Pro Publica

How the pandemic economy could wipe out a generation of black-owned businesses

Of all the products made at Danette Wilder's small manufacturing plant near the University of Kentucky in Lexington, the products she depended on most for sales were the O-rings cranked out by her vintage presses.

Each month, Wilder's crew of six people, working at long tables as they listened to a soundtrack of funk and R&B, made thousands of the rubber loops, cut from spools into precise strips and spliced into uniform perfect circles.

The work distinguished Wilder's company, SealingLife Technology, as one of the vanishingly few rubber products suppliers owned by a female engineer — not to mention one who is also Black. It hasn't been an easy path: Wilder has navigated state and federal set-aside programs, tight-fisted bankers and what she saw as obvious discrimination. But eventually, Wilder built SealingLife into a reliable vendor for all manner of aerospace, medical and other industrial businesses.

Now, SealingLife is struggling to survive as orders for its O-rings have dried up over the past year, plunging the company into hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. That's not an unusual story in the current pandemic-induced recession, which has been a gut punch for millions of small business owners. But Wilder faces obstacles that are disproportionately common among Black-owned companies, which on average had fewer resources to draw upon going into last year, were hit particularly hard by the downturn and were less well-served by the relief programs set up to help.

“We're in a purgatory state," Wilder said. “The long term is, if we can't get our foot in the door with people who understand what we do and how we do it and provide us opportunities to grow, then the outcome is very bleak.''

There are disparities between American businesses owned by white people and those owned by all minority groups, but the widest ones are typically with Black entrepreneurs, who tend to have modest family wealth and thin professional networks to help recruit talent and cut deals. Although the number of Black-owned businesses has grown in recent years, the vast majority remain sole proprietorships. As of 2012 — the most recent data the Census Bureau has collected — average annual sales for a Black-owned business came to about $58,000, compared to nearly 10 times that amount for the average white-owned enterprise.

Those years of compounding disadvantage have been exacerbated by the pandemic. For example, 18.4% fewer self-employed Black people were working in July 2020 than there had been a year previously, compared to 6.2% fewer self-employed white people (the dips for Asian and Hispanic people were even smaller). And minority-owned businesses overall have also been at the back of the line for relief programs, which were initially designed without factoring in the unique challenges of small businesses owned by people of color. As a result, federal Paycheck Protection Program loans to businesses in areas with a higher percentage of minority residents came in later and in lesser amounts per employee.

That's not new either. Decades of public and private initiatives meant to boost minority-owned businesses have fallen short. Since the 1980s, race-based contracting preferences have been weakened by federal court rulings. Now, the pandemic's fallout threatens to arrest the nascent progress of a generation of Black entrepreneurs. That would only widen the yawning gap between wealth held by white people and that held by African Americans, which had barely begun to narrow after the last recession in 2009.

Wilder, 50, stands an imposing 6 feet tall, and shows up for a factory tour wearing maroon slacks, loafers, and big blocky glasses. She's lived through all of those systemic disadvantages that show up in statistics. But she doesn't want to end up like the averages. She just wants a fair shake.

“Whenever something's been amputated, you need a recovery period," Wilder said. “It's sort of like, when you get behind on something, if there's nothing to help you recover, nothing really helps."

Danette Wilder grew up in inner-city Detroit, where her father, with only a few years of formal schooling, had moved to work in a Chrysler plant. She went to Detroit's Central High School, which at the time had one of the worst graduation rates in the nation.

But Wilder did well in school, and enrolled at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Virginia, where her half-sister Gwendolyn Wilder lived. When their brother was murdered in Detroit, the two sisters took over caring for his two infant children. Danette Wilder worked multiple research and development jobs while finishing her degree, then landed an engineering job at Corning Inc., the venerable materials company now famous for making glass iPhone screens. Gwendolyn Wilder, too, got a Corning job, as an executive assistant.

Corning, located in largely white upstate New York, was making a diversity push. But Danette Wilder said she soon learned that she'd been hired at a much lower salary than the other engineering recruits; when she raised the disparity with her bosses, she said, she got nowhere.

Instead, Wilder tried a workaround, getting a side job for a few hours a week at a Toys R Us in Corning, which she knew company employees and executives would frequent. The extra income helped, but she also believes her second job led higher-ups to double her pay. “It caused such an uproar, because people were like, 'She works for Corning?'" Wilder recalled.

Wilder reasoned that working within the system might be more effective than loudly decrying injustice. “Sometimes it's not all about starting a riot," she said. “It's about strategically understanding their rules, and learning how to utilize them to get what you need." (A spokesperson for Corning declined to comment on the incident but said that the company has “consistently operated at parity for minority and majority pay equity for many years.")

Next, Wilder joined Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Georgetown, Kentucky, which paid even better. But the work wasn't as professionally stimulating as at Corning, so Wilder started doing some information technology consulting on the side, and in 2005 she quit Toyota to go out on her own. One consulting client was Les Burd, who in 1989 had started a rubber company called ElastoSeal. Burd hired Wilder as ElastoSeal's chief operating officer, and credits her with improving all manner of business functions. A few years later, when Burd was looking for a succession plan, they arranged for Wilder to buy a stake in the company.

The transfer, however, hit a snag when other people involved in the transaction objected. That brought Wilder to a familiar point for many people of color: Seeing no other plausible explanation for a setback, and wondering whether discrimination could be at play. “You see I'm educated. I've proven I know how to make you money. And you're still struggling?" Wilder said. “It's hard to prove in a court of law, but it really is that legitimate."

Burd said he understands prejudice exists, but doubts that it thwarted his deal with Wilder (who emphasized her respect for him). “It's just different hurdles to jump through, and we didn't make a conscientious enough effort to get it done," he said.

While the deal languished, Wilder started SealingLife, focusing on niche, high-value, low-volume products, many of which needed to be custom-designed to fit specific machines. ElastoSeal eventually leased part of its facility to Wilder and allowed her to run most of its operations. Wilder figures the long incubation period within an established business may have helped her gain a foothold in Kentucky's decidedly white male manufacturing industry. (According to the Census Bureau, in 2012, 6,269 out of 7,032 manufacturing firms in Kentucky were white-owned, while 122 were owned by Black people.)

“We gained a lot of business under that camouflage, because it was white-owned," Wilder said of assuming ElastoSeal's operations. Gwendolyn Wilder, who now helps run SealingLife, recalled both of them being blatantly slighted in meetings with other businesses and lenders. “It's not like it's hidden. It's in your face," she said.

Danette Wilder's small staff includes her brother Delonzo Wilder, who helps with SealingLife's trucking division, and childhood friend Jasmine Heflin, who works in the production room. As orders dropped off during the pandemic, Wilder tried to avoid layoffs by reducing hours, which was easier because some employees left of their own accord to care for children whose schools had closed.

Inside the company's supply warehouse, a high-ceilinged room with racks that hold spools of rubber and plastics, a curtained-off section hides much of the advanced work that may be key to SealingLife's future. Sitting atop a giant tabletop machine used to cut large sheets of material, Wilder huddled with a young process engineer named Sarah Honchul, who showed her a tiny, orange, hole-filled rubber rectangle that she had developed for an equine medical device. (Kentucky is horse country, after all.) Honchul is also working on a gasket seal for a company that manufactures laboratory experiment systems for the International Space Station.

“That has to pass tests at NASA," Wilder said with a hint of pride.

SealingLife is AS9100- and ISO 9001-certified, which allows it to do aerospace business. The certifications are neither easy nor cheap to get, but they are supposed to pay off by getting big companies to trust a business to deliver quality on high-risk products. SealingLife will do lower-tech jobs too; one of its more consistent gigs is making football thigh pads with custom-designed decorative imprints.

Still, everything is harder for companies without strong networks and vast capital reserves. Wilder doesn't have the cash flow to afford high salaries, so she hires workers right out of college and trains them. She can't afford new equipment for extruding and grinding rubber, so she buys ancient machines at auctions and refurbishes them. The colorful masses of steel sit like dinosaurs around the warehouse, in various states of operability. “The newest thing in here is probably the fridge," said Jennifer Cady, Wilder's quality representative.

When the machines break, which they often do, Wilder repairs them herself, sapping time from hunting new business. She could seek a loan to expand more quickly, but Black-owned firms have historically had a tougher time with lenders. According to a 2016 Federal Reserve survey, the share of Black entrepreneurs applying for loans was 10 percentage points higher than that of white entrepreneurs — but were almost twice as likely to have their applications rejected.

Burd, who is white, said he never had trouble getting loans for ElastoSeal. Wilder's experience was different: Her own bank turned her down for a loan multiple times, and she finally found a small local bank to extend credit. Of course, it's easier to guarantee loans with high-dollar, long-term contracts in place. And those kinds of contracts are difficult to win without equipment that produces quick turnarounds.

For example, cutting rubber for O-rings takes longer than it would if SealingLife had the capital to purchase more modern equipment. The company's hand presses are difficult for less-skilled workers to operate, making it harder to ensure high-quality product. “We would love to get automated presses, because that makes it so we can standardize the process more, we'd have more consistent pieces coming out," Cady said.

To help her employees develop some of those skills, Wilder sent them to train with Darryl Hawkins, who runs a small rubber compounding company in Wichita Falls, Texas. Compounding involves mixing various chemicals used in rubber production, such as carbon black, which can coat clothes and skin so thoroughly that it still seeps onto sheets after workers have taken a shower. Hawkins and Wilder met at a conference; as far as they can tell, theirs are among a small handful of Black-owned rubber companies in the U.S.

Hawkins followed a path similar to Wilder's, but two decades earlier. He served as a chemist for tire manufacturing companies before striking out on his own in 1985. Trying to get loans, he said, he was often passed over. Instead, he slowly expanded his company. He primarily served the oil industry, which was struggling with sagging prices before the pandemic, and saw them fall off a cliff when energy demand collapsed. He would sell his business, but there aren't many interested buyers.

“Unfortunately, it's like trying to reach up like a drowning man right now," said Hawkins, who has a fuzzy beard and walks with a cane. “You'd grab for almost anything."

Wilder hoped that her orders for rubber would keep his business alive, but hasn't had enough to pass along. She still dreams of buying Hawkins out, but the pandemic put a hitch in those aspirations. Now, she worries about becoming what he is: a small business owner without a cushion that could be wiped out if conditions worsen.

“Where is his retirement?" Wilder asked, rhetorically. “I get emotional about this now. Because there are still people out here who have a sense of integrity, want to give back and do well and serve their customers the old-fashioned way. A lot of minority companies, that's what they want to do."

And despite all the progress America is supposed to have made on racial equity, nothing seems to be getting easier.

“I see it happening to me," Wilder said.

Policymakers have tried for years to mitigate the structural disadvantages facing minority-owned businesses, but those efforts have been scaled back over the years, rather than strengthened.

Take contracting preferences. After passage of a 1977 law, federal, state and local governments set firm targets for the percentage of their procurement dollars that should go to minority-owned businesses. White business owners challenged them almost immediately in court. In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled a set-aside program in Richmond, Virginia, but left the door open if the public entity conducted a study and found that minority-owned firms were disadvantaged in the area. In 1997,even that bit of flexibility disappeared, when the high court found that Philadelphia's set-aside program was unconstitutional. Over the years, cities and states weakened their minority contracting requirements to the point where they often have little effect.

In Lexington, for example, the city government aims to award 10% of its contracting dollars to disadvantaged businesses. But that category includes women- and veteran-owned businesses, which scooped up the overwhelming majority of those opportunities in 2019 and 2020,according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. Less than 1% of the dollar value of the city's disadvantaged-business contracts went to Black-owned businesses.

Wilder's experience with city government contracting has been difficult. In 2014, she decided to repurpose trucks that she'd purchased for rubber business and turn them instead into a waste-hauling division. As the business grew, she signed on as a minority-owned subcontractor to a white-owned company called Waste Services of the Bluegrass, which was vying for Lexington's 5-year, $17 million trash contract. She thinks her participation in the bid helped Waste Services ultimately win. But as the number of vehicles needed to fulfill the contract grew beyond Waste Services' plans, she contends, her equipment was damaged and the business went to another supplier. She's now suing in Fayette County Circuit Court for breach of contract, having lost thousands of dollars on the debacle. Waste Services did not respond to a request for comment.

“Welcome to Kentucky," Wilder said wryly.

On the state level, Kentucky maintains a directory of women- and minority-owned businesses, but does not require their participation in government procurement.

Federal programs have also been under attack. For example, in 1998, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell tried to amend a transportation funding bill to strip out race-based preferences. “Every time the government hands out a highway contract to one person based on race or gender, it discriminates against another person based on race or gender," McConnell saidduring floor debate. The Department of Transportation's disadvantaged business contracting program survived, but the Clinton administration had already tightened eligibility requirements, making it harder to qualify.

What's left is the Small Business Administration's 8(a) program, which gives a competitive edge for federal contracts to small firms that are owned by veterans, minorities, or women. But with onerous certification requirements and no guaranteed returns, the number of enrolled businesses sank in the early 2010s. Participation rose again over the past few years as the application process was streamlined. In 2018, the agency's inspector general criticized the changes for giving benefits to firms that weren't truly disadvantaged. (Hawkins' business got certified — at a cost of about $10,000 — but he said he never saw much new business as a result. Wilder is in the process of applying, saying she thinks she's built the connections necessary to actually win contracts.)

The federal government also tries to help minority-owned businesses in other ways. The Minority Business Development Agency, established by presidential decree in 1969, has limped along with a budget of about $45 million a year, running a network of business assistance centers and commissioning occasional research reports.

President Donald Trump proposed eliminating the MBDA, but Congress did not oblige. So to run the office, Trump appointed a 2016 campaign volunteer who, before he took a job in Trump's Department of Commerce, had no business development experience: Henry Childs II, a Texas lawyer.

Childs said he tried to get the MBDA enshrined in statute, and despite his initial allegiance to Trump, spoke up when he saw potential problems with White House initiatives like PPP that gave an edge to businesses with strong banking relationships. “I don't know if they thought the PPP was going to be the answer, but it wasn't," said Childs, who went on to launch a private equity fund for minority-owned businesses. “I don't think they understand the difference between Wall Street and Main Street."

Efforts to help minority-owned businesses also exist in the private sector. Over the years, many large companies have developed “supplier diversity" programs to include entrepreneurs of color. But they often have little transparency and weak standards, according tosurveys.

With heightened attention to racial injustice following the George Floyd police killing, many large corporations pledged to amp up supplier diversity and lending initiatives. Coca-Cola, for example, pledged to increase its purchases from Black-owned suppliers by $500 million over the next five years, while Netflix deposited $100 million into Black-owned banks. But Adrienne Trimble, who ran the National Minority Supplier Development Council until Mar. 1, when she took a job as chief diversity officer at Sysco, worries that corporate attention could fade.

“We don't want this to just be a moment in time," Trimble said. “We expect this to be a movement, and holding those companies accountable to ensuring they have diversity in their supply chains."

Accountability is an elusive thing. Outside of government contracting, no law requires private businesses to contract with minority-owned firms, or to disclose how much they do. As Wilder has experienced, a diversity initiative can peter out quickly. “Like a lot of things to help women and minorities, there's a big push for a while, and then it wanes off," Wilder said, remembering her time at Corning.

Parker Hannifin, the Cleveland-based conglomerate, was SealingLife's biggest O-ring customer until it cut back its orders almost to zero in early 2020. Wilder said the company gave her no explanation.

A spokesperson for Parker Hannifin, Aidan Gormley, said that orders were dropped after it merged several business units and began to manufacture O-rings in-house. “The change was a business decision and in no way reflected the quality of products or services provided by the supplier," Gormley said.

Parker Hannifin said it has a diverse supplier base, but it declined to disclose any numbers, which makes Wilder skeptical about how much effort they're putting into it. The company controls so much of the market for seals that, without it, Wilder has a more limited range of potential customers. Wilder even won a regional supplier of the year award from the NMSDC, which she hoped would jump-start new business opportunities. But pitching big companies is frustrating, even when they have supplier diversity programs.

“A lot of times the wrong people are sitting at that table, and they don't have the knowledge to know what we're talking about, and they don't know where to put us," Wilder said. “So we get caught in this nested loop, which becomes very frustrating, if 99 out of 100 times that's what happens."

Wilder is grateful for the nearly $500,000 she got from the SBA's Economic Injury Disaster Loan and PPP programs, which she applied for early (although her second-draw PPP loan hasn't come through yet, leaving her more dependent on the non-forgivable EIDL). But it's merely left her treading water, while she works to diversify into operations consulting and team up with other small companies to go after bigger contracts.

What more could public policy do? Along with strengthening government contracting requirements for small businesses, Wilder suggests, one big step would be more heavily incentivizing and monitoring private-sector supplier diversity programs. If the federal government pushed companies like Parker Hannifin to buy goods and services from small and minority-owned firms, she thinks, the resulting leg up would allow companies like hers to grow and be more competitive.

Advocates and academics have proposed plenty of other ways to bolster Black entrepreneurs. One would be for the federal government to pump tens of billions of dollars into community development financial institutions, which explicitly focus on lending in underserved communities. (Congress got a start on this in December, allocating $12 billion to CDFIs.) Another would be re-invigorating the MBDA to fund more universal, easier-to-access technical assistance programs and to make infrastructure grants that support Black communities, like renovating and redistributing vacant properties. (Connor Maxwell, the Center for American Progress analyst who co-wrote the MBDA proposal, now works at Biden's National Economic Council, but so far the administration's racial equity agenda has not specifically focused on minority-owned businesses.)

One side benefit of supporting minority-owned businesses is that they tend to employ more people of color, which could also help close racial gaps in unemployment. And that's true of Wilder. She's always seen her business as a way to lift up those around her. Long-term, she doesn't want SealingLife to be just a family business. She wants it to be something bigger.

“This industry has been run by a lot of white companies that do this and they pass it down to their kids, and it's like a glass ceiling, and breaking into it is impossible," Wilder said. And then, only half-joking: “The government needs to have a stimulus package for mental health counseling for what we go through, the constant letdowns. We need some rehab."

The murder Chicago didn't want to solve

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The man who called me, a long-retired Chicago police officer, was alternately charming and curt. He insisted he had nothing to do with the murder.

“All the things you wrote in your letter to me are not true," he said, speaking slowly, his voice occasionally shaky. “Everything in there is a fucking lie."

In the letter, I had asked him about a murder I'd been examining: the unsolved killing of a prominent Black politician in Chicago. I had reason to think he knew something about it.

On Feb. 26, 1963, Ben Lewis, the first Black elected official from Chicago's West Side, won what was set to be his second full term on the City Council. Lewis, 53, appeared to be climbing the political ladder. Newspapers were reporting talk — encouraged by the alderman himself — that his next stop would be Congress, a move that would have made him one of the highest-profile Black politicians in the country.

Two days later, Lewis was found shot to death in his ward office.

A maintenance worker found Lewis's body, sprawled facedown behind his desk, wearing a business suit, arms extended beyond his head, his wrists handcuffed. The index and middle fingers of his right hand still held a cigarette, long burned out. A bloodstained couch cushion covered his head.

As police questioned Lewis's wife and girlfriends, word leaked that he had been threatened by a jealous husband. Newspapers reported that, like other politicians, he had done business with gamblers and mobsters. Investigators soon concluded that a police sergeant was likely the last person who had talked to Lewis, fueling speculation that cops were involved. But the investigation soon went cold.

Nearly six decades later, no one has been brought to justice for executing Lewis, thought to be the last elected official murdered in Chicago. Officially, the case is still open, but Ben Lewis has faded from public memory.

Several years ago, after conversations with longtime West Side residents, I began to realize that the case was more than just a troubling episode from the past. For many, it remained an open wound. Lewis was killed at a time when white officials and gangsters worked to control and profit from Black communities in Chicago, often through violence. It isn't hard to see a straight line to the neglect and disinvestment that continues to devastate those neighborhoods. Though forgotten by many, the Ben Lewis murder case illustrates Chicago's enduring legacy of political corruption, police misconduct and systemic racism.

To report this story, I interviewed dozens of people and examined thousands of pages of records from local and federal law enforcement agencies as well as court files, political archives and other historical documents. I've concluded it was no accident authorities never solved Lewis' murder. Hampered by political pressures and racial stereotyping, authorities repeatedly passed up chances to investigate crime figures, politicians and police who likely had knowledge of the murder — and may have been involved in committing it.

Eventually, my search brought me to the retired officer. He confirmed that he had known Lewis. He said he had even been interviewed during the initial investigation. When I asked if he was involved, he denied it and said he passed two lie detector tests.

“I swear to God, on everything that's holy, that I had nothing to do with the killing of Ben Lewis," he told me.

But he said he knew why Lewis was murdered and who was behind it.

“I was — I don't want to use the word fortunate, but I happened to be present and knowledgeable of certain circumstances where I know what transpired," he said.

He wouldn't say anything else. What he knew, he said, could only be revealed after he was dead.

After we hung up, I had the feeling that everything he said could be true — or that none of it was.

Symbol of Hope

Looking back, it's hard not to see Lewis' rise in politics as a long, doomed fight for power.

Most of the stories about his political background came from reporters who heard them from either Lewis or other political operatives. These sources typically had an interest in portraying Lewis as a leader of his people, rooted in the community; or as a hustler and a player, claiming to advocate for young people and civil rights while looking for ways to profit from his position. The conflicting pictures were each grounded in truth but overstated. Lewis was both respected and manipulated. He projected strength even while forced to follow orders, and was well liked and gregarious though in the end a mystery even to many who spent time with him.

He was born Benjamin Franklin Lewis in 1909 in Macon, Georgia. When he was 4, his mother moved north with him and his brother, stopping in New Jersey before settling on Chicago's South Side. In 1919, the neighborhood exploded in a weeklong race riot that left 38 people dead. Soon after, Lewis' mother packed up the family and moved to the predominantly Jewish and immigrant Maxwell Street area on the Near West Side.

Lewis later told the Chicago Defender, then one of the nation's leading Black-owned newspapers, that he and his family were the first Black residents in the area. By some accounts, he had grown up around so many Jewish people that he could speak Yiddish. Years later, Lewis stressed his friendships with white kids as well as the threats he sometimes faced. “I learned to run before I learned to walk because I was the first Negro to live in my neighborhood," he said.

During the Depression, Lewis worked as a laborer for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration; later he had a shovel, which he said was from his first WPA job, mounted on his office wall. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and after his discharge held a range of jobs including elevator operator, union organizer and bus driver.

According to newspaper stories, Lewis got started in politics by volunteering for the Republican organization in what was then known as the “Bloody" 20th Ward. Encompassing much of the Near West Side, the ward had been controlled by the city's crime syndicate since the days of Al Capone. Eventually, the area was redrawn as part of the 1st Ward, but it continued to be dominated by the Outfit, as the syndicate was called. People who knew Lewis said he maintained ties there the rest of his life.

Around 1950, Lewis moved farther west, to the 24th Ward. Based in the Lawndale neighborhood, the ward was starting to lose its Jewish voters as they moved to less congested areas on the North Side and in the suburbs. At the same time, African-Americans looked for new opportunities in Lawndale after leaving the crowded South Side or the deep South.

Lewis was recruited to the ward, according to one story, by his former classmate Erwin “Izzy" Horwitz, a rising star in the local Democratic organization. By other accounts, politicians tied to the Outfit engineered the move and essentially agreed to sponsor Lewis' political career. The 24th Ward, like much of the city, was dominated by Democrats, and Lewis switched parties when given the chance to climb the ranks.

True power in the Democratic machine rested not with aldermen but with the committeemen, party officers who led the ward organizations and dispensed the patronage jobs that went with them. Many ran real estate and insurance firms; local business owners understood that if they wanted to stay open, it was wise to work with these ward bosses.

In the 24th Ward, Black voters were beginning to demand more representation. By 1951, committeeman Arthur X. Elrod, who was white, had picked Lewis as the ward's first Black precinct captain. Six years later, when the ward's seat on the City Council opened up, Elrod decided the time had come for the 24th to have a Black alderman. More than 80% of ward residents were Black by then, and it was widely known that Elrod no longer lived there himself, having moved to the North Side. Critics derisively called such absentee leadership “plantation politics."

With the backing of the Democratic ward organization, Lewis was elected alderman in a romp in 1958 and reelected to a full term a year later. In 1961, after Elrod and a white successor died, Mayor Richard J. Daley tapped Lewis to be the first Black committeeman on the West Side.

Many Black residents saw Lewis' climb as a hopeful sign. “There was a sense that maybe change was in the air," recalled U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, at the time a graduate student who was just learning about Chicago politics after migrating from Arkansas to the Lawndale neighborhood. “We were moving into power. We've got our own guy who represents us."

Lewis projected an air of cool confidence. At 6 feet, he was tall and thin, wearing expensive suits and driving a Buick Wildcat sport coupe. “Some folks say that he was cocky, that he was braggadocious, that he was kind of fast-moving," Davis said.

Yet beneath his bravado, Lewis was fighting to gain control of the ward. Most of its precinct captains and patronage workers were still white; Lewis promised to start bringing on more Black workers who lived in the neighborhood but offered no timetable. Horwitz, installed by Daley as the county's building commissioner, oversaw his own patronage jobs and was viewed by many as the real ward boss. Meanwhile, Elrod's old insurance firm was squeezing Lewis out of what was a lucrative side business.

Some of Lewis' own ward workers wondered whether he had any real authority. “The Jewish people ran the 24th Ward organization, and they picked Ben Lewis because they figured he could be worked with," said Fred L. Mitchell, 91, a precinct captain who held a patronage position as a bailiff downtown.

Lewis also faced a host of deepening problems in the ward. Though the neighborhood's main commercial corridor along Roosevelt Road was still thriving, a growing number of homes and buildings in the ward had been neglected or divided up into crowded apartments. Troubled neighborhood teenagers had formed street gangs. And Lewis, along with other aldermen, was under pressure to speak out about school segregation and overcrowding that forced thousands of Black students to attend classes in shifts.

But it was clear that Daley and his machine offered little room for independence. When Lewis finally called for new schools leadership, the mayor summoned him to a meeting. Afterward, reporters asked him again if the superintendent should go. He backed down.

“No comment," Lewis said.

Still, Lewis crushed his challenger by a count of 12,422 votes to 931 during the first round of city elections on Feb. 26, 1963.

That evening, Lewis ran into a friend from childhood, police officer Eugene Belton, who joked about leaving the force to work as Lewis' bodyguard. Lewis assured Belton, “I don't need a bodyguard."

Robert Shaw, one of the ward organization's precinct captains, said he talked with Lewis at a neighborhood restaurant the next day. They discussed a recent Defender story in which Lewis all but declared his intention to run for the U.S. House.

“I said, 'It looks like you're on your way to Congress,'" recalled Shaw, 83, who later served as a Chicago alderman. “And he said, 'I'm sitting here whittling my sticks.'"

Shaw understood: Lewis was just waiting to make his move.

A Lack of Evidence

When Belton saw the suit, he knew. The dead man was Lewis.

Belton happened to be the first officer to arrive at Lewis' office after a maintenance worker found the body on the morning of Feb. 28, 1963. Belton reported finding a few bullet casings on the floor, but otherwise the office was in order. Souvenirs from Lewis' political career, including an autographed photo of President John F. Kennedy, decorated the room.

When the office phone rang, Belton picked it up. It was Lewis' wife, Ella. She was surprised to hear Belton's voice, according to testimony from her and Belton during a coroner's inquest.

“Well, Mrs. Lewis, we've had a little trouble here," Belton said.

“What kind of trouble?"

“A shooting."

“Ben — did he get hurt?" she asked. “Is he shot? Did you take him to the hospital?"

“No," Belton said.

“Is he dead?"

“Yes."

Lewis had been shot three times in the back of the neck and head with what investigators determined was a .32-caliber revolver.

Police found small amounts of blood on an air conditioner and television in Lewis' office, as well as on the right side of the stairs leading down from it. The evidence suggested that the killer or killers had probably entered the building through the back door, which had been found ajar.

Less than three hours after police started going over the crime scene, they allowed reporters to examine it. Photographers took close-up pictures of Lewis' lifeless body before it was transported to the morgue, where he was identified by his only child, his adult daughter, Joan.

Lewis's death became a national news story, with headlines proclaiming that Chicago was back to its old gangster ways — the kind of bad press that made Daley irate. As the news spread, people came up with their own theories to explain why Lewis had been slain. Mitchell, the 24th Ward precinct captain, remembered that he was at his job at City Hall when he heard about the murder.

“A guy came in and told me, 'Ben Lewis got killed last night,'" Mitchell recalled. “And I said, 'What? What happened?' And he said, 'The syndicate killed him.'"

People speculated that someone may have taken Lewis out in a dispute over gambling, possibly involving policy, the illegal lottery games that generated big money in many wards. Some Lewis allies suspected he was killed because he had started challenging the West Side's plantation politics. Perhaps, they said, his increasing demands for patronage jobs and insurance business had alienated the last of the old white power brokers in the ward.

Many West Siders simply found it too frightening or unwise to discuss.

“I remember going to the barbershop, and I'm asking questions about this, and the barber said, 'Shhhh! Don't talk about that! We don't talk about that in here,'" said Davis, a Democrat who represents much of the West Side in Congress. “And I was kind of dumbfounded by that, because in my mind, that's all there is to talk about."

A Smear Campaign

As police talked to reporters about the investigation, they let it be known that Lewis had a secret life: He was a womanizer and a con man. Though the killing looked more like a crime of precision than passion, police reports indicated that they were searching for a possible jilted lover or angry husband, or perhaps a client cheated out of money. Ella Lewis was questioned by police, as were several other women Lewis knew. Detectives noted that Lewis was “keeping company with white women."

Police also released information suggesting Lewis was a shady and failed businessman. They uncovered evidence that he had dipped into his clients' insurance premiums for his own uses and borrowed money to keep his real estate business afloat. Though he dressed impeccably, was often seen dining out and furnished an apartment where he met with a girlfriend, he died without enough money to pay for his funeral.

Within a day of finding Lewis dead, police leaked the names of two suspects. The newspapers reported that Thomas “Shaky Tom" Anderson and Jimmy “Kid Riviera" Williams were major players in the policy racket. Anderson, a 54-year-old accountant, was thought to report to Outfit leaders. Williams, 37, a former boxer, was Anderson's enforcer.

The pair attracted police interest because Williams had reportedly threatened Lewis for hanging around Anderson's wife. On another occasion, police were told, Anderson had loaned Lewis money. Like almost everyone else questioned in the case, both men were Black.

After a short stakeout, police nabbed Kid Riviera at a South Side apartment building. Anderson, hearing the authorities were looking for him, turned himself in. Police relied on lie detector tests to guide the investigation, and after both men passed, they were released.

Less than a month after Lewis was killed, the investigation hit a dead end. Police officials blamed Lewis: His life had been such a mess, they told the newspapers, that there were too many potential motives.

Some of the FBI's sources in Chicago politics recognized that the police were fixated on Lewis' personal and business problems. In a report a few weeks after the murder, one FBI agent summarized what an informant told him: “The stories concerning Lewis' personal life are being manufactured to 'dirty him up' in order to make it appear the city didn't lose too great an alderman."

According to these sources, the agent wrote, “His death was strictly a political murder" because he wouldn't follow orders.

Daley, fighting for reelection that April, tried to shake off criticism that the Lewis murder showed crime and corruption were out of control. He continued to express confidence in the police but said little about the investigation.

But the memos from the FBI agent suggest the police avoided looking closely at the powerful people who actually dominated the 24th Ward: the political machine, the Outfit and the police themselves.

As part of the Lewis case, detectives questioned a number of Black political workers in the 24th Ward. Yet the files don't include any reports of interviews with Horwitz or other white party leaders.

Lewis had fought with the politically connected Elrod insurance company over control of ward business — a conflict some FBI sources cited as a reason for his murder. But the police records make no reference to interviews with any of the firm's owners and managers.

The police also revealed little about what their own officers knew about the murder.

As detectives tried to piece together Lewis' final hours, they learned that Sgt. James Gilbert had called the alderman around 7:30 p.m.

Gilbert, a nine-year veteran, worked in the Fillmore police district, which included much of the 24th Ward. Seven years earlier, he had been suspended after reportedly demanding a payoff from a driver he had pulled over.

When detectives asked him about his conversation with Lewis, Gilbert was cagey, saying it concerned a “personal matter." If the detectives followed up and asked Gilbert what he meant, they didn't mention it in their reports.

They did note that Gilbert said his call with Lewis had ended abruptly. After 10 or 15 minutes on the phone, Gilbert told them, he “heard a noise which sounded like someone entering the victims office. The phone conversation was immediately terminated for no reason."

Gilbert offered shifting versions of the story to news reporters, telling one that Lewis had excused himself before hanging up. Yet Gilbert said he hadn't called Lewis back or tried to find out what had happened. Police were sure that Gilbert was one of the last people to talk with the alderman, perhaps just a half-hour before he was killed.

Could the call from Gilbert have been a warning or a threat? Was it meant to make sure Lewis was there before someone came by to kill him? Gilbert was given a lie detector test along with another police officer, who considered himself a friend of Lewis' — the same officer who would call me many years later. Neither was arrested. If detectives wrote a report on what Gilbert and the other officer told them, it was not included in the files released to me.

Pat Angelo, one of the first detectives on the Lewis investigation, told his son Dean Angelo Sr. that it was a “heater case" that he and his partners worked hard. Before the elder Angelo died in 2017, he expressed his frustration that the investigation had petered out. Dean Angelo recalled his father raising the possibility that law enforcement officials were involved in the murder.

“Back then, you literally had bagmen to collect and deliver" payoffs from Outfit gamblers, said Angelo, who also became a police officer and led the Chicago lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police. He retired in 2017. “The aldermen handpicked the captains and commanders of their districts so they could work with them," he said.

Police and political leaders repeatedly dismissed the idea that the Outfit was involved in the murder. Yet investigators received tips that pointed to the syndicate. One such clue came from Lewis' former personal secretary.

The aide told police that Lewis had grown up in the Outfit-run 1st Ward and still had ties there.

“Many of his boy-hood friends were now connected with people in the syndicate," one of the police officers wrote in his report. Lewis would sometimes meet these old friends at a restaurant near City Hall, the aide said. But the files don't include any reference to police following up on the information.

FBI officials in Chicago sent investigation updates to top bureau leaders in Washington, including director J. Edgar Hoover. Without clear evidence of organized crime involvement, they concluded the case should remain with local officials.

Yet behind the scenes, the FBI had been collecting fresh information about a suspected syndicate figure long tied to political corruption and violence in the 24th Ward. As recently as Feb. 27 — the day before Lewis was killed — the FBI and the Police Department's organized crime division shared a tip that Lenny Patrick was running a horse race betting operation out of the Lawndale Restaurant, just down the street from Lewis' ward office.

Patrick was well known to law enforcement. Among his many arrests, he had been charged with murder, though never convicted. Authorities had known for years that Patrick's gambling operations were based at his Lawndale restaurant. In fact, the FBI had been told that Patrick and Lewis knew each other well.

But according to existing records, neither the police nor federal agents ever spoke to Patrick about Ben Lewis.

The Mobster

Lenny Patrick was born in Chicago in 1913, one of four sons of Morris and Ester Patrick, Jewish immigrants from England who ended up in the Lawndale neighborhood.

Lenny's mother died when he was 5, and with his father unable to care for the boys by himself, Lenny and one of his brothers were taken to an orphanage. After dropping out of seventh grade, Lenny learned to hustle. While still a teenager, he began running a regular dice game on the sidewalk at West Roosevelt Road and South Kedzie Avenue, in the heart of Lawndale.

Fights over territory and control of gambling profits often erupted into bombings and bloodshed. In April 1932, 21-year-old Herman Glick was shot in the neck outside a Lawndale synagogue. Glick “made a dying declaration that one Leonard Patrick was the man who shot him," an officer wrote in his report.

Police issued an alert for Patrick, describing him as 5 feet, 6 inches tall, weighing 150 pounds, “dark comp[lexion], wears heavy rimmed glasses, brown suit, dark hat, has a slight limp in one leg, Jewish."

When they finally tracked Patrick down a couple weeks later, he refused to open his apartment door, until officers fired shots through it. He was taken to Cook County Jail but wasn't locked up long. After Glick died, a grand jury determined prosecutors didn't have enough evidence to indict Patrick. The murder charges were dropped.

Patrick returned to Lawndale and went to work for a group of men who ran most of the neighborhood's gambling operations. He crossed paths with such powerful Outfit figures as Sam Giancana; they would become his mentors and employers.

By 1948, Patrick had served seven years in prison for a bank robbery and was a suspect in at least three unsolved murders. That September, after three more men tied to Lawndale gambling were killed, FBI agents asked Patrick to come in for an interview. He told them that he had been friends with the slain men but didn't know anything about their deaths. He said he was the father of two girls, ages 6 and 3, and insisted his only political connection was his father, a 24th Ward precinct captain.

The conversation was the first documented contact between Patrick and federal authorities.

Over the next several years, FBI agents kept close tabs on Patrick. For a time, agents even logged Patrick's phone calls and monitored his new home in West Rogers Park.

But Patrick still oversaw businesses in Lawndale, including illegal gambling rooms that were allowed to operate by police and political leaders on his payroll. In February 1956, a confidential informant told FBI agents that Patrick controlled all gambling in the 24th Ward with backing from Elrod, the ward boss; in return, Elrod received cash payments. A different FBI source said Patrick had “strong police protection."

In 1960, after more than a decade of gathering information on Patrick and his operations, federal agents charged him with conspiracy to gamble. But the evidence was deemed too weak, and the charges were dropped. Once again, Patrick escaped trouble.

Patrick's position grew even stronger once Lewis was named the 24th Ward committeeman in 1961. FBI sources said Outfit leaders had been working to ensure that someone they could trust would get the post. And an informant told agents that Patrick was close to Lewis — so much so that the alderman was considered Patrick's “boy." As an agent summed up the conversation in his report: “Lewis does not do anything without Patrick's okay."

In April 1964, a little more than a year after Lewis was killed, the FBI received a tip that, for the first time, explicitly linked Patrick to the unsolved case.

“Informant further stated that Leonard Patrick and Dave Yaras control the ward in which Alderman Ben Lewis was slain," an agent wrote in a report. “Source heard that Alderman Lewis, before his assassination, was not cooperating with the criminal element in Chicago."

In essence, the informant was telling the FBI that Patrick was involved in what happened to Lewis. At the very least, he had to know something about it.

The records released by the FBI offer no evidence that agents ever followed up.

Confessions

Over the next 25 years, the FBI continued to keep an eye on Patrick as he ran Outfit-backed criminal enterprises on Chicago's West Side and then North Side, according to bureau investigative records. In 1977, Patrick refused to testify before a federal grand jury about payoffs he'd allegedly made to a police officer. He served 18 months in prison for contempt of court. But even after the FBI and the Chicago Police Department repeatedly gathered evidence on Patrick, he continued to profit. By the 1980s, agents learned that he was supervising a street crew that specialized in extorting well-off business owners.

It was still dark on the morning of Nov. 6, 1989, when two FBI agents stepped onto the front porch of a yellow-brick two-flat on the far Northwest Side. When Patrick came downstairs, they let him know he needed to start answering some questions. If he didn't cooperate, they told him, they had enough on him to put him in prison for 20 years. The leader of Patrick's street crew had already been talking. In case he didn't believe it, they played him tapes.

Patrick was stunned. He was 76 years old and had a heart condition. The agents were telling him that they could lock him up for the rest of his life.

In addition to his extortion schemes, federal authorities had other reasons to try to get Patrick talking: Another wave of violence had left more people dead. In 1982, Allen Dorfman, an Outfit-connected insurance executive who worked with the Teamsters union, was convicted of attempted bribery. As he awaited sentencing the following January, Dorfman was shot and killed outside a hotel not far from Patrick's turf. His murder was viewed as the Outfit's way of making sure he didn't talk. Two years later, Lenny Yaras, a longtime member of Patrick's crew and the son of his late friend Dave Yaras, was murdered on the West Side.

By 1992, as the feds built cases against the Outfit's top leaders, Patrick agreed to cooperate. Almost immediately, FBI agents and federal prosecutors began grilling him about his time in the Outfit.

“Some days you'd feel sorry for him, like he was your grandfather, walking with a cane, slumped over," recalled Mark Vogel, a former federal prosecutor who questioned Patrick in preparation for his trial testimony. “And then other times he would look you in the eye, and if looks could kill, you'd be gone."

And as other lawyers and law enforcement officials had found, Patrick was practiced at evasion. “You couldn't get a direct answer out of this guy," Vogel said.

Patrick was worried that other Outfit figures would kill him when word of his cooperation got out. He had good reason. On May 17, 1992, a bomb exploded outside the home of his daughter, Sharon, blowing a crater in her driveway, destroying her fiance's BMW and shattering the windows of neighboring homes.

Over the course of several weeks, Lenny Patrick confirmed what informants had told the FBI for years: His gambling operations in Lawndale were rarely disturbed because he paid off politicians and police, who did favors for him and top Outfit leaders.

Eventually, the federal officials started asking Patrick about old murders. Chris Gair, another former federal prosecutor who had convinced Patrick to cooperate, said they told Patrick “no one was going to believe he'd never killed anyone."

“He would deny stuff and then I would dig up a 45- or 50-year-old FBI report, and he would be livid," Gair said.

The federal officials went back to the first murder Patrick had been suspected of, the 1932 shooting of Herman Glick. Patrick confessed that he'd done it, just as Glick had said before he died.

By the end of the summer of 1992, Patrick had confessed to being involved in six murders and offered new information about another. Officials suspected there were likely other killings. But they said they went through all the files they could find that included evidence or witness testimony pointing to Patrick.

Gair and Vogel both said they don't remember FBI officials or Patrick mentioning Lewis.

If Patrick had brought up the Lewis murder, “the FBI agents would have been on top of that like a duck on a junebug," Vogel said. “When you have the mob go into city government, that is a big deal. That's not just an ordinary mob murder."

Vogel noted that, as much as he and other officials wanted Patrick to own up to his past, they had to stay focused on building cases against Outfit leaders who were still operating.

“The only way to do that is to go through the lower guys," Vogel said. “Priests and ministers and rabbis are not going to be the ones involved in this. The ones who can tell you firsthand what happened are the criminals."

In September 1992, Patrick testified in the trial of longtime Outfit leader Gus Alex and a former member of his own street crew on extortion and racketeering charges. To establish his credibility, Patrick discussed his criminal background. He described bribing police officers, the late 24th Ward boss Arthur X. Elrod and other “aldermen." Asked which aldermen, Patrick claimed he couldn't remember their names.

Patrick again admitted his involvement in six murders.

Sam Adam, a defense attorney for Alex, responded by portraying Patrick as a sociopath and noting he had admitted to lying under oath before.

“Who else did you kill?" Adam asked.

“That's about it," Patrick said.

“Well, anybody — anybody you can think of you haven't told us about yet?"

“No, I haven't," Patrick told him. “I run out of cemeteries."

But Adam wasn't the only one who thought the government's star witness was downplaying his history. Gair said an attorney who had represented other crime figures approached him following Patrick's testimony about the six murders.

“He came up afterward and said, 'I believe your witness misplaced a decimal point,'" Gair said.

Prison Time

Patrick's cooperation helped prosecutors win convictions of Alex and other Outfit leaders. In return for his help, Patrick was given a seven-year sentence and sent to Sandstone federal prison in Minnesota.

In prison, Patrick hit it off with another inmate. Daniel Longoria Sr. was in his early 50s, and serving 16 years for dealing heroin and cocaine in Portland, Oregon. A former college psychology student, Longoria fancied himself a jailhouse lawyer.

There is no statute of limitations on murder, and some prosecutors and investigators in Chicago were outraged that Patrick might not be held to account for the murders he'd testified about in federal court. In February 1994, Cook County prosecutors secured indictments against Patrick for three of those killings, which occurred between 1947 and 1953.

Patrick turned to Longoria. In return for help with his case, Patrick signed a document promising to give Longoria “a portion" of the proceeds from a book about his life he was thinking about writing.

But Patrick likely didn't know that Longoria was in the federal witness protection program, or that he had repeatedly served as an informant to get his sentence reduced.

In June 1995, Longoria got in touch with the organized crime division of the Cook County state's attorney's office. He said he had collected statements from Patrick about the six murders he had discussed in federal court.

In addition, Longoria's lawyer told county officials that his client could provide details of other killings he had learned about from Patrick.

The state's attorney's office was interested. Over the next few months, officials from the office spoke on the phone repeatedly with Longoria. In two calls, Longoria said Patrick had discussed the unsolved 1983 hit on Dorfman, the insurance agent who had worked closely with the Teamsters. Longoria said Patrick told him one of the killers was the former West Side police officer who had been questioned about the Lewis killing, according to a state's attorney report summarizing the call.

The information Longoria passed on was detailed and jarring — and if true, would offer fresh leads in some of the most notorious open murder cases in Chicago history. But he wasn't done.

On Oct. 4, 1995, Longoria recounted a conversation he said he'd had with Patrick about Ben Lewis. According to a report of the call, Longoria said the alderman had been killed because unauthorized horse race betting was run out of his office. Patrick had sent a Chicago police officer to kill Lewis, according to Longoria — and it was the same officer who had allegedly helped carry out the Dorfman hit. The officer and his partner “tied up, chained, tortured and killed Lewis," Longoria told the officials.

Longoria's account raised questions of its own. According to the original police and coroner's reports, Lewis was found in handcuffs — not rope or chains. The reports did not mention signs of torture.

Investigators couldn't know whether Patrick or Longoria had mixed up the details, or if one of them was lying.

Wayne A. Johnson, then a detective in the Chicago Police Department's intelligence section, worked with the state's attorney's office on the Patrick investigation. After participating in a call with Longoria, Johnson found him credible.

“This guy's talking a hundred miles an hour — you can tell he's scared to death," Johnson recalled.

But Johnson said his investigation was cut short. Longoria was transferred to another prison. The police brass weren't interested in the old murders. And the state's attorney's office decided not to pursue any cases beyond the three that Patrick had already been charged with.

“It was a lost opportunity," Johnson said. “Whatever Lenny gave up on the witness stand, there was a lot more to it."

In 1996, after doctors concluded Patrick was showing signs of dementia, a Cook County judge found Patrick unfit for trial on the three decades-old murders of his former associates. The charges were dismissed.

After his release from prison, Patrick spent his last years living in the northern suburb of Morton Grove. He died in 2006 at the age of 92.

Inside Information

I was not the only person who heard that the retired West Side officer might be connected to the Lewis murder. Joe Kolman, a writer based in New York, was doing research for a possible novel seven years ago when he came across old news stories about Lewis. He was fascinated and outraged that the case had never been solved.

Kolman had his own connection to Chicago politics. His family has roots on the West Side, and his father and uncle were politically involved lawyers. When Kolman's father died in 1967, Mayor Daley attended the funeral, making sure to shake Kolman's hand before he left.

“I was 12 years old, and I couldn't stop staring at the wattles on his chin," Kolman said.

When Kolman started gathering information on Lewis, a former politician told him that the word was out that a cop was involved. Kolman's contact even gave him a name. It was the retired West Side police officer who had been questioned in the early days of the investigation — the same officer whose name had been raised by Longoria.

Kolman called him. The retired officer said he had been friends with Lewis, but denied having anything to do with his murder. Almost six decades after the killing, the retired officer said it was unsafe for him to discuss it. Still, he made Kolman a promise: He would leave him a note revealing who did it — but Kolman wouldn't get it until the officer died.

By the time the retired officer called me, I'd learned that Longoria, the jailhouse informant, had linked him to two notorious murders 20 years apart. In a series of phone conversations, he said that was “crazy" and “bullshit." He said he knew nothing about the hit on Dorfman other than what he'd read in the newspapers. When I asked him about Lewis' murder, he told me what he'd told Kolman: He and his family could be in danger if he discussed what he knew.

But the retired officer said he wanted me to know some background about Lewis and the West Side. He asked that I not use his name, noting he had never been charged in connection with the murder.

Lewis, he said, had been picked to take over the 24th Ward because its political and organized crime leaders knew they needed someone Black as a front. They paid for Lewis' house, car and clothes, he said.

“They took care of him," the former officer said. “He lived pretty good. He golfed a lot. They took him to country clubs."

Because he had spent time with Lewis, the former officer said, he was taken to police headquarters for questioning hours after the body was found. He denied having anything to do with the murder, and a polygraph test found that he wasn't lying, he said. News stories at the time offered a similar narrative, though they didn't identify the officer by name.

“If I had flunked the test, they would have charged me," he said.

He said his former colleague Gilbert, the sergeant who was also questioned in the case, had called Lewis the evening of the murder to talk about a tavern owner who had complained to the alderman about Gilbert demanding payoffs. But the retired officer said he didn't think Gilbert was involved in killing Lewis.

The retired officer told me he had never met Patrick. And he was just as insistent that Patrick had no part in the murder.

He said he hoped he had been helpful.

Not everything he said added up. While he admitted he knew West Side underworld figures, he distanced himself from Patrick. Yet Patrick obviously knew the officer well enough to mention his name to Longoria. That is, if Longoria was telling the truth.

A Possible Clue

After Kolman first reached out to her, Sharon Patrick began sharing some of her recollections about her father. Eventually, she agreed to sit down with Kolman and me.

Now in her 70s, Sharon Patrick calls people “dear" and “hon," and enjoys talking about the feral cats she feeds on the South Side. She often pauses, speaking carefully, when discussing her father. She said their relationship was sometimes rocky.

From an early age, she said, she understood “he was a big shot and he controlled certain areas of Chicago."

Sharon Patrick also saw another side of her father, who often gave food or rent money to struggling neighbors. “A lot of people would call him if they needed help," she said. “He had a lot of compassion."

After her father went to prison in the 1990s, Sharon Patrick embraced the idea of working with him on his book project. They never finished, but she thought she still had notes from their conversations.

Soon after our interview, Kolman was helping Sharon Patrick dig through her old files when they found some of those notes. On a sheet of lined paper, she had scribbled two sentences about the slain alderman: “Lewis was killed by certain people all he knows. He was giving information to FBI."

If Lewis was suspected of sharing information with federal agents, that could very well have gotten him killed. Still, there is no public evidence that Lewis talked to the FBI. In 40 pages of FBI reports on Lewis and more than 900 pages on Patrick that I obtained through open records requests, nothing suggests Lewis was an informant.

One thing was clear: Over the course of more than three decades, officials with the Police Department, the state's attorney's office and the FBI all gathered information that connected Patrick to the 24th Ward and to Lewis. Yet there is no evidence that those agencies ever talked to Patrick himself about the case.

Seeking Justice

At the time, Lewis' murder was widely seen among Black Chicagoans as a message of what would happen to anyone who challenged the white political bosses, said Mitchell, the former precinct captain.

“He didn't obey orders," Mitchell said. “It was a power struggle."

After spending years looking into the murder, Kolman reached the same conclusion. Patrick was almost certainly involved, he said, but the white politicians he worked with may have signed off on the murder.

“Maybe it was clear there would have been no consequences for doing this thing," said Kolman, who has written a book manuscript and is finishing a documentary about the case.

After Lewis' murder, the West Side remained under the grip of absentee political leadership. No West Side ward elected an alderman independent of the machine until 1979, when Danny Davis won the 29th Ward seat. In the 24th Ward, a succession of Black aldermen served at the pleasure of Horwitz, the de facto ward boss, through the 1970s.

Decades of failed government programs and private sector neglect have left North Lawndale and other West Side neighborhoods reeling from disinvestment. Across the city, police solve only a fraction of homicides, most of which involve Black victims, and community leaders continue to demand greater police accountability.

About 20 detectives are currently assigned to the Chicago Police Department's cold case unit. It doesn't follow a strict protocol in deciding when to reexamine an old case, said department spokesperson Luis Agostini. But given its modest size, he said, “solvability" is a key consideration.

The last activity in the Lewis investigation came in 2000, Agostini said, when a detective made a request for case records.

“We encourage anyone who may have any information related to the murder of Alderman Benjamin Lewis to reach out to Area Detectives," Agostini wrote in an email, noting police could also be contacted anonymously at CPDtip.com.

Most of the people who might have known what happened to Lewis are ailing or dead; both Gilbert and Horwitz are deceased. Others still don't want to talk about it. But at a minimum, a new inquiry could reexamine the earlier investigation, laying out what was done and what wasn't.

“I think it would be a revelation," Davis said. “Not just in terms of looking at what may have happened, but also understanding that as things change, they also have a tendency to very much remain the same."

How Texas repeatedly failed to protect its power grid against extreme weather

In January 2014, power plants owned by Texas' largest electricity producer buckled under frigid temperatures. Its generators failed more than a dozen times in 12 hours, helping to bring the state's electric grid to the brink of collapse.

The incident was the second in three years for North Texas-based Luminant, whose equipment malfunctions during a more severe storm in 2011 resulted in a $750,000 fine from state energy regulators for failing to deliver promised power to the grid.

In the earlier cold snap, the grid was pushed to the limit and rolling blackouts swept the state, spurring an angry Legislature to order a studyof what went wrong.

Experts hired by the Texas Public Utility Commission, which oversees the state's electric and water utilities, concluded that power-generating companies like Luminant had failed to understand the “critical failure points" that could cause equipment to stop working in cold weather.

In May 2014, the PUC sought changes that would require energy companies to identify and address all potential failure points, including any effects of “weather design limits."

Luminant argued against the proposal.

In comments to the commission, the company said the requirement was unnecessary and “may or may not identify the 'weak links' in protections against extreme temperatures."

“Each weather event [is] dynamic," company representatives told regulators. “Any engineering analysis that attempted to identify a specific weather design limit would be rendered meaningless."

By the end of the process, the PUC agreed to soften the proposed changes. Instead of identifying all possible failure points in their equipment, power companies would need only to address any that were previously known.

The change, which experts say has left Texas power plants more susceptible to the kind of extreme and deadly weather events that bore down on the state last week, is one in a series of cascading failures to shield the state's electric grid from winter storms, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune found.

Lawmakers and regulators, including the PUC and the industry-friendly Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, have repeatedly ignored, dismissed or watered down efforts to address weaknesses in the state's sprawling electric grid, which is isolated from the rest of the country.

About 46,000 megawatts of power — enough to provide electricity to 9 million homes on a high-demand day — were taken off the grid last week due to power-generating failures stemming from winter storms that battered the state for nearly seven consecutive days. Dozens of deaths, including that of an 11-year-old boy, have been tied to the weather. At the height of the crisis, more than 4.5 million customers across the state were without power.

As millions of Texans endured days without power and water, experts and news organizations pointed to unheeded warnings in a federal report that examined the 2011 winter storm and offered recommendations for preventing future problems. The report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation concluded, among other things, that power companies and natural gas producers hadn't properly readied their facilities for cold weather, including failing to install extra insulation, wind breaks and heaters.

Another federal report released three years later made similar recommendations with few results. Lawmakers also failed to pass measures over the past two decades that would have required the operator of the state's main power grid to ensure adequate reserves to shield against blackouts, provided better representation for residential and small commercial consumers on the board that oversees that agency and allowed the state's top emergency-planning agency to make sure power plants were adequately “hardened" against disaster.

Experts and consumer advocates say the challenge to the 2014 proposal by Luminant and other companies, which hasn't been previously reported, is an example of the industry's outsize influence over the regulatory bodies that oversee them.

“Too often, power companies get exactly what they want out of the PUC," said Tim Morstad, associate director of AARP Texas. “Even well-intentioned PUC staff are outgunned by armies of power company lawyers and their experts. The sad truth is that if power companies object to something, in this case simply providing information about the durability of certain equipment, they are extremely likely to get what they want."

Luminant representatives declined to answer questions about the company's opposition to the weatherization proposal. PUC officials also declined to comment.

Michael Webber, an energy expert and mechanical engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said the original proposal could have helped in identifying trouble spots within the state's power plants.

“Good engineering requires detailed understanding of the performance limits of each individual component that goes into a system," Webber said. “Even if 99.9% of the equipment is properly rated for the operational temperatures, that one part out of 1,000 can bring the whole thing down."

Luminant defended its performance during last week's deep freeze, saying it produced about 25% to 30% of the power on the grid Monday and Tuesday, compared with its typical market share of about 18%.

In a public statement, officials said the company executed a “significant winter preparedness strategy to keep the electricity flowing during this unprecedented, extended weather event." They declined to disclose whether any of the company's generating units failed during last week's winter storms.

State officials are again promising reforms. Lawmakers have called on officials with the PUC and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the power grid that spans most of the state, to testify at hearings later this week. Gov. Greg Abbott has called on lawmakers to mandate the winterization of generators and power plants, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he was launching an investigation into ERCOT and almost a dozen power companies, including Luminant. Separately, the PUC announced its own investigation into ERCOT.

Texas is the only state in the continental U.S. that operates its own electric grid, making it difficult for other regions to send excess power in times of crisis, especially when they are facing their own shortages, as they were last week. All other states in the Lower 48, as well as peripheral areas of Texas, are connected to one of two grids that span the eastern and western halves of the country.

Because Texas operates its own grid, the state isn't subject to federal oversight by FERC, which can investigate power outages but can't mandate reforms. Many energy experts say the very nature of the state's deregulated electric market is perhaps most to blame for last week's power crisis.

In Texas, a handful of mega-utilities controlled the distribution and pricing of the power they produced until two decades ago, when the Legislature shifted to a system where companies would compete for customers on the open market. Lawmakers said the change would result in lower power bills and better service, a promise that some experts and advocates say hasn't been kept.

But under this system, power companies aren't required to produce enough electricity to get the state through crises like the one last week. In fact, they are incentivized to ramp up generation only when dwindling power supplies have driven up prices.

Other states with deregulated power markets, including California, have made reforms and added additional safeguards after experiencing similar catastrophes.

“The fault on this one is at the feet of the Legislature and the regulators for their failure to protect the people rather than profits, the utility companies, rather than investing millions of dollars in weatherization that had been recommended in review after review of these kinds of incidents," said Tom “Smitty" Smith, a longtime Texas consumer advocate and environmental activist. “They have chosen not to do that because it would be too expensive for the utilities and ultimately to the consumers."

“We'll Be Opportunistic"

Three years after the 2011 storms, the Texas electric grid faced another major cold weather test when a polar vortex swept across the state. Freezing temperatures helped to knock out nearly 50 generating units at Texas power plants in the first week of 2014, bringing ERCOT perilously close to ordering rotating outages.

The event quickly faded from public attention because it was a near-miss that didn't actually leave people without electricity or heat. But because the state had come so close to blackouts, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which has some authority to regulate power companies in the country, launched an investigation. The probe found similar problems to those that dogged the state after the 2011 storms, primarily equipment that failed to stand up to the freezing temperatures.

Despite the equipment failures that brought the electric grid to the brink of disaster, the polar vortex was a financial windfall for power-generation companies. In the months that followed the storm, some of the companies stressed to investors the financial benefits of the two days of cold weather and accompanying high energy prices.

“This business benefited significantly from increased basis and storage spreads during the polar vortex earlier this year," Joe McGoldrick, an executive with Houston-based CenterPoint Energy, said in a November 2014 earnings call. “To the extent that we get another polar vortex or whatever, absolutely, we'll be opportunistic and take advantage of those conditions."

The company did not respond to requests for comment.

Texas has relied on the principle that higher prices will spur greater power generation when the state needs it most, a structure that helps explain the persistence of blackouts, said Ed Hirs, a University of Houston energy expert.

In extreme weather events like last week's freeze, prices per megawatt jumped from an average of around $35 to ERCOT's maximum of $9,000.

Hirs said it's in the power generators' interest to “push ERCOT into a tight situation where price goes up dramatically."

“They are giving generators incentive to withdraw service," he added. “How else do you get the price to go up?"

Texans have already been hit with sky-high bills since last week's event, with some climbing as high as $16,000, according to The New York Times. At an emergency meeting Sunday, the three-member PUC ordered electric companies to suspend disconnections for nonpayment and delay sending invoices or bill estimates.

Power companies weren't the only ones that saw the 2014 event more as a success story than a sign of weakness.

ERCOT concluded that operators “handled a difficult situation well" and took “prompt and decisive actions" that had prevented systemwide blackouts. In the “lessons learned" section of its final report, the agency promoted the continuation of its winterization site visits, which are not mandatory.

Winterization efforts were paying dividends in the form of fewer generating units falling victim to cold weather, the report stated.

Federal regulators agreed. During a meeting of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners in February 2014, a month after the storm, a top-ranking official from NERC stated that the response showed “industry is learning [and] using the resources and tools available to improve their preparations and operations of the grid during a significant weather event."

But NERC's investigation exposed problems that would bring Texas to a crisis point last week.

In the 2014 report, NERC methodically laid out how power-generating equipment failed during the cold snap, detailing 62 examples that included frozen circulating water that caused a supply loss and moisture in the air causing valves to freeze. In all, those cold-related failures were responsible for the vast majority of lost power during the event, the agency found.

The incident also highlighted the need to improve winter performance of natural gas pipelines, which NERC found hampered the ability of gas-fired power plants to generate electricity. The agency declined to comment, saying it doesn't discuss investigations.

Natural gas and power generation are highly dependent on each other: Natural gas processing requires electricity, which may be produced in turn by burning natural gas.

Citing preliminary figures from ERCOT that show natural-gas-fired power plants performed worse than those fueled by other types of energy during this year's power crisis, energy experts say producers and distributors of that fossil fuel played a major role in the catastrophe.

Natural gas producers and pipeline companies in Texas are regulated by the Railroad Commission.

R.J. DeSilva, a spokesperson for the agency, declined to say whether it requires natural gas producers and pipeline companies to weatherize wellheads or pipelines. He noted that poor road conditions made it impossible for crews from natural gas companies to inspect wells and said some producers reported “the inability to produce gas because they did not have power."

Because so many homes are heated with natural gas, fossil fuel plays a much more central role in the winter than it does in the hot summer months.

