Pro Publica

'We're not allowed to hang up': The harsh reality of working in customer service

Last year ProPublica wrote about the world of work-at-home customer service, spotlighting a largely unseen industry that helps brand-name companies shed labor costs by outsourcing the task of mollifying unhappy customers.

As we reported on the industry, we invited current and former customer service representatives to contact us. They did. We heard from more than 100 and interviewed dozens. Often, their stories disturbed us. One woman, afraid to take a bathroom break, kept a jar under her desk in case she needed to urinate. Another, afraid to call in sick, paused calls to vomit. A third, afraid to hang up on a customer, didn't know what to do when she realized a caller was masturbating to the sound of her voice.

These accounts captured how agents are simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible. Customers talk to them all the time but know little about their work conditions.

So we're providing accounts from seven agents, many of whom describe the experience of being caught between abusive callers and corporate directives to appease. These seven are highly representative of the 100-plus agents we heard from, as well as the agents we interviewed in our first article. The agents, including some who told us they love their setups, laid out common themes, describing problems that people at various levels of the industry, including managers, have told us are endemic. We've also found echoes of these complaints in lawsuits and arbitration claims. Abusive callers are such a concern that, a few years ago in Canada, a union for telecommunications workers launched a campaign called “Hang Up on Abuse." Airbnb, recognizing the emotional strain of taking such calls, offered their in-house customer service agents free therapy sessions.

The reps we spoke to needed these jobs, which allowed them to work from home even before the pandemic. They included people with disabilities, caretaking obligations or limited opportunities in rural towns. Recruitment ads touted flexibility and the chance to be your own boss. But many agents discovered the roles came with limited hours, close monitoring and strict performance measurements that put them in constant fear of losing their jobs. A Department of Labor investigator concluded that one contractor, Arise Virtual Solutions, exerted an “extraordinary degree of control" over agents.

Most customer service agents are women. Many describe being sexually harassed. One said a caller told her, “I really like the way you type." Their work belongs to a grim history of women in outsourced roles stretching back to the piecework manufacturing era. A half century ago, temp work exploded, driven by companies hiring women to cut costs compared with full-time employees. These magazine ads from 1970 and 1971 show how women temps were viewed at the time, and the attitudes have certain parallels to how customer service agents are viewed today. While many agents work full time, a growing segment are independent contractors who don't get paid holidays, vacation time or fringe benefits.

In the accounts below, most of the agents asked not to be identified, citing nondisclosure agreements that are common in the industry. (To work for some companies, agents must sign NDAs before they can even accept the job.) We've condensed for clarity and verified details wherever possible, collecting Facebook screenshots, email exchanges, company performance review forms, tax records and other proof of employment, along with contemporaneous recollections from agents' relatives or friends. But there were instances in which we couldn't get such documentation, owing in part to the premium placed on privacy and security by the companies. Some agents said they weren't even allowed to have their personal phone in their workroom while helping customers. Some lost access to their email and the company platform when they quit or were fired, and they hadn't made copies or screenshots beforehand. In every case we invited the companies that these agents worked with to comment.

Agent Taking Calls and Chats for TurboTax

Christine Stewart has social anxiety and depression. “I have a really hard time being out in public," she said. She wanted to work from home, so she became an independent contractor for Sykes from 2017 to 2018. The company bills itself as “a leading provider of multichannel demand generation and customer engagement services for Global 2000 companies." At Sykes, she helped customers using Intuit's TurboTax.

“I was actually sick one day, I called, they have a supervisor line, and told them I was going to be [out] sick. And without actually saying it, the lady said, you're going to be in trouble if you don't show up. And me, I don't like to get in trouble at work, I'm a good employee. I went to work. I kept hitting my mute button every time I had to throw up."

During training, she said, “they told me if you wanted to work nights, you could work nights. If you want to work days, you can work days. Once you finish the training they're like, 'This is your schedule.' I said I can't work that and they were like, 'Well, this is the schedule, and if you can't work the schedule, you don't want the job.' I was like, 'I need the job, I do want the job.' I said, 'I can do 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.' They wanted me to do 12 to 12. I have to get my kids on the bus in the morning, I was like, 'I need to take a five-minute break when the bus pulls up.' Even that was a huge problem for them. They would say, 'You can't keep taking these five-minute breaks.'"

Customers berated her. “One person called me the C-word. I'd call my supervisor. They'd say, 'Calm them down.' … They'd always try to push me to stay on the call and calm the customer down myself. I wasn't getting paid enough to do that. When you have a customer sitting there and saying you're worthless … you're supposed to 'de-escalate.'"

“There can be no background noise, no nature noises or cars passing by. I had a den. I had to insulate my den," she said. (To confirm the expense, she shared a tax form with ProPublica that showed a $100 deduction.) “I had to turn the AC off; you could hear the AC blowing. They called me out on that. When I was training, the lady said she could hear the air conditioner in the background."

One time, she said, “my kid broke his hand." She dropped her call, dropped everything, to help him, but then she needed a story, because, she said, had she told her supervisors the truth — that her kid broke his hand and needed her help — “I would've gotten in trouble even if I had a hospital note."

“I said my internet went down. I pulled the plug on everything, because it was their equipment. ... I didn't know if they had any kind of monitoring software that wasn't on the webcam or anything. It was better not to take any chances and unplug the whole thing."

Intuit told us that it “engages with vendors" able to deliver “flexible support," and that it is “dedicated to providing a safe, ethical, and inclusive workplace for all of our employees and vendor workers." (See thefull statement.)

Sykes did not respond to requests for comment.

Agent Taking Calls for Bath & Body Works

She needed money for a medical procedure, so, during the pandemic, she began working for Liveops as an independent contractor, helping customers for Bath & Body Works. She worked from home.

For online orders, Bath & Body Works allows shoppers to use just one promotion per order. A customer, for example, can use a code to knock down the price of a particular item, but they can't combine multiple codes. Customers can get upset when this is explained to them.

“We encounter customers who ordered the wrong items and want us to send them the right items for free. We receive calls from customers who have had their packages stolen. And then we get customers all the time who find out we don't sell a particular fragrance anymore, and they can be just incredibly abusive."

“I may as well say it out loud. We get called bitches all the time. One woman called me a 'stupid fucking cunt.'"

“It can wear on you. We're not allowed to answer back in the same way, nor are we allowed to hang up on them. Nor can we hang up on them after giving them one warning. The policy I am told is, we're not allowed to hang up on any customer under any circumstances, even if they question our race or ethnic background or anything like that. My understanding is that we're not even allowed to give people a warning."

“We have to sit there basically and listen to these people until they run out of steam. It's like they don't see us as a person."

With the pandemic, she said, a lot of agents are young women who lost their jobs and are desperate for anything. A lot of her fellow agents are Black women. “I've heard them say they were called 'stupid n-----,' 'you stupid Black bitch.'"

While some customer service reps are pressed to work more hours than they want, she got too few. Last fall, she signed up to work for four and a half hours during one day. She was paid 31 cents per minute of talking time. So when she wasn't getting calls, she wasn't getting paid. For those four and a half hours, she said, she sat there with her headset plugged in.

“No calls in those four and a half hours. Nothing. … I got some personal budget stuff done. Surfed websites unrelated to work. Familiarized myself with products on the website. I hate to say it, but I think I dozed off at one point."

Were there other days in which you got no calls? we asked.

“Oh, yes."

“How many?"

“I lost track."

Liveops has quality auditors who listen to at least four of an agent's calls per month, she said. They score agents using an audit form, which she shared with ProPublica. It says agents should make a “connected recommendation for each opportunity throughout the interaction" based on the customer's orders. Say a customer buys soap. The agent should ask, “Did you want a soap holder, too?" If a customer buys candles, the agent should also pitch candleholders.

“A customer calls to say, 'Hey, I didn't get my package.' So I'm supposed to say, 'Hey, do you want to buy some more products when you still don't have your package?' Oh, for crying out loud. Really."

The audit form has 20 questions. They include: “9. Did the agent compliment the customer's selections, reassure about the fragrance choices and/or give general positive reinforcement about the items? … 18. Did the agent apologize when necessary, show empathy and/or recognizes customer emotion? 19. Did the agent let the customer know that we have 'heard' them, that we genuinely care, and did the agent remain engaged throughout the entire interaction?"

A Liveops document said that if an agent's scores fall within the “unacceptable" range for three months in a calendar year, “the agent may be subject to removal from the program."

She said she recently received an email saying she had used profanity on a call, so Liveops was terminating her contract. She didn't remember saying anything profane. The company provided no recording for her to listen to. She emailed Liveops and called corporate to ask for details or a chance to hear whatever it is she was supposed to have said, but she got no response. (She said she didn't make copies of these emails before her email account was closed.)

“No appeal," she said.

Liveops told us that it does not comment on specific clients or agents, but said in a statement that agents choose their client programs and “have the freedom and flexibility to work around their lives." The statement added: “All client programs have their own unique process for handling and dispositioning unproductive calls and significantly upset clients. There are controls in place to ensure that, to the extent possible, all calls are professional, and no customer or agent is subject to verbal abuse." (Read Liveops'full statement.)

Bath & Body Works did not respond to requests for comment.

Agent Taking Calls and Chats for Barnes & Noble

She worked as an independent contractor for Arise Virtual Solutions, a company that bills itself as a pioneer in the work-from-home industry.

Customers, she said, “get mad at us. They start cursing at us. They start threatening to report us to the main office." One customer, she said, told her he was going to keep her on the line until he got what he wanted; he “started with the F-word," then apologized, then carried on. He “wouldn't stop and wouldn't stop" until finally, realizing the agent wouldn't give in, he gave up.

At one time she handled calls from Barnes & Noble customers. “A lot of cursing, a lot of crying — crying — believe it or not. I've been called every name in the book. And I do mean from A to Z. Everything in between. I've been hung up on, threatened, told I'm going to lose my job. I had one woman tell me, 'I hope you have a miserable day.' You can't laugh. I can't laugh. I'm thinking to myself, 'You ordered the Bible. You're some Christian person?' She'd ordered a Bible! Those are the worst! Those are the worst hypocrites! They scream, curse, yell, carry on, threaten. They're the worst."

“The women, their mouths are unbelievable. Or they start crying. They're worse than the men. I'm like, 'It's a book, for God's sake.'"

Arise told us that it does not tolerate harassment of any kind. (See thefull statement.)

Barnes & Noble did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Agent in a Call Center Taking Calls for Sprint

She was employed by iQor (pronounced I-core) as a retention specialist and sales agent, taking calls from customers for Sprint (which has since merged with T-Mobile). She worked in a call center.

“If the customer is angry and wants to completely cancel, you have 14 minutes to resolve their issue, get them to stay and sell them a new phone," she said.

A unit called workforce management would push agents along. One workforce management monitor would sit at a computer, checking the length of each agent's call. Another would walk the floor. These two would communicate by walkie talkie, one alerting the other to any agent whose call was running long.

“At 10 minutes you had somebody tapping on your shoulder. At 12 minutes you had someone tapping on your shoulder and saying, 'Wrap it up, wrap it up, wrap it up.' At 14 minutes, 'What's going on? You need to wrap this up. You need to move on.'"

“We had this guy who would run around on the floor yelling, 'Move it along, people, all hands on deck, move it along, move it along.'"

Agents would have management in one ear and customers in the other. Customers would often be insulting, sometimes shockingly so.

She remembered one customer in particular. “He was very, very upset. And it's personal. You get called names. 'I hope you fucking die.'" Another Sprint customer told her: “'I hope when T-Mobile takes over, you all lose your fucking jobs, your fucking families, your fucking homes, and you all kill yourselves.'"

She said she was not allowed to hang up. Only a supervisor could do that. “Where's the line where you no longer have to take that?" she said. “I spent more than one instance in the bathroom, crying, then shaking it off and going back to work."

“I'm pretty thick-skinned, and I had nightmares. It beats you down. Everybody is angry. Eight out of 10 calls, they're angry and they're cursing by the time they get to you. Usually it's the men who make it personal. That's why I coined the term AngryWhiteManistan. 'I have another resident of AngryWhiteManistan here.' They'll say things like, 'Well, then, you better get me someone who is not incompetent.'"

In her nightmares, she said, she would be doing some mundane task, such as making dinner in the kitchen, when the phone would ring. She'd pick up and hear: “Are you done yet? We need to move on. We need to move on. We need to move on."

T-Mobile, which merged with Sprint in 2020, told us it wouldn't comment on Sprint's prior practices. Since the merger, T-Mobile said, it has taken steps “to align T-Mobile's Care practices across our team and all our partners to our award-winning Team of Experts (TEX) model, whichheavily prioritizes customer and agent experience over more traditional call center metrics."The company's statement added, “We have a long-held policy that all of our experts do not have to tolerate abusive speech or behavior." (Read the company'sfull statement.)

IQordid not respond to requests for comment.

Agent Supervising Other Agents Taking Calls for DirecTV

She's lived in “many, many states" and worked in many call centers. Now she lives out west in a rural setting where jobs, and options, are scarce. A few years ago she found a job that lets her work from home. She started as an agent at Convergys (since acquired by Concentrix), then became a supervisor.

“It's just enough of a wage that you're going to be ineligible for most public support. I'm not eligible for any financial aid whatsoever. And yet I go to the food bank every month because I don't make enough money. … I don't go to the doctor, even when I should."

She said the job attracts a lot of new parents. And retirees. And people with medical issues. She said that in her experience, the turnover is “tremendous." Within months, many people get fired, or “termed," short for terminated. “We fire more than they resign. A lot more."

Most firings are over attendance. What counts as an attendance infraction? “Anything. It doesn't matter if it's in your control or not. … Your power goes out and, bam, you're absent. ... Doesn't matter if you had a hurricane."

“You don't know if you're going to have a job tomorrow."

Once, as a supervisor, she listened to a recording of a call that had been made to an agent working at home, answering calls from customers for DirecTV. “DirecTV had a policy, you never hung up on a customer, ever. You simply weren't allowed to, no matter what they said." (ProPublica interviewed another agent who also understood this to be the case.)

“There was a guy who called in and masturbated on the phone. It was awful. … Just imagine being a woman in your office in your home, alone. And here's this guy doing this, and it takes you a few minutes to figure out what that sound is, and when you do you're horrified, and you don't know what to do. All you know is, you're not allowed to hang up the phone. That would be horrible. I felt so terrible for her."

The agent, crying, asked if she could quit for the day without an attendance infraction. “We had the recorded call, it's not like it was ever in doubt. My boss was a man, at first he didn't understand why that was an issue." He didn't understand why the agent was so troubled. “I had to go to HR to get them to explain to him why it was an issue." Only then could the agent stop taking calls.

Convergys was acquired by Concentrix in 2018. Concentrix said it does not disclose details about current or former staff out of respect for their confidentiality, but said in a statement: “We recognize that the work-at-home environment isn't foreveryone. … We take the health and safety of our staff very seriously and do not have a no hang-up policy. Our staff are given extensive training to manage each interaction with techniques to deflect anddiffusesituations should they arise. If subjected to harassment or abuse they are trained and empowered to end the conversation." (See Concentrix'sfull statement.)

DirecTV told us: “The allegations are disturbing. We suggest you contact the agent's employer." In a written statement, the company said: “We don't tolerate, and we don't expect our vendors to tolerate, harassment of any kind. We have policies and procedures in place for our employees to escalate inappropriate customer interactions and the ability to terminate any customer interaction if and when that becomes necessary." A DirecTV spokesperson said in a phone call that “to the best of our knowledge," the company has not ever had a no-hang-up policy.

Agent Taking Calls for Home Depot

She's in her 60s and wanted a work-from-home job to keep her family safe during the pandemic. She saw a company called Arise Virtual Solutions mentioned online, but she was skeptical. She would be an independent contractor, required to absorb substantial startup costs. (ProPublica's previous article on customer service noted that Arise's agents often spend more than $1,000 on training and equipment.)

Then she saw Bob Wells, a real-life nomad featured in the movie “Nomadland," talking about Arise on YouTube. She decided to give it a chance. “I was like, 'I need work.' … I'd kind of given up on finding something more legit, frankly, because of the pandemic. So it was a pandemic Band-Aid for me."

She answered calls from customers for Home Depot. One, a nurse's aide, had ordered a portable toilet for a client. “This woman was like, 'I have a 90-year-old lady who needs this thing like, yesterday, and you haven't delivered it for three weeks, what is your problem?'" To the agent, this was urgent. “When it became a humanitarian issue, and there were plenty of humanitarian issues, especially during the pandemic," she would send the matter to people above her, who would then send it to Home Depot to do something. The customer's problem might then be resolved. “But my stats would go down," she said, because she hadn't resolved the matter herself. (She shared Arise's performance metrics with us.)

On days when the phone didn't stop ringing — and there were many — she couldn't step away from her desk. “I had a bottle I kept under my desk in case I had to urinate. I never used it, but I had it there if I needed it. I'm in my 60s. … There could be an emergency."

The work was isolating. She joined Facebook groups (and provided screenshots to ProPublica) and began to talk with other frustrated agents. She realized she was among the few white women in her work cohort. And she realized customers were nicer to her — an immigrant with a British accent. “When I first came to this country, I couldn't believe people could tell the color of a person over the phone. That was a culture shock. ... When people are calling in, I think they find it easier to yell at a Black woman. … I'm not the most evolved person, but I began to look at the work through a racial lens. ... I answered the phone, and there were people who called, and right at the beginning of the call, they were full of white-hot rage." Then they would hear her accent. “Well, the amount of comments I got from people who were like, 'Wow, they've got classy people here!' … I was born in a British colony. People think I'm a butler or a classy servant."

Home Depot spokesperson Margaret Smith told us the company uses an escalation process designed to help agents handle difficult calls. “If a customer becomes irate or disrespectful, we ask the associate to either have their supervisor take over the call or transfer the call to the resolution queue," she said. Agents who use this process are not supposed to be penalized, she said. (Read Home Depot's full statement.)

Arise provided us with a statement about itsnetwork of agents, whom it callsservice partners. “Arise does not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind," the statement said. “Service Partners interacting with individual customers through the Arise® Platform are protected by both client and Arise policies and processes that include the ability to disconnect callers without penalty or transfer these calls to support resources if they are unable to de-escalate the situation." (Read Arise's full statement.)

Agent Taking Video Calls and Chats for TurboTax

Mara M. was a hairstylist and cosmetology teacher when her health began worsening. “Probably in about 2015, I started sleeping a lot. Any time I would stand up I would get really dizzy, really lightheaded. One of the requirements to teach hair is to be able to stand. I couldn't stand up. It was a walker and wheelchair for me. … I have postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome."

Mara eventually discovered Concentrix, a global customer service outsourcing company, while searching for work-from-home jobs on She signed on at age 23, hoping she might be matched with a company that sold beauty products.

At her orientation three weeks later, Mara learned which account — that is, which of Concentrix's corporate clients — she would be matched with. She would be working part time, doing video calls and live chats for Intuit. She would be helping people use TurboTax.

Mara didn't have an office. But she did have a closet. So she turned her closet into an office. (She sent us photographs.) “They sent me a blue screen to put behind my chair," she says. That way, customers wouldn't know she was working from home, much less from inside her closet. She bought a computer, a monitor, a headset.

“We were not supposed to hang up. … You're supposed to hear them out, then empathize with them, then acknowledge that the problem was made. I had tried all that. They say, you know, apologize, but the people stay angry."

One customer called her, moaning. “I was very uncomfortable. I couldn't tell if he was sick; I couldn't tell if he was watching porn in the background. I just tried to get through the guy's questions." Afterward she told a friend that she thought the man on the other end of the line had been masturbating. (The friend confirmed this conversation.)

She learned that agents were monitored. “We had a webcam, and [the monitors] can see you through the webcam. … I'm not sure how often you were watched. But the trainer did say you should shut down your computer after your shift because they can still see you. I was like, that's really Big Brother. … That freaked me out because I spend a lot of time in my room." And she learned there were no built-in breaks for part-timers. “You can't step away when you're on the clock." She said it felt confining, like her closet was a prison cell.

She struggled to answer questions about complicated tax forms. She would Google for answers in a different window while trying to look confident to the customer, who could see her on the video call. “I had a nightmare so bad that I'd wake up at 6 in the morning over this job. I cried. I'm a sensitive person, so a lot of people probably wouldn't have cried. … I didn't know what I was doing. … I was like, 'I finally have a job, but I don't know what the answers are.'"

Mara didn't feel like she could quit. For the most part, she said, her metrics were high. But customers weren't responding to survey questions about her performance. And her lowest score was her “doc rate" — documentation rate — which penalizes agents for not closing out a chat with a customer. They get credit only when a customer says, “Yes, you have answered all my questions."

“Some people don't answer back after they get the answers they need. For those types of chats and everything, we couldn't close those cases. My doc rate dropped because ... I couldn't close the case on some of them."

Eventually, Concentrix emailed to say that TurboTax wanted her off the account, citing “a review of stats … done over the weekend." (Mara shared copies of the exchange with ProPublica.)

“I do apologize for the inconvenience," a Concentrix representative wrote. “Please feel free to apply for other Concentrix accounts!"

Intuit told us agents are “provided training to end calls with customers should they encounter abusive or threatening behavior." Its statement also said that Intuit establishes performance standards with vendors such as Concentrix: “Vendors — not Intuit — are responsible for ensuring those workers they engage to support Intuit's customers or our account meet those standards." (Read the full statement.)

Concentrix, which said it does not disclose details about current or former staff, told us, “We take the health and safety of our staff very seriously and do not have a no hang-up policy." (See Concentrix's full statement.)

​The billionaire playbook: How sports owners use their teams to avoid millions in taxes

At a concession stand at Staples Center in Los Angeles, Adelaide Avila was pingponging between pouring beers, wiping down counters and taking out the trash. Her Los Angeles Lakers were playing their hometown rival, the Clippers, but Avila was working too hard to follow the March 2019 game.

When she filed taxes for her previous year's labors at the arena and her second job driving for Uber, the 50-year-old Avila reported making $44,810. The federal government took a 14.1% cut.

On the court that night, the players were also hard at work. None more so than LeBron James. The Lakers star was suffering through a painful strained groin injury, but he still put up more points and played more minutes than any other player.

In his tax return, James reported making $124 million in 2018. He paid a federal income tax rate of 35.9%. Not surprisingly, it was more than double the rate paid by Avila.

The wealthiest person in the building that night, in all likelihood, was Steve Ballmer, owner of the Clippers. The evening was decidedly less arduous for the billionaire former CEO of Microsoft. He sat courtside, in a pink dress shirt and slacks, surrounded by friends. His legs were outstretched, his shoes almost touching the sideline.

Ballmer had reason to smile: His Clippers won. But even if they hadn't, his ownership of the team was reaping him massive tax benefits.

For the prior year, Ballmer reported making $656 million. The dollar figure he paid in taxes was large, $78 million; but as a percentage of what he made, it was tiny. Records reviewed by ProPublica show his federal income tax rate was just 12%.

That's a third of the rate James paid, even though Ballmer made five times as much as the superstar player. Ballmer's rate was also lower than Avila's — even though Ballmer's income was almost 15,000 times greater than the concession worker's.

Ballmer pays such a low rate, in part, because of a provision of the U.S. tax code. When someone buys a business, they're often able to deduct almost the entire sale price against their income during the ensuing years. That allows them to pay less in taxes. The underlying logic is that the purchase price was composed of assets — buildings, equipment, patents and more — that degrade over time and should be counted as expenses.

But in few industries is that tax treatment more detached from economic reality than in professional sports. Teams' most valuable assets, such as TV deals and player contracts, are virtually guaranteed to regenerate because sports franchises are essentially monopolies. There's little risk that players will stop playing for Ballmer's Clippers or that TV stations will stop airing their games. But Ballmer still gets to deduct the value of those assets over time, almost $2 billion in all, from his taxable income.

This allows Ballmer to perform a kind of financial magic trick. If he profits from the Clippers, he can — legally — inform the IRS that he is losing money, thus saving vast sums on his taxes. If the Clippers are unprofitable in a given year, he can tell the IRS he's losing vastly more.

Glimpses of the Clippers' real-world financial results show the business has often been profitable. Those include audited financials disclosed in a Bank of America report just before Ballmer bought the team, as well as NBA records that were leaked after he became owner.

But IRS records obtained by ProPublica show the Clippers have reported $700 million in losses for tax purposes in recent years. Not only does Ballmer not have to pay tax on any real-world Clippers profits, he can use the tax write-off to offset his other income.

Ballmer isn't alone. ProPublica reviewed tax information for dozens of team owners across the four largest American pro sports leagues. Owners frequently report incomes for their teams that are millions below their real-world earnings, according to the tax records, previously leaked team financial records and interviews with experts.

They include Shahid Khan, an automotive tycoon who made use of at least $79 million in losses from a stake in the Jacksonville Jaguars even as his football team has consistently been projected to bring in millions a year. And Leonard Wilf, a New Jersey real estate developer who owns the Minnesota Vikings with family members, has taken $66 million in losses from his minority stake in the team.

In a statement, Khan responded: “We're a nation of laws. U.S. Congress passes them. In the case of tax laws, the IRS applies and enforces the regulations, which are absolute. We simply and fully comply with those very IRS regulations." Wilf didn't respond to questions.

Ballmer's spokesperson declined to answer specific questions, but said “Steve has always paid the taxes he owes, and has publicly noted that he would personally be fine with paying more."

These revelations are part of what ProPublica has unearthed in a trove of tax information for the wealthiest Americans. ProPublica has already revealed that billionaires are paying shockingly little to the government by avoiding the types of income that can be taxed.

The records also show how some of the richest people on the planet use their membership in the exclusive club of pro sports team owners to further lower their tax bills.

The records upend conventional wisdom about how taxation works in America. Billionaire owners are consistently paying lower tax rates than their millionaire players — and often lower even than the rates paid by the workers who staff their stadiums. The massive reductions on personal tax bills that owners glean from their teams come on top of the much-criticized subsidies the teams get from local governments for new stadiums and further deplete federal coffers that fund everything from the military to medical research to food stamps and other safety net programs.

The history of team ownership as a way to avoid taxes goes back almost a century. Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians in the 1940s and later the Chicago White Sox, stated it plainly in his memoir: “Look, we play the Star Spangled Banner before every game. You want us to pay income taxes too?"

Veeck is credited with convincing the IRS to accept a tax maneuver even he described as a “gimmick." Player salaries were already treated as a deductible business expense for a team. That was not controversial in the slightest.

But Veeck dreamed up an innovation, a way to get a second tax deduction for the same players: depreciation. The way he accomplished this was by separately buying the contracts before the old company was liquidated, instead of transferring them to the new company as had been done before. That meant that the contracts were treated as a separate asset. The value a new owner assigned to that asset when he bought the team could be used to offset taxes on team profits, as well as any other income he might have. (Defenders of the practice contend that it's not double-dipping since the deductions are taken against two separate pools of money: the money used to purchase the team and the day-to-day operating budget.)

Team owners, Veeck wrote in his memoir, had won “a tax write-off that could have been figured out by a Texas oilman. It wasn't figured out by a Texas oilman. It was figured out by a Chicago hustler. Me."

Once the IRS accepted this premise, the natural next step — owners assigning as large a portion of the total team purchase price as possible to player contracts — was elevated into a sport of its own. Decades ago, Paul Beeston, who was president of the Toronto Blue Jays and president of Major League Baseball at various times, famously described the result: “Under generally accepted accounting principles, I could turn a $4 million profit into a $2 million loss and I could get every national accounting firm to agree with me."

The depreciation of tangible assets, and their decay over time, is often intuitive. A machine in a factory and a fleet of cars have more obvious fair market values and life spans before business owners will have to pay to replace them. Take, for example, a newspaper business with a printing press that cost $10 million and will last for, say, 20 years. The idea of depreciation is that the newspaper owner could deduct a piece of that $10 million every year for the 20-year lifespan of the press.

But amortization, the term for depreciating nonphysical assets, was less straightforward. Sports teams are often mainly composed of these assets. Valuing and assigning a life span to a player contract or a TV deal was more subjective and thus vulnerable to aggressive tax maneuvers by team owners.

Several NBA teams claimed that more than 90% — in one case, 100% — of their value consisted of player contracts that could be written off on the owner's taxes, according to league financials that emerged in an early 1970s congressional investigation.

By that time the IRS had begun a series of challenges of valuation methods by team owners, part of a larger fight across industries about how business owners should be allowed to write off so-called intangible assets. The tax agency insisted that companies should only be able to write off assets with a limited useful life.

In an effort to stop the endless litigation, Congress inaugurated the modern era of amortization by simplifying the rules in 1993: Under the new regime, the purchaser of a business would be allowed, over the span of 15 years, to write off more types of intangible assets. This might have been welcome news for the sports business. But Congress explicitly excluded the industry from the law.

Following lobbying by Major League Baseball, in 2004, sports teams were granted the right to use this deduction as part of a tax bill signed by President George W. Bush, himself a former part owner of the Texas Rangers. Now, team owners could write off the price they paid not just for player contracts, but also a range of other items such as TV and radio contracts and even goodwill, an amorphous accounting concept that represents the value of a business' reputation. Altogether, those assets typically amount to 90% or more of the price paid for a team.

That means when billionaires buy teams, the law allows them to treat almost all of what they bought, including assets that don't lose value, as deteriorating over time. A team's franchise rights, which never expire, automatically get treated like a pharmaceutical company's patent on a blockbuster drug, which has a finite life span. In reality, the right to operate a franchise in one of the major leagues has in the last few decades been a license to print money: In the past two decades, the average value of basketball, football, baseball and hockey teams has grown by more than 500%.

ProPublica uncovered the tax breaks used by team owners by dissecting reports sent to the IRS that capture the profit or loss of a business. Still, untangling the precise benefits can be difficult. For example, some owners hold their team stakes in companies that also had unrelated assets — a corporate nesting doll that makes it impossible to determine the losses a team produced. The examples mentioned in this article are instances in which it appears the owners did not intermingle assets and the team's ownership structure is clear based on ProPublica's analysis of the tax records, court documents, corporate registration data and news reports.

When Steve Ballmer offered to buy the Clippers in 2014 for a record sum, the team's longtime owner, Donald Sterling, was taken aback.

“I'm curious about one thing," Sterling said at a meeting later recounted by his lawyer.

“Of course, what is the question?" Ballmer responded.

Sterling proceeded: “You really have $2 billion?"

The size of the offer was impressive considering the context. In 1981, Sterling had paid $12.5 million for the club. In the three decades that followed, Sterling had become notorious for neglecting and mistreating the team. He didn't provide a training facility for years, forcing the team to practice at the gym of a local junior college. He heckled his own players during games. After games, Sterling was said to parade friends through the locker room so they could gawk at the players' bodies.

But even Sterling's mismanagement couldn't stop the Clippers' rise in value. Players kept signing with the Clippers — drafted rookies because they typically have no other option if they want to play in the NBA and veterans because there are a finite number of teams to choose from.

TV deals also grew in value. The Clippers had little fan support, and they oscillated between being league bottom-dwellers and a middling franchise. But before Sterling sold the team, the Clippers were expected to sign a new local media deal worth two to three times more than their previous deal.

The beginning of the end of Sterling's tenure came when he was recorded by his mistress telling her not to bring Black people to Clippers games. The NBA moved to force Sterling out. Ballmer swooped in, outbidding Oprah Winfrey and others. (ProPublica couldn't reach Sterling for comment. His wife, Shelly, who co-owned the Clippers with him, defended their tenure in emails to ProPublica, saying they weren't the only owners whose team didn't own a practice facility and suggesting her husband did not heckle players. “I GUESS WHEN THERE IS NOTHING TO WRITE ABOUT WHY NOT TRY TO WRITE SOME SCUM," she wrote.)

Ballmer, one of the richest people in the world, wasn't just motivated by his love for basketball. He expected the team to be profitable. “It's not a cheap price, but when you're used to looking at tech companies with huge risk, no earnings and huge multiples, this doesn't look like the craziest thing I've ever acquired," he said at the time. “There's much less risk. There's real earnings in this business."

Two years later, as the league negotiated a new contract with the players union, Ballmer portrayed the team's finances in a much different light. “I'm a new owner and I've heard this is the golden age of basketball economics. You should tell our finance people that," he told a reporter in 2016. “We're sitting there looking at red ink, and it's real red ink. I know, it shows up on my tax returns."

But losses on a tax return don't necessarily mean losses, as large or at all, in the real world.

Ballmer was acquiring a team that had skyrocketed in value over the previous decade. And there was the benefit for his taxes: He was allowed to start treating the Clippers — including those player contracts and TV deals — as if they were losing value.

From 2014 to 2018, records show Ballmer reported a total of $700 million in losses from his ownership of the Clippers, almost certainly composed mainly of paper losses from amortization.

The evidence examined by ProPublica showed the Clippers have often been profitable, though many of the glimpses into the team's finances are from before Ballmer took over. Leaked NBA records during Ballmer's tenure showed the Clippers in the black as recently as 2017. Audited financials disclosed in the Bank of America report just before the sale showed the team netting $14 million and $18 million in the two years before Ballmer took over, with projected growth in the future. Tax records for the pre-Ballmer era examined by ProPublica showed the team consistently making millions in profits. Forbes has also estimated the team generates millions in annual profits.

Nevertheless, Ballmer reported staggering losses from the Clippers to the IRS. Those losses allowed him to reduce the taxes he owed on the billions he has reaped from Microsoft stock sales and dividends. Owning the Clippers cut his tax bill by about $140 million in just five years, according to a ProPublica analysis.

Unlike billionaire team owners, millionaire players are virtually guaranteed to pay a large share of their income in taxes.

The law favors people who are rich because they own things over people who are rich because they make a high income from their work. Wages — the main source of income for most people, including athletes — are taxed at the highest rates of all, topping out at a marginal rate of 37% plus an extra 3.8% for Medicare. The government takes a smaller share of money made from, say, selling a stock. That's not to mention the benefits available to people who own businesses, such as the paper losses created by buying a sports team.

So while Ballmer's tax rate for 2018 was 12% on his $656 million of income, Lakers star Anthony Davis paid 40% that year on $35 million of income. Golfer Tiger Woods made $22 million and paid 34%. Boxer Floyd Mayweather paid more than 37% on his $53 million income. Star Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander made $30 million and paid a 39% cut.

(In each instance in which ProPublica refers to “income" in this article, we are referring to adjusted gross income, which the IRS defines as earnings minus certain items like alimony or student loan interest payments. We calculated tax rates the way government agencies and many economists do, by including not just the Medicare and Social Security taxes automatically taken out of workers' paychecks, but also the share employers are required to pay for those programs on behalf of their employees. The rationale for including the employer's share as part of the employee's tax burden is that employers pay less in wages because of these costs. These levies make up most of the tax burden for the typical worker, a low but still significant percentage for millionaire players, but a negligible share or nothing for billionaires like Ballmer who typically don't take salaries and other forms of income these taxes apply to.)

In a few cases, star players have bought pieces of pro sports teams. But that doesn't automatically get them the low rates enjoyed by the typical billionaire owner. Basketball great Michael Jordan, for instance, owns the NBA's Charlotte Hornets and a tiny stake in the Miami Marlins baseball team. His share of the Hornets produced $3.6 million in tax losses in 2015, even though the team was estimated to be in the black that year. He still makes a large portion of his money from Nike though, which is taxed at a high rate. That year, for example, he paid 38% in federal taxes on $114 million in income. Jordan's spokeswoman declined to answer specific questions.

Ballmer's tax advantages reduce the revenue flowing to the federal government. At the same time, he has publicly bemoaned the perils of having a government that spends more than it takes in. He has founded a nonprofit, USA Facts, that provides data on government spending. “Nobody wants to sacrifice anything in the short term so that we don't leave these huge debt and deficits to our children," he told Fox Business three years ago. “That drives me crazy."

Perhaps the savviest tax play for billionaires interested in pro sports is buying a football team. Financial analysts believe it's exceedingly difficult to lose money running an NFL franchise. “I think the NFL is the only sport where each team is profitable and viable," said mining tycoon Alan Kestenbaum, now a part owner of the Atlanta Falcons, in an interview with Bloomberg.

The NFL's TV ratings dominance, easily surpassing the NBA and other major leagues, is at the center of the sport's money machine. Each of the 32 teams — from the small-market Buffalo Bills to the behemoth Dallas Cowboys — takes an equal share of national revenue, mostly derived from broadcasting deals. In 2019 alone those deals generated $9.5 billion, divided into $296 million slices for each team. The league recently re-upped its contracts with the networks and added Amazon's Prime Video streaming service in an 11-year, $105 billion deal. On the expense side of the ledger, the biggest line item, player salaries, is limited since the league enforces what's known as a hard salary cap.

Those two sources of profitability drove the record $2.3 billion price of the last NFL team to change hands, the Carolina Panthers. But the sale triggered a dramatic swing in how the team's finances were reported to the IRS, records show. The Panthers suddenly went from producing large profits to suffering major losses.

The Panthers were built into a thriving business by Jerry Richardson, a onetime NFL player turned fast food restaurant magnate, who was awarded the expansion franchise in the early 1990s. In addition to its share of the league's national TV deals, the team quickly built up another major revenue source, selling out virtually every game to an enthusiastic local fan base in Charlotte. Success followed on the field. By 2016, led by MVP quarterback Cam Newton, the Panthers won the NFC Championship and made the Super Bowl.

With the amortization benefit from the early years of the team used up, the Panthers produced millions of profits every year, with margins growing annually in the five years through 2017, tax records of Richardson and several previous minority owners show. ProPublica estimated the team's annual income based on the tax information of a complex web of team entities, as well as leaked financial statements published by Deadspin.

That year, after Richardson was at the center of a lurid racism and sexual harassment scandal, he announced he was putting the team on the auction block. Several billionaires put in bids.

The winning bidder was David Tepper, founder of the hedge fund Appaloosa Management. Tepper, who made his fortune trading distressed debt and once hired Ashlee Simpson to play his daughter's bat mitzvah, is now the league's richest owner.

The $2.3 billion Tepper paid would produce amortization expenses of around $140 million per year, according to the IRS' general guidelines. That annual expense would wipe out any Panthers profits for tax purposes.

The team swung from a large taxable profit before its sale to a tax loss of about $115 million, according to a ProPublica analysis of IRS records, after Tepper's purchase in 2018. There's no evidence anything significant about the Panthers' real-world revenue and expenses changed between 2017 and 2018. The only major difference is the team changed hands, and Tepper now gets a tax benefit through his new entity, Tepper Sports Holdings.

Tepper's hedge fund is a massive producer of capital gains income — in the past decade, he has often reported more than $1 billion in annual income — so the tax losses produced by the Panthers are extremely valuable to him. A spokesman for Tepper didn't respond to questions.

The same year Tepper bought the Panthers, the NHL's newest hockey team, the Las Vegas Golden Knights, accomplished what only one expansion team had done before by making it to the league finals in its inaugural season. Since then, the Golden Knights have continued to win. Off the ice, they've been among the best in the NHL at motivating fans to spend money on team apparel, and the Golden Knights have consistently sold out their home games.

The team's owner, William Foley, the chairman of insurance giant Fidelity National Financial, made it clear he wasn't in the business of losing money. “We developed a conservative business plan," Foley told a reporter in 2017, the first year the team played. “I didn't want to write $20 million checks every year." He likely didn't have to. Forbes estimated millions in profit for the team from 2017 to 2019.

But for tax purposes, records show, the team produced losses of more than $57 million during those years. That was thanks in part to the team's ability to write off the $500 million expansion fee that Foley paid to the NHL in 2016.

In a statement to ProPublica, Golden Knights Chief Legal Officer Peter Sadowski did not respond to questions about amortization. He did respond to a question about one of the team's income streams, noting that the money from season ticket deposits was “used to pay rent, to employ hundreds of people, provide outstanding entertainment and create a source of pride for our community."

The Golden Knights' tax losses helped offset the money Foley made from his other ventures, saving him more than $12 million in taxes over two years, according to a ProPublica analysis.

The value of sports franchises, as noted, tends to rise inexorably — but teams sometimes lose money along the way. Internal NBA records obtained by ESPN in 2017 showed that the league's clubs were averaging almost $18 million in net income that season. But nine of the 30 clubs were in the red.

Even when a team spends more than it takes in, an owner can still end up on top. The amortization benefit can turn a loss into an even larger loss, which can then be used to offset other income and save money on taxes.

For example, Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans, was able to lower his taxable income by about $443 million from 2005 to 2018 because of his stake in the Cleveland Cavaliers, tax records show. In that same period, the team reached the pinnacle, winning its first-ever NBA championship in 2016.

In emails to ProPublica, Gilbert's lawyer wrote that the team consistently loses money. “During the entire time after Mr. Gilbert's purchase of the team, the Cavaliers has operated with an actual loss (negative cash flow/negative income) unrelated to any depreciation or amortization and there have been no funds to distribute to Mr. Gilbert or any other owner," he wrote.

The tax write-off for amortization, Gilbert's lawyer argued, is essential to all businesses, from restaurants to factories to sports franchises. Without it, he wrote, “there would be no capital investments made by owners and businesses would be taxed on revenue without properly taking into account all costs necessary to generate that revenue. That would be antithetical to capitalism and fatal to the United States' economy."

Gilbert's lawyer added that the Cavaliers owner has paid “enormous" taxes for many years. He also wrote: “Your e-mail makes reference to other wage earners such as the players and their salaries. The facts are this: Mr. Gilbert is the only party referenced in your e-mail who has undertaken any risk. Mr. Gilbert has risked the purchase price paid for the Cavaliers, his subsequent capital contributions, the debt he has personally guaranteed and the players' salaries which are guaranteed. ... To compare the guaranteed salaries of the Cavaliers' players as an applicable measure of Mr. Gilbert's tax rate is absurd."

Advocates for team owners point out that when owners sell their teams, they have to pay back the taxes they avoided by using amortization. But even if owners ultimately repay the taxes they skipped, deferring payment of those taxes for years, sometimes decades, essentially amounts to an interest-free loan from taxpayers. An owner could reap huge gains by investing that money.

If owners die while holding their stake, as many do, the tax savings may never be repaid. And their heirs can generally restart the amortization cycle anew.

Bob Piccinini was a minority member of the group that purchased the Golden State Warriors in 2010. He made his fortune turning Modesto-based Save Mart Supermarkets into the largest family-owned grocery chain in California. Already a part owner of multiple baseball teams, he entered the basketball world not because he had a particularly keen interest in the sport, but to make money. “Sports franchises continue to go up in value," Piccinini said at the time.

His tax information shows he bought more than 7% of the Warriors. From 2011 to 2014, he reported total losses of $16 million. Nearly a decade's worth of tax data from other Warriors owners, also reviewed by ProPublica, showed many millions in losses — all of it during a period when the team rose to become historically dominant. Meanwhile, leaked financials obtained by ESPN from 2017 show the Warriors to be an extremely profitable business, netting $92 million in one season alone. Forbes estimates also put the team well in the black during that period. A Warriors spokesperson declined to answer a series of specific questions, instead providing a one-sentence statement: “Over the course of the last decade, we have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into our team on the court, our overall operation and, of course, the construction and opening of a new, 100 percent privately financed arena in San Francisco."

Piccinini died in 2015. The court records about the inheritance he left his children don't specifically mention his stake in the team or whether his estate paid taxes following his death. But the tax code likely would have allowed his children never to repay the government for the paper losses their father enjoyed. It would also have permitted Piccinni's heirs to begin claiming paper losses of their own.

In the years since, Piccinini's son, Dominic, has been a courtside regular at Warriors games. An occasional actor in his 20s, Dominic has an Instagram profile that shows him high-fiving Stephen Curry and other players midgame and posing for photos with rappers including Drake and E-40. In 2019, he and a friend went viral when ESPN panned to them drinking from golden chalices.

In an interview, Dominic told ProPublica that he allowed his family's lawyers to handle the tax details of his inheritance, which granted him and his siblings equal shares of their father's stake in the Warriors.

“It's just the darndest thing," he said in a phone call from a vacation in Mexico. “I'm a lucky son of a bitch, there's no way around it."

How tech mogul Peter Thiel turned a retirement account for the middle class into a $5 billion tax-free piggy bank

Billionaire Peter Thiel, a founder of PayPal, has publicly condemned “confiscatory taxes." He's been a major funder of one of the most prominent anti-tax political action committees in the country. And he's bankrolled a group that promotes building floating nations that would impose no compulsory income taxes.

But Thiel doesn't need a man-made island to avoid paying taxes. He has something just as effective: a Roth individual retirement account.

Over the last 20 years, Thiel has quietly turned his Roth IRA — a humdrum retirement vehicle intended to spur Americans to save for their golden years — into a gargantuan tax-exempt piggy bank, confidential Internal Revenue Service data shows. Using stock deals unavailable to most people, Thiel has taken a retirement account worth less than $2,000 in 1999 and spun it into a $5 billion windfall.

To put that into perspective, here's how much the average Roth was worth at the end of 2018: $39,108.

And here's how much $5 billion is: If every one of the 2.3 million people in Houston, Texas, were to deposit $2,000 into a bank today, those accounts still wouldn't equal what Thiel has in his Roth IRA.

What's more, as long as Thiel waits to withdraw his money until April 2027, when he is six months shy of his 60th birthday, he will never have to pay a penny of tax on those billions.

ProPublica has obtained a trove of IRS tax return data on thousands of the country's wealthiest people, covering more than 15 years. This data provides, for the first time, an inside look at the financial lives of the richest Americans, those whose stratospheric fortunes put them among history's wealthiest individuals.

What this secret information reveals is that while most Americans are dutifully paying taxes — chipping in their part to fund the military, highways and safety-net programs — the country's richest citizens are finding ways to sidestep the tax system.

One of the most surprising of these techniques involves the Roth IRA, which limits most people to contributing just $6,000 each year.

The late Sen. William Roth Jr., a Delaware Republican, pushed through a law establishing the Roth IRA in 1997 to allow “hard-working, middle-class Americans" to stow money away, tax-free, for retirement. The Clinton administration didn't want to give a fat tax break to wealthy people who were likely to save anyway, so it blocked Americans making more than $110,000 ($160,000 for a couple) per year from using them and capped annual contributions back then at $2,000.

Yet, from the start, a small number of entrepreneurs, like Thiel, made an end run around the rules: Open a Roth with $2,000 or less. Get a sweetheart deal to buy a stake in a startup that has a good chance of one day exploding in value. Pay just fractions of a penny per share, a price low enough to buy huge numbers of shares. Watch as all the gains on that stock — no matter how giant — are shielded from taxes forever, as long as the IRA remains untouched until age 59 and a half. Then use the proceeds, still inside the Roth, to make other investments.

About a decade after the creation of the Roth, Congress made it even easier to turn the accounts into mammoth tax shelters. It allowed everyone — including the very richest Americans — to take money they'd stowed in less favorable traditional retirement accounts and, after paying a one-time tax, shift them to a Roth where their money could grow unchecked by Uncle Sam — a Bermuda-style tax haven right here in the U.S.

To identify those who have amassed fortunes in retirement accounts, ProPublica scoured the tax return data of the ultrawealthy for IRA accounts valued at more than $20 million. Reporters also examined Securities and Exchange Commission filings, court documents and other records, including a memo detailing Thiel's wealth that was included in his 2005 application for residency in New Zealand.

Among this rarefied group, ProPublica found, the term “individual retirement account" has become a misnomer. Rather than a way to build a nest egg for old age, the accounts have morphed into supercharged investment vehicles subsidized by American taxpayers. Ted Weschler, a deputy of Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway, had $264.4 million in his Roth account at the end of 2018. Hedge fund manager Randall Smith, whose Alden Global Capital has gutted newspapers around the country, had $252.6 million in his.

Buffett, one of the richest men in the world and a vocal supporter of higher taxes on the rich, also is making use of a Roth. At the end of 2018, Buffett had $20.2 million in it. Former Renaissance Technologies hedge fund manager Robert Mercer had $31.5 million in his Roth, the records show.

Buffett didn't respond to questions sent by email. Mercer couldn't be reached for comment, and his accountants and attorneys didn't respond to requests to accept questions on his behalf. Smith also couldn't be reached for comment, and an employee at his hedge fund repeatedly hung up when ProPublica reporters identified themselves. Other representatives for Smith and his hedge fund didn't respond.

In a written statement, Weschler said his retirement account relied on publicly traded investments and strategies available to all taxpayers. Nevertheless, he said he supports reforming the system.

“Although I have been an enormous beneficiary of the IRA mechanism, I personally do not feel the tax shield afforded me by my IRA is necessarily good tax policy," he wrote. “To this end, I am openly supportive of modifying the benefit afforded to retirement accounts once they exceed a certain threshold."

A spokesman for Thiel accepted detailed questions on Thiel's behalf, then never responded to phone calls or emails. Messages left at Thiel's venture capital fund were not returned.

While the scope and scale of such accounts has never been publicly documented, Congress has long been aware of their existence — and the ballooning tax breaks they were garnering for the ultrawealthy. The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, for years has warned that the wealthiest Americans were accumulating massive retirement accounts in ways federal lawmakers never intended.

At the same time, Congress has slashed the IRS' budget so severely that the agency's ability to ferret out abuses has been stymied. Money was so tight that at one point in 2015 the agency couldn't afford to enter critical data about IRAs from paper tax filings into its computer system.

Over the years, a few politicians have tried, and failed, to crack down on the tax breaks the ultrarich receive from their giant IRAs.

In 2016, Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, floated a detailed reