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- 01/18/18--12:23: _Idaho lawmakers kil...
- 01/19/18--07:55: _Live chat: Money an...
- 01/19/18--11:45: _Actions, not words,...
- 01/24/18--05:45: _Trump the candidate...
- 01/26/18--10:36: _In the news: Susan ...
- 01/30/18--09:20: _Most of the EPA's p...
- 01/30/18--10:50: _Honduran boy who lo...
- 01/31/18--10:37: _High-profile charit...
- 02/01/18--06:49: _Turkey's propaganda...
- 02/01/18--10:23: _Lesson of 20...
- 02/02/18--09:20: _Meet the Center for...
- 02/02/18--09:19: _Live chat: 5G and t...
- 02/05/18--09:21: _Trump administratio...
- 02/06/18--09:47: _Did Donald Trump pr...
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- 02/12/18--09:47: _Leader of Put Vets ...
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- 02/15/18--11:12: _Patrick Malone on t...
- 02/15/18--11:03: _State and federal o...
- 02/16/18--02:00: _For the EPA, ‘refor...
- 01/18/18--12:23: Idaho lawmakers kill bill requiring personal financial disclosures
- 01/19/18--07:55: Live chat: Money and politics in Trump's first year as president
- 01/19/18--11:45: Actions, not words, tell Trump's political money story
- 02/01/18--06:49: Turkey's propaganda war targets America's state capitals
- 02/01/18--10:23: Lesson of 2017: Political campaign season truly never ends
- 02/02/18--09:20: Meet the Center for Public Integrity's two new fellows
- 02/02/18--09:19: Live chat: 5G and the digital divide
- 02/06/18--09:47: Did Donald Trump profit from his own presidential transition?
- 02/12/18--09:47: Leader of Put Vets First! PAC prioritizes telemarketers and himself
- 02/16/18--02:00: For the EPA, ‘reform’ means giving industry what it wants
Idaho lawmakers shot down legislation Wednesday that would have required them to disclose their personal finances, leaving the state as just one of two holdouts remaining in the country.
Idaho Republican Rep. Thomas Loertscher, chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, grudgingly introduced the bill that had been unanimously endorsed by a campaign finance and ethics reform work group in December.
“This is not a heartburn issue to me,” Loertscher told his fellow committee members. “This is not one of those things that I think is absolutely essential that we do. But, let me say, this financial disclosure of elected officials is in your future because this will happen at some point.”
Loertscher told the Center for Public Integrity he’s been working on this bill since at least 2015 because he wanted to make sure it was done in the least intrusive way possible. The failed legislation would have required elected officials to disclose financial interests worth at least $5,000, according to Loertscher.
Such disclosures are commonly required for elected officials from U.S. Congress down to local offices. In the case of state legislators, the forms typically require annual filings to include a lawmaker’s primary employer, occupation, or job title and additional income or business associations.
In December, the Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press published “Conflicted Interests,” an investigation that analyzed the disclosure reports from 6,933 lawmakers across the 47 states that required such reports. The probe found numerous examples across the country of lawmakers who have introduced and supported legislation that directly and indirectly helped their own businesses, their employers or their personal finances.
The project also revealed that at least 76 percent of state lawmakers holding office in 2015 reported outside income or employment, a necessity for many legislators given the part-time structure and pay of many of the elected positions.
Michigan is the only other state in the U.S. that doesn’t require lawmakers to file yearly financial disclosures. Vermont passed a law in June that requires disclosures to begin this year.
The project also revealed that at least 76 percent of state lawmakers holding office in 2015 reported outside income or employment, a necessity for many legislators given the part-time structure and pay of many of the elected positions.
Michigan is the only other state in the U.S. that doesn’t require lawmakers to file yearly financial disclosures. Vermont passed a law in June that requires disclosures to begin this year.
In Idaho, the proposal needed Loertscher’s committee to back it, but only three of the 15 panel members, including Loertscher, favored introducing the bill to the full House.
“I don’t see why this should see the light of day,” said Republican Rep. Vito Barbieri before opposing the bill. “What concrete problem do we have that this solves?”
Loertscher agreed, saying this bill deals with the public’s perception of their citizen legislature and their potential conflicts of interests.
“There are people that just automatically say we are crooked,” he said. “Are we trying to solve a problem? I don’t think so.”
During an interview last week, Loertscher said the Center for Public Integrity was the “only organization that thinks Idaho is bad,” referring to the Center’s 2015 State Integrity Investigation which rated Idaho a D- and ranked it 26th in the country in accountability and transparency.
“We are continually nagged by an organization in the United States that says we are the only state that doesn’t require any financial disclosure,” Loertscher told the committee Wednesday.
“And when I initially said here that ‘This is in your future,’ is because there will be an initiative written by the public and it will not be this kind and this easy to do,” he warned his colleagues.
Join the Center for Public Integrity for a Facebook live chat with our reporters, looking back at President Donald Trump's first year in office and the ways campaign finance has played a role.
Tune in Friday, Jan. 19 at 1 p.m. EST at facebook.com/publici.
Until then, check out our coverage of the administration: White House spotlight: Tracking Donald Trump.
Donald Trump made his first and most definitive statement about campaign cash just moments after announcing his intention to run for president.
It’s the one that stuck in everyone’s mind.
"I don't need anybody's money. It's nice. I don't need anybody's money," Trump said on June 16, 2015. “I’m using my own money. I’m not using the lobbyists. I’m not using donors. I don’t care. I’m really rich.”
Over subsequent months, Trump would double and triple down on his seemingly reformist rhetoric that mocked Republican orthodoxy.
He blasted big-money super PACs as “unfair,” “horrible,” “scams” and in violation of both the spirit and letter of federal election law. Politicians who rely on such super PACs are beholden to their wealthy contributors, Trump declared.
He then vowed: “That’s not going to happen with me.”
Trump on Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of his presidential inauguration. It coincides with the 8th anniversary of the Citizens United v. FEC decision, which allowed corporations, unions and certain nonprofits to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for and against political candidates.
Do Trump’s stage-setting declarations about political money still carry currency as he begins his second year in office? Do his statements hold as he begins marshaling resources aimed at winning a second term?
The White House did not respond to requests for comment. But the answers seem clear nevertheless. For the most part, Trump’s actions have betrayed the promises of he uttered at the outset of his presidential journey that now seems so very long ago.
"I don’t need anybody’s money."
Theoretically, this statement is true. In practice, it’s not.
As 2015 bled into 2016, and Trump solidified his standing atop the Republican presidential field, his campaign began soliciting contributions ahead of a general election showdown with Democrat Hillary Clinton and her massive political fundraising machine. In all, Trump would raise about $339 million.
And while Trump’s campaign initially disavowed super PACs purporting to support Trump — especially those incorporating Trump’s name or “Make America Great Again” sloganeering — that pushback evaporated as Election Day crept closer. Super PACs and politically active nonprofits ultimately bolstered Trump with tens of millions of dollars in fresh support.
And Trump’s pursuit of contributions for his 2020 re-election campaign began soon after he won the presidency.
He filed paperwork forming his re-election campaign on the day of his inauguration. During the first three months of 2017, Trump 2020 raised $7.1 million, much of it from small-dollar donors responding to an endless stream of emails, text messages and social media solicitations targeting Trump’s core supporters.
By Sept. 30, Trump had raised nearly $36.5 million from donors toward his re-election effort, according to federal filings. That figure is likely to jump by tens of millions of dollars come Jan. 31, the date by which Trump’s re-election campaign must reveal its finances for all of 2017.
If Trump didn’t need this money, he could simply stop raising it.
Instead, he’s pursuing other people’s cash as aggressively as ever since becoming president, culminating this month with a campaign sweepstakes to win dinner with him in Florida at his Mar-a-Lago resort.
A pair of pro-Trump super PACs, meanwhile, crossed the $1 million threshold of spending in support of Trump’s re-election in just the first quarter of the year.
"I’m using my own money."
Trump has demonstrated no willingness — neither during the 2016 presidential campaign nor since — to single-handedly bankroll his political affairs.
Make no mistake: Trump did use $66.1 million of his personal fortune to fuel that 2016 presidential campaign. Few political candidates have such means.
But the self-funding represents less than one-fifth of the more than $333 million his campaign raised from all sources, including individual donors, party committees and political action committees.
And the president so far hasn’t donated a dime to his re-election efforts, which include staging campaign-style rallies across the country and otherwise promoting himself.
Trump’s actions are proof he’s “misled the American people and is lying about his intention to ‘drain the swamp’ and rid D.C. of corruption,” argued Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, which advocates for campaign money restrictions.
Not so, says attorney Jim Bopp, who has fought against political money limits in some of the nation’s most notable court cases, including Citizens United v. FEC.
“Liberals refuse to understand with Trump that you can’t take what he says literally,” Bopp said. “What is important about Trump is what he’s doing and not what he’s saying, and in practice, everything he’s done is in step with maintaining a 1st Amendment-friendly approach to campaign finance.”
"I’m not using the lobbyists."
Trump tongue-lashes lobbyists. He’s placed some limits on his administration’s staffers’ ability to one day work as lobbyists.
But Trump appears to like lobbyist money just fine — and the lobbyists who help him raise that cash.
While the money his 2016 presidential quest raised from registered lobbyists was modest — significantly less than the hundreds of thousands Clinton’s campaign raised from K Street — Trump appointed professional lobbyists to key fundraising positions within his campaign.
Most notable: lobbyist Brian Ballard, a top fundraiser for Trump’s campaign who also personally donated $5,400 to Trump’s campaign.
Career lobbyist Paul Manafort served a stint as Trump’s campaign chairman and returned to lobbying the federal government last year even as investigators probed his past government relations work on behalf of foreign clients. Special counsel Robert Mueller III has since charged Manafort in a case that involves his lobbying for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine.
Trump’s presidential transition committee, meanwhile, accepted tens of thousands of dollars from federally registered lobbyists despite statements from spokesman Jason Miller that the panel was “not going to have any lobbyists involved with the transition efforts … When we talk about draining the swamp, this is one of the first steps.” Transitions are funded with a combination of public and private money.
Among the interests represented by these lobbyists: Coca-Cola, Comcast, Pfizer, United Airlines, Visa, AT&T, Newsmax Media, Lockheed Martin, Philip Morris International, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform and private prison company GEO Group.
Several lobbyists also spent some time working for the Trump transition.
Trump patently banned contributions to his inauguration efforts from people registered as federal lobbyists. But he accepted huge donations from corporations, such as those in the energy industry, that spend millions of dollars on federal lobbyists and have pressed the Trump administration for favorable treatment.
Also anteing up: ultra-wealthy individuals who aren’t lobbyists by profession, but nevertheless petition the government — among them casino magnate Adelson, who Trump had previously derided — to smile upon their pet issues and business interests.
Last year, Trump named both current and former lobbyists to his administration. He’s also named lobbyists to commissions and other positions, including Richard Hohlt, who’s earned hundreds of thousands of dollars from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
“I’m not using donors.”
Trump most certainly has used donors. Lots and lots of them.
A Center for Public Integrity analysis of Trump campaign filings with the FEC, coupled with a February study from the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, conservatively places the number of donors to his campaign in the low seven figures.
Determining an exact number of Trump givers isn’t possible, as federal political candidates are not required by law to reveal the identities or exact contribution amounts of donors who give a campaign $200 or less. Trump, like most political candidates, doesn’t volunteer this information.
Because of that, in all likelihood, Trump’s number of donors is much higher, as legions of Trump backers pumped Trump’s presidential effort with small-dollar offerings — $10 here, $50 there.
Many tens of thousands more gave Trump’s campaign more than $200. And donors continue to support his re-election committee in similar fashion: This year, Trump’s campaign has collected millions of dollars’ worth of individual contributions, federal records show.
Trump also is benefiting from the many donors who’ve helped fund a gaggle of super PACs that support him.
Despite Trump’s stated distaste for super PACs early on, which included sending the FEC letters disavowing some of them, Trump eventually accepted their support.
Among the billionaire backers who have supported those super PACs since Trump kicked off his campaign: Robert Mercer and his daughter, Rebekah Mercer, who have been critical to Trump’s political ascendance, and not just with cash. When Trump’s 2016 campaign hit the skids weeks before Election Day, it was with the Mercers’ guidance that Trump brought advisers Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway aboard in leadership positions.
Future45, among the richest pro-Trump super PACs during Trump’s presidential bid, was largely bankrolled by Adelson and his wife, Miriam Adelson. Other seven-figure donors to Future45 include Linda McMahon, who Trump would later appoint as head of the Small Business Administration, and Joe Ricketts, founder of TD Ameritrade.
Today, more than a dozen super PACs and similarly pro-Trump political nonprofits are actively advocating on Trump’s behalf. With an eye toward Election Day 2020 nearly three years away, pro-Trump super PACs have already raised millions of dollars in recent months.
Ted Harvey, a former Colorado state senator who leads the pro-Trump Committee to Defend the President super PAC, which had a $1.35 million cash reserve as of its last disclosure in June, says Trump changing his mind on super PACs makes perfect sense.
Prior to his election, Harvey said, Trump’s primary exposure to super PACs involved “globalist mega-donors who flushed $100 million down the toilet” in support of “faux conservative” Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, Florida’s former governor.
“Their relentless efforts to stop the populist Trump revolution would cause anyone to question the corrupt Washington DC political process,” he said. “However, after enjoining the support of tens of thousands of every day Americans who have come together as members of the Committee to Defend the President, it is not surprising Trump’s position on super PACs has evolved.”
“I don’t care.”
In reality, Trump’s dozens of messages to prospective donors since his inauguration suggest that he cares deeply about fundraising. Sometimes, he even explicitly says he cares about their financial support.
“You are the lifeblood of this movement, and that’s all I care about,” Trump wrote to prospective donors on Dec. 16. After Christmas, Trump assured potential backers that he cares about their dollars in whatever amount. “It is the fact that you PROVED you care about this cause so much that you actually stepped up and made a contribution. That is why we won, and why we will keep winning,” Trump wrote.
In contrast, Trump’s actions suggest he cares little for campaign finance legislation and political money administration.
While he frequently employs the “drain the swamp” catchphrase as a battle cry against Washington corruption, Trumpian swamp draining has not yet involved supporting efforts to blunt Citizens United v. FEC, squelching super PACs and their moneyed donors or otherwise restricting campaign fundraising.
Trump has made no moves to back various bills — most sponsored by Democrats, none of which have much chance of passing — to alter the nation’s campaign funding system.
Nor has Trump paid heed to some Republicans’ attempts to boost or altogether abolish the current $2,700 per candidate, per election federal contribution limit.
Such a move, supporters argue, would allow candidates’ own committees to control more money and thereby reduce the influence of super PACs, which candidates are barred by law from personally controlling.
At the FEC, which is led by six presidentially appointed commissioners, five of those commissioner slots are filled by people whose terms expired years ago. The sixth slot has been vacant since March, when Democrat Ann Ravel resigned.
Trump has nominated one person — Texas lawyer Trey Trainor— to fill the spot currently occupied by Republican Matthew Petersen. Trump last year nominated Petersen to serve as a U.S. District Court judge, but Petersen withdrew in December after a disastrous hearing before the Senate. Petersen remains on the commission and Trainor lingers in limbo — he has yet to receive a confirmation hearing from the Senate.
“There was no reason to believe that Trump’s reform rhetoric would meet up with reality, and it didn’t,” said Karl Sandstrom, senior counsel as law firm Perkins Coie and a former Democratic FEC commissioner.
“I’m really rich.”
Fact check: true.
Senior politics reporter Dave Levinthal discussed the Center for Public Integrity's review of political money during Donald Trump's first year as president.
Hear the interviews on P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States) on Sirius XM's Channel 24:
On CBC News Toronto:
And on WBEN's A New Morning with Susan Rose and Brian Mazurowski:
Here's the story, in case you missed it:
The Center for Public Integrity's immigration reporter, Susan Ferriss, was featured on KQED's The California Report on Jan. 19 for a Q&A on what recipients of the Dream Act from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's California district.
Tune in around the 1:10 mark for the Q&A, and check out the story below:
Dreamers from Rep. Kevin McCarthy's district call on the GOP to step up
Engineer Jim Southerland was hired by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1971 to join the nascent war on air pollution. He came to relish the task, investigating orange clouds from an ammunition plant in Tennessee and taking air samples from strip mines in Wyoming. Among his proudest accomplishments: helping the agency develop a set of numbers called emission factors — values that enable regulators to estimate atmospheric discharges from power plants, oil refineries, chemical plants and other industrial operations.
By the time Southerland left the EPA in 1996, he was “frustrated and ticked off,” he says, because the numbers he had helped develop were being misused. The original aim had been to paint a broad-brush picture of pollution. Instead, the numbers — meant to represent average emissions from industrial activities — were incorporated into permits stipulating how much pollution individual facilities could release. This happened despite EPA warnings that about half of these sites would discharge more than the models predicted. “These factors were not intended for permits,” says Southerland, now retired and living in Cary, North Carolina.
The number of emission factors used by the EPA since Southerland’s time has proliferated and stands at 22,693. The agency itself admits most are unreliable: It rates about 62 percent as “below average” or “poor.” Nearly 22 percent aren’t rated at all. About 17 percent earned grades of “average” or better, and only one in six has ever been updated. There is a slew of common problems, such as poor accounting for emissions from aging equipment.
The upshot: in some cases, major polluters are using flawed numbers to calculate emissions of substances such as benzene, a carcinogen, and methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Regulators at times are flying blind. The factors color everything we know about air quality and many of the decisions the EPA and state environmental agencies make, from risk assessment to rulemaking.
In an email, an EPA spokeswoman told the Center for Public Integrity that the agency has been working on the problem for a decade. “EPA believes it is important to develop emissions factors that are of high quality and reliable,” she wrote.
Some experts, however, say the agency hasn’t done enough. The unreliability of the numbers has been flagged over a period of decades by the EPA’s own internal watchdog and other government auditors. “This is what tells you what’s being put in the air and what you’re breathing,” says Eric Schaeffer, former head of civil enforcement at the EPA and now executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group. “You don’t want those numbers to be wrong.”
Emission factors are based on company and EPA measurements as well as external studies. They are plugged into equations to estimate total emissions from industrial activities, such as the burning of coal in boilers.
As early as the 1950s, regulators in places like Los Angeles were using emission factors to try to pinpoint the origins of dangerous smog episodes. The numbers allowed them to avoid “time-consuming, expensive testing programs and extensive surveys of individual sources,” according to a 1960 paper by the Los Angeles County Air Pollution Control District.
In 1965, the U.S. Public Health Service — which regulated air pollution at the time — released its first comprehensive list of factors, a document the agency would label “AP-42” in a 1968 update. The EPA, created two years later, kept revising the estimates as they became more widely used in emission inventories depicting pollution levels and sources around the country
The EPA knew early on there were problems with the numbers. In 1989, for example, the Office of Technology Assessment — a now-defunct, nonpartisan science adviser to Congress — reported many U.S. metropolitan areas had not met their goals for controlling smog-forming ozone in part because of inaccurate emission inventories. In 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, Congress gave the agency six months to make sure all emissions contributing to ozone formation were assigned up-to-date, accurate factors, and directed the EPA to review the numbers every three years thereafter.
The EPA missed both deadlines. It has failed to do at least some of the three-year reviews. It claims to have created all the necessary ozone-related factors, but questions about their accuracy remain.
For decades, government watchdogs, including the EPA’s Office of Inspector General, have pointed out deficiencies in the factors, which drive actions ranging from enforcement cases to the drafting of regulations. “We believe the status of emission factor development … is a significant weakness that impedes achievement of major air program goals,” the IG wrote in a 1996 report. The EPA’s dependence on industry studies because of funding constraints could result in factors that minimized pollution, it warned. The U.S. General Accounting Office — now the Government Accountability Office — reported in 2001 that polluters rely on the estimates even though “facilities’ actual emissions can, and do, vary substantially from the published factors.” The EPA’s IG came back with a targeted reproach in 2014, questioning the validity of factors used to estimate methane emissions from some pipelines.
Still, there was little movement. Whereas emission factors are recognized as crucial tools in understanding air quality and underpinning inventories, they tend to be forgotten. “That foundation is buried to such an extent that it’s not often appreciated,” says David Mobley, who worked on emission factors in the 1990s. “The urgency is rarely there.”
Test case in Houston
Accurate pollution data matters. Consider what happened in the ozone-plagued city of Houston, a hub of oil refining and chemical manufacturing.
The city had been using emission inventories to guide its ozone-control strategy. Air monitoring by researchers in 2000 found levels of volatile organic compounds — highly reactive ozone precursors, such as benzene, known as VOCs — were 10 to 100 times higher than what had previously been estimated. The study — conducted by what was then the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the EPA and more than 40 other public, private, and academic institutions — singled out as culprits VOCs such as ethylene, a flammable gas used mainly in the production of plastics.
Houston, it turned out, had focused on controlling the wrong emissions from the wrong sources to lower its ozone levels, says Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University. The city changed course, expanding VOC monitoring and developing rules to reduce emissions. Ozone production rates dropped by up to 50 percent in six years, Cohan and his colleagues found in a follow-up study. The study showed that reliance on emission factors alone is a bad idea, Cohan says. “We need scientists to measure these pollutants in the air to find out how much is really being emitted,” he said.
The underestimation problem surfaced at individual facilities as well, including Shell’s 1,500-acre petrochemical complex in the Houston suburb of Deer Park. A study begun by the City of Houston and the EPA in 2010 showed levels of benzene wafting from one Shell tank were 448 times higher than what the relevant emission factor had predicted. The discrepancy led to an EPA enforcement action; in a consent decree, Shell agreed to pay a $2.6 million fine and spend $115 million to control pollution from flaring — the burning of gas for economic or safety reasons — and other activities. Shell did not respond to requests for comment, but a spokeswoman told the Houston Chroniclein 2013 “the provisions of the settlement are consistent with Shell Deer Park's objectives and ongoing activities to reduce emissions at the site and upgrade our flaring infrastructure.”
Despite the findings of these studies and others, the EPA didn’t update emission factors for the U.S. refinery and petrochemical sector until 2015, seven years after Houston had petitioned the agency to do so and two years after it was sued by environmental justice groups.
Unreliable methane estimates
The low-balling of pollution isn’t limited to toxic chemicals. Many emission factors used to estimate releases of methane — a potent greenhouse gas associated with oil and natural-gas development — are “far too low,” says Robert Howarth, an ecology and environmental biology professor at Cornell University. Identifying how much methane these operations discharge can help scientists calculate the impact of natural gas — which in 2016 displaced coal as the nation’s biggest source of electric power generation — on global warming. This is crucial to preventing “runaway climate change,” Howarth says.
Much remains unknown. A 2015 study sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund found methane releases from oil and gas production and processing in the Barnett Shale Formation in northern Texas were 90 percent higher than what the EPA’s Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions had estimated.
About a third of the factors used to estimate pipeline leaks and other natural-gas emissions in the most recent inventory, for 2015, are based on a 1996 study by the EPA and an industry groupthen known as the Gas Research Institute. The EPA’s IG found in 2014 “there was significant uncertainty in the study data,” meaning the EPA’s assumptions on the amount of methane that spews from pipelines “may not be valid.”
The harm caused by faulty estimates extends beyond oil and gas. An emission factor designed to estimate ammonia releases from poultry farms, for example, “is probably far too low” according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project. These emissions contribute to problems like algae blooms, which can spread rapidly and kill marine life in waterways like the Chesapeake Bay.
‘Pandora’s box of problems’
The EPA, according to its spokeswoman, has begun executing a plan to improve the science that underlies emission factors and review the estimates more frequently. Among the changes: some companies now must report pollution data electronically to the agency.
The Trump administration proposed slashing the EPA’s budget by 31 percent for fiscal year 2018, although Congress has so far extended existing funding levels through a series of short-term resolutions. Progress on emission factors will hinge on “available resources,” the EPA spokeswoman wrote in an email, declining to specify a deadline for the project.
The agency said it does not intend to limit the use of emission factors to the purpose for which they were originally intended — to inform pollution inventories. That means, for example, that the numbers will still be used in permits.
Many in industry are fine with that. When the EPA asked in a 2009 Federal Register notice for suggestions on how to improve the system, companies from electric power generators to auto manufacturers argued for the status quo, saying emission factors were sometimes their only data option. Trade groups like the American Petroleum Institute and the American Chemistry Council argued their members should not be penalized if the EPA discovered a deficient factor had caused a permit to underestimate pollution. API said it worried that additional industry data supplied to the EPA to help it improve the numbers “could be misused for enforcement or other purposes.” Neither group responded to requests for comment.
Public health advocates, on the other hand, want more. Some companies game the system to avoid EPA permitting fees and civil penalties, says Neil Carman, clean air director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club in Austin. “We don’t know what the emissions really are,” he says. “It’s a real Pandora’s box of problems.”
Carman and other advocates say they understand emission factors will have to be used in some circumstances, and that some types of pollution can be estimated with reasonable accuracy. They also maintain, however, that air monitoring should be more widely deployed. “Where you can do direct monitoring of emissions, that should be required,” says Schaeffer, of the Environmental Integrity Project.
Schaeffer faults the EPA for giving some companies an out. It allows operators of power plants, for example, to choose between using continuous monitoring to measure fine particles, or a combination of quarterly testing and emission factors. Some of these plants already have monitoring systems installed, Schaeffer says, but “it’s easier to mask noncompliance using emission factors.”
Shining a ‘bright light’ on pollution
California’s Bay Area Air Quality Management District changed its approach after studies showed leaks from oil refineries in the area — known as fugitive emissions — were likely underrepresented in emission factors. “We decided, based on that information, that we needed additional ways to better identify fugitive emissions and to shine a bright light on those fugitive emissions,” says Eric Stevenson, the district’s director of meteorology, measurement and rules.
In 2016, the district urged refineries to install “open path” monitoring systems — which use beams of light to detect the presence of gases like benzene — and make the data available to the public in real time. Chevron installed such a system on the perimeter of its refinery in Richmond, California, in 2013.
The company didn’t respond to specific questions about the monitoring but said its focus “on running the refinery efficiently and investing in new technologies” has significantly reduced air pollution since the 1970s. Denny Larson, executive director of the Community Science Institute-CSI for Health and Justice, an environmental group that helps the public test for pollution, says the system in Richmond shows levels of chemicals in the air at a given moment and can alert residents to emission spikes that can trigger asthma attacks and other serious health problems.
“It’s showing lots of pollution has been flying under the radar that’s extremely toxic and problematic," Larson says. “We can prove what we've always known.”
A 9th Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel ruled Monday that a 13-year-old Honduran boy was not entitled to the appointment of counsel during an unsuccessful asylum bid.
The boy was initially represented by his mother.
The ruling did not cast doubt on the boy’s argument that gang members held a gun to his head and threatened him if he didn’t join a so-called Mara gang.
“Absent a reprieve offered by the government, C.J. will likely be returned to a country in turmoil,” the ruling said, but immigration law “neither provides for nor implies a right to court-appointed counsel at government expense.”
One judge on the San Francisco-based appeals court panel opined that the narrow ruling did not apply to minors who arrive in the United States on their own rather than with a parent, as the Honduran boy did.
Read our story about how volunteer lawyers pieced together vital defense arguments and evidence for minors’ asylum cases:
At least one high-profile charity has cut ties with politically connected telemarketer InfoCision — and three others are considering a split — after the Federal Trade Commission earlier this month accused the company of lying to potential donors.
Other nonprofits are distancing themselves from InfoCision, while some are standing by the firm, Center for Public Integrity interviews with numerous InfoCision clients indicate.
InfoCision is an Akron, Ohio-based fundraiser for nonprofits, private companies and right-leaning politicians and political action committees, including a pro-President Donald Trump super PAC and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s 2016 presidential committee.
InfoCision in January agreed to pay a $250,000 fine to settle a complaint by the FTC surrounding its charitable solicitations. The company has denied the allegations, and the FTC declined to release the names of the charities InfoCision was representing when it allegedly misled donors.
The Center for Public Integrity contacted 42 recent InfoCision charity clients, the names of which it obtained from licensing records maintained by Utah’s Department of Commerce. Eighteen responded.
The Environmental Defense Fund, which is based in New York City and has offices nationwide, severed ties with InfoCision on Jan. 12 because of the FTC’s allegations, said Sam Parry, the nonprofit’s membership director. He declined further comment.
InfoCision, which employs more than 3,500 people in 12 locations, did not respond to requests for comment, but the company touts its “unmatched reputation for quality.”
The American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews are reviewing their relationships with InfoCision, spokespeople for each organization confirmed. None believe their specific nonprofits were involved in InfoCision’s allegedly misleading calls.
The American Diabetes Association “recognizes and is committed to our responsibility to the public and our donors to utilize every dollar prudently and to operate with integrity in all of our work,” said Martha P. Clark, interim CEO for the American Diabetes Association. “The ADA is committed to fulfilling the goals of our mission and earning the public trust through ethical work that is accurate and transparent.”
The nonprofit controls what InfoCision’s solicitors say when reaching out to donors: every fundraising script is reviewed and approved, and the nonprofit can listen in on calls, Clark said.
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a nonprofit based in Chicago that aims to build support for Israel, is also reconsidering its relationship with InfoCision.
“We have no higher priority than being a good steward of their contributions,” according to a statement from the nonprofit. “Like hundreds of other not-for-profit organizations throughout the United States, The Fellowship has worked with InfoCision, but based upon this new information — and along with our counsel — we are in the process of evaluating any future relationship.”
Other nonprofits are standing by InfoCision and praised the solicitors’ work.
Matt Panos, chief development officer of Jewish Voice Ministries International, said the fine and the FTC’s explanation of what allegedly occurred were “misleading” and that his organization sees no reason to abandon its relationship with InfoCision. The charity, based in Phoenix, supports Israel and the Messianic Jewish community.
“So far, all I see is something alleged but no proof that it occurred,” Panos said. “It’s disappointing to me. If that can be done to InfoCision, that can be done to any company or any nonprofit.”
Medicins Sans Frontieres USA Inc., which is better known as Doctors Without Borders, also defended the company.
”InfoCision has been a trusted partner of MSF for over seven years,” said Thomas Kurmann, director of development. “We are confident in their ability to represent MSF to our donors and the public.”
Easterseals has used InfoCision to convince former donors to contribute again for a number of years, said Sharon Watson, vice president for communications for the nonprofit, which has provided services to people with disabilities for nearly 100 years.
After hearing about the FTC fine from the Center for Public Integrity, Easterseals reached out to InfoCision and verified that none of the calls in question related to its work on behalf of their organization.
Watson said the nonprofit is going to continue to contract with InfoCision.
“We get value from the relationship,” Watson said.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, however, did not.
“We worked with InfoCision for a few years but, as a result of such high overhead charges and out of respect for our members, we no longer do telemarketing,” said Joe Kildea, senior director of communications for the association.
The Multiple Sclerosis Association of America worked with InfoCision briefly on a one-time project, spokesperson Andrea Griffin said, but “once we saw the results, we ended the contract and no further work was done.”
Other well-known InfoCision clients of late include Focus on the Family, Humane Society of the United States, March of Dimes Foundation, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, National Rifle Association, Operation Smile, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, United States Fund for UNICEF and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation.
The FTC alleged that InfoCision workers told prospective donors that they were not calling to collect money for certain, unnamed charitable clients when, in fact, they were — a violation of the federal Telemarketing Sales Rule. InfoCision denies the allegations, but settled the complaint to avoid a lengthy legal battle, a company spokesman previously said.
The FTC’s complaint filed against InfoCision does not include details about how many misleading calls were allegedly made by InfoCision. It said InfoCision had conducted hundreds of campaigns involving millions of phone calls since 2013.
InfoCision reported raising more than $75 million on behalf of the 42 charities on its most recent annual filing with Utah. It’s not clear how much of that amount the charities got to keep. InfoCision is supposed to report how much money it retains, but the company did not properly fill out its licensing applications in Utah for the past five years, Utah Department of Commerce spokeswoman Jennifer Bolton. Regulators there said they plan to ask InfoCision to submit revised forms.
InfoCision has come under fire in the past for its telemarketing practices. An investigation by Bloomberg Markets Magazine found InfoCision was keeping most of the money it was raising on behalf of the American Cancer Society, the American Diabetes Association and other charities. And former employees have alleged the company preys on elderly people.
Meanwhile, during the past five years, federal political committees have paid InfoCision at least $24.8 million, a Center for Public Integrity analysis of Federal Election Commission records indicates.
The company also made deals with schools in Ohio for naming rights on a handful of sports facilities.
The University of Akron’s football stadium, home of the Akron Zips football team, is named InfoCision Stadium-Summa Field (for InfoCision Management Corporation and Summa Health System.) Despite the flap with the FTC, the name will likely stick.
“We are aware of the matter involving InfoCision,” said University of Akron spokesman Dan Minnich. “The University has no plans to alter its strong partnership with the company.”
A law firm hired by the government of Turkey is lobbying state officials across the U.S. about what it alleges is a suspicious network of American charter schools run by a dangerous Turkish opposition leader.
Federal records show Turkey’s lawyers requested meetings in January 2018 with politicians in 26 states and the District of Columbia, including attorneys general, influential legislators and at least one governor— Michigan’s Rick Snyder.
The legal team has already sat down with an official in the Arizona attorney general’s office, worked on legislation in Texas and attended school board meetings in California, Louisiana and Massachusetts.
It’s the latest move in a curious propaganda war playing out in America’s state capitals between Turkey’s ruling party and a secretive religious movement that the Center for Public Integrity previously revealed has funded scores of international trips for state lawmakers from places such as Texas and Tennessee.
Nonprofits associated with what is commonly called the Gulen movement movement — named for the elderly Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen — sponsored subsidized trips to Turkey for at least 151 state lawmakers, the Center for Public Integrity reported last year. Some of the state lawmakers who took the trips later introduced resolutions supporting the movement — or even backed some of the nearly 200 American charter schools linked to it.
“It’s such nonsense what’s going on in these schools,” said Robert Amsterdam, whose firm is leading the government of Turkey’s campaign to inform state leaders of what it calls “suspect” hiring of Turkish teachers and contractors, among other matters. “We think it’s very important for us to get the word out.”
Turkey retained Amsterdam and Partners LLP, an international law firm with offices in London and Washington, D.C., that specializes in cross-border disputes and white-collar crimes, in 2015 as the Gulen movement was falling out of favor with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party. Following a failed coup attempt in July 2016, Turkish leaders sharpened their rhetoric, calling Gulen a terrorist and demanding the U.S. extradite him from the compound in Pennsylvania’s Poconos where he lives in exile.
Turkey then made headlines last fall when former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn was reported to be under investigation for helping to plan to kidnap Gulen and return him to Turkey. The White House has stayed mum about the extradition request, and the Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment about its status.
Within Turkey, the ruling party has jailed more than 40,000 alleged supporters of Gulen and shut down related institutions ranging from news outlets to a bank.
Stateside, Turkey has paid at least $1.8 million to Amsterdam and his team in the effort to undermine the Gulen movement and the schools.
A spokesman for Gulen, Alp Aslandogan, denies that either Gulen or his followers had any involvement in the coup attempt. He said they are not worried about Amsterdam's efforts with state officials because he is pushing "a toxic brand" — Erdogan.
"The moment they realize it they will see the political and monetary motivation behind this,” he said. “Robert Amsterdam is not interested in the education of American kids."
While spokespeople for the schools have said they aren’t affiliated with Gulen, Aslandogan acknowledged they were “started by individuals who are sympathetic to the Gulen movement.” He said the schools should be judged by their performance, and "by and large, they are doing a very good job."
Some of the schools, such as those in the Harmony chain in Texas, indeed have won awards and recognition, while others have just mediocre test scores. Still, the schools have been dogged by accusations of financial irregularities and extensive hiring of Turkish citizens.
The new revelations of Turkish lobbying come at a delicate moment for U.S.-Turkey relations. In recent weeks, the two countries have found themselves on opposite sides in Syria, after the Turkish government attacked a Kurdish militia that is supported by American forces. Tensions grew after Turkish officials disputed the White House’s account of a phone call between President Donald Trump and Erdogan.
One of the Turkish government's lobbying targets is Illinois’ powerful Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan. John Martin, a lawyer representing Turkey, wrote him an email last week requesting a meeting.
Madigan may seem a surprising choice. He was among those who went on trips to Turkey guided by a Gulen nonprofit — in his case, four trips total. He paid for his hotels and flights and contributed to the cost of the trips, said his spokesman Steve Brown, but state records show he also disclosed at least one of the trips as a gift worth more than $500. Madigan has also appeared in a promotional video for one of the schools linked to the movement, Brown said.
Martin, the lawyer representing Turkey, acknowledges the “awkwardness” of reaching out to state officials such as Madigan who have already had positive experiences with the Gulen movement.
“One of our intended messages is, ‘Hey, look, you may have taken a trip with these folks or you may have even received a political contribution,’” he said. “‘We’re here to inform you and let you know who these people are so that the next time your eyes are wide open.’”
But others find such efforts unusually aggressive.
“The zeal with which the Erdogan administration wants to root out and suppress the Gulen movement is surprising to me,” said William Martin, a friend of the Gulen movement and a professor at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. “That is characteristic of an authoritarian regime and not a democratic regime.”
Turkey's lobbying team has also tried influencing legislation and law enforcement in Texas, which has around 40 Gulen-linked schools and at least 10 state lawmakers who have gone on trips to Turkey with the movement.
“In Texas, there are a network of charter schools where there have been serious allegations of, or highly suspected activities of financial mismanagement, suspected fraud, apparent self-dealing,” John Martin wrote in an email in January 2018 requesting a meeting with the state’s Attorney General Ken Paxton.
“Since then the school has only grown in popularity, with an annual waiting list of about 30,000,” said Timothy Lankford, a spokesman for the school. “It clearly indicates the quality and efficiency of our organization. Harmony is a transparent organization.”
Turkey’s legal team also hired Texas lobbyist Jim Arnold at a rate of $20,000 per month, according to filings required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Last year, Arnold, a Republican strategist who ran Rick Perry’s campaign for lieutenant governor in 1998, attempted to drum up legislative support for bills to require more transparency from charter schools, but the measures failed to pass.
“I have had numerous complaints from many of my constituents about the Harmony schools,” said state Rep. Dan Flynn, a Republican who sponsored one of the bills. “I don’t think they have the same accountability as our other public schools.”
The Texas lawmaker received $250 in political contributions from Arnold’s firm since the lobbyist began working for Turkey. Flynn said Arnold, who did not respond to requests for comment, is a longtime supporter.
The Texas Charter School Association, an advocacy group that says it represents more than 90 percent of Texas’ public charter school students, defended the schools’ performance.
“Harmony provides high quality teaching and learning at Harmony, perhaps best exemplified by their May 2017 nomination as a Broad Prize finalist for the best public charter school system in the nation,” charter school association spokesman Seth Winick said in an email.
Still, Dan Flynn said he will try again to pass the transparency legislation when the Texas Legislature reconvenes next year.
Carrie Levine contributed to this story.
This story was co-published with Politico Magazine.
Once upon a time not terribly long ago, federal politicians more or less kept their campaigning to election years. They reserved their energies in odd-numbered, non-election years for legislating and governing.
No longer. This decade’s swift shift from such norms reached a crescendo in 2017, led by President Donald Trump’s pursuit of 2020 re-election cash, underway even before he took his first oath of office.
Super PACs, political party committees and federal candidates themselves followed suit, together generating hundreds of millions of dollars toward the 2018 midterms, 2020 presidential election and a couple of white-hot special congressional elections that attracted eight-figure investments from national-level interests.
Such political powers closed their financial books for 2017 on Wednesday night, reporting how they raised and spent their money, and disclosing how much of it they had going into a year when Democrats are racing to regain control of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate and Republicans are fighting to preserve the level of power they’ve enjoyed since Trump swept into the White House.
Here’s a by-the-numbers look at some of the more intriguing, telling and odd figures the Center for Public Integrity discovered in this latest round of campaign finance filings:
$43,365,652: How much Trump’s re-election campaign has raised so far through the end of 2017. That’s not even counting donors that gave money right before Trump’s State of the Union address — Trump offered them the perk of seeing their names appear on his campaign’s Facebook video live feed of his speech Tuesday to Congress. Raising so much money this soon is unprecedented; former President Barack Obama, for one, didn’t even announce he was running for re-election until the third year of his first term. But Trump is certainly a different kind of candidate, having filed re-election paperwork on Jan. 20, 2017— the day of his inauguration.
$6.9 million: What Trump's re-election campaign raised in the final three months of 2017. The campaign spent $2.8 million in that same timeframe, with about $54,000 going to Trump-owned businesses, for rent, legal consulting, and a “meeting expense.” More than a third of what Trump’s campaign spent during this time period — about $1.1 million — went toward legal expenses. About $25,000 covered costs for making campaign paraphernalia such as hats, stickers and glasses.
$22.1 million: Trump’s campaign cash on hand at the end of 2017.
$0: How much money Trump has personally invested in his 2020 campaign, so far.
$35,000: Minimum amount per month pro-Trump super PAC Rebuilding America Now spends on political consulting performed by the group’s managing director, Laurance Gay, in 2017 alone. The group hasn’t spent a dime on actual political activity, but the Daily Beastreported it plans to target former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Democrat Rep. Maxine Waters of California. (Super PACs may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for and against political candidates.)
$1.3 million: The haul Vice President Mike Pence raised through his leadership PAC, Great America Committee, during the second half of 2017. About a third of its donations came from corporate PACs, including Eli Lilly and Company, Boeing, AT&T and private prison operator CoreCivic, to name a few. The National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund also pitched in $5,000, the maximum it may legally give. Great America Committee donated to the campaign of Pence’s brother, Greg Pence, who is running for his sibling’s former congressional seat in Indiana, as well as a smattering of other Republican candidates.
½:What the Democratic National Committee raised compared to its Republican equivalent in all of 2017. The DNC took in $66 million the entire year with $6.5 million cash on hand and $6.1 million in debt as of Dec. 31. The RNC boasts a 2017 total of $132.5 million, with $38.8 million in the bank as of Dec. 31.
$16.3 million: Donations Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC that aims to elect liberals to the Senate, raised during the second half of 2017. While the group attracted some major donations from well-known donors, such as Fred Eychaner, Donald Sussman and George Soros, the liberal super PAC took in its share of “dark money.” Despite the Democratic Party preaching against undisclosed donors, its leading super PAC accepted donations from its partner nonprofit, Majority Forward, and other trade groups and unions whose root funding can’t be easily, if ever be traced to an identifiable, human source.
$14.2 million: Amount that Senate Majority PAC’s Republican counterpart, the Senate Leadership Fund, raised the entirety of last year. The super PAC, which has connections to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, took in donations from Koch Industries ($100,000), Devon Energy ($500,000) and Trump’s close friend and former business partner, casino owner Phillip Ruffin ($250,000).
$13.8 million: Amount super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund, which pushes to fill Congress with Republicans, raised during the second half of 2017. But almost half, or $6.7 million, came from its “sister” organization, nonprofit American Action Network, which isn’t by law required to disclose its donors. This leaves much of the Congressional Leadership Fund’s funds a mystery. Of the donations that are publicly disclosed, relatives of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos donated $350,000.
$175,000: What the Florida Democratic Party contributed to pro-Democrat super PAC Priorities USA Action in August. A political party committee giving money to a super PAC is uncommon, not illegal. But it’s a curious move for the Florida Democratic Party, given that it’s pilloried the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which gave rise to super PACs later that year. “We need to send a strong message that the American people support getting big money out of politics,” the Florida Democratic Party declared to supporters in 2015, for example.
$7,022: Cost of an event the Trump/Republican National Committee joint fundraising committee threw at Wynn Las Vegas resort in December. Steve Wynn stepped down as Republican National Committee finance chairman after the Wall Street Journal published an investigation cataloguing a long history of alleged sexual misconduct. The Republican National Committee has not returned donations from Wynn, despite calling on Democrats to do the same with checks from disgraced film producer and liberal megadonor Harvey Weinstein.
$950,000: Amount a new super PAC called Remember Mississippi received from two megadonors that don’t live in Mississippi: shipping supplies CEO Richard Uihlein and Robert Mercer of Renaissance Technologies. The group is backing Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel against incumbent Republican Sen. Roger Wicker in Mississippi’s Republican U.S. Senate primary this year.
At least $4.5 million: How much Uihlein dumped into super PAC coffers over the past six months. Among the many: $1.4 million to Americas PAC, a group spending hundreds of thousands to unseat Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin; $500,000 to former U.N. ambassador John Bolton’s super PAC and $2 million to Club for Growth’s Missouri branch, which is supporting Republican Josh Hawley in his run for Senate. In all of 2017, Uihlein has invested the most disclosed money of any other political donor — around the tune of $14 million.
1: Number of funders of a conservative super PAC that’s attacked Republican Dan Schwartz in his bid for Nevada’s governorship. All $50,000 came from Future45, a pro-Trump super PAC reportedly behind Schwartz’s opponent, Attorney General Adam Laxalt.
$210,000: How much the mysterious California-based Technology For Democracy LLC gave the super PAC Forward Majority Action, which tries to elect more Democrats to state-level offices. The limited liability company’s address is a UPS store in Portola Valley. The LLC also gave $100,000 to the Democratic National Committee.
$1 million: The amount Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads super PAC received from its biggest donor in the second half of 2017, Dallas-based Hillwood Development Company LLC, which is led by billionaireRoss Perot Jr.
$70,000: What Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's 2016 presidential committee made off renting out his supporter lists this year. He’s still about $41,000 in debt. Sen. Marco Rubio, who also ran for president in 2016, made almost $80,000 of his list. Rubio, however, is still almost $928,000 in debt.
7: Minimum number of 2016 presidential contenders that are still in campaign debt. Rubio leads the pack, followed by Rick Santorum ($163,000), Libertarian Gary Johnson ($151,000), George Pataki ($143,000), Bernie Sanders ($101,000), Scott Walker ($41,000) and Jim Gilmore ($12,000). Pataki’s debt includes more than $14,000 in unpaid rent, which lends some credence to the clarion call — “the rent is too damn high!” — of perennial New York political candidate Jimmy McMillan. But no presidential campaign from any era owes more than that of 2012 GOP hopeful Newt Gingrich, who filed disclosures Wednesday indicating his committee remains more than $4.63 million in debt. Among the Gingrich campaign’s dozens of creditors: Comcast, Twitter, Verizon Wireless and telemarketer InfoCision, which could use some extra cash after settling for $250,000 a federal complaint alleging the company used “false and misleading” tactics on behalf of some of its charitable clients.
$42,156: What Sanders’ presidential committee paid late last year to clear event security debts owed to Upper Providence Township in Pennsylvania and the National City Police Department in California. Sanders has now paid most, but not all, outstanding bills sent to his campaign by municipalities and law enforcement jurisdictions across the nation. That’s in contrast to Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who still refuse to pay event security bills sent to them by various localities during the 2016 presidential campaign.
$12,016: How much former Republican Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois paid in legal fees during the final three months of last quarter of 2017. The previous year, he was indicted on 24 felony counts relating to misuse of office and campaign funds. (Remember his Downton Abbey office digs?) He still owes $746,985 to law firm Jones Day for legal services.
9: Minimum number of lawmakers that spent campaign money at Trump properties during the final three months of 2017.
$1,696: Travel and hotel costs Republican Rep. Gregg Harper of Mississippi paid to Trump International Hotel in Washington.
$937.30: What Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois spent on catering at the Chicago Trump hotel.
$393: The cost of a fundraising lunch at the Trump International Hotel, paid for by Republican Rep. Chris Collins of New York.
$40.80: How much Republican Rep. Karen Handel, who won the Georgia special election last year, spent at the Trump International Hotel for food or drinks in October.
$33,000: Amount pro-Trump super PAC America First Action, Inc. spent at Trump International Hotel from October to December. It also paid the firms of past Trump campaign aides, such as $55,000 to former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski for strategy consulting and $137,000 to former digital strategist Brad Parscale for fundraising consulting and design.
Carrie Levine contributed to this article.
This article was co-published by TIME
Two new fellows have joined the Center for Public Integrity, the organization’s latest investment in the next generation of journalistic talent.
Fatima Bhojani is the Center’s sixth W.K. Kellogg Fellow in investigative reporting; she will work with the environment and labor team. Bhojani was previously an intern on the national security team at Reuters. She graduated from the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism program at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2015. Her work has appeared in Foreign Affairs and The Washington Post.
Rosie Cima is the 2018 Knight Data Journalism Fellow, working with the Center’s data team, which has been expanded significantly in recent months. She was previously a staff writer at media startup Priceonomics, and a politics blogger for MapLight, a campaign finance transparency organization. Cima’s writing and graphics can also be found in The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, Vox, Quartz and The Pudding. She has her M.A. in journalism and her B.S. in symbolic systems, both from Stanford University.
“We’re thrilled to bring Fatima and Rosie aboard and are grateful to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for making this possible,” said Center CEO John Dunbar. “As long as the industry continues to attract this level of talent, the public interest is in good hands.”
The Knight fellowship is in its first year, part of the Center’s initiative to rebuild the data journalism team.
The Kellogg fellowships, in their fourth year, are part of the Center’s ongoing effort to create a pipeline of investigative journalists of color. Three of the five prior Kellogg fellows remain at the Center today in full-time reporting jobs.
Cima and Bhojani join the Center’s other current fellows, Kristian Hernández, who is the latest American University Fellow, and Ryan Barwick, the Center’s 20th Soles Fellow, a year-long program that honors the late University of Delaware professor James Soles, an inspiration to Center founder Charles Lewis.
More Inside Publici:
If the fight over 5G poles and cells hasn’t hit your town yet, chances are it’s coming.
Join the Center's senior business reporter, Allan Holmes, for a Facebook Live chat about his reporting on the politics behind broadband access and 5G. We'll be taking a look at these controversial cell towers and discussing how communities are reacting to this change, which telecom companies claim will help bridge America's digital divide.
Send us your questions and comments ahead of time and make sure to tune in on Februrary 20 at 12 p.m. EST on our Facebook page.
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Consolidating the management of two critical sites where nuclear weapons are assembled would yield huge taxpayer savings, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) promised in 2013 — as much as $3.27 billion over a decade.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in savings were to be spent on the modernization of the nuclear weapons production complex, and billions of dollars were to revert to the public treasury. The government was so pleased with the promised benefits that in 2015, it gave one of the department’s highest awards to the 14 sharp-eyed officials who processed the single-contract paperwork.
But four years after the consolidated contract was won by Consolidated Nuclear Security (CNS) LLC, a group of corporations led by Bechtel National Inc., there’s not much to celebrate, government documents and reports show.
In particular, much of the promised quick savings haven’t shown up, while the annual federal costs of running and overseeing the two sites — the Pantex Plant in Texas and the Y-12 site in Tennessee where nuclear weapons are disassembled and modernized — have risen more than 30 percent from nearly $1.85 billion to $2.48 billion. Despite these numbers, the government still awarded the contractor extra profits for cost savings.
As a result, the funds needed to keep these two vital sites operating over the next decade threaten to eat up a sizable chunk of the new money the Trump administration wants to spend upgrading the safety, security and quality of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and enlarging its size. The cost increase, combined with rising fees for nuclear weapons work and physical modernization needs at other facilities, casts doubt on whether Trump’s ambitious nuclear agenda can be completed.
An examination of the contract award by federal auditors also revealed that the evaluation process – which parsed bids from some of the nation’s largest defense contractors — was marked by unusual actions that helped Bechtel’s group win the bid. And a powerful lever to force the Bechtel-led firm to achieve as much savings as possible was quietly removed from the contract last September, making it easier for the firm and its partners to win lucrative contract extensions.
That move, which effectively rewarded the Bechtel group for failing to show it could achieve promised economies, preserves its opportunity to collect up to $660 million in profit over a 10-year period, during which the country’s overall nuclear weapons production efforts are slated to cost $400 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The savings that CNS initially promised were supposed to come from cutting what the corporations and their federal overseers claimed were excess jobs and employee benefits at the Texas and Tennessee sites. But key lawmakers and congressional staff in Washington have said this aim was misguided from the outset, coming as it did just as the Department of Energy was launching, at the Obama administration’s direction, a three-decade-long trillion-dollar weapons modernization program, which would seemingly require many new personnel.
“It raises an interesting question: Did the left hand talk to the right hand?” said Gordon Adams, a former White House national security budget official, about the process.
Many workers at the plants have chafed under the new management approach and complained about its consequences, noting in a confidential staff survey that they feel profit has been prioritized over safety. Those workers have been startled to learn abruptly of lost medical benefits at the same time they say their work has become more dangerous due to staffing vacancies.
Contractors get bonus profits
Bechtel and its partners haven’t suffered serious consequences so far from failing to show they met their promised economies. Instead, they have earned extra federally-paid profits of $74.2 million from mid-2014 through 2016, including $36.9 million in cost savings bonuses.
A spokesman for the consortium, Jason Bohne, said these rewards are fair because the group had made significant progress. “Cost savings are being achieved, validated and reinvested,” he said. He added that the consortium “is meeting or exceeding all key mission-related deliverables and has enhanced the sites’ security posture, decreased safety incidents, and improved the sites’ infrastructure, all while implementing cost savings.”
Similarly, Bechtel spokesman Fred deSousa said “the CNS leadership and site employee teams have worked with NNSA to deliver on the mission by advancing national security … and making operations more efficient amidst changing and growing mission demands since the contract was originally awarded.”
NNSA spokeswoman Lindsay Geisler confirmed that the cost of running the two plants has increased, but said it was due to the expanded nuclear work they are doing and the expense of needed modernization. She said that NNSA is benefiting from “more efficient execution of overhead functions, savings in supply chain and procurements, and through restructured [worker] benefits,” and that the previous arrangement would have been even more costly.
The work in question is crucial and painstaking. Every bomb that the U.S. builds during the three-decade, $1.2 trillion rejuvenation of its nuclear arsenal will pass through the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas. It’s the chokepoint where new atomic weapons under construction compete with their aging forerunners awaiting dismantlement for a turn in the bays where technicians turn the screws and connect the conventional and nuclear explosives to the deadliest weapons at man’s command.
The U.S. nuclear weapons program depends on Y-12, located at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for the highly enriched uranium components that fuel a nuclear blast. The Energy Department projects that the workload at both plants will climb during the next five years as the arsenal’s modernization ramps up, and a draft of President Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review – leaked to the public on Jan. 11 — recommends developing still more nuclear weapons that would inevitably add to the workload at both sites, in addition to the budgets and the bonuses available to contractors.
Contracting snafus and cost overruns are not new to the Energy Department, which has been on the Government Accountability Office’s high-risk list for fraud, waste and abuse since the list’s inception in 1990. A 2017 Center for Public Integrity analysis of nuclear weapons contractors’ bonuses over the preceding decade revealed that the firms have received 86 percent of the maximum available to them — $2.6 billion in pure profit — despite these problems, including repeated, avoidable accidents that put workers and sometimes the surrounding populations in jeopardy.
Here’s how CNS got the work at Pantex and Y-12:
For nearly a decade after 2001, the Pantex and Y-12 sites had been run separately by two different management teams headed by Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services Group, under two contracts. In 2010, the National Nuclear Security Administration — which was straining to control costs — decided to explore the potential savings from merging the two sites under one contractor. NNSA hired Chicago-based Navigant Consulting to study the idea, and the firm projected savings of up to $895 million from the more than $22 billion that it would cost to run these sites over ten years.
In December 2011, the NNSA solicited bids for a single entity to run both sites. Bidders were evaluated on several criteria, including the experience of their management personnel and the fees the bidders sought to run the sites. But the solicitation was blunt: “One of the principal purposes of this consolidation is to realize cost savings.”
Revising the bid evaluations
The three teams that sent in bids included several of the military-industrial complex’s giants: One was Consolidated Nuclear Security LLC, led by Bechtel National Inc. and including Lockheed Martin Services Inc. (whose interest in the partnership was acquired by Leidos Inc. in January 2016) and two other companies. Another was Nuclear Production Partners LLC, led by Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services Group, along with a Northrop Grumman subsidiary and Honeywell International Inc. The third was Integrated Nuclear Production Solutions LLC, involving Fluor Federal Services Inc. and Jacobs Engineering Group Inc.
They are all big Washington players, having spent a total of at least $350 million on lobbying about multiple issues in the decade preceding the contract award, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group.
The fees and savings proposed by the Babcock & Wilcox and the Jacobs-Fluor groups are not known, because the bidding documents are largely redacted. But records show the Bechtel group said it could cut $3.27 billion from the proposed budgets over a decade — three times what the NNSA’s consultant had predicted. Under its proposal, CNS was to be paid special profits if it made this promise come true, amounting to as much as $262.8 million, on top of the $400 million in profits its contract stipulated for good performance.
The Bechtel group’s bid was not a clear winner, initially. According to an April 29, 2013, review of the bidding process by the Government Accountability Office, an audit agency that reports to Congress, a group of Energy Department experts rated the largest portion of the Bechtel group’s proposed savings as “partially reasonable,” but said another part was “not reasonable.” CNS also lagged behind Babcock & Wilcox in internal DOE ratings of corporate experience, project management and key personnel.
The review process was not smooth. During most of 2012, the bid process was overseen by Neile Miller, the NNSA’s deputy administrator. But eight days before the bid decision was to be made, on December 12, she learned she would soon be named acting administrator and handed off the selection responsibility to a deputy, Michael Lempke.
He intervened, upgrading the ratings of all bidders’ proposed savings to “feasible,” and raising the Bechtel group’s grades in other areas where it lagged Babcock & Wilcox, according to the GAO review. That created a two-way tie. Then Lempke ascribed some strengths not noted by other evaluators to the CNS proposal, including organizational structure and experience in consolidating two other Energy Department facilities, the GAO said. The adjustments tipped the scales just enough for CNS to prevail.
The two losing bidders howled. Their protests went to the GAO, which declared in its review that Lempke hadn’t adequately heeded the “documented contrary conclusions of the agency’s own financial management specialists” that some proposed cost savings may not be feasible. It said the procurement was “flawed” and called for a re-bid.
So the NNSA reopened the bidding process and conducted another review. This time, the Babcock & Wilcox team’s savings plan was officially rated as offering “a significant benefit to the government.” But Lempke had left by then, and his successor raised the Bechtel group’s ratings in three categories, again creating a tie, a later GAO review stated. In the end, the official decided that CNS, the Bechtel group, held the edge and awarded it the contract.
Adams said he found it odd that “all the system [was]…bending towards one contractor twice over,” almost as if “from the beginning Bechtel[‘s team] had to win.” The Babcock & Wilcox team again protested, calling NNSA’s judgments “disparate, unequal and prejudicial.” But the GAO said the Babcock & Wilcox team had failed to show NNSA’s judgments were unreasonable, and denied the protest on February 27, 2014.
Lempke is now president of the Nuclear and Environmental Industries Group at Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc., and on his LinkedIn page says that his employer “manages and operates high hazard and nuclear sites for the United States Department of Energy.” He did not respond to several emailed requests for comment.
But Miller defended the decision, saying that even though CNS’s savings estimates were obviously tailored to meet NNSA’s hopes, the losing Babcock & Wilcox proposal was even more extreme. “From Day One, they were going to be getting rid of people.” She said she was “really taken aback” by that bid.
She also said all bids promising lower costs and higher efficiency need to be taken with a grain of salt. “What are you going to do? Write a bid that says, ‘Given all the political bullshit we won’t be able to meet the savings expectations?’”
Major problems flagged by evaluators
The Bechtel team started jointly running the two sites on July 1, 2014, and was eligible for $20 million in extra profit for good performance in the first year alone. But the NNSA, in its Nov. 2015 report on the group’s performance, said that it would get just $11.4 million. The amount, representing just 57 percent of the potential profit, was considerably less than what NNSA contractors typically receive.
In its review, the NNSA cited numerous failings, including the falsification of site police training records, the repeated placement of the wrong tail cases on B61 nuclear bombs, and a series of maintenance backlogs for the sites’ electrical power systems. The NNSA also said CNS had not developed a consolidated financial system and that without it NNSA could not validate the contractor’ savings claims.
The following year, the contractor did better, earning 77 percent of its performance bonus. But once again NNSA cited a series of production and safety problems. Some programs were as much as 10 months behind schedule. Meanwhile, costs were skyrocketing: Some nuclear bomb work was seeing cost growth as high as 50 percent. Savings claims remained unresolved, “damaging the credibility of the cost savings program,” the NNSA said.
In both its 2015 and 2016 annual evaluations, moreover, the NNSA faulted CNS for staffing shortages in multiple areas — quality assurance, project controls, metal production, radiological protection, and safeguards and security. For instance, the 2015 performance report states that NNSA “is concerned” with staff losses in radiological protection that affect the ability to survey work spaces and monitor radiological work. That fiscal year ended with 42 radiological personnel contaminations at Y-12, the report states.
The 2015 performance review also says a high rate of attrition continues to plague the two sites’ efforts to defend themselves against computer hacking, citing a loss of senior technical personnel and weak planning as “key NNSA management concerns.” In 2016 the NNSA said, these problems persisted with “no plan for program improvement.” In two other areas, related to the quality and modernization of nuclear weapons, the “lack of staffing identified two years ago remains a significant problem,” the NNSA stated, requiring work-arounds to avoid risks of “defects that could delay work, require rework, or result in an escape,” meaning an accident that spilled radioactivity. At the time of the report, in November 2016, only 16 of 42 vacant positions had been filled.
The NNSA’s Nov. 30, 2017, appraisal was more upbeat, stating that the Bechtel group had “met overall cost, schedule, and technical performance requirements of the contract … in the aggregate.” But it also said the group had failed to jointly “track and clearly identify cost savings,” hampering the success of its efforts.
Two weeks later, the Department of Energy’s Inspector General disclosed that the group had asked that year to be exempted from more than $400 million of the total cost savings it had promised to achieve over 10 years. NNSA responded by quietly agreeing not only to lop off $360 million of those required savings — but also to make the remaining savings a “discretionary” issue in annual evaluations rather than a stipulated requirement for each year of the contract’s life, according to the Inspector General’s report.
It loosened, in short, the conditions under which the Bechtel group can win a contract extension. The modification “allows NNSA discretion in assessing what CNS has achieved in cost savings as compared to mission performance,” CNS spokesman Jason Bohne confirmed.
The Bechtel group, according to the report, had also asked to be paid extra profits for not filling 270 positions that were empty when it started work. But the NNSA declined, saying the group had not done anything to produce these savings. CNS countered that it might then hire the 270 and fire them, according to a negotiation file cited in the IG’s report. (A spokesman for the Bechtel group, in response to a query from CPI, said this was a “hypothetical example.”) So NNSA relented. It agreed to give CNS, the Bechtel group, credit for $68 million in cost savings and to pay the contractor a bonus of $21 million in both 2015 and 2016 for “eliminating” these empty positions.
The group also claimed it had achieved another $92.5 million in cost savings, but NNSA said the amount was actually $44.3 million, only 16 percent of the $272.8 million it had contractually promised to save through 2016. However, NNSA gave the Bechtel-led group credit for sustaining $121.3 million in “prior-year cost savings,” and in the end gave the group a healthy bonus for its cost savings work.
NNSA did not respond to a question about why it took the pressure off such a key contractor. “NNSA is in the process of performing the requisite analysis of savings achieved through the first three years of performance, and therefore, it would be premature to discuss savings achieved to date and whether or not the contract will be extended,” said NNSA spokeswoman Geisler.
“CNS generated significant verified savings to the NNSA for Fiscal Years 2014 through 2016,” NNSA spokeswoman Geisler said in an email. “Verification of Fiscal Year 2017 savings is currently under review.”
In their conversations with the Inspector General auditors, NNSA officials agreed that CNS is behind on delivering promised savings, but expressed optimism that the group will find more or new ways to cut costs in the future. The contract itself had predicted the opposite – that the highest savings would occur at the outset.
Workers complain about turmoil and safety risks
Asked by the IG if the job cutting had had harmful effects, NNSA responded that it did not see a direct link between staffing shortages and any issues at the plant. But the Center for Public Integrity’s reporting, the NNSA’s own records, and a survey commissioned by the contractor in 2015 suggest otherwise.
In early 2016, the Bechtel team announced it would hire 1,150 people at both sites over 19 months. But the actual number at Y-12 and Pantex grew only 2 percent between the end of fiscal year 2014 and the close of fiscal year 2016, according to the Energy Department, because the team also let 1,304 people go in that period. A significant portion of those hired were managers, not line workers.
Workers have grown disgruntled at the turmoil created by the new operating arrangement, including the loss of the unfilled job slots, the uneven hiring, the difficulty of filling some specialized positions, buyouts and terminations of older workers, and the arrival of workers with little experience.
CPI interviewed six current and former Pantex workers about the new management, including one who said a common joke at the plant is that CNS stands for “cut and slash.” Even as late as last month (January 2018) shortages existed, she said. The plant-wide maintenance department was short 14 electricians, yet the contractor had hired six or seven managers instead, she said. “There’s more managers than there are electricians doing the work. It’s messed up,” she said.
She said the site’s facility for sampling, testing, and replacing a gas that boosts the explosive force of nuclear detonations should have seven workers but only has four. The stress caused by overwork could lead to an accident, the worker warned.
Others complained of poor maintenance of the plant’s buildings. “They don’t have the personnel — they’re not replacing personnel,” one worker said. “You’re just hoping to operate and operate safely. You’re just hoping things don’t go wrong.” A former supervisor complained about the loss of benefits: “The quality of life is going down,” he said. “This is not like working at Walmart, this is serious stuff.”
Asked for comment about these worker complaints, CNS spokesman Bohne said the group was spending some of the extra funds in its budget to “provide safe, modern, and efficient work spaces” for more employees. He also said, “the safety of our workforce and of the public is our number one concern.”
But the concerns expressed to CPI were echoed in a 2015 worker survey about the contractor’s safety practices, after the group had run the sites for about a year. “Decisions and behaviors of [contractor] leaders lead the workforce to believe that cost savings and production take precedence over safety,” said the report, which the Center for Public Integrity obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Workers resented that the Bechtel group was given extra profits for slashing costs, the report said. It told the group to “emphasize [instead] how cost savings will be re-invested in quality of life initiatives for the workforce.”
Regarding benefit cuts, Bohne said they were needed to better align them “with comparable benefit plans of similar organizations in similar industries.” He said the government had not awarded the consortium extra profits simply for cutting benefits, and that all benefit cuts “are reviewed to ensure that changes will not degrade safety, security, or quality.”
Trump for America, a nonprofit that raised millions of private dollars for Donald Trump’s presidential transition expenses, still hasn’t provided more than vague outlines of its spending and won’t say what its plans are for nearly $2 million in leftover cash.
But a Center for Public Integrity review of presidential transition and related records raises the question of whether the group used money it collected from wealthy special interests to pay Trump’s company hundreds of thousands of dollars for the transition’s use of Trump Tower in New York City.
Such an arrangement would have allowed Trump to personally profit from the initial formation of his presidential administration, ethics watchdogs point out.
Three days after Election Day 2016, a Trump presidential transition staff member emailed an official at the federal General Services Administration to float the prospect of using public money to pay for a Trump Tower lease.
“Can we get the details again of how to pay for a lease of Trump Tower in NYC? It would need to be a new contract for you guys to take over? Or could the c4 pay rent and you guys reimburse out of” $6 million in public money set aside for post-election transition expenses, asked the email, which was obtained by nonprofit watchdog group American Oversight under the Freedom of Information Act, with the sender’s name redacted. By “c4,” the writer meant Trump for America, the nonprofit group raising private money for the transition.
The General Services Administration representative who received the email forwarded it to colleagues with the added note, “Another heads up…” It’s unclear if there was a response.
Nonetheless, later that month, transition spokesman Jason Miller publicly promised no public money would be used to pay rent at Trump Tower.
Trump for America, the nonprofit, has since disclosed that it paid $258,000 in “rent and utilities” during late 2016 and early 2017, when Trump’s presidential transition took place.
Trump for America has not specified what property it rented, although the president-elect indeed used Trump Tower as his de facto presidential transition nerve center.
It’s unclear why the transition needed to use privately raised dollars for rent payments at all.
The memorandum of understanding Trump signed with the General Services Administration regarding the transition says that if the president-elect “requests additional space or space in a location outside Washington, D.C.,” the GSA “will attempt to obtain such space in the location requested after the election, and all associated costs will be charged to the Presidential Transition Act funds,” the public pot of money for the transition.
But General Services Administration spokeswoman Pamela Dixon recently confirmed to the Center for Public Integrity that “taxpayer money was not used to pay for rent or any sort of space at Trump Tower for the transition.”
“Is there self-dealing? And if there is, the public has the right to know,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit spending watchdog based in Washington, D.C. “I understand it’s private money, but part of it is, it’s intending to influence the administration.”
Neither Charles Gantt, the treasurer of Trump for America, nor Kory Langhofer, a lawyer who has represented Trump for America, responded to requests for comment on Trump for America’s finances, or whether the organization paid rent to the president’s company.
The Trump Organization and a spokeswoman for Vice President Mike Pence, who replaced then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as transition chief on the same day the transition inquired about Trump Tower, also did not respond to requests for comment.
Tower of power
Payments to Trump’s private properties are a fraught issue. The president hasn’t divested from his business, now run by his sons, and government watchdogs have criticized him for profiting from the presidency in unprecedented ways.
Trump’s official campaign committee has paid $2.3 million to a Trump business entity for rent and utilities since he began his run, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of campaign finance data. The Secret Service has paid six figures for golf cart rentals at Trump’s clubs in order to carry out their mission of protecting the president, and struggled to negotiate a rent agreement for the same purpose. The Defense Department has needed space at Trump Tower, too, though it didn’t rent from Trump directly and said Trump isn’t profiting from the deal.
Trump Tower was the public center of Trump’s presidential transition work.
Reporters staked out the building lobby to monitor the visits of potential Cabinet nominees against the gilded backdrop. Tourists stopped by to gawk. C-SPAN even set up an “elevator cam” to monitor comings and goings.
There are precedents for incoming presidents using private space for transitions, said Martha Joynt Kumar, head of the nonpartisan nonprofit White House Transition Project, which provides information to presidential transitions. But Kumar could think of no previous instance in which the provision of presidential transition space would have involved payments to an incoming president’s own business.
The GSA was also providing the Trump transition with other office space for free — typical support offered to presidential transitions. (In 2008, for example, incoming president Barack Obama received space via GSA in Washington, D.C. and Chicago.)
After the 2016 election, the GSA waived $1.8 million worth of rent on the public office space it provided to Trump’s transition, according to records obtained by the Center for Public Integrity via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
As a condition of accepting public funds for the transition, Trump agreed the maximum contribution accepted by Trump for America, the nonprofit set up to accept private dollars, would be $5,000 per contributor.
Trump for America also had to disclose the source and amount of private contributions “and expenditure of all monetary contributions” in a report filed with the General Services Administration last February, according to the memorandum of understanding Trump signed with GSA.
The report showed Trump for America raised roughly $6.5 million, boasting a contributor list salted with lobbyists, corporations and billionaires with business before the government, and spent nearly $4.7 million.
Among the corporate donors: AT&T, General Electric, Microsoft, Exxon Mobil Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and PepsiCo. Prominent individuals include casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, coal magnate Joseph W. Craft III and businesswoman Diane Hendricks.
Trump for America’s spending disclosures, however, showed far less detail than the small-print contributor list: just a few lines showing broad categories of spending, such as “payroll” or “travel and relocation expenses,” with no disclosure of who actually got paid.
Trump for America must file a tax return with the Internal Revenue Service, which will provide some detail about its finances, but that’s still months away.
More oversight needed?
As the Trump transition was wrapping up a year ago, transition chief Pence said the process had been so efficiently run, “We will actually return some 20 percent of taxpayer funding back to the U.S. Treasury.”
It’s not clear how Pence calculated the 20 percent figure, and his office did not respond to questions about it.
2016 marked the first full transition between presidential administrations since Congress passed legislation in 2010 that, for the first time, made public money available to the two major party candidates before the election in hopes of ensuring a smoother transfer of power.
Roughly $13.3 million was allocated for pre-election expenses for Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, according to a statement GSA gave the Center for Public Integrity in connection with settlement of the FOIA lawsuit.
The Trump transition received an additional $6 million allocation for post-election transition expenses, according to GSA, and another $1 million was set aside for appointee orientation and training.
Kumar said there needs to be more oversight of how the transition legislation worked. “It’s not just a question of the money,” she said, but “how ... the whole new setup” based on the legislation actually worked.
Chris Lu, the executive director of Obama’s 2008 transition, now a senior fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center, said transitions are massive endeavors that can be misleading in regard to costs, in part because “you’ve got paid transition staff. You’ve got people who actually are being paid out of the transition payroll and then there’s hundreds of other people who you could pay, but who are simply volunteering out of their own time.”
According to a statement GSA provided to the Center for Public Integrity, and accompanying records, $1.5 million in leftover transition funds was used in July 2017 to offset the waived rent on the offices GSA provided to the Trump transition. That was done per a memorandum of understanding Trump signed with GSA in August, calling for any remaining money to be used for that purpose.
The amount didn’t cover all the waived rent, but per the GSA official who asked that it be credited, it would make the agency “a little more whole.”
“What it looks like is that Mike Pence went out of his way to make the claim that taxpayers saved money because Donald Trump is a good businessman, but every dollar that was set aside for the transition was spent for the transition and Mike Pence knew that when he tried to claim otherwise,” said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight.
The chairman of a federal oversight agency responsible for safety at nuclear weapons facilities has stepped down amid turmoil over both his management and his recommendation to President Trump that the agency be abolished.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board -- chaired until this week by lawyer and marine engineer Sean Sullivan -- is a tiny institution by federal standards, but has played a key role in tightening safety practices at nuclear weapons research and production facilities in Hanford, Washington, and Los Alamos, New Mexico, among others.
With an annual budget of $31 million and a staff that numbers about 110 – including 10 technical experts who inspect labs and factories nationwide – the organization is the only independent body responsible for overseeing work by the private companies that run the labs and factories making the most powerful weapons in the U.S. arsenal.
These contractors, which sometimes collect annual government-paid profits higher than the board’s budget, have frequently chafed at safety-related work slowdowns and stoppages. As a result, even though the board’s power is advisory – it cannot compel safety upgrades -- the contractors’ allies in Congress have targeted the board with restrictions.
Sullivan – a former Navy submarine officer and longtime GOP board member who ascended to chairman with Trump’s election – has sparred regularly with board counterparts and repeatedly voted against sending specific safety warning notices to the Department of Energy, which finances work at the factories and labs.
Last summer, he provoked an uproar by telling the White House in a letter that the five-member board should be eliminated and its staff dispersed or retired. He sent the letter just as the Center for Public Integrity began publishing articles disclosing safety weaknesses and unpublicized accidents at nuclear weapons facilities.
“Although the Board may have been helpful in providing for the adequate protection of public health and safety during its early years, that value today is provided only on the margins,” Sullivan wrote. He called the panel “a relic of the Cold-War era defense-establishment.”
The three Democrats on the board swiftly wrote dissenting letters, members of Congress raised concerns, and staff expressed opposition in meetings with Sullivan. The Center disclosed his letter in an Oct. 19 article.
In a brief Jan. 19 resignation letter to board personnel, Sullivan said he was leaving “to pursue other interests” but alluded to the internal turmoil. “Our fine staff deserves to be led by an executive the staff believes in,” Sullivan wrote. He did not return messages seeking comment.
An annual employee survey reflecting Sullivan’s time as chairman, released last October, showed 28.5 percent of respondents believed the board’s “senior leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity,” a percentage even lower than the 32.5 percent rating given to a predecessor in 2014. In the same survey, just 17.9 percent of the board’s staff reported having a high level of respect for the board’s senior leaders, compared to 23.4 percent in 2014.
In fact, among 38 federal agencies with fewer than 1,000 employees, satisfaction among Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board staff ranked dead last in recently released rankings of worker satisfaction within government during 2017.
It’s not the first time that the board – whose safety prescriptions can cost contractors tens of millions of dollars -- has been battered by internal fighting.
Sullivan once cited similar staff unhappiness in a September 2014 letter to then chairman Peter Winokur demanding that Winokur step down. “The mission of this agency is vital to our nation. Poor leadership has damaged the agency’s ability to perform that mission,” Sullivan wrote in his letter to Winokur, obtained by the Center for Public Integrity under the Freedom of Information Act. “Without new leadership, the agency will continue to degrade.”
Winokur, a Democrat whose professional experience included serving on the staff of former Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., fired back at the time with a letter to board members saying he had “grown increasingly uneasy about [Sullivan’s] abusive behavior and language towards staff and fellow Board members.” But Sullivan got his wish in January 2015, when Winokur retired.
Sullivan later admitted, in an Oct. 5, 2015, letter to a board colleague, that he had engineered Winokur’s departure. “I came to the conclusion that Peter had to go,” Sullivan wrote, “and he had to be pushed. Everything I did, I did with one objective: to make Peter Winokur go home.”
The Trump administration has been silent on whether it will follow Sullivan’s advice to shut down the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board altogether. Multiple sources familiar with the budget process said work on funding the agency for fiscal year 2019 has progressed normally, indicating the Trump administration, at least for now, intends to keep the board going.
Sullivan handed off chairmanship of the five-member board to his fellow Republican, Bruce Hamilton, who will be outnumbered 3-1 by Democrats until the Senate confirms Sullivan’s replacement. The Trump administration has not announced its nominee.
Hamilton also stirred controversy among board employees in 2017. After a closed-door meeting in October, then-National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator Frank Klotz urged safety board members to stop publicly publishing periodic reports on safety problems at contractor-run facilities, on grounds that embarrassing publicity was unhelpful. Hamilton drafted a formal proposal to hide the reports from the public, but backlash from the board’s technical experts and inspectors compelled him to withdraw the proposal before the board voted on it, several officials said.
Before he was appointed to the board by President Obama in August 2015, Hamilton was president of FuelCo LLC, a nuclear fuel company that engaged in uranium transactions with Russia.
The leader of a veterans-focused political action committee rapidly increased payments to himself late last year, following a Center for Public Integrity investigation into his political and charitable operations.
Brian Arthur Hampton, a retired Army major and treasurer of the Put Vets First! PAC, paid himself $20,350 in December 2017 alone — more than three times his compensation in December 2016, according to new disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission. Few leaders of federal PACs earn that much money.
In all, Hampton paid himself $110,000 from his PAC during 2017. Federal income tax records indicate Hampton also earned about $340,000 in 2016 from two veterans charities he runs out of the same office in Falls Church, Virginia: the Circle of Friends for American Veterans and the Center for American Homeless Veterans. (Tax records for 2017 are not yet available.)
A Center for Public Integrity investigation published in December revealed how Hampton’s organizations have used telemarketers to raise millions of dollars from donors in the past decade — but these fundraisers-for-hire are keeping 85 to 90 percent of the money. Most of the rest pays for overhead, including Hampton’s compensation. Just $7,000 — or 0.3 percent — paid for unspecified “veterans advocacy,” according to the PAC’s federal disclosures.
Hampton did not respond to specific questions from the Center for Public Integrity about his PAC’s spending generally or his own salary. In a statement emailed Friday, Hampton defended his use of telemarketers.
“Our PAC fundraising costs are indeed high,” Hampton wrote, but by using telemarketers, the committee “has no liability if the fundraising goes south.”
Put Vets First! PAC raised more than $2.35 million in 2017, mostly from small-dollar donors who the PAC, by law, isn’t required to identify.
Meanwhile, Hampton’s PAC spent $2.32 million during 2017. None of that money went to political committees, including those of the many congressional candidates who advocate for military veterans.
Where did most of Put Vets First! PAC’s money go? More than $2.1 million went to pay a dozen companies the PAC hired for fundraising services. The $110,000 Hampton paid himself also stands out.
PACs are generally used by corporations, unions and various interest groups to raise and spend money for the purpose of electing and defeating political candidates, although federal law gives PACs fairly wide latitude on how they may otherwise spend their money.
In his statement, Hampton said it’s more useful for his PAC to educate candidates about veterans’ issues through phone calls than it is to donate to their campaigns.
“Our own experience is that relentless and ongoing dialogues with candidates is more effective than outright monetary contributions we made in the past,” Hampton said.
Daniel Petalas, the FEC’s former acting general counsel, who reviewed the Put Vets First! PAC’s latest FEC filing at the request of the Center for Public Integrity, questioned Hampton’s PAC’s operation.
“He is skating on thin ice,” said Petalas, today a principal at law firm Garvey Schubert Barer. “The more he collects himself and the more the entities associated with him collect…the more likely it is that it catches the attention” of federal officials.
But the FEC’s rules don’t expressly prohibit PAC leaders from getting paid above fair market value, said Michael Toner, a former Republican FEC chairman and attorney at Wiley Rein LLP.
“The real check on this type of activity is donors not putting up with it, to be blunt,” Toner said.
For the first three quarters of 2017, Hampton contracted with telemarketer Outreach Calling to raise funds for the PAC.
But the latest filing shows the PAC has cut ties with the company, which in December was also the subject of a Center for Public Integrity investigation. Hampton has replaced Outreach Calling with its telemarketing subcontractor, Residential Programs, and several other firms, many without websites or much public presence: Market Process Group, TPFE Inc., Pledge Assistance LLC, GSI Inc., American Public Resource LLC, Premier Calling Inc. and Lifeline Services Inc.
This article was co-published by Salon.
Companies selling some of the most lucrative prescription painkillers funneled millions of dollars to advocacy groups that in turn promoted the medications’ use, according to a report released Monday by a U.S. senator.
The investigation by Missouri’s Sen. Claire McCaskill sheds light on the opioid industry’s ability to shape public opinion and raises questions about its role in an overdose epidemic that has claimed hundreds of thousands of American lives. Representatives of some of the drugmakers named in the report said they did not set conditions on how the money was to be spent or force the groups to advocate for their painkillers.
The report from McCaskill, ranking Democrat on the Senate’s homeland security committee, examines advocacy funding by the makers of the top five opioid painkillers by worldwide sales in 2015. Financial information the companies provided to Senate staff shows they spent more than $10 million between 2012 and 2017 to support 14 advocacy groups and affiliated doctors.
The report did not include some of the largest and most politically active manufacturers of the drugs.
The findings follow a similar investigation launched in 2012 by a bipartisan pair of senators. That effort eventually was shelved and no findings were ever released.
While the new report provides only a snapshot of company activities, experts said it gives insight into how industry-funded groups fueled demand for drugs such as OxyContin and Vicodin, addictive medications that generated billions in sales despite research showing they are largely ineffective for chronic pain.
“It looks pretty damning when these groups were pushing the message about how wonderful opioids are and they were being heavily funded, in the millions of dollars, by the manufacturers of those drugs,” said Lewis Nelson, a Rutgers University doctor and opioid expert.
The findings could bolster hundreds of lawsuits that are aimed at holding opioid drugmakers responsible for helping fuel an epidemic blamed for the deaths of more than 340,000 Americans since 2000.
McCaskill’s staff asked drugmakers to turn over records of payments they made to groups and affiliated physicians, part of a broader investigation by the senator into the opioid crisis. The request was sent last year to five companies: Purdue Pharma; Insys Therapeutics; Janssen Pharmaceuticals, owned by Johnson & Johnson; Mylan; and Depomed.
Fourteen nonprofit groups, mostly representing pain patients and specialists, received nearly $9 million from the drugmakers, according to investigators. Doctors affiliated with those groups received another $1.6 million.
Most of the groups included in the probe took industry-friendly positions. That included issuing medical guidelines promoting opioids for chronic pain, lobbying to defeat or include exceptions to state limits on opioid prescribing, and criticizing landmark prescribing guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Doctors and the public have no way of knowing the true source of this information and that’s why we have to take steps to provide transparency,” said McCaskill in an interview with The Associated Press. The senator plans to introduce legislation requiring increased disclosure about the financial relationships between drugmakers and certain advocacy groups.
A 2016 investigation by the AP and the Center for Public Integrity revealed how painkiller manufacturers used hundreds of lobbyists and millions in campaign contributions to fight state and federal measures aimed at stemming the tide of prescription opioids, often enlisting help from advocacy organizations.
Bob Twillman, executive director of the Academy of Integrative Pain Management, said most of the $1.3 million his group received from the five companies went to a state policy advocacy operation. But Twillman said the organization has called for non-opioid pain treatments while also asking state lawmakers for exceptions to restrictions on the length of opioid prescriptions for certain patients.
“We really don’t take direction from them about what we advocate for,” Twillman said of the industry.
The tactics highlighted in Monday’s report are at the heart of lawsuits filed by hundreds of state and local governments against the opioid industry.
The suits allege that drugmakers misled doctors and patients about the risks of opioids by enlisting “front groups” and “key opinion leaders” who oversold the drugs’ benefits and encouraged overprescribing. In the legal claims, the governments seek money and changes to how the industry operates, including an end to the use of outside groups to push their drugs.
U.S. deaths linked to opioids have quadrupled since 2000 to roughly 42,000 in 2016. Although initially driven by prescription drugs, most opioid deaths now involve illicit drugs, including heroin and fentanyl.
Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, contributed the most to the groups, funneling $4.7 million to organizations and physicians from 2012 through last year.
In a statement, the company did not address whether it was trying to influence the positions of the groups it supported, but said it does help organizations “that are interested in helping patients receive appropriate care.” On Friday, Purdue announced it would no longer market OxyContin to doctors.
Insys Therapeutics, a company recently targeted by federal prosecutors, provided more than $3.5 million to interest groups and physicians, according to McCaskill’s report. Last year, the company’s founder was indicted for allegedly offering bribes to doctors to write prescriptions for the company’s spray-based fentanyl medication.
A company spokesman declined to comment.
Insys contributed $2.5 million last year to a U.S. Pain Foundation program to pay for pain drugs for cancer patients.
“The question was: Do we make these people suffer, or do we work with this company that has a terrible name?” said U.S. Pain founder Paul Gileno, explaining why his organization sought the money.
Depomed, Janssen and Mylan contributed $1.4 million, $650,000 and $26,000 in payments, respectively. Janssen and Mylan told the AP they acted responsibly, while calls and emails to Depomed were not returned.
Perrone and Mulvihill report for The Associated Press.
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) promised huge taxpayer savings in 2013 by consolidating two critical sites where nuclear weapons are assembled — as much as $3.27 billion over a decade.
But four years after the contract was won by Consolidated Nuclear Security (CNS) LLC, a group of corporations led by Bechtel National Inc., there’s not much to celebrate, government documents and reports show.
Patrick Malone spoke to the Texas Standard about where the rest of the promised quick savings have gone, and the increase of annual federal costs of running and overseeing the two sites — the Pantex Plant in Texas and the Y-12 site in Tennessee where nuclear weapons are disassembled and modernized.
Listen to the interview here
Virginia’s attorney general has launched an investigation into a veterans charity that allegedly misled donors by spending millions of dollars on telemarketing and salaries rather than on veterans.
The Falls Church, Virginia-based Center for American Homeless Veterans received a “civil investigative demand” for documents from Attorney General Mark Herring’s office in late December, according to documents reviewed this week by the Center for Public Integrity.
The attorney general’s actions came just two weeks after publication of a Center for Public Integrity investigation into the Center for American Homeless Veterans and its founder, Brian Arthur Hampton.
Separately, Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., on Wednesday asked the leaders of two U.S. House committees to launch an investigation into “bad actors” who mislead donors and enrich themselves in the name of military veterans. He cited the Center for Public Integrity’s investigation into Hampton’s veterans operation and media reports about other veterans charities.
“Congress should not sit on the sidelines while unscrupulous individuals abuse their tax-exempt status, fleece donors and take advantage of the men and women who have served our great nation and their families,” Jones wrote in a letter to the leaders of the House Committee on Ways and Means and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Committee representatives could not immediately be reached for comment.
Along with the Center for American Homeless Veterans, Hampton runs the nonprofit Circle of Friends for American Veterans and the Put Vets First! Political Action Committee out of the same office.
All three groups use telemarketers to raise millions of dollars, but hardly any of this money is spent on programs for veterans, according to federal tax filings and Federal Election Commission disclosures.
Hampton denies wrongdoing and has said in the past that contracting with professional fundraisers frees up his time to focus on outreach.
But in its “civil investigative demand,” Herring’s office alleges that Hampton’s Center for American Homeless Veterans “has engaged in misleading donors to believe funds would be used for veterans-assistance programs and organizations, when funds were not used for those purposes.”
Michael Kelly, spokesman for Herring, confirmed his office is investigating the Center for American Homeless Veterans but declined to answer specific questions about the probe.
“Attorney General Herring has made it a priority to crack down on financial exploitation of veterans and fraudulent charities, as evidenced by his work with colleagues to shut down the deceptive “VietNow” charity, and the record-setting $100 million settlement his team secured against USA Discounters for deceptive sales and debt collection practices,” Kelly said in an emailed statement.
Hampton said he is cooperating with the investigation.
“We have the program goods and are always enthusiastic about sharing all the documents,” Hampton wrote in an emailed statement. “We do what we say we are going to do and a great deal more.”
Hampton has personally benefited from his trio of veterans organizations.
During 2017, he made $110,00 from the PAC, boosting his income from the PAC to $20,350 in December alone, according to federal records.
Hampton also earned $340,000 in 2016 from his two veterans charities, according to the most recent tax filings available. It’s not yet known how much Hampton earned from his charities during 2017.
Hampton defended his compensation, noting that he has “24 years of tenure” and is the head of three organizations.
During the 2014 and 2015 tax years, a telemarketer hired by the Center for American Homeless Veterans, Outreach Calling, kept $3.7 million — or 90 percent — of the $4.1 million it raised for the nonprofit, according to annual tax filings.
Records filed by Outreach Calling in Utah indicate the telemarketer kept $7.9 million out of $8.7 million it raised for the charity from 2011 to 2015.
Similarly, Hampton’s other nonprofit and his PAC have spent most of the money they’ve raised on telemarketers.
Since 2015, Outreach Calling has raked in $2 million from the Put Vets First! PAC. That’s 89 percent of the $2.3 million in donations the PAC has received in the same time period, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Charitable Resource Foundation, the telemarketer working for Hampton’s Circle of Friends for American Veterans, kept $6.4 million, or 85 percent, of the $7.5 million it raised from donors between the 2011 and 2015 tax years, according to IRS filings.
Charity Navigator, a watchdog organization that studies the spending habits of charities, issued “concern advisories” for Hampton’s two nonprofits after the Center for Public Integrity published its initial investigation in December.
First came the smoke. The explosion hit 20 minutes later — so massive it killed 15, injured 260, damaged or destroyed 150 buildings, shattered glass a mile out and set trees ablaze. Under stadium lights, the West, Texas, high school football field, home of the Trojans, was transformed into a makeshift triage center.
The 2013 disaster in West, a town of just 2,800, began with a fire at the local fertilizer plant, highlighting safety gaps at thousands of facilities nationwide that use or store high-risk chemicals. It took the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nearly four years after that to issue a rule intended to prevent such accidents — a move strenuously opposed by industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute.
Just a week after the rule was issued, Donald Trump was sworn in as president. Businesses tried again, asking for a delay of the requirements. This time, they got what they asked for.
The EPA has granted more than a few private-sector wishes lately under the guise of regulatory reform. Roughly 62 percent of the agency’s “deregulatory” actions completed in Administrator Scott Pruitt’s first year and 85 percent of its planned initiatives match up with specific industry requests, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis. These changes targeted requirements ranging from air-pollution limits for oil and gas operations to water-pollution restrictions on coal-fired power plants.
Many of these steps followed entreaties from a small number of powerful lobbying groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Chemistry Council and the National Association of Manufacturers.
The EPA, which ignored a half-dozen requests for comment, has said officials are merely reigning in an agency that they assert routinely overstepped its authority. But there is another interpretation. The analysis shows the EPA has been captured by industry, said Alexandra Teitz, a former agency attorney.
“The idea that ‘We are for environmental protection, too, we just choose to do it a different way’ might be plausible if we’d seen anything to support that,” said Teitz, now a senior policy advisor for the Sierra Club. “But we haven’t seen them do anything positive. So, that claim is just a joke.”
Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, an open-government group, said the industry successes have come while the EPA is “operating under a veil of secrecy.” The agency has failed to routinely disclose day-to-day activities it previously made public, he said.
While Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt sued over 14 major EPA regulations and opposed others, including the chemical-safety rule. His legal interpretations tend to align with industry desires: a 2017 New York Times investigation revealed his deep ties to companies and propensity to use their arguments as his own.
In his first six months on the job, Pruitt was scheduled to meet 31 times more often with industry than with environmental or public-health groups, according to a Center analysis last year. The EPA’s internal watchdog is investigating his official travel, including a Morocco trip during which Pruitt promoted natural-gas exports. Asked in a January CBS News interview whether the EPA’s mission is to protect the environment or business, he responded, “It’s neither.”
“Our focus here should be on stewardship,” Pruitt said, adding that “to achieve what we want to achieve in environmental protection, environmental stewardship, we need the partnership of industry.”
Industry’s EPA scorecard
When Trump directed all federal agencies to reconsider existing rules a month into his term, Pruitt seized the opportunity. Regulatory reform would mean “listening to those directly impacted by regulations,” in contrast to the ways the Obama administration “abused the regulatory process,” he said in an EPA news release.
To see who has benefited so far, the Center examined the EPA’s list of completed deregulatory actions and its October agenda for future reform, comparing them to requests made by the private sector in comments to the agency in previous months.
The analysis focuses only on the agency’s stated deregulatory actions. It doesn’t capture other steps taken by the EPA that also went industry’s way, such as the March decision not to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, suspected of harming children’s brains. Agency scientists previously recommended prohibiting its use.
In April, the EPA asked the public what rules it ought to roll back. Americans flooded the agency with comments that urged officials to keep environmental-health safeguards intact, while numerous businesses pointed to rules they considered burdensome. The EPA said it drew from those comments to craft its regulatory reform agenda, released in October. But at least three of the four broad initiatives announced by the agency and all nine of the rules identified for reconsideration stemmed from industry requests — 85 percent of the EPA’s reform plans.
Reopening a rule allows industry to make the case again that the regulations should be less stringent. Southern Co., for example, previously opposed regulations intended to limit water pollution from coal-fired power plants, asserting the agency relied on “faulty cost-benefit analyses.” Prior to Pruitt, the EPA disputed these claims. Now, it’s taking another look. Southern Co. declined to comment.
The broader EPA initiatives give industry a chance to fundamentally alter the way the nation fights pollution. The agency committed, for example, to evaluating the cumulative employment impacts of its environmental regulations, in response to business requests. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which didn’t reply to emails asking for comment, wrote last May that failing to properly analyze job impacts “stacks the deck against the possibility of producing a good regulation.”
Corporate influence is also apparent in at least 13 of the 21 actions the EPA has taken since Pruitt became administrator on Feb. 17 of last year. Six of these actions delayed, rescinded or reopened for consideration major regulations — wins for business interests. For instance, the agency delayed through May 2018 stricter requirements to protect people applying certain toxic pesticides, a move supported by companies such as Bayer Corp. Another seven industry victories came on narrower issues; manufacturers of wood products, for example, won a deadline extension to meet emission standards.
Industries didn’t always get what they wanted, of course. In part that’s because not all companies are on the same side of every issue. For example, the National Association of Manufacturers and other business groups that oppose the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era rule aimed at limiting planet-warming pollution from the U.S. power sector, were pleased when the EPA said it would consider a repeal. Microsoft and Apple, on the other hand, supported the regulation in federal court.
Many companies and trade organizations say their outreach to the EPA is no different than in previous administrations. Some are employing the same arguments they used during the Obama era, including assertions that small environmental gains are coming at an outsize cost to business.
“We have lost the critical balance in our federal environmental policies between furthering progress and limiting unnecessary economic impacts,” the National Association of Manufacturers wrote to the EPA last year. The group didn’t respond to the Center’s requests for comment.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers’ members supported the EPA taking a second look at limits set for greenhouse-gas emissions from light-duty vehicles “to let the facts dictate the outcome,” wrote spokeswoman Gloria Bergquist. She added, “We are not prejudging the results.”
These reviews will aid the public, companies said. “A vibrant U.S. manufacturing base that helps American companies compete globally and keeps jobs here at home is what we all want,” wrote Laura Toole, a spokeswoman for General Motors.
But Teitz, the former EPA lawyer, said Pruitt is pushing agency norms. It’s not unheard of for new administrations to take another look at regulations that aren’t yet in effect, or even those that are, she said. But this EPA is reversing rules companies already must follow at an unprecedented rate, she said, causing confusion for officials in the field and leaving the public under-protected.
That, public advocacy groups and states such as New York and Massachusetts say, is exactly what has happened with the chemical-safety rule, delayed through February 2019. Since the rule was finalized in the waning days of the Obama administration, more than a dozen accidents, leaks, explosions and fires occurred at facilities that would have been covered by these new requirements, according to the Sierra Club. At least eight people died. More than 40 were injured.
A federal court will hear arguments about the delay in March. Industry opponents of the rule say in filings that it would cost companies money without providing benefits to the public. A Louisiana security official, in a court document filed by Oklahoma and 11 other states that support the rule delay, said that allowing it to take effect could expose chemical facilities to terrorism threats because of new disclosure requirements. (Military experts opposing the delay have said the rule would improve national security by better informing first responders.)
Whichever way the court rules, it likely won’t affect West, Texas. The town hasn’t replaced its fertilizer plant and has no intention of doing so, said John Crowder, a local pastor.
“The community would just not welcome that kind of business,” he said. It took nearly five years for West to rebuild, he noted, work that was just completed last month “to a collective sigh of relief.”
Crowder is no great fan of regulation. Now, though, he sees a need for more oversight.
He doesn’t know much about the requirements the EPA enacted and then put on ice, so he can’t say whether they would avert tragedies like the one in West.
“But if there were a rule that could prevent it,” he said, “I can’t imagine a valid reason for delay.”