“When all this began, millions of Texans wrapped their pipes to keep them from freezing, and the Railroad Commission didn't order — has never ordered — the gas companies, the gas producers and gas pipeline companies … to wrap their pipes to protect them from freezing," said Smith, the consumer advocate.

Failed Legislation

After days of scrambling to address the myriad crises that pummeled his city last week, former longtime state Rep. Sylvester Turner — now mayor of Houston, the state's largest city — had a message for his former colleagues.

“You need to dust off my bill, and you need to refile it," the Democrat said during a press conference Friday, referring to legislation he filed in 2011 that would have required the PUC to ensure ERCOT maintained adequate reserve power to prevent blackouts. “Because it's not about just holding hearings."

The state's deregulated market is to blame for the crisis, according to some experts who say the catastrophe shows that the system ultimately prizes profits over people. But some of the architects of the system are doubling down.

In a blog post published last week on the website of U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry suggested that the current disaster was worth it if it keeps rates low and federal regulators from requiring changes to the system.

“Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business," said Perry, who was governor from 2000-15 and presided over the early days of energy deregulation in Texas. “Try not to let whatever the crisis of the day is take your eye off of having a resilient grid that keeps America safe personally, economically, and strategically."

Perry, who returned to his job on the board of Dallas-based pipeline giant Energy Transfer LP after serving as energy secretary in the Trump administration, received at least $141,000 in campaign contributions from Luminant's former parent company, TXU Corp., between 2002 and 2009, when he was governor.

On Saturday, Turner warned about the soaring residential utility bills that Texans would be getting in the coming weeks. In 2012, when Turner was still a state representative, he wrote a letter to the then-chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, raising concerns about PUC rule changes that increased the price caps companies could charge for power to $9,000 per megawatt.

Those price caps remain the same today.

This time, Turner called on lawmakers to pursue substantive reforms that don't simply “scapegoat" ERCOT, referring to the increasing calls for an investigation into the council, including by Abbott. “You must include the Public Utility Commission in these reforms because they provide direct oversight over ERCOT, and all of those commissioners are appointed by the governor," Turner said.

In 2013, Turner attempted, unsuccessfully, to pass a measure that would have replaced the governor's appointees on the PUC with an elected commissioner. The same year, he tried to salvage a measure that would have increased the administrative penalty for electric industry participants that violate state law or PUC rules.

The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which audits state agencies every 12 years to determine how they can better function or if they should be abolished, recommended in 2013 that the PUC exercise additional oversight of ERCOT, including a review and approval of annual budgets and annual review of “PUC-approved performance measures tracking ERCOT's operations."

One of the recommendations called on the PUC to increase the administrative penalty to $100,000 a day per violation, stating that the $25,000 daily penalty “may not be sufficient for violations that affect grid reliability, which can cause serious grid failures, such as blackouts."

Lawmakers passed a bill during that year's legislative session that adopted many of those recommendations, but the change in penalties was left out. An amendment by Turner to restore the higher fee in the bill failed.

Another former Democratic lawmaker who now leads a major Texas city similarly tried and failed to pass legislation that would bring greater accountability to the state.

In 2015, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, then a state representative, authored a bill that would have required state agencies, including the PUC, to plan and budget for severe weather using state climatologist data.

“It would have forced state agencies to prepare for an event like what just happened and to account for that in their agency plans," Johnson said during a Thursday press conference addressing the crisis. “It was quite unfortunate, because we can't say that it would have prevented this situation but certainly may have."

Then, two years ago, facilities owned or controlled by utilities regulated by the PUC were exempted fromlegislation that requires the Texas Division of Emergency Management to “identify methods for hardening utility facilities and critical infrastructure in order to maintain essential services during disasters."

The bill's author, Republican state Rep. Dennis Paul, declined to comment. State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., who co-sponsored the measure, said he did not know why the PUC was exempted.

“Demanding Answers"

For the past two decades, consumer groups have fought without success for a larger role in how the state manages its power grid. Giving residents a stronger presence on the ERCOT board would have forced the agency to take the lessons of extreme winter storms in 2011 and 2014 more seriously, said Randall Chapman, a ratepayer attorney and longtime consumer advocate.

“It would have changed things entirely," Chapman said. “Residential consumers are the ones who have been through outages before. They are the ones with the broken water pipes, the ones freezing in their homes. They would be demanding answers."

Chapman said the groups were stymied when the Legislature agreed to reserve only asingle seat on the ERCOT board for a representative of residential consumers. In comparison, eight seats, including alternates, are filled by representatives of energy retailers, power generators and investor-owned utility companies.

“Residential consumers need a stronger voice over at ERCOT," Morstad of AARP Texas said. “Decisions are made every week that affect the health and safety of millions of Texans. You need a strong voice there to call B.S. when companies aren't following through on winterizing or other things that are critical to reliability of the electric system."

In 2011, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar co-authoreda bill while serving in the state legislature that would have increased the size of the ERCOT board and allowed for more consumer representation. It didn't pass.

Hegar said the failures displayed in the last week once again bring the significance of representation to the forefront.

“As a result of this extremely unfortunate event where so many people were out of power and now have damage to their homes and their businesses, there needs to be a broader range of representation on the board and to bring those voices as we move forward in trying to decide what we want our electric grid to be," Hegar said.

Why we can't make vaccine doses any faster

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Series: Coronavirus

The U.S. Response to COVID-19

President Joe Biden has ordered enough vaccines to immunize every American against COVID-19, and his administration says it's using the full force of the federal government to get the doses by July. There's a reason he can't promise them sooner.

Vaccine supply chains are extremely specialized and sensitive, relying on expensive machinery, highly trained staff and finicky ingredients. Manufacturers have run into intermittent shortages of key materials, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office; the combination of surging demand and workforce disruptions from the pandemic has caused delays of four to 12 weeks for items that used to ship within a week, much like what happened when consumers were sent scrambling for household staples like flour, chicken wings and toilet paper.

People often question why the administration can't use the mighty Defense Production Act — which empowers the government to demand critical supplies before anyone else — to turbocharge production. But that law has its limits. Each time a manufacturer adds new equipment or a new raw materials supplier, they are required to run extensive tests to ensure the hardware or ingredients consistently work as intended, then submit data to the Food and Drug Administration. Adding capacity “doesn't happen in a blink of an eye," said Jennifer Pancorbo, director of industry programs and research at North Carolina State University's Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center. “It takes a good chunk of weeks."

And adding supplies at any one point only helps if production can be expanded up and down the entire chain. “Thousands of components may be needed," said Gerald W. Parker, director of the Pandemic and Biosecurity Policy Program at Texas A&M University's Scowcroft Institute for International Affairs and a former senior official in the Department of Health and Human Services office for preparedness and response. “You can't just turn on the Defense Production Act and make it happen."

The U.S. doesn't have spare facilities waiting around to manufacture vaccines, or other kinds of factories that could be converted the way General Motors began producing ventilators last year. The GAO said the Army Corps of Engineers is helping to expand existing vaccine facilities, but it can't be done overnight.

Building new capacity would take two to three months, at which point the new production lines would still face weeks of testing to ensure they were able to make the vaccine doses correctly before the companies could start delivering more shots.

“It's not like making shoes," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview with ProPublica. “And the reason I use that somewhat tongue-in-cheek analogy is that people say, 'Ah, you know what we should do? We should get the DPA to build another factory in a week and start making mRNA.' Well, by the time a new factory can get geared up to make the mRNA vaccine exactly according to the very, very strict guidelines and requirements of the FDA ... we already will have in our hands the 600 million doses between Moderna and Pfizer that we contracted for. It would almost be too late."

Fauci added that the DPA works best for “facilitating something rather than building something from scratch."

The Trump administration deployed the Defense Production Act last year to give vaccine manufacturers priority in accessing crucial production supplies before anyone else could buy them. And the Biden administration used it to help Pfizer obtain specialized needles that can squeeze a sixth dose from the company's vials, as well as for two critical manufacturing components: filling pumps and tangential flow filtration units. The pumps help supply the lipid nanoparticles that hold and protect the mRNA — the vaccines' active ingredient, so to speak — and also fill vials with finished vaccine. The filtration units remove unneeded solutions and other materials used in the manufacturing process.

These highly precise pieces of equipment are not typically available on demand, said Matthew Johnson, senior director of product management at Duke University's Human Vaccine Institute, who works on developing mRNA vaccines, but not for COVID-19. “Right now, there is so much growth in biopharmaceuticals, plus the pinch of the pandemic," he said. “Many equipment suppliers are sold out of production, and even products scheduled to be made, in some cases, sold out for a year or so looking forward."

In the meantime, the shortage of vaccines is creating widespread frustration and anxiety as eligible people struggle to get appointments and millions of others wonder how long it will be before it is their turn. As of Feb. 17, the U.S. had distributed 72.4 million doses and administered 56.3 million shots, but fewer than 16 million people have received both of the two doses that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require for full protection.

The Biden administration has said it is increasing vaccine shipments to states by 20%, to 13.5 million doses a week, and encouraged states to give out all their shots instead of holding on to some for second doses. But now that second-dose appointments are coming due, many jurisdictions are having to focus on those and stepping back from vaccinating uninoculated people. Even as the total number of vaccinations increased last week, the number of first doses fell to 6.8 million people, down from 7.8 million three weeks ago, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

At best, it will take until June for manufacturers to deliver enough doses for the roughly 266 million eligible Americans age 16 and over, according to public statements by the companies.

That includes expected deliveries of Johnson & Johnson's one-dose vaccine, which is widely expected to win emergency authorization from the FDA shortly after a public advisory committee meeting on Feb. 26. But Johnson & Johnson has fallen behind in manufacturing. The company told the GAO it will have only 2 million doses ready to go by the time the vaccine is authorized, whereas its $1 billion contract with HHS scheduled 12 million doses by the end of February. It's not clear what held up Johnson & Johnson's production line; the company has benefited from first-priority purchases thanks to the DPA, according to a senior executive close to the manufacturing process. A Johnson & Johnson spokesman declined to comment on the cause of the delay, but said the company still expects to ship 100 million U.S. doses by July.

Moderna declined to comment on “operational aspects" of its manufacturing, but “does remain confident in our ability to meet contracted quantities" of its vaccine to the U.S. and other nations, a spokesperson said in a statement. Pfizer did not respond to ProPublica's written questions.

Ramping up production is especially challenging for Pfizer and Moderna, whose vaccines use an mRNA technology that's never been mass-produced before. The companies started production even before they finished trials to see if the vaccines worked, another historic first. But it wasn't as if they could instantly crank out millions of vaccines full blast, since they effectively had to invent a novel manufacturing process.

“Putting together plans 12 months ago for a Phase 1 and 2 trial, and making enough to dose a couple hundred patients, was a big deal for the raw material suppliers," said Johnson, the product manager at Duke University's vaccine institute. “It's just going from dosing hundreds of patients a year ago to a billion."

Raw materials for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are also in limited supply. The manufacturing process begins by using common gut bacteria cells to grow something called “plasmids" — standalone snippets of DNA — that contain instructions to make the vaccine's genetic material, said Pancorbo, the North Carolina State University biomanufacturing expert.

Next, specific enzymes cultivated from bacteria are added to cause a chemical reaction that assembles the strands of mRNA, Pancorbo said. Those strands are then packaged in lipid nanoparticles, microscopic bubbles of fat made using petroleum or plant oils. The fat bubbles protect the genetic material inside the human body and help deliver it to the cells.

Only a few firms specialize in making these ingredients, which have previously been sold by the kilogram, Pancorbo said. But they're now needed by the metric ton — a thousandfold increase. Moderna and Pfizer need bulk, but also the highest possible quality.

“There are a number of organizations that make these enzymes and these nucleotides and lipids, but they might not make it in a grade that is satisfactory for human consumption," Pancorbo said. “It might be a grade that is satisfactory for animal consumption or research. But for injection into a human? That's a different thing."

Johnson & Johnson's vaccine follows a slightly more traditional method of growing cells in large tanks called bioreactors. This takes time, and the slightest contamination can spoil a whole batch. Since the process deals with living things, it can be more like growing plants than making shoes. “Maximizing yield is as much of an art as it is a science, as the manufacturing process itself is dependent on biological processes," said Parker, the former HHS official.

The vaccine developers are continuing to find tweaks that can expedite production without cutting corners. Pfizer is now delivering six doses in each vial instead of five, and Moderna has asked for permission to fill each of its bottles with 15 doses, up from 10. If regulators approve, it would take two or three months to change over production, Moderna spokesman Ray Jordan said on Feb. 13.

“It helps speed up and lighten the logistical side of getting vaccines out," said Lawrence Ganti, president of SiO2, an Alabama company that makes glass vials for the Moderna vaccine. SiO2 expanded production with $143 million in funding from the federal government last year, and Ganti said there aren't any hiccups at his end of the line.

Despite the possibility of sporadic bottlenecks and delays in the coming months, companies appear to have lined up their supply chains to the point that they're comfortable with their ability to meet current production targets.

Massachusetts-based Snapdragon Chemistry received almost $700,000 from HHS' Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to develop a new way of producing ribonucleoside triphosphates (NTPs), a key raw material for mRNA vaccines. Snapdragon's technology uses a continuous production line, rather than the traditional process of making batches in big vats, so it's easier to scale up by simply keeping production running for a longer time.

Suppliers have told Snapdragon that they have their raw materials covered for now, according to Matthew Bio, the company's president and CEO. “They're saying, 'We have established suppliers to meet the demand we have for this year,'" Bio said.

Seeing the Pentagon Papers in a new light

On Jan. 7, The New York Times published an obituary for Neil Sheehan, the veteran foreign correspondent who broke the story of the Pentagon Papers, the U.S. Department of Defense's deeply critical secret history of America's involvement in Vietnam. The obituary was accompanied by an article, which Sheehan insisted be published only after his death, that purported to reveal for the first time Sheehan's account of the “greatest journalistic catch" of a generation: how Sheehan had obtained the top secret documents from Daniel Ellsberg, a Rand Corporation analyst who had turned against the war.

“Contrary to what is generally believed," the story reported, “Mr. Ellsberg never 'gave' the papers to The Times, Mr. Sheehan emphatically said. Mr. Ellsberg told Mr. Sheehan that he could read them but not make copies. So Mr. Sheehan smuggled the papers out of the apartment in Cambridge, Mass., where Mr. Ellsberg had stashed them; then he copied them illicitly, just as Mr. Ellsberg had done, and took them to The Times."

The story was mostly lost in the frenzy following the assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, but it seemed like a perfect subject for this column. I planned to explore questions about journalistic ethics and whether the ends of getting a scoop that might change history and save lives can ever justify lying to a source.

I set out on the journey that every ProPublica reporter undertakes on every story, the work of verifying the basic facts. And that's when the column I had already written in my head began to fall apart.

I reached a former Times colleague who knew the Pentagon Papers story. He told me that Sheehan's account was both old news and disputed. He said that Ellsberg, who is still alive, had replied to the Times story online. A quick search brought me to Ellsberg's website, where on Jan. 12 he had posted passages from his 2002 book “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers."

In the book, Ellsberg recounted how he stashed a copy of the top secret documents in a Cambridge, Mass. apartment and gave Sheehan a key in March 1971. He said he told Sheehan he could take notes but not make his own copy of the papers “unless and until someone high up there had decided the newspaper was ready to publish, and to publish large quantities of them."

Soon after, Ellsberg wrote, Sheehan and his wife Susan, a New Yorker writer, came to Cambridge on a weekend when he knew Ellsberg would be out of town, removed the full set of papers from the apartment, and took them “to a copy shop in Medford."

A 1980 book by Harrison Salisbury, a former Times editor, draws from what the author describes as “repeated interviews" with Ellsberg and Sheehan to tell much the same story, noting that a couple identifying themselves as “Mr. and Mrs. Thompson" (Neil and Susan Sheehan) checked in to the Treadway Motor Inn in Cambridge on March 19, 1971, entered the apartment, stuffed 60 pounds of classified documents into shopping bags, and headed to a copy shop.

The notion of centering my column on “new" revelations about the origins of the Pentagon Papers seemed to be collapsing. I reached out to Janny Scott, who conducted the posthumously published 2015 interview with Sheehan and wrote his obituary and the accompanying piece for the Times, to ask how to square the historical record with her framing of the story. She acknowledged that many parts of the story had already been told, but argued that Sheehan's own account of his “cloak and dagger" pursuit of the papers was new and fascinating. “[He] had been interviewed at length hundreds of times over the years," she wrote in an email, and “went to some lengths to keep the details of his actions obscure."

As I often tell reporters at ProPublica, one door closes, another opens. Sheehan's revelations might not have been as fresh as I first thought, but that didn't prevent me from exploring the ethics and history of the Pentagon Papers as we near the 50th anniversary of their publication in June. I found contact information for Ellsberg and we agreed to meet by Zoom.

The Ellsberg of 2021 bears a strong resemblance to the brilliant, dashing character at the center of one of the most pivotal moments in legal and journalistic history. The shock of black hair that jumps out of 1970s photos is thinning and white — he is now nearly 90 — but Ellsberg retains the precise, detailed recall of events, memos and history that made him a top analyst at the Rand Corporation.

I asked him about how he felt all these years later about Sheehan's duplicity. His answer was surprisingly equanimous. “Then and now, who better understands that there are very strong procedural, moral and ethical rules that have to be re-examined and in some circumstances violated?" he told me.

Sheehan, he said, was a “good guy" and “it all came out all right in the end."

The high-stakes dealings between source and reporter are frequently complicated. People who turn over secret documents are taking enormous risks, and they often want assurances that the revelations will have the largest possible impact. Ellsberg said he understood that Sheehan and his editors couldn't make binding promises, but he wanted to push the Times to make the Pentagon Papers more than a one-day story. The papers were a 47-volume history that documented how a succession of presidential administrations from the 1940s to 1968 had misled and lied to the American people about the war. Ellsberg hoped that the release of the documents in their proper context would lead to Congressional hearings in which the key players would be grilled on national television, creating pressure for President Richard Nixon to end the war.

In his posthumously released interview with the Times, Sheehan asserted that he “had to do" what he did because Ellsberg was behaving recklessly and sharing the papers with a widening circle of other people. “It was just luck that he didn't get the whistle blown on the whole thing," he told Scott.

Ellsberg vigorously disputed that point, saying it was Sheehan's lies to him that made him begin to look for other possible ways to make the material public. According to Ellsberg, in the weeks after Sheehan smuggled out the papers, he falsely told Ellsberg that the Times was moving slowly, that he was being given other assignments, and that he could only work on the blockbuster story on nights and weekends. (In fact, the Times had rented rooms at a Hilton near its 229 W. 43rd St. newsroom and put dozens of reporters and editors on producing what was planned as a multi-day series.)

Ellsberg said he ultimately gave Sheehan a copy of the papers he had in a New York apartment in April. (The Salisbury book based on late 1970s interviews with the two protagonists says Sheehan obtained that set of the papers “open and above board" in May, a date Ellsberg acknowledged might be correct.) Sheehan continued to provide misleading cues on the Times' slow progress on the story, prompting Ellsberg to step up efforts to find a member of Congress who would make the material public.

Ellsberg contacted multiple legislators, but none would play ball. On June 12, 1971, Ellsberg received a panicked call from a Times editor to whom he had given a portion of the papers for a book the editor was writing on the Gulf of Tonkin incident that had precipitated America's deeper involvement in the war. The editor was correctly worried that his book, which was not slated to come out for weeks, would be overshadowed by the imminent publication of a massive series of stories on the papers, including their revelations about the Gulf of Tonkin incident. He told Ellsberg the Times was on high alert, expecting the FBI to raid the building at any moment.

Ellsberg had heard nothing from Sheehan and frantically called him. “They're expecting the FBI any moment and Neil hasn't mentioned that to me; he hasn't given me any warning over the last week or the last month or, for Christ's sake, this morning!" Ellsberg wrote in his book. According to Salisbury's account, Sheehan did not attempt to return the call until the next day, and only after 100,000 copies of the paper had been printed.

The publication of the papers had enormous consequences, but hardly any of the ones intended by those involved. They did not prompt Congressional hearings; Ellsberg speculates that the Democrats who controlled Congress quickly realized that the bulk of the lies documented in the study had been told by Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy.

A federal judge halted the paper's multi-part series after the Nixon administration alleged that further disclosures posed a grave threat to national security. The Washington Post and 17 other newspapers obtained their own set of the papers from Ellsberg and continued to publish as federal prosecutors dashed from city to city in a futile effort to obtain injunctions that would stop the presses.

Amazingly, Ellsberg and his wife evaded the FBI for 11 days, spreading copies of the Pentagon Papers across the country through a network of activists. He eventually turned himself in and faced federal charges that could have brought a sentence of more than 100 years in prison. Ellsberg was acquitted only after the Nixon administration was forced to reveal its extensive misconduct, including a burglary of Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office by the same group of 'plumbers' who were later caught breaking into the Watergate Hotel.

As for the papers themselves, the Supreme Court ruled that the judges could not impose “prior restraint" on news organizations without extraordinary justification, a decision that made possible countless subsequent investigations into government misconduct under the cloak of secrecy, from Seymour Hersh's famed exposes of the CIA to Edward Snowden's leaks of National Security Agency documents to reporters writing for The Guardian and Washington Post.

The questions about the ethics of Sheehan's dealings with Ellsberg linger. Every major news organization, including ProPublica, has a written ethics policy that lays out broad rules. Don't lie to readers or pose as someone else to sources. Don't pay for interviews or accept money from people or industries you cover. Don't advocate for political candidates or parties. Give everyone a chance to respond to stories about them.

In that regard, Ellsberg has a new bone to pick with the Times. The piece on Sheehan concludes with an anecdote told by Sheehan in which he described bumping into Ellsberg on the streets of Manhattan and discussing what had happened.

“So you stole it, like I did," he recalled Mr. Ellsberg saying.

“No, Dan, I didn't steal it," Mr. Sheehan said he had answered. “And neither did you. Those papers are the property of the people of the United States. They paid for them with their national treasure and the blood of their sons, and they have a right to it."

Once again, Ellsberg lamented not receiving a phone call from the Times before the Sheehan story was published. Had he been asked, he would have said the story was untrue and that he would never have said Sheehan “stole" the papers. His view then and now is that it wasn't theft; Sheehan simply copied them. “Why didn't they call me?" he wondered.

Scott said she wrote the story with the understanding that it would be confidential until Sheehan's death. For that reason, she did not feel she could interview Ellsberg or anyone else about Sheehan's statements. The decision to post the story without further comment, she said, was one for “editors."

“Speaking only for myself," Scott said. “I think that in retrospect I should have asked that the piece be held."

Dealing with sources is not as rigidly defined as some aspects of journalism ethics, but it remains a crucial aspect of our business. Fifty years later, it seems easy, and a bit unfair, to render judgments on Sheehan, a superlative but tormented reporter who had come to passionately oppose a war he knew was fueled by government lies.

For me, I find it very hard if not impossible to imagine ever allowing a ProPublica reporter to copy documents in defiance of a confidential source's wishes.

Of course, investigative reporting involves ambiguities. If a government official places a juicy document on her desk and says she'll be out of the office for the next hour but feel free to stay as long as you need, can you put the document in your backpack and walk out? (I would say yes; she clearly wants you to take it.) If an official glances down at a document and you have learned the art of reading upside down, is it fair to look? (I would say yes again, although of course anything you see is just a tip that needs to be checked out and verified.)

Lying is lying. If an official or legislator is an “off the record" source for our story, should we quote that person on the record as having said “no comment"? No. In fact, hell no.

To say otherwise when the stakes are high is to adopt the least morally defensible excuse of the people and institutions we investigate: The ends justify the means. At a time when one survey found 56% of Americans agree with the statement "journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations," it is imperative that we think through our ethics and be prepared to offer a cogent explanation for our decisions when they become known.

Can the ends justify the means? Not for me.

The unfinished business of Flint's water crisis

When I first heard E. Yvonne Lewis tell the story, it was a hot July day in downtown Flint, Michigan. We and about 70 others had gathered in the high-ceilinged ballroom of the Northbank Center, just west of the river, where the Michigan Civil Rights Commission was conducting its 2016 hearings on how this Great Lakes city learned that its own water was a threat.

Lewis, a community health worker and mother of three, testified that she kept a Crock-Pot in her bathroom. To take a bath, she filled the cauldron with bottled water, waited for it to heat, poured it into her bathtub, then repeated this process until she had enough to wash.

The image of the slow cooker in her bathroom haunts me, one of many such stories I heard while writing a book about the crisis in Flint, where toxic water was delivered to a city of nearly 100,000 people for 18 months before the state acknowledged the problem. As I sat for hour after hour, trying to put words to these experiences, I struggled with the fact that there was no ending. My book couldn't conclude with a rousing sense of wrongs righted and justice served. Not only had no one been held accountable, but the true toll of the crisis for both the city and its inhabitants would not be known for years, maybe decades.

“People are dead," Lewis said when I spoke with her last weekend. “Children are ill. We still don't know the long-term implications of the exposure."

This ambiguity stands in contrast to recent news that suggests Flint's story is headed for resolution. On Thursday, a federal judge granted preliminary approval of a $641 million class-action settlement in the case, believed to be the largest in state history. It will provide for “every person exposed while a minor child; every adult exposed with a resultant injury; every residential property owner, renter, or person responsible for paying Flint water bills; and certain business owners," according to the decision. That ruling comes exactly a week after nine public officials, including former Gov. Rick Snyder, were indicted on 42 counts of wrongdoing involving their alleged roles in the water crisis. All nine have pleaded not guilty.

Criminal charges and a class-action settlement may seem like the last chapter in Flint's story, which has already begun to fade in public memory. But much of Flint's unfinished business lingers, including policies that lie at the root of the crisis.

The problem with Flint's water began when a state-appointed emergency manager decided to leave Detroit's water system. In 2014, while awaiting the construction of a new regional system, officials rebooted the city's old treatment plant and used the Flint River as a water source. But the plant did not get the resources to properly treat the water. Most seriously, the water did not receive corrosion control, as required by federal law, causing pipes to break down. Brown water coming out of taps: that was corroded iron, or rust.

Despite escalating concerns from residents, boil-water advisories and other red flags (the water so badly corroded machinery at a General Motors plant, the company switched to another city's water system), it took large-scale organizing for a year and a half before the city returned to Detroit's water system. By then, people had been exposed not only to high amounts of lead, a neurotoxin that is especially damaging to children, but a series of bacterial outbreaks. A Legionnaires' disease outbreak officially sickened 90 and killed 12. As FRONTLINE documented, the number of those harmed by the outbreak is likely more.

To address the heart of the crisis, though, you have to look beyond a courtroom. Nearly five years after Snyder's own investigative commissioncited Michigan's emergency manager law — which hands total political authority over a city or school district to state-appointed officials — as a contributing factor in the water crisis, the law remains on the books, unchanged. That is despite some unsuccessful legislative efforts to turn the position into a three-person board and to addsomelimits to its authority. Two of the four people who formerly held that post are among those charged in last week's indictments. While the state has not had an active emergency manager since 2018, ending an 18-year streak, the law's defenders argue that it is a necessary tool, pointing to the one who steered Detroit through America's largest municipal bankruptcy. But Peter Hammer, director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School, disagrees.

“It is tragic and reprehensible that the EM law has not been repealed in Michigan," he said in an email, arguing that its provisions have disproportionately affected the democratic rights of Black communities. “It is not enough that the measure has not been used in the past few years, it must be removed. The dangers are even greater with looming crises in municipal finance in the wake of the Covid pandemic."

Michigan is also one of only two states that exempts both the governor and Legislature from open records requests, a fact that delayed or denied access to critical information on the decisions made about Flint's water. After years of effort, the most recent push forbipartisan legislation that would make Michigan's government more transparentdied after the Senate Oversight Committee failed to send it to the full Senate, even though its chair, Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, was one of the bill's co-sponsors. Both he and Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, the other co-sponsor, said the bill was scheduled for hearings in March, but it was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and then later ran out of time as other issues took the Senate's attention: McBroom pointed to criminal justice reform; Moss to allegations of perceived election fraud. Both also say they expect transparency legislation to be reintroduced in 2021. “I think the need is as clear as it's ever been," McBroom said.

Nationally, in the first update of the Lead and Copper Rule since it was adopted in 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency developed testing requirements for water at schools and child care centers, and requires public inventories of millions of lead service lines that remain in America's drinking water systems. But the new guidelines slow down the replacement of those lines, with the new standard calling for a 3% annual replacement rate for water systems that show especially high levels of lead, rather than the previous 7% rate. In a fact sheet, the EPA said the new rule is more effective because it closes loopholes that left the previous standard unmet. But many advocates are disappointed. The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy law firm, has sued the EPA, with a top official in the organization asking, “Have we learned nothing from Flint?"

More broadly, the chronic disinvestment in communities like Flint has deepened their precariousness. It even worsened the water crisis. People and businesses fled Flint, leaving the city with fewer than half the taxpayers it had in 1960, but the water system remained as massive as ever. This led to unaffordable rates and water sitting stagnant in corroding pipes, making it more vulnerable to contaminants.

Even the steps taken to address the wrongs done to the people of Flint aren't as clear-cut as they appear. The charges filed last week are the second attempt at prosecutions; the first effort was scrapped by new lead prosecutors who promised to build stronger cases. Several of the defense lawyers not only claim prosecutors have failed to make those cases, but they strongly decry the secretive one-judge grand jury process that led to the charges, a system unique to Michigan and rarely used in the state.

The pending $641 million class-action settlement may be the largest in the state's history, surpassing the $500 million allotted two years ago to gymnasts abused by Dr. Larry Nassar. But, given the huge size of the class (to say nothing of attorney fees), it may not result in much for any individual. For all that the city has lost, 95,538 people still called Flint home as of 2019; in comparison, the Nassar settlement involved 332 survivors. Some residents have protested the terms of the settlement, saying that compared with what they endured, it isn't enough. A number of other lawsuits, including a negligence suit against the EPA, are still pending.

Despite all that remains undone, Flint's legacy has inspired some promising change, with implications that go far beyond the city borders. Michigan has strengthened its water testing, setting a higher standard than the federal minimum. It also mandates that every community in the state replace its lead service lines. Because of a 2017 legal settlement with the state, Flint had a head start. Nearly 10,000 of the city's lead lines have been replaced as of late December (butnot yet all of them). The state also created the new Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate to better respond to concerns about inequitable treatment.

Many residents have drawn on lessons from the water crisis to build new models for democracy and public health. Their work includes an innovative program where community members help develop, vet and carry out research proposals from academics, bringing transparency along the way; a water lab in a refurbished school where residents, including young people, work with scientists to test their own drinking water; and an environmental justice movement, with teachings on using data and community organizing to rebuild crumbling infrastructure.

“One of the things I think we've learned in our work is that component is absolutely essential to doing things the right way — not just engagement but collaboration," said Benjamin Pauli, author of “Flint Fights Back: Environmental Justice and Democracy in the Flint Water Crisis." His family, including two young children, were exposed to the water.

The story of Flint goes on, and on. There are days I wish I could sneak into bookstores, find copies of my book, “The Poisoned City," and staple addendums to the back cover. But when I was writing the book and still today, it comes down to the same thing: learning to accept the reality of all that's uncertain and incomplete, without losing clarity on the truth, or the worth of Flint's people.

It's not just theory; it's personal. Lewis is talking with her adult daughter about how the water crisis might affect her ability to have a healthy pregnancy — and child. She is thinking about what her own life will be like as she ages. Every single physical or mental ailment in the decades to come, she said, will have her asking: What if...?

“In the back of my mind," she said, “there's always one question — the impact of that exposure."

In the most intimate of ways — in the bodies of those who experienced it — the water crisis goes ever on.

All a gig-economy pioneer had to do was 'politely Disagree' it was violating federal law and the Labor Department walked away

Ten years ago, the Department of Labor wrapped up a lengthy investigation of Arise Virtual Solutions, a company that recruited customer service agents to work from home fielding calls for big brand names like Disney and AAA. The so-called gig economy was in its infancy, with Uber launching and TaskRabbit starting to go national.

The question for the Obama administration's Labor Department: Did Arise employ those customer service agents? Arise trained the agents and exercised extraordinary control over their work. But it treated them as independent contractors rather than employees. That meant the agents weren't entitled to minimum wage, overtime or other employment protections. They paid for their own training and equipment, and even had fees deducted from each paycheck for use of Arise's technology platform.

The Labor Department investigator concluded that the company was violating federal law and cheating its workforce. The agents, no matter what Arise called them, were functioning as employees and should be paid and protected accordingly, the labor department found.

The investigator estimated that over two years, Arise had shortchanged its network of agents by $14.2 million.

In September 2010, the investigator and a higher-up met with two lawyers for Arise. One of the Arise lawyers, three years before, had been in charge of the very division that conducted the Labor Department investigation, appointed to that position by George W. Bush.

The Arise lawyers “politely disagreed" with the department's findings, according to a report written by the investigator and obtained by ProPublica through a public records request. Arise refused to change its practices. It also refused to pay any back wages.

“They said no to both," one person familiar with the investigation told ProPublica.

The Labor Department, faced with Arise's refusal, responded with what amounted to a shoulder shrug. The department didn't take Arise to court to collect back wages and enforce compliance with federal law. Instead, it walked away without collecting a single dollar for the agents. The investigator submitted his file to the Labor Department's regional office in Atlanta as “RTP / RTC," which stands for Refusal to Pay, Refusal to Comply.

The department's Arise investigation, built on scores of interviews and an extensive review of the company's business model, had the potential to help check what has become a defining feature of the 21st century economy. An additional 6 million workers joined the gig economy in the past 10 years, according to an analysis of payroll data by the ADP Research Institute. Companies like Lyft, Grubhub, Instacart and others shed labor costs by classifying many workers as independent contractors rather than employees.

“It's absolutely a missed opportunity for the Labor Department," said Erin Hatton, a sociology professor at the University of Buffalo who specializes in labor policy and the gig economy. “It tells companies, almost explicitly, that they can flout the law."

In the years after the Labor Department investigation, Arise expanded from the 20,000 agents it had at the time of the investigation. Last spring, it had 70,000. Its list of corporate clients, past and present, has included Carnival Cruise Line, Comcast, Airbnb, Peloton and Intuit, the maker of TurboTax. The company, one former CEO told a trade publication, helps its corporate clients “squeeze wastage out of a typical workday" by not having to pay these customer service representatives for “lunch, breaks and training" because the agents are treated as independent contractors.

Those agents have included people like Krystin Davenport, a Las Vegas woman who took a $12-per-hour job to help Intuit customers only to see her pay, after fees, chopped to $2.52 an hour.

ProPublica wrote about Arise in October, drawing on transcripts of arbitration hearings, financial slides, corporate contracts and other records.

Arise executives declined to be interviewed for this story. The company provided ProPublica with a written statement, saying, in part, that Arise “complies with all applicable laws. … We strongly believe, and communicated to the DOL at the time, that its determination in connection with the 2010 audit was incorrect."

“The Larger the Case, the More Reluctant the Attorneys"

Unlike many Labor Department cases, the Arise investigation went deep.

The DOL investigator, whose name is redacted in the released records, interviewed at least 56 people in a probe that lasted over a year. The investigator determined the customer service agents were Arise employees. Arise “exerts an extraordinary degree of control" over the agents by dictating their training and charging them fees, among other measures, the investigator wrote. The agents' work is also integral to Arise's business, the investigator found: “In fact it is the principle, primary, and primordial part of the employer's business."

Arise owed $14.2 million in back wages, the investigator estimated. That was a huge number by Labor Department standards. In previous years, the average unpaid back wages per department investigation had been about $16,000, according to a 2010 report. Plus, the Labor Department had authority to seek double damages, potentially putting Arise on the hook for $28.4 million, all of which would have gone to the workers.

But in March 2011, the investigator received a memorandum from John Bates, then director of enforcement for the Labor Department's southeast region, instructing the office to seek back wages only for those specific agents who had been interviewed about unpaid overtime or minimum-wage violations. That dropped the figure dramatically, from $14.2 million to $40,502.69.

While Arise says it doesn't “have any correspondence" about the exact amount of back wages the Labor Department was seeking, the company refused to pay any money at all. In a written statement to ProPublica, the company said it “strongly" disagrees that it shortchanged workers.

One of Arise's two lawyers in the case was Paul DeCamp, who had been hired as outside counsel, according to Labor Department records. DeCamp had served as administrator of the Wage and Hour Division in 2006 and 2007. (He didn't reply to interview requests from ProPublica.)

A Labor Department official declined to comment to ProPublica on the details of the Arise case but said that the agency is constrained by limited staff in deciding which cases to pursue in court. “We can't be everywhere," the official said. “Ultimately we have to make some tough choices based on the resources of our agency and the resources of our solicitor's office."

Bates, who is now retired, told ProPublica in a recent interview that the case “didn't go very far because there was little cooperation from the employees."

“It was determined there was insufficient proof to go forward with litigation. You can say there is a violation, but if they refuse to accept it, the only way to enforce it is to go to court," he said.

But another person familiar with the investigation said that “many, many" agents were interviewed for the investigation. This person added, “It seemed the larger the case, the more reluctant the attorneys were to get involved."

A 2010 report to the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division, which is responsible for enforcing federal laws governing minimum wage, overtime, family medical leave and child labor, expounded on the need for expanded litigation, saying it “can have broad impacts on employer behavior."

Shannon Liss-Riordan, a Boston attorney who has litigated worker misclassification claims against not only Arise, but also Uber, FedEx, Amazon and others, told ProPublica that it is “shocking" the Labor Department didn't take action against Arise based upon its findings. “If companies know that they can just refuse to comply and there will be no repercussions, what message does that send?" she said.

After the Labor Department investigation, Arise lost two separate claims brought by agents who, represented by Liss-Riordan, alleged the company had misclassified them as independent contractors. The company was ordered in 2015 to pay one agent $11,683.64 and another $13,052. But the agents, who as a condition of signing on for this work had waived their right to join any class action litigation against Arise, won those awards in individual arbitration proceedings held in private. Arise paid the relatively small amounts and thereafter continued to classify its network of agents as independent contractors.

An Investigation of the Investigators

The Labor Department's 2010 investigation of Arise took place a year after the Government Accountability Office published two reports on the department's sluggishness and ineptitude in these very kinds of cases.

To test the Wage and Hour Division's competence, the GAO set up a sort of undercover sting. The GAO filed 10 fictitious complaints, complete with pretend employees and employers.

Wage and Hour employees failed to so much as enter five of the 10 complaints in the department's database, producing no trace that a complaint was ever filed.

The GAO found that employees discouraged complaints (“You're sure you don't want to just have a nice conversation with him [employer] yourself?" one Wage and Hour Division representative asked a complainant); pleaded to being powerless (“Once the employer tells me that they're not going to pay and they can't, my ability to, you know, force payment has ended," another representative said); lied about what investigative steps the division had taken; and, in one instance, failed to investigate when informed of children working at a meat-packing plant, operating circular saws.

(The Labor Department, in its response to the report, said it had determined the child-labor complaint was bogus, but did not provide any supporting documentation that would allow the GAO to confirm its account, according to GAO records.)

The GAO provided a three-minute excerpt of these audiotaped calls, available here: https://youtu.be/GVHpdzDHprI. Here are some screen grabs from those excerpts:

In one of the 10 cases, the fictitious employer of a fictitious receptionist in Virginia admitted to not paying minimum wage as required. But the employer refused to pay back wages. When informed of this, the “investigator accepted the refusal without question," according to GAO records. When the employee asked why the Wage and Hour Division couldn't do more to help, the investigator told the employee to take it up with his congressman.

A second GAO report published in 2009 focused on the Labor Department's handling of claims about worker misclassification, the issue at the heart of the subsequent Arise investigation. The report described how treating employees as independent contractors can harm not only vulnerable workers, but also law-abiding companies: “[E]mployers with responsible business practices may be undercut by competitors who misclassify employees to reduce their costs, for example, by not paying payroll taxes or providing benefits to workers."

The report found a “lack of targeted investigations" focusing on misclassification; a failure by WHD investigators to “consistently review documents" that could indicate misclassification; and, in those instances when the Labor Department did find misclassification, a lack of follow-up to ensure that back wages were paid and the law thereafter followed.

Will the Department of Labor under President Joe Biden be different than it was under the early years of the Obama-Biden administration? A renewed focus on worker classification offers a test.

Earlier this month, as the Trump administration neared its end, the department finalized a rule that would make it easier for businesses to classify workers as independent contractors. But Biden, who has named Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a former union worker, as his choice to be labor secretary, could freeze the rule before it takes effect.

Another issue will be staffing, which has suffered in recent years from stagnant funding and a hiring freeze. A just-released GAO report says that from fiscal year 2010 to 2019, the number of Wage and Hour investigators dropped from 1,035 to 780, a 25% decline.

Stanford front-line residents excluded from COVID vaccine after 'algorithm' prioritizes leadership, high-ranking doctors

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Stanford Medicine residents who work in close contact with COVID-19 patients were left out of the first wave of staff members for the new Pfizer vaccine. In their place were higher-ranking doctors who carry a lower risk of patient transmission, according to interviews with six residents and two other staff members and e-mail communications obtained by ProPublica.

“Residents are patient-facing, we're the ones who have been asked to intubate, yet some attendings who have been face-timing us from home are being vaccinated before us," said Dr. Sarah Johnson, a third-year OB-GYN resident who has delivered babies from COVID-positive patients during the pandemic. “This is the final straw to say, 'We don't actually care about you.'"

Another resident, who asked not to be named, said a nurse who works in an operating room for elective surgeries has been notified she'll get the vaccine in the first wave. “We test people for COVID before elective surgeries, so by definition, we will know if those patients have COVID," he said, so to him, it didn't make sense that that nurse would be prioritized.

“We take complete responsibility for the errors in the execution of our vaccine distribution plan," said Lisa Kim, a Stanford Medicine spokesperson. “Our intent was to develop an ethical and equitable process for distribution of the vaccine. We apologize to our entire community, including our residents, fellows and other frontline care providers, who have performed heroically during our pandemic response. We are immediately revising our plan to better sequence the distribution of the vaccine."

An algorithm chose who would be the first 5,000 in line. The residents said they were told they were at a disadvantage because they did not have an assigned “location" to plug into the calculation and because they are young, according to an email sent by a chief resident to his peers. Residents are the lowest-ranking doctors in a hospital. Stanford Medicine has about 1,300 across all disciplines.

Only seven made the priority vaccination list, despite the fact that this week, residents were asked to volunteer for ICU coverage in anticipation of a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Stanford Medicine didn't respond to a request for comment on how the vaccines were allocated and whether there was a flaw in the algorithm. The tumult reflects the difficulties of ethically parceling out a limited supply of vaccine and weighing competing factors, such as age, risk of contracting the disease and comorbidities. Adding to the challenge is the angst that comes when such decisions are made without all stakeholders involved.

In a letter to Stanford leadership sent on Thursday, the chief resident council wrote, “While leadership is pointing to an error in an algorithm meant to ensure equity and justice, our understanding is this error was identified on Tuesday and a decision was made not to revise the vaccine allocation scheme before its release today." The council asked for a timeline for vaccination of the residents and transparency regarding the algorithm.

In response to the residents' protests, Dr. Niraj Sehgal, chief medical officer, sent an email saying, “Please know that the perceived lack of priority for residents and fellows was not the intent at all." He added that with the anticipated authorization of Moderna's vaccine, “we're increasingly confident in getting everyone vaccinated, including all of you." He signed off with “heartfelt apologies."

Some departments appear to be trying to fix the problem on their own. Dr. Mary Hawn, chair of the department of surgery, confessed to being “disturbed and puzzled" by the vaccination roster that “included many of the medical staff list that aren't our physicians on the front line." She emailed her department asking people slotted for the first wave to “bring a resident that is patient facing to get the vaccine in your place" and to ask the program director for their “buddy" assignment.

She added: “Let's get this right."

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Insiders at this Trump-favored charity are cashing in — and its financial reporting is questionable

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This election, one of President Donald Trump's most influential advocates is 26-year-old Charlie Kirk, who has developed a unique bond with the first family. The conservative star dines with the president at Mar-a-Lago and rang in the new year there. During each of the last two winters, he used the club to hold a formal fundraiser for his nonprofit, Turning Point USA, that featured Donald Trump Jr.

At a Turning Point event in June, the president, addressing the crowd, said, “Let us also show our appreciation to my good friend, Charlie. I'll tell you, Charlie is some piece of work who is mobilizing a new generation of pro-American student activists." On a Turning Point webpage soliciting donations, Trump Jr., a close friend of Kirk's, is quoted as saying, “I'm convinced that the work by Turning Point USA and Charlie Kirk will win back the future of America."

The tax-exempt charity says its mission is to educate “students about the importance of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and capitalism." As its profile has risen, its revenue has ballooned, reaching $28 million, a sevenfold increase in four years.

But behind the scenes, Turning Point USA has entered into questionable financial arrangements, particularly involving Kirk's mentor, William Montgomery, the lesser-known co-founder who is credited with discovering Kirk. Montgomery, 80, an Illinois entrepreneur and onetime Tea Party activist, is one of three Turning Point insiders who have won lucrative deals from the group to handle its printing, payroll processing and fundraising.

The nonprofit has also made misleading assertions about its finances to state and federal regulators, according to interviews and an examination of tax and business records.

Charities are required to conduct annual independent audits certifying their books are sound in order to fundraise in more than a dozen states. But the accounting firm Turning Point uses has engaged in multiple business relationships with Montgomery, who for years served as the nonprofit's treasurer. The dynamic, experts say, imperils independence and undermines the credibility of Turning Point's financial statements, including its federal tax returns — an issue of significance at a moment when more and more cash is flowing into the organization's coffers.

“This raises real questions about the legitimacy of the return," Philip Hackney, a University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor who formerly worked in the IRS' chief counsel's office, told ProPublica. “It makes it difficult to trust what is reported and begins to raise the possibility that it's a fraudulent statement."

The IRS requires, under the penalty of perjury, that charities attest whether they received an independent audit. Both Kirk and the co-founder have signed off on Turning Point's filings.

In response to questions from ProPublica, Sally Wagenmaker, an attorney for the nonprofit, said that payments to businesses belonging to organization officials “provided a compelling operational benefit in Turning Point's best and other interests," and that they were “in full compliance with TPUSA's IRS-compliant conflict of interest policy."

Andrew Kolvet, a Turning Point spokesman, said the business relationship between the group's auditor and its former treasurer is not significant and maintained the accounting firm is indeed an independent company. Another potential issue, ProPublica found, is that the license of the firm expired in late 2018, though the one that personally belongs to the firm's managing partner has not.

Turning Point was founded in 2012 by Kirk, then 18, and Montgomery, who invested in the young activist after hearing him speak at a small college in the state. At the 2016 Republican National Convention, Kirk met Trump Jr. and would soon accompany him on the road as an assistant. As Turning Point has thrived, Kirk's salary has grown from $27,000 to nearly $300,000, and he no longer lives with his parents — last May he bought a $855,000 two-bedroom, two-bathroom oceanfront condo in Longboat Key, Florida, county property records show.

Over the last year, the president has delivered remarks at the organization's conferences threeseparatetimes. At the group's December 2018 Mar-a-Lago affair, the president's eldest son helped it haul in nearly $5 million, tax records show. Recently, Kirk published a book called “The MAGA Doctrine," which Trump and his son promoted on Twitter.

For his part, Montgomery, whose Facebook profile picture features him posing with Trump Jr., left Turning Point last April, when, Kolvet said, his term as a board member ended. Two months later, Kirk effusively praised Montgomery in a blog post, celebrating his unmatched contributions to the nonprofit. “To anyone who has been impacted by my videos, podcast, TPUSA, our chapters, literature, events, conferences, field programs, or any speeches I have given," Kirk wrote, “you have Bill Montgomery to thank for investing in an 18-year-old with a vision — when everyone else thought it was impossible, foolish, and deemed for failure."

Montgomery, Kolvet told ProPublica, “remains a friend of the organization."

Turning Point amplifies White House messaging by regularly tweeting memes and one-liners supportive of Trump administration policies or politics to hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, and it retweets similar messages sent by Kirk, who is followed by nearly 2 million people. Meanwhile, Kirk's and the group's tweets are often retweeted by the president, promoting the young leader's incendiary statements to more than 82 million followers, including his description of COVID-19 as the “China virus."

Kirk cultivates the image of a young, serious executive, favoring button-down shirts and sport coats in public. He revels in provoking left-leaning activists and students on everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the effects of “white privilege," which he calls a “racist lie." Turning Point promotes clips of his campus confrontations on social media, typically boasting that Kirk has “destroyed" an unworthy adversary.

Turning Point says it now has "a presence" on more than 2,000 campuses, 272 employees and an affiliated nonprofit largely focused on supporting Trump. Yet as the organization has expanded, it has on occasion been the center of controversy. Politico found that Turning Point has fabricated its influence on college elections. And in 2017, The New Yorker drew attention to an organizational culture that appeared plagued with racism and indifferent to laws that prohibit charities from engaging in express political advocacy. The magazine obtained text messages written by the group's former field director that said, “I HATE BLACK PEOPLE. Like fuck them all...I hate blacks. End of story." (The sender of the text resigned and Kirk told the magazine, “Turning Point assessed the situation and took decisive action within 72 hours of being made aware of the issue.")

ProPublica's examination of Turning Point's finances raises additional questions about the way the group is run, the reliability of its public disclosures and its approach to regulations governing nonprofits.

Turning Point is registered to fundraise in dozens of states across the country. Because of the group's size, attorneys general and secretaries of state in 15 states — including New York, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Kansas — require it to file audits to remain in good standing. The work, each state's statute invariably specifies, must be carried out by “an independent certified public accountant."

The IRS does not require such an audit, but it asks about the audit's status. On Turning Point's last four federal tax returns, consistent with its state filings and spanning a period that covers July 2015 through June 2019, the group asserts that its financial statements are “audited by an independent accountant."

But Turning Point's accounting firm, the Stapleton Group, based in Orland Park, Illinois, has a significant tie to the charity. Montgomery, the charity's co-founder, has served as a “business development advisor" for Stapleton, helping to bring clients to the firm. The company's managing partner, Robert Stapleton, who handles Turning Point's returns, has worked as Montgomery's personal tax preparer, according to Stapleton. The firm, which employs a handful of people, was incorporated by the same suburban Chicago lawyer who, records show, formed a business entity Montgomery used to collect rent and make political contributions.

Robert Stapleton and the Stapleton Group did not respond directly to ProPublica. Instead, the firm provided comments through Kolvet.

Stapleton became Turning Point's auditor after Montgomery introduced the firm to the organization, a referral for which Montgomery wasn't compensated, Stapleton said through the spokesman. On his LinkedIn page and in a biography that once lived on Turning Point's website, Montgomery identifies his connection to Stapleton's firm; on the former, it states the affiliation began in 2010 and has continued to the present.

Montgomery received “no remuneration" from the firm and “acted in a business development capacity in his spare time and on commission only" in 2011, according to Stapleton. Turning Point, Kolvet said, “is confident in the independence of any services provided by The Stapleton Group."

In a statement, the firm said, “The Stapleton Group upholds the highest levels of integrity and independence while conducting audits and reviews for many businesses and organizations of all sizes."

Until the spring of last year, records show, Montgomery served on Turning Point's board and as its secretary and treasurer, giving him oversight of Turning Point's financial books and custody over its corporate records, according to the group's bylaws. At one point, he was solely responsible for fundraising and the spending of Turning Point's cash, according to charity records filed in New Mexico.

“If Montgomery has a strong relationship with the auditor, then there is a clear conflict there," said Tzachi Zach, an Ohio State University accounting professor. “Other than the auditor being hired, there should be no other relationship between the auditor and the nonprofit."

James Fishman, a former assistant attorney general in the New York attorney general's office, said that, on the question of independence, Turning Point's audit arrangement “does not pass the smell test. If an attorney general looked closely, they would find it wasn't independent."

In a letter dated July 7, and provided by Kolvet, Robert Stapleton wrote to Montgomery on company letterhead asking him to “immediately correct" his LinkedIn profile that claimed he is “associated with the Stapleton Group." The letter was dated two weeks after ProPublica first inquired about Montgomery's ties to the accounting firm; Montgomery's LinkedIn profile still identifies him as a “business development advisor" for Stapleton.

The nonprofit's most recent publicly available audit, signed by the “The Stapleton Group" in May 2019, presents an additional issue. The firm's license to practice expired in late 2018, according to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, the state agency that regulates occupational licenses. In Illinois, state law prohibits certified public accounting firms with an expired license from conducting audits.

Stapleton said his firm “is aware and is in the process of rectifying the issue," and through Kolvet provided a copy of his personal CPA license to ProPublica. Wagenmaker, the Turning Point attorney, wouldn't provide a copy of the group's most recent audit, which is not yet public and captures the nonprofit's finances through last July. She also wouldn't confirm whether it was carried out by the Stapleton Group.

Montgomery hasn't responded to calls and emails seeking comment.

During Montgomery's time at Turning Point, he personally benefited from several of the group's business arrangements. Between July 2017 and June 2019, tax records show, Turning Point paid more than $430,000 to a printing shop owned by Montgomery, and gave him an additional $25,000 for the rental of a small office space. The compensation was on top of the direct income he received from Turning Point, which earned him close to $200,000 during the same period.

Doug De Groote, the organization's board secretary, said the vendor payments to Montgomery “represent fair market value or lower for the trade services received." He added, “These decisions were made with Mr. Montgomery recused and with the organization's best interest paramount."

Turning Point similarly said it was getting a better deal by using the payroll processing firm owned by the organization's current treasurer, Tom Sodeika. In late 2018, the nonprofit tapped the services of his small, Illinois-based company, Precision Payroll of America. Turning Point paid Precision $51,072 for its services from late 2018 through last July, according to tax records. The amount, Kolvet said, was “at a significant discount below market rates and in full compliance with Turning Point conflict-of-interest policy."

In January, Sodeika sold the company and relinquished all executive positions there. Turning Point would not say how much Sodeika sold Precision for or to whom he sold it, but Kolvet told ProPublica that “prior to the sale of the company" it provided services to Turning Point “at discounted market rates."

Turning Point's treasurers are not the only insiders who have reaped financial rewards from the nonprofit. It also appears to have steered extra cash to a highly paid employee through limited liability companies, business records show.

Stacy Sheridan, Turning Point's “senior advancement director," receives a salary of more than $180,000, according to the group's latest tax filings, which also show over $200,000 flowing to two business entities — GSM Strategy LLC and Lionrock Ventures LLC — that were paid for fundraising. The return does not disclose who is behind both companies, neither of which has a website. But corporate records for GSM and Lionrock include Sheridan's name and addresses associated with her.

When asked about the LLC payments, neither Kolvet nor Sheridan provided a comment. On their own, the veiled arrangements may pass legal muster, but Hackney, the former IRS official, said they could be part of a larger, troubling pattern.

“As the number of self-interested transactions go up," he said, “the potential goes up for the possibility that the organization is being operated for the private interests of those who control the organization."

Georgia Sen. Perdue sold his home to a finance industry official whose organization was lobbying the Senate

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Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., sold his Washington, D.C., home last year to a brokerage industry official whose organization is under the purview of a committee Perdue sits on.

The deal was made off market, without the home being listed for sale publicly.

Though an appraisal provided to ProPublica by the buyer found that Perdue sold for slightly under market value, four local real estate experts disagreed, telling ProPublica that the almost $1.8 million sale price Perdue garnered seemed high. Their estimates of the premium ranged from a few thousand dollars to as much as about $140,000. A fifth expert said the price was squarely fair market value.

Ultimately, congressional ethics experts said, their concern was that Perdue sold privately and to someone whose organization that he oversaw as a senator.

“Determining fair market value is always a gray area, unless the sales are done in a competitive open market," said Craig Holman with the watchdog group Public Citizen. “Since the purchase and sale of this property by Sen. Perdue was not done on the open market, it raises serious suspicions as to whether the sale was in fact at fair market value."

If the price was above fair market value, Holman said, “this would be a violation of his ethical obligations and an opportunity for those with business pending before Perdue's committee to curry favor."

A Perdue spokesperson said that the senator and his wife sold the townhouse at fair market price, and that the lender appraisal confirmed that.

“None of this had anything to do with the senator's official role," the spokesperson said. “The Perdues did not know any of the individuals, and they used the same realtor during the purchase and sale of the property."

Perdue's office provided a statement from the couple's real estate agent, Justin Paulhamus: “Since inventory was so limited at the time of the sale, we priced it at market value and were fortunate to get an offer."

Perdue's spokesperson said the senator's real estate agent “floated it off market first, and they would have put it on market, but got an offer at their asking price which was fair market value."

Perdue is locked in a runoff campaign against Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff. Along with fellow Georgia Republican Kelly Loeffler's race against Raphael Warnock, his contest could determine which party controls the Senate and with it, whether President-elect Joe Biden can implement much of his agenda.

Perdue has faced multiple allegations that he has mixed his private financial interests with his official work. The most prolific stock trader in the Senate, he bought and sold shares in companies that the committees he sits on have jurisdiction over. Some of his trades came at fortunate times. Earlier this year, the Justice Department investigated him and other lawmakers for possible insider trading. Perdue denied the allegations. Prosecutors ultimately decided not to bring charges against him.

Perdue's home buyer in October 2019 was Hillary Sale, a board governor for the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, a privately funded self-regulatory body for the securities industry. The organization falls under the purview of the Senate Banking Committee, which Perdue sits on. Earlier in 2019, FINRA was lobbying on a bill out of the banking committee that would have required the organization to establish a fund to pay investors bilked by brokers.

A FINRA spokesman said the organization has not lobbied Perdue specifically. In a statement, Sale said she learned of the home though her real estate agent and never interacted with Perdue. She provided ProPublica with an appraisal from her lender showing the home was valued at $1.8 million, $11,000 over the amount she paid. Samer Kuraishi, who leads a real estate agency in Washington, said appraisals are done after a price is agreed to, and that they typically are engineered to match the sales price.

Perdue may have saved thousands by not putting his house on the open market.

Kuraishi and other experts said that when doing off-market deals, sellers can negotiate to pay their agents a smaller commission.

“In that scenario, an agent spends less on staging, less on marketing, less on open houses, less on virtual tours," he said. “It's typically an easier sale."

Perdue's spokesperson said the senator paid broker fees, but did not respond to questions about whether the fees were discounted.

Perdue's Capitol Hill home and many of those around it were built in the early 2000s by EYA, a developer that specializes in luxury townhomes that maintain the look and feel of historic buildings but come with amenities typically reserved for more suburban locales. They have individual garages and private courtyards. Perdue's home featured a rentable separate unit, connected to the main house through interior stairs.

At the time of the sale, FINRA was lobbying the Senate, according to its disclosure forms, and earlier that year its lobbyists were specifically focused on a bill that would have required the organization to establish a relief fund to provide investors with arbitration awards that went unpaid by FINRA's brokerage firms and brokers. The bill was authored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and fell under the jurisdiction of the Senate Banking Committee.

The committee had also held hearings that included harsh assessments of how well FINRA was policing its own. In 2018, an AFL-CIO official charged that FINRA was failing as a regulator because it was not forcing its members to pay the arbitration settlements.

Perdue's office declined to answer questions about where the senator stood on the bill, which did not pass, or whether he took any actions on it.

Ethics experts are generally troubled when politicians enter into transactions with people who have business before them. The legality of this sale hinges on whether the home was purchased at fair market value. If it was Apurchased for more than that, it would be considered a gift. Gifts of significant value to senators are required to be publicly disclosed. Perdue did not disclose any such gifts.

Earlier this year, ProPublica reported that Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., sold his Washington townhouse to a donor and powerful lobbyist who had business before him. Burr's office said the lawmaker notified the Senate Ethics Committee before the sale. Perdue's office declined to say if he took similar steps. The committee does not typically make such guidance public, and it did not respond to questions about whether Perdue sought advice in this case.

In order to avoid the appearance of a conflict, members of Congress who are buying or selling properties should do so on the open market to help ensure the price paid is fair and to avoid deals with people who have business before them, ethics experts say.

The five local real estate agents who reviewed the transaction for ProPublica had somewhat differing opinions about whether Perdue got an inflated price and, if so, how inflated. All cautioned that valuing a property is not an exact science.

One agent, assuming Perdue did not make significant improvements to the property while living there, priced the home at around $1,650,000. That would mean Perdue sold for about 8% over market. His office declined to say whether he had made those kinds of upgrades, but photos, the agent said, suggest he did not.

A second agent said the price also seemed high, but only about 2% over market value. The agent said prominent officials selling homes in private deals will often get a premium. “Buyers don't haggle at that point. If it's a senator, you're not going to go back and say, 'Actually, I'll give you 1.7.' They either pay the price or don't buy it."

A third agent said it seemed slightly above market. A fourth said the expected range for that property at the time would have been between $1.75 million and $1.785 million, a shade under Perdue's $1.789 million sale price. A fifth agent said the price Perdue got was squarely at fair market value. All of the agents asked that their names not be used so as not to affect their ability to continue buying and selling homes in the neighborhood.

The agents said that the price Perdue purchased the home for in 2015, $1.6 million, was about market rate at the time. That sale was made on the open market.

In that case, Perdue bought from Bill Cheney, the outgoing president of the trade group lobbying for credit unions; Cheney is currently president of a California-based credit union. Perdue has received donations from the trade group and, as a senator, has helped loosen regulations on credit unions.

One of the real estate agents who spoke with ProPublica noted the short time the home spent on the market before Perdue bought it. The home was put on the market on a Wednesday and Perdue agreed to a deal to buy it that Friday before there could be a weekend open house. The agent said it was atypical for a seller to commit to Perdue without holding an open house to find backup options.

Cheney and his wife told ProPublica they had an open house for brokers only before the home was put on the market. Perdue got no special treatment, they said, and they had no direct contact with him.

Perdue's spokesperson said the senator bought the townhouse above asking price.

“Absolutely nothing about the purchase or sale of the property had anything to do with the senator's official role, since they did not know the buyers or sellers, there could be no conflict of interest whatsoever," the spokesperson said.

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