her family might be consuming poison every day.
But when she signed up for a research study offering a free T-shirt and a water-quality test, she was stunned to discover that her private well contained arsenic.
“My eldest daughter said ... ‘You’re feeding us rat poison.’ I said, ‘Not really,’ but I guess essentially ... that is what you’re doing. You’re poisoning your kids,” Brennan lamented in her thick Maine accent. “I felt bad for not knowing it.”
Brennan is not alone. Urine samples collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from volunteers reveal that most Americans regularly consume small amounts of arsenic. It’s not just in water; it’s also in some of the foods we eat and beverages we drink, such as rice, fruit juice, beer and wine.
Under orders from a Republican-controlled Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency in 2001 established a new drinking-water standard to try to limit people’s exposure to arsenic. But a growing body of research since then has raised questions about whether the standard is adequate.
The EPA has been prepared to say since 2008, based on its review of independent science, that arsenic is 17 times more potent as a carcinogen than the agency now reports. Women are especially vulnerable. Agency scientists calculated that if 100,000 women consumed the legal limit of arsenic every day, 730 of them would eventually get bladder or lung cancer from it.
After years of research and delays, the EPA was on the verge of making its findings official by 2012. Once the science was complete, the agency could review the drinking water standard.
But an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found that one member of Congress effectively blocked the release of the EPA findings and any new regulations for years.
It is a battle between politics and science. Mining companies and rice producers, which could be hurt by the EPA’s findings, lobbied against them. But some of the most aggressive lobbying came from two pesticide companies that sell a weed killer containing arsenic.
The EPA had reached an agreement with those companies to ban most uses of their herbicide by the end of last year. But the agreement was conditioned on the EPA’s completing its scientific review. The delay by Congress caused the EPA to suspend its ban. The weed killer, called MSMA, remains on the market.
Turning to a powerful lawmaker for help is one tactic in an arsenal used by industry to virtually paralyze EPA scientists who evaluate toxic chemicals. In 2009, President Obama signed an executive memorandum to try to stop political interference with science. That same year, the EPA unveiled an ambitious plan to evaluate far more chemicals each year than had been done in either the Bush or Clinton administrations.
But in 2012 and 2013, the EPA has managed to complete only six scientific evaluations of toxic chemicals, creating a backlog of 47 ongoing assessments. It’s a track record no better than past administrations. The Center found that a key reason for this is the intervention by a single member of Congress.
The story of arsenic shows how easily industry thwarted the Obama’s administration’s effort to prevent interference with science.
A ubiquitous poison
Arsenic is virtually synonymous with poison. But it’s also everywhere, found naturally in the Earth’s crust. Even if the toxin were eliminated from drinking water, people would still consume it in food, a more vexing problem to address.
Scientists are debating whether there is such a thing as a safe level of arsenic. New research has raised questions whether even low levels of arsenic can be harmful, especially to children and fetuses.
The findings of the study Wendy Brennan enrolled in were published in April. Researchers from Columbia University gave IQ tests to about 270 grade-school children in Maine. They also checked to see if there was arsenic in their tap water at home. Maine is known as a hot spot for arsenic in groundwater.
The researchers found that children who drank water with arsenic — even at levels below the current EPA drinking water standard — had an average IQ deficit of six points compared to children who drank water with virtually no arsenic.
The findings are eerily similar to studies of lead, a toxin considered so dangerous to children that it was removed from paint and gasoline decades ago. Other studies have linked arsenic to a wide variety of other ailments, including cancer, heart disease, strokes and diabetes.
“I jokingly say that arsenic makes lead look like a vitamin,” said Joseph Graziano, a Columbia professor who headed the Maine research. “Because the lead effects are limited to just a couple of organ systems — brain, blood, kidney. The arsenic effects just sweep across the body and impact everything that’s going on, every organ system.”
For 15 years, Brennan and her family drank water with arsenic levels five times greater than the current drinking-water standard. She has no way of knowing what effect this has had on her two daughters.
Carrington Brennan, now 14, says it bothers her to think that drinking water may have affected her intelligence.
“It shocked and scared me, I guess,” she said. “I think it should be prevented in future cases.”
Chemical reviews lag
It’s the job of the EPA to protect the public from toxic chemicals. To do that, the agency must first review the scientific literature to determine which chemicals are harmful and at what doses. This duty falls on an obscure program with a drab bureaucratic name, the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS).
There are tens of thousands of chemicals on the market and by one estimate, 700 new chemicals are introduced every year. Yet since 1987, IRIS has completed evaluations on only 557 of them.
The last time IRIS analyzed arsenic was in 1988, just a year before the Safe Drinking Water Act called for the EPA to set a new drinking-water standard for the toxin. The EPA missed that deadline, so in 1996, a Republican-controlled Congress gave the agency five more years to comply. The EPA turned to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences for help. Scientists there reviewed the EPA’s 1988 analysis. They said it was badly out of date and underestimated the risk of arsenic.
After the EPA set a new drinking-water standard in 2001, the IRIS program moved to update its analysis of arsenic. EPA scientists spent five years reviewing hundred of studies before sending a draft report to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget in October 2008.
EPA scientists concluded that arsenic was 17 times more potent as a carcinogen than the agency currently reports. Put another way, the risk of someone eventually getting cancer from drinking the legal limit of arsenic every day is 60 times greater than any other toxin regulated by drinking-water laws.
The White House at that point had become a nemesis of EPA scientists, requiring them to clear their science through OMB starting in 2004. Scientific assessments were often sent to OMB only to die, seemingly the victim of political influence. A stinging report by the Government Accountability Office in 2008 said that IRIS was at serious risk of becoming obsolete, unable to keep up with the workload or the science. The GAO noted that in 2007 the EPA sent 16 assessments to OMB, where they got held up. That year, the agency managed to complete only two assessments.
Within five months of Obama taking office, the EPA wrested back control of the process. The agency also set up an ambitious timetable to complete toxic-chemical assessments within two years. By that point, the arsenic assessment had already been in the works for six.
The arsenic draft had to go through an external peer-review before being considered valid. But IRIS officials were optimistic about completing it by the end of 2011.
Meanwhile, in an entirely different office within the EPA, negotiations were under way that would ultimately prevent IRIS from finishing its work.
Veterans Community Park is one of the busiest parks in Naples, Florida, with softball fields, basketball and tennis courts and a playground. In early 2004, Collier County began spraying the herbicide MSMA on the fields to control weeds. But soon, tests detected high levels of arsenic in the groundwater.
It wasn’t the first time alarms had sounded about MSMA. Tests at nine golf courses using the weed killer had detected significant levels of arsenic in shallow groundwater and ponds, a concern because 90 percent of all drinking water in Florida comes from wells. The EPA had already banned all pesticides containing inorganic arsenic, considered to be the most toxic form of the metal. But evidence showed that the organic arsenic in MSMA converts to inorganic in soil. EPA scientists feared that MSMA could be contaminating drinking water.
In 2006, the EPA’s Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances announced plans to ban all uses of herbicides containing arsenic and began negotiating with the few companies still selling them. Within three years, they had reached an agreement. The pesticide companies would phase out all uses of MSMA, except on cotton fields, by the end of 2013.
But the agreement included a condition. It required the EPA to complete a scientific review of arsenic before the ban could take effect. The pesticide office apparently assumed that the IRIS assessment, then six years in the making, would be done by then.
In all likelihood, IRIS would have met the deadline. But two pesticide companies and their lobbyist turned to Congress.
The two companies are Drexel Chemical Co. of Memphis, Tennessee, and Luxembourg-Pamol, whose parent, Luxembourg Industries, is based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Both are family-owned. Luxembourg-Pamol doesn’t release sales figures; Drexel Chemical says its sales exceed $100 million a year.
Though anyone can buy MSMA, the label cautions that it should be sprayed only on cotton fields, sod farms, highway shoulders and golf courses. The market for MSMA is likely worth several million dollars for these companies. The EPA estimated in 2006 that about 3 million pounds of MSMA and another similar compound were sold each year in the United States. The weed killer retails for about $5 a pound.
The companies joined forces to hire Charlie Grizzle, a lobbyist who worked as an EPA assistant administrator during the President George H. W. Bush era. When the EPA released a public draft of its arsenic assessment in February 2010, the pesticide companies countered with a unique argument.
Michal Eldan, a vice president at Luxembourg-Pamol, said her company had the scientific literature scoured and found 300 studies published since 2007 that the EPA had not included in the draft.
“If the report is not up to date, a risk assessment cannot be based on that,” Eldan said in an interview. “We mentioned that because this is the one inarguable detail. You can argue about toxicity. You can argue about risk assessment. You can’t argue about 300 publications that are missing from the list of references.”
Grizzle added, “I think it’s safe to say that the missing 300 studies, if you will, really exposed EPA to accusations from congressmen and stakeholders that they were cherry-picking the data.”
In August 2010, 15 Republicans in the House and Senate made that very argument in a letter to then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson:
“We are informed that there are nearly 300 studies in the scientific literature on arsenic published since 2007 that were not included in the agency’s evaluation. We find that troubling and are concerned that this could allow critics to conclude that the agency is ‘cherry-picking’ data to support its conclusions."
After reading the letter, Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union who has followed the arsenic review closely, said, “This is a really dishonest couple of sentences ... That’s because the [EPA] document was written in early 2008, and the only reason the public is seeing it [in 2010] is because OMB sat on it.”
“It’s not cherry-picking the data. When the document was written, those studies hadn’t been published yet,” he said.
Yet the missing publications ultimately became the rationale for Congress to derail the EPA’s assessment. In July 2011, language appeared in a House Appropriations Committee report ordering the EPA to take no action on its arsenic assessment and turn the job over to the National Academy of Sciences. The report instructed the academy to include “the 300 studies in the published scientific literature EPA failed to review for its 2010 draft assessment.”
Committee reports explain how to implement a bill. Government agencies could ignore them, but they seldom do, for fear of angering congressional leaders who control funding. Burying language in a report — as opposed to the bill itself — was the same technique once used for earmarks. Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit group that closely monitors the Appropriations Committee, said rank-and-file members of the House cannot strike or amend language in a report. In fact, he said, only a couple of lawmakers in leadership would likely know who put the language in the report.
Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat on the subcommittee that oversees EPA funding, said she has no way of knowing who is responsible for trying to kill the arsenic assessment.
“It’s happening more and more in this Congress that we see less and less of what goes on behind the scenes, that members aren’t informed until the last minute,” she said. “So things like this, major policy changes like this, can happen somewhat in the dark of the night with very little information to the public.”
So, who did it? All the evidence from the Center’s investigation pointed to one congressman: Mike Simpson of Idaho.
Simpson was one of the Republicans who signed the letter to the EPA administrator complaining about the missing 300 studies. He was the chairman of the subcommittee that controlled funding for the EPA, where the language first appeared. He was also a member of another committee where the language surfaced again in a different report. He even asked the EPA administrator about arsenic at a subcommittee hearing.
Simpson, who worked as a dentist and state legislator before entering Congress, is a frequent critic of the EPA. But in the 2012 and 2014 election campaigns, he has been portrayed as too liberal by Tea Party candidates funded by the right-wing Club for Growth.
In a brief interview outside his Capitol Hill office, Simpson accepted credit for instructing the EPA to stop work on its arsenic assessment.
“I’m worried about drinking water and small communities trying to meet standards that they can’t meet,” he said. “So we want the Academy of Science to look at how they come up with their science.”
Simpson said he didn’t know that his actions kept a weed killer containing arsenic on the market. He denied that the pesticide companies lobbied him for the delay.
But lobbyist Grizzle offered a different account.
“I was part of a group that met with the congressman and his staff a number of years ago on our concerns,” Grizzle said, adding that there were four or five other lobbyists in that meeting but he couldn’t remember who they were.
Other organizations that disclosed lobbying the EPA and Congress on the agency’s arsenic evaluation were the U.S. Rice Federation; the Mulch and Soil Council; the Association of California Water Agencies; and the National Mining Association, including the mining companies Arch Coal and Rio Tinto.
Grizzle began making donations to Simpson’s re-election campaign in January 2011, a few months before Simpson took action to delay the arsenic assessment. Since then, Grizzle has given a total of $7,500. That’s more than he’s given in that time to any other candidate.
Asked if the contributions were made in exchange for the delay, Grizzle said, “I don’t see a connection. I’ve been a friend and supporter of Congressman Simpson for a long time.”
When Simpson was asked if he was aware of the donations, he terminated the interview, saying, “I have no idea. But I’ve got a hearing.”
The National Academy of Sciences was created during the Civil War to provide objective advice from the nation’s most highly regarded scientists. In 1999 and 2001, the academy twice reviewed the EPA’s analysis of arsenic and concluded it badly underestimated the risk. The EPA’s draft that has been delayed was built in part off the academy’s critique.
Taking scientific assessments out of the hands of the EPA and giving them to the academy has become a tactic to delay regulations, said Charles Fox, a former EPA assistant administrator who oversaw the development of a new drinking water standard for arsenic.
“The standard playbook that industry uses first begins with questioning the science, and they can question the science in any one of a number of different forms,” he said. “There is a scientific advisory board at EPA. There’s the National Academy of Sciences.”
But endless delays to perfect the science can jeopardize public health, Fox said.
“We always as regulators had to do our best to make decisions based on the best available science we had at the time. Science will always improve and you can always revisit that decision down the road, but fundamentally we have an obligation to protect public health in the environment, and that decision needs to be made on the best science that you have today.”
In a letter last October telling buyers that the EPA had lifted its ban for at least three years, the MSMA manufacturers said in a joint statement that they “fully expect the NAS review to result in a less stringent risk value for human exposure to inorganic arsenic.”
If so, the companies said, they are confident the threat of a ban will be lifted permanently and the EPA may even allow other uses of MSMA.
The two manufacturers of the herbicide are still trying to influence the scientific assessment. The National Academy held a meeting in April 2013 to review the science on arsenic. It invited 14 scientists to give presentations. Two of those scientists are funded by Drexel and Luxembourg-Pamol, which lobbied Simpson to delay the EPA.
The academy doesn’t require presenters to disclose their financial ties; some choose to do so and some don’t. Neither of the scientists funded by the pesticide companies disclosed their ties at the meeting.
Dr. Samuel Cohen, a professor at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine, told the panel that inorganic arsenic doesn't cause cancer or any other diseases in people below a certain threshold dose, which he suggests is substantially higher than the current drinking water standard. Cohen has been funded by the MSMA manufacturers for more than a decade, according to disclosures in published articles.
Barbara Beck, who works for Gradient, a scientific consulting firm often hired by industry, also gave a presentation without disclosing her ties.
Eldan, with Luxembourg-Pamol, acknowledged that both scientists are paid by her company. Beck prepared a 32-page report on the EPA’s arsenic assessment. Eldan said that Beck and Cohen disclose their ties in published articles in scientific journals. In some cases, Eldan, a scientist herself, is listed as a co-author.
Cohen said in an email that he disclosed his funding in published articles that he provided to the academy. Records show that Cohen sent the academy three articles that listed funding only from the “Arsenic Science Task Force,” with no further explanation about the task force.
Beck said, “Although I have done work for the Organic Arsenical Products Task Force [composed of the two pesticide companies], my presence and presentation at the April 2013 meeting were funded wholly by Gradient …. At both meetings, I am solely responsible for my comments.”
Joseph Graziano, who chairs the National Academy of Sciences panel on arsenic, said he hadn’t realized that Beck and Cohen were being funded by the pesticide companies when they spoke at the workshop. “I was not aware of that,” he said, “and I don’t think the committee was aware of it.”
Congress rescues the formaldehyde industry
This is not the first time Congress has pressured the EPA to hand over science on toxic chemicals to the National Academy. In 2009, Sen. David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana, held up the nomination of a top EPA official as leverage to force the agency to have the academy review the risks of formaldehyde.
The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Institute of Health’s National Toxicology Program both say that formaldehyde can cause cancer. The EPA was preparing to say the same.
Yet the agency ultimately relented to Vitter’s demand. After months of review, the academy criticized the IRIS draft on formaldehyde for being repetitive, poorly organized and failing to clearly present all the evidence of its findings. The panel recommended the EPA redo the draft to be more clear and concise. Recognizing that the EPA was having a problem in completing assessments, the academy said it wasn’t calling for a delay.
Soon, however, the formaldehyde industry was turning to Congress to help it delay the assessment. Right next to Simpson’s language in the committee report about delaying the arsenic assessment was another set of instructions to the EPA. This time, IRIS was told to apply the academy’s recommendations on formaldehyde to all ongoing and future assessments. When asked if he requested the language, Grizzle acknowledged only that he was one of the lobbyists for the Formaldehyde Council, an arm of the industry.
The EPA said in a report to Congress it won’t start all its assessments over from scratch, but it will try to incorporate the academy’s recommendations. As a result, the 47 pending reviews have been further delayed.
IRIS Director Vincent Cogliano said the changes will lead to more rigorous assessments that should have an easier time getting through peer review. When asked how IRIS responds to political pressure, he said he had little control over that.
“We’re doing our best to keep our assessments focused on the science,” he said. “What happens after that is not part of the IRIS process.”
‘It’s not their right’
Eldan said people shouldn’t be worried about her company’s weed killer.
“To be honest, we believe that this is a good product, that it does not pose a concern to health and the environment,” she said.
Clearing weeds from the sides of highways can be a safety issue, she said, because tall plants can block vision. Even on golf courses, there are safety concerns, she said.
“The weeds have a tendency to spread. If you don’t use herbicides, it’s not only one weed. They can cover the golf course,” Eldan said. “The players can stumble on them.”
Meanwhile, in Maine, Wendy Brennan worries about all the years her family was drinking arsenic-tainted water.
“I know a lot of people around the area that have had cancer, and so you always think, ‘Jesus, that's going to be my kids. It’s going to be me or my husband,’ ” Brennan said.
Her congresswoman, Pingree, also worries about her constituents.
“When you have a toxic chemical in the environment that could be affecting child development or people who could eventually be contracting cancer from their exposure to this, we shouldn’t be delaying,” Pingree said.
She fears that after the National Academy of Sciences completes its review, the pesticide companies will find another delaying tactic.
“That’s the sad part; there’s nothing to stop Congress from finding another roadblock to delay,” Pingree said. “Congress can say, ‘Well, here’s another 200 studies, you better review them.’ ”
Brennan doesn’t understand why there’s a need to wait.
“If they’ve already got some proof that it’s 17 times more potent, you’d think they’d want to get the information they had out and then continue to explore scientifically more,” she said.
“We need to know what’s going on with our drinking water. If somebody wants to not let us know because they want to keep some pesticides making money for five more years … it's not their right. It’s not their body. It’s not their decision.”
LAPEER, Mich. — Renee Thompson couldn’t figure out why she was so sick all the time.
She suffered from chest pains, nausea and headaches. She’d be so tired she could barely walk. When she stayed home, she’d just get sicker.
Thompson went to 13 doctors near her home in Ortonville, Michigan, before one finally decided to test her urine for arsenic. Her levels were in what was considered the normal range, but Dr. Edward Adler told her that many of her symptoms matched the profile of somebody poisoned by the toxin.
“I called my husband that day and said, ‘Please bring home water, because we can’t drink the water in the house anymore until we know this for sure,’ ” Thompson recalls. “We then checked the water in the house, and we found that we had high levels of arsenic in our well water.”
Soon, Thompson was feeling much better. This was nearly 20 years ago. Today, she and her two daughters say their health has improved dramatically since they switched to filtered water.
But millions of other Americans have no idea that they are regularly consuming arsenic.
Arsenic is an element found in the Earth’s crust, and it finds its way into food, water, soil and air. In 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considered tightening the drinking water standard for arsenic — then at 50 parts per billion — to as low as 3 ppb.
Because of fears about the cost, the agency ultimately set the standard at 10 ppb, though it said there was essentially no safe level of the toxin.
Some scientists believe there are harmful effects from arsenic below the drinking water standard. These include bladder, lung, liver and skin cancer, heart disease, strokes and diabetes. Recent studies have suggested that arsenic may cause IQ deficits in children and may be harmful to fetal development.
The easiest way to curb your exposure to arsenic is by paying attention to your drinking water. Federal law requires water companies to disclose the amount of arsenic in tap water annually. Often, you can go to the water company’s website to find that information. Or, you could request the annual report over the phone.
If you drink water from a private well, it’s unlikely that you’ve ever had it tested for arsenic. More than 40 million Americans drink from such wells; of those, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that as many as 3 million consume water that wouldn’t meet the EPA standard.
Arsenic is especially common throughout the western United States. Some states have hot spots, such as Michigan’s “thumb” region, northwest of Detroit, where Thompson lives. Maine has some as well. Andy Smith, a toxicologist with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, estimates that about 80,000 people in the state drink water from private wells and another 9,000 drink public water that exceeds 5 ppb of arsenic. In isolated cases, wells in the state have had readings far above the EPA standard.
“When I look at our public water supply data and I don’t see a lot of arsenic exposure, even in the 5 to 10 range, but I know I’ve got half the population of this state on private wells that still have not even tested their well, I know I have arsenic levels that are way above” the EPA limit, Smith said.
He suggests that private well owners get their water tested. Some states will do the tests for minimal cost. In Maine, the CDC charges $20.
If you discover that your water has arsenic in it, you can install a reverse osmosis filter next to your kitchen sink. Prices start at about $200.
“It’s important to recognize that the current drinking water standard of 10 micrograms per liter was never claimed to be a safe level,” Smith said. “It is a risk-management decision that was made by U.S. EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act that takes into account the health effects but also the cost of mitigating [them].”
Conventional wisdom holds that arsenic doesn’t cause acute symptoms except at extremely high levels. But Dr. Michael Harbut, who specializes in occupational medicine in the Detroit area, said he’s seen scores of patients with classic symptoms of acute arsenic poisoning from drinking well water. You can find out if you have arsenic in your body with a simple urine test.
Harbut said that when patients with elevated levels of arsenic in their urine switched to distilled water, their symptoms eventually went away.
“If you start drinking distilled water you’ll cut the [arsenic] level in your body in half by this time tomorrow,” he said.
Even if you eliminate arsenic from your drinking water, you’ll still consume some in your food. Consumer Reports tested rice and rice products and found what it described as “worrisome levels” of arsenic, greater than five ppb. The magazine provides a list of recommendations for limiting consumption of rice. They include cooking a cup of rice in six cups of water to remove more arsenic and occasionally substituting other grains, such as quinoa.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said there is no immediate health risk from eating rice, but the agency is continuing to explore whether there may be long-term risks.
The FDA also has been looking at arsenic in apple and pear juice. Recent tests showed that all samples of apple juice would meet the drinking water standard. However, past tests found some juice that exceeded that standard. So, the agency has proposed a new standard for apple juice that matches the drinking water standard.
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The National Republican Congressional Committee has launched a second super-sized joint fundraising committee — one that wouldn't have been legal prior to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision — to funnel cash toward GOP candidates running in some of the nation's most hotly contested House races.
The new jumbo joint fundraising committee, formally known as Young Guns Day II 2014, will serve as a fundraising conduit for the NRCC and 11 GOP candidates who were recently named to the top tier party's "Young Guns" program, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of documents filed with the Federal Election Commission.
These 11 Republican candidates are:
The "Young Guns" program was founded during the 2008 cycle by Reps. Eric Cantor, R-Va.; Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.; and Paul Ryan, R-Wis. It assists challengers and candidates for open seat House races who have met certain fundraising goals.
Prior to the Supreme Court's McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling earlier this year, individual donors could not contribute the legal maximum to more than nine candidates. Now, in the post-McCutcheon era, there is no limit, and the Republican Party has been swift to createnewcommittees designed to take advantage of the new rules.
The Young Guns Day II 2014 committee ranks as the sixth jumbo joint fundraising committee that Republicans have created since the McCuthcheon ruling.
Democrats, to date, have not created any new super-sized joint fundraising committees, though smaller joint fundraising committees are widespread and have existed for years.
The other super-sized Republican fundraising groups are the Republican Victory Fund, the 2014 Senators Classic Committee, the Patriot Day III 2014 committee, the Young Guns Day I 2014 committee and the Founders Senate Candidate Committee.
While the Supreme Court struck down the so-called "aggregate limits" on campaign contributions in its McCutcheon ruling, individual donors must still abide by "base" limits.
That means a person cannot donate more than $5,200 to any one candidate for his or her primary and general election campaigns or more than $32,400 per year to any one national party committee such as the NRCC.
The criminal investigation into Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s collaboration with independent political groups has been making national headlines, but in certain other states, such a relationship would barely raise an eyebrow.
Prosecutors in multiple counties have been investigating whether Walker, a potential GOP presidential candidate, illegally coordinated with a slew of independent conservative nonprofits leading up to 2011 and 2012 recall elections.
Laws vary widely when it comes to how tight candidates can be with political backers — what’s OK in one state may not be OK in another. In Florida and Michigan, for example, candidates and supposedly independent groups seemingly work hand in hand, while Connecticut and Minnesota recently affirmed that such groups must keep their distance.
Meanwhile, federal office seekers operate under an entirely different set of rules that even regulators can’t agree on.
As a result, candidates stand to benefit from vast pots of money beyond what they can raise for their own campaigns. Contribution limits, meant to curb the influence of donors, can become almost meaningless as special interests spend millions of dollars to benefit a campaign.
Coordination in Michigan
Take a recent ad in Michigan, where a gubernatorial hopeful speaks directly into the camera as he walks through what appears to be a manufacturing plant.
“I’m Mark Schauer, and there’s a lot we can do to make Michigan’s economy better,” the Democratic candidate says. “Tell Gov. [Rick] Snyder his economic policies work for the wealthy, but not for the rest of Michigan.”
It appears to be a typical campaign ad. But it’s paid for by the Democratic Governors Association (DGA), a Washington, D.C.-based political group that can accept unlimited donations from labor unions, corporations and wealthy individuals.
Like the federal law, Michigan bans corporations and unions from giving directly to candidates. However, the state’s flexible coordination laws allow Schauer to take advantage of the DGA’s deep-pocketed corporate and union donors.
In Michigan, a candidate can coordinate with an independent group as long as the candidate doesn’t control or direct the group, according to Rich Robinson, who runs the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which tracks outside spending in the state and advocates for better disclosure.
The ad — one of four the DGA has aired in Michigan, including three featuring Schauer speaking directly to the camera — would probably have been illegal if Schauer were a federal candidate because federal law prohibits corporations and labor unions from running ads coordinated with federal candidates.
Even if the funds came from an allowable source, like an individual or party committee, the ad would probably still have been illegal for a federal candidate because it would be seen as an in-kind contribution in excess of the legal limit, according to Matthew Sanderson, a campaign finance attorney with Caplin & Drysdale.
Neither the DGA, nor Schauer’s campaign returned requests for comment.
Schauer is clearly benefiting from the lack of a state coordination ban.
Typically the first ads of a candidate’s campaign serve as an introduction to voters. But Schauer faces a fundraising cap because he is taking advantage of limited public funds for his campaign and is more than happy to see the DGA pick up the tab, Robinson said.
Robinson predicted that most of the ads supporting the Democrat in this race may continue to come from the DGA.
And because the DGA is footing the bill, rather than Schauer, the ads don’t need to be reported to the state.
Unlike candidates, independent political spenders don’t have to report their ads to the Michigan secretary of state unless they specifically ask viewers to “vote for” or “vote against” a candidate. Those words were absent from this and other ads the DGA has produced to support Schauer.
Seeking clarity on state rules
In April, the DGA sued Connecticut claiming its rules for independent spending by political groups were too vague and too broad. The issue was over whether Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy should be permitted to help the group raise money.
“If [the] DGA were not able to utilize its members to raise funds in support of its nationwide programs and activities, its ability to function effectively would be severely compromised,” the group wrote in a federal court filing.
The court ruled against the DGA’s request to block the 2013 campaign finance law in June, and the DGA dropped the rest of its lawsuit.
Similarly in Minnesota, GOP candidate for governor Jeff Johnson recently asked the state’s Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board to clarify whether he could raise money for an independent political spender, according to the Associated Press.
The answer was no.
Minnesota law says spending can be considered independent only if it is made without the consent, authorization or cooperation of a candidate. Fundraising is part of the spending process because no group can spend money if it hasn’t first raised money, the state agency explained in its February opinion.
By comparison, a federal candidate may ask donors to a super PAC, for example, to give no more than the federal contribution limit to a political committee — $5,000 per donor.
Flexibility in the Sunshine State
Florida’s law allows candidates to raise money for and work with outside groups.
There the independent “Let’s Get to Work” political committee — a group whose second-largest donor is the Republican Governors Association (RGA), the DGA’s counterpart — launched a Spanish-language ad in April. The ad features Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaking directly to the camera.
“I’m not an expert in politics, but I know the value of a job,” Scott says in Spanish.
A voiceover describes Scott’s by-the-bootstraps upbringing — growing up in a low-income family, serving in the military and attending college on scholarships. It then boasts of his ability to create jobs in Florida.
Scott was in the clear because the ad did not explicitly tell viewers to vote for or against anyone or include the phrase “Scott for governor,” said Mark Herron, an attorney who specializes in elections for the Florida law firm Messer Caparello.
The group — whose name is also a Scott campaign slogan — has made at least three ads featuring Scott speaking directly to the camera over the past few months.
Representatives of “Let’s Get to Work” and Scott’s re-election campaign did not return requests for comment.
Coordinated efforts like these can bolster candidates because independent political groups in Florida can raise and spend unlimited sums of money while contributions to Scott’s campaign are capped at $3,000 per donor. And candidates can solicit unlimited amounts of money for independent groups.
Consequently, Scott has raised money mostly for “Let’s Get to Work,” rather than his campaign, said Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan advocacy group aimed at exposing public corruption.
“Even from when he first ran for election, everybody knew that it was associated with the governor’s campaign,” Wilcox said. “He only recently opened up a candidate account, but the ‘Let’s Get to Work’ committee has been running ads and spending lots of money.”
Feds bring no clarity
The rules can be murky even at the federal level.
In 2011, an ad that was similar to Schauer’s aired featuring then-U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat. It was paid for by Democratic Party committees. Nelson’s campaign argued the ad was legal mainly because it aired far in advance of his next election contest.
American Crossroads, a conservative federal super PAC, wanted to run the same kinds of ads and forced the issue by asking for an advisory opinion from the Federal Election Commission. The commission’s three Republicans said the ads were OK while the three Democrats said they were not.
The end result — candidates and groups are operating in a sort of legal limbo.
Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, prosecutors in five counties have been investigating ties between Gov. Walker’s candidate committee and representatives of conservative political nonprofit organizations such as the Wisconsin Club for Growth, Citizens for a Strong America and Wisconsin Right to Life.
Emails recently released in court records show Walker discussing his and other conservatives’ then-upcoming recall elections in 2011 and 2012 with strategists such as former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove and R.J. Johnson, a Walker consultant and Club for Growth adviser. Walker has also acknowledged that he raised money for Club for Growth.
Walker has denied any wrongdoing and has not been criminally charged.
Wisconsin law prohibits political committees from coordinating with candidates to produce materials that expressly advocate for the candidate’s election through phrases like “vote for” or “vote against.”
However, many of the TV and radio ads sponsored by the groups in question mentioned candidates’ names, though they didn’t explicitly say to “vote for” or “vote against.” Wisconsin Club for Growth argued they were “issue ads,” which are intended to express opinions on policy, not advocate for a candidate’s election, and which are protected by the First Amendment as political speech.
“Such ads are meant to educate the electorate, not curry favor with corruptible candidates,” wrote Eric O’Keefe, director of the group.
Federal law prohibits a candidate and an outside group such as Club for Growth from coordinating to produce ads that mention the candidate by name if they run immediately before the election, the way groups did in Wisconsin.
Whether Wisconsin has similar restrictions is in dispute.
The Wisconsin Club for Growth has challenged the campaign finance investigation as unconstitutional, and the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is reviewing the case.
If the Wisconsin Club for Growth wins its suit to shut down the investigation, the impact could be far-reaching, said Mike McCabe, who leads the nonprofit Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which advocates for greater campaign transparency.
“What these groups are really interested in doing is making this a test case that goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said. “And I think they’re hoping that they can convince the five-member majority that has swept away so many campaign finance regulations in recent years to do away with coordination laws.”
Editor’s note: This story is one in a continuing series on Washington, D.C.’s misinformation industry. The series seeks to illuminate the sometimes-misleading methods used by special interest groups to gain support for their agendas from government and average Americans.
Americans for Common Cents was created in 1990 to “inform and educate policymakers, consumers, and the media about the penny’s economic, cultural and historical significance.”
Members sought to rally support behind the penny in response to those who would prefer that it be done away with. Its “executive director,” Mark Weller, spoke before the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy and Technology in 2012.
He described the group as “broad-based and comprised of, and endorsed by, many of the nation’s leading coin and numismatic organizations, charitable organizations … and companies involved in the manufacturing and transport of the penny.”
But his written statement did not mention that Weller is actually a lobbyist and head of strategic communications for Dentons, a law firm representing the interests of zinc producer Jarden Zinc Products, a major provider of coin blanks that are made into currency.
In addition, over the years the New York Post, Chicago Tribune, New York Times and CNN have failed to mention American for Common Cents’ industry connection. In a press release, claiming widespread support for saving the penny, the group was mute regarding the conflict.
Weller only disclosed Jarden as a sponsor of ACC on a separate truth in testimony disclosure form, submitted to the Committee on Financial Services, which listed the zinc producer as a recipient of federal contracts.
Americans for Common Cents is not a registered nonprofit, nor is it a business entity in Washington, D.C. In fact, it really only exists on paper and in cyberspace. ACC has the classic characteristics of a “front group,” a phantom organization backed by business, but with no visible ties to the business.
Weller denies ACC is a front group, and says he has been “very upfront that ACC has a major sponsor in Jarden Zinc Products.” He said he disclosed to the committee that Jarden is the primary sponsor.
Jarden Zinc Products spent $1.5 million from 2006 through the first quarter of 2014 lobbying on such things as “issues related to the one-cent coin” and represented by Weller when he worked at B&D Consulting and, more recently, Dentons.
These days, Washington reporters and policymakers can barely fire up their email without being besieged by press releases from front groups and fake grassroots organizations.
While data on the proliferation of such organizations is hard to come by, Lisa Graves, executive director for the Center for Media and Democracy, says their numbers are “without a doubt” increasing, thanks at least in part to the ease of setting up a campaign entirely on the Internet.
“Nowadays any corporation or PR firm with just a few hours can use a proxy server to register a website and buy stock images,” she said.
Thanks to the Internet, a poll-tested, cleverly named group with some “fancy graphics” can embark on a drive to influence public opinion, even if it’s the creation of a public relations company, Graves said.
Front groups, also known as "astroturfing" organizations, are usually set up to resemble unbiased, third-party grassroots organizations when in reality they are working to further the position of the PR firm’s client.
The rise in cyber front groups coincides with the increase in digital media in the $11 billion global public relations industry. Digital growth in the industry is rivaled only by new business in emerging markets, according to the World PR Report.
“The digital revolution has had a transformative effect on the PR profession,” said Joe Cohen, chairman of the Public Relations Society of America and senior vice president for PR firm MWW.
Big public relations firms all now offer social media strategy, mobile content creation, website design, search engine optimization, cultivation of online communities, digital grassroots strategy and content marketing as part of their services.
There are public forums online. Communication is more interactive and everything happens much faster. But this new environment brings challenges when it comes to ethical standards.
“A lot of the rules are still being set and that really has implications,” Cohen said.
New tech, old ideas
But deceptive PR tactics are hardly a new trend.
They can be traced at least as far back as Edward Bernays, a founder of the industry who created front groups to support smoking habits in the 1920s. The tobacco industry’s PR campaigns later perfected modern deception.
The basic concept hasn’t changed much either. The idea is to create an allegedly unbiased “third party” ally to lend credibility to a client’s cause.
On the issue of climate change, for example, Graves says, while the scientific consensus is that man-made greenhouse gases are heating up the Earth, there are a host of think tanks and social-welfare nonprofits, funded by the fossil fuel industry, acting as front groups to cast doubt on that contention.
These sorts of tactics can actually be more effective than advertising because they hide the source of information or are presented as the work of an unbiased expert. And the stakes are enormous.
“There are some really important policy issues that are being decided that affect our future in substantial ways, and there are very narrow, very rich interests that want to game the system,” said Graves.
Not all digital campaigns are misleading. But there’s no doubt there is tremendous growth in the industry, and with it comes a greater potential for abuse.
“Audiences have no context for what they’re hearing,” said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit watchdog group.
Sloan also believes the number of front groups has been increasing.
Additionally, messages in digital media versus traditional public relations or advertising can become more “more aggressive” and “less truthful” since sponsors are unnamed, she said. Front groups often express points of view that corporations would not communicate under their own name, she added.
PRSA opposes tactic
While any new form of communication opens up the possibility for ethical transgressions, anonymous websites and social media make deception easier, said George Johnson, chairman of the PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards.
“As a new form of communication, a new set of media, obviously it creates both new opportunities and new problems,” Johnson said.
The PRSA’s Code of Ethics includes an entire section dedicated to disclosure of information. The code condemns the use of front groups, lies by omission, failure to correct inaccurate material and fake grassroots campaigns.
But some public relations practitioners are not PRSA members and therefore do not necessarily subscribe to the code. And not all people behind deceptive tactics are public relations professionals.
The code states that members shall “reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented,” that they will “disclose financial interest … in a client’s organization” and “avoid deceptive practices.”
Trade associations are often the sponsors of grassroots groups that are actually funded by industry.
For example, advertisements placed by the “Coalition for Medicare Choices” on buses, in subway trains and on Washington TV stations warn that seniors will face higher costs, fewer benefits and a loss of provider choice if Congress and the Obama administration don't take action to keep planned rate cuts from going into effect.
So who is this alleged grassroots group?
The Coalition’s address is 601 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Suite 500, in Washington, D.C. — the same address as America's Health Insurance Plans, a well-funded, influential lobbying and PR outfit, as Center for Public Integrity columnist Wendell Potter pointed out in January.
The so-called coalition’s online campaign says its goal is “preserving and strengthening the high quality coverage options that Medicare Advantage plans provide,” and features pictures of smiling senior citizens, but its AHIP connection is not acknowledged. An AHIP spokesperson did not return a request for comment.
Some groups are utterly anonymous. The Center has reported on a website operated by an organization — or something — called StoptheChoke.
The site uses inflammatory language, such as in the banner on its homepage that reads, “President Obama’s hit list — taking away your guns, closing down charities and destroying the free market.”
The name is a reference to the government’s Operation Choke Point, which seeks to clamp down on payday lenders and other much-criticized industries by going after banks that provide them credit. Stopthechoke.com has no “about us” section and no contact information.
Its Twitter feed has a more visible supporter — the Institute for Liberty. The nonprofit and its executive director Andrew Langer link to similar commentaries and the two groups retweet one another.
Langer said he has no financial relationship with StoptheChoke and does not sponsor the content on the website.
StoptheChoke’s website has been linked to Harris Media LLC, through unique coding in the website, as the Center reported earlier this year, though the connection is unconfirmed. Calls to the firm were not returned.
Weller of Americans for Common Cents says that it is “important to say from the get-go, ‘This is who we are, who we are made up of and who our supporters are.’ ”
He said that while Jarden Zinc Products is its major member and funder, there is support from charities and coin collecting groups. He said the group has been transparent about revealing members.
That transparency doesn’t extend to its website, however, which fails to note the zinc industry connection. In addition, the Washington, D.C., address for Americans for Common Cents is the Dentons law firm. And the phone number listed for contacting the group is not in service.
Child legal advocates are worried some Central American kids turning themselves in at the border could be returned to peril if Congress amends laws to speed up their repatriation to home countries.
Changes that President Obama may seek in anti-trafficking laws — which were developed in recent years with bipartisan support — could give U.S. Border Patrol agents authority to “screen” these children to assess if they have a legitimate “credible fear” of being sent back to countries with high murder rates and rampant gang violence.
Border Patrol agents’ ability to interview children and fairly assess if they face danger if returned to home countries has been criticized, as the Center for Public Integrity reported in July 2011.
Currently, detained Central American minors are supposed to be transferred to non-law-enforcement officials’ custody and shelters where they have access to legal advisers and trauma specialists who are trained to assess their histories and explain legal options to them in language minors can grasp.
Under changes being contemplated, kids could instead be put on a path to repatriation before they get a chance to talk to Spanish-speaking child-welfare specialists and fully understand that they have a right to appear before an immigration judge.
Agents could assume a decisive role in assessing if kids are truly in need of refuge — and then begin proceedings to send them back, a prospect that worries advocates. If kids can’t talk to official government asylum officers or immigration judges, “they’re not going to get access to even ask for asylum,” said Jennifer Podkul, senior program officer for migrant rights and justice at the Women's Refugee Commission in Washington, D.C.
The White House has not yet provided details of legal initiatives it might pursue to speed up the return of minors arriving on the border to their home countries. The administration plans to ask for “greater discretion” for the Department of Homeland Security to repatriate Central American minors more quickly, according to a letter President Obama wrote to congressional leaders.
But multiple advocates believe giving agents more authority to interview Central American minors and make critical decisions about what to do with them is a strong possibility, given what some government officials have disclosed in talks with advocates who subsequently spoke with media this week.
In December 2001, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report found that Border Patrol agents lacked required basic training in “immigration fundamentals” and law.
As the Center’s 2011 report explained, a Mexican boy who was being used as a “mule” to carry drugs several years ago sought out and turned himself in to Border Patrol agents. He asked agents to let him stay so he could escape from a crime ring that his uncle was involved in. Agents told the boy to go back to Mexico to get more information on traffickers and then seek refuge, the boy eventually told Podkul, who was a pro bono immigration lawyer at the time.
The boy turned himself into agents multiple times before they took him into custody and transferred him to a shelter in Virginia, where he happened to meet Podkul and was interviewed by asylum officials and Homeland Security investigators.
Children have no right to the appointment of a lawyer in immigration proceedings and rely on pro bono aid.
In another case, Mexican teen girls who had been caught and repatriated multiple times were later discovered after police broke up a sex-trafficking ring in North Carolina, Maryland and New Jersey in 2007. Some of the girls were caught at the border prior to 2007, Podkul said, but Border Patrol agents failed to discover that the girls were being trafficked by men who were traveling with the teens.
Podkul represented some of the girls after the ring was broken up. She said the men smuggled the girls into the United States with promises of jobs and then forced them into acts of prostitution.
Currently, Mexican and non-Mexican unaccompanied minors detained while entering the United States are treated differently in some ways under the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which has been reauthorized and amended since that time to enhance protections for minors.
Federal law requires that within 72 hours after agents detain children of any nationality, the minors be transferred to the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, whose Office of Refugee Resettlement supervises shelters for kids. That’s where many kids get briefed on rights and social workers have a chance to meet them.
Mexican children, however, haven’t been transferred nearly as frequently to these shelters as other kids because it is much easier to arrange their repatriation over the U.S.-Mexico border within 72 hours.
But as a protective measure — because of reports that Mexican kids were being sent back to danger — the anti-trafficking law was amended in 2008 to require that Border Patrol agents conduct a minimum screening of Mexican (or Canadian) minors in their custody.
The mandatory screening requires agents tell Mexican kids about their right to be transferred to a shelter and the right to appear before an immigration judge. Agents are also supposed to ask questions designed to help them decide if a child is likely the victim of traffickers or if they seem afraid to be sent back.
Because it means they can get out of detention relatively quickly, Mexican kids often consent to being returned at the nearest port of entry and give up that right to appear before a judge. However, as violence in Mexico has increased, more kids—like the boy in the Center story—have begun to express fear of being returned.
A 2011 report by Appleseed, a Texas-based public-interest law group, also documented cases of Mexican kids released back into dangerous circumstances even after these screenings.
To cope with the current flood of Central American kids, Podkul and other advocates say, Obama may suggest that Congress amend laws so that Border Patrol agents can treat the Central American kids more like Mexican kids.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a Los Angeles Democrat, has had legislation pending since 2011 that would require licensed social workers to assist Border Patrol agents in screenings of some migrant kids. The proposed Child Trafficking Victims Protection Act, has one Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.
This week, Roybal-Allard released a statement supporting Obama’s request that Congress allocate more than $2 billion to address the emergency at the border and what to do about unaccompanied minors. But she also expressed concern about relaxing any existing access that migrant children now have to consult with social workers and lawyers. She said: “We in Congress should be extremely cautious that we do not undermine the basic protections migrant children have under current law.”
During his time in office, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was a cheerleader for encouraging the mega-wealthy to relocate to New York City.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could get all the Russian billionaires to move here?” he told New York magazine in September.
Bloomberg’s dream might have come true, although in a less celebrated way than he possibly intended.
According to court records and secret documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Manhattan has become America’s own island haven for shady characters from overseas looking to funnel their wealth into the U.S. through New York’s luxury real estate industry.
Since 2008, roughly 30 percent of condo sales in pricey Manhattan developments have been to buyers who listed an international address or bought in the name of a limited liability company or some other corporate entity, a maneuver often employed by foreign purchasers.
Because many buyers go to great lengths to hide their interests in New York properties, it’s impossible to put a number on what proportion of buyers from overseas are laundering ill-gotten gains. Many act in an above-board manner and use tax loopholes that are legal in their home countries. But it’s clear that New York’s public officials and its real estate industry embrace the wealthy and powerful without much thought to where their money comes from.
Combine that give-us-your-rich ethos with state and local policies that lavish tax breaks on Manhattan’s wealthiest homeowners and federal policies that allow real estate agents to close their eyes to whether their clients are trafficking illicit money, and the results are predictable: New York is a magnet for the super-rich homebuyers from other lands bearing money of sometimes dubious provenance. The flood of foreign capital pouring into New York properties makes it easy for suspect figures to hide their fortunes amid Manhattan’s residential gold rush, according to money laundering experts, court documents and secret offshore records.
The lax standards that allow some foreigners to launder money through American real estate sometimes mean that Manhattan’s financial and cultural elite end up with some mysterious figures as their neighbors.
Read the full story on ICIJ.org.
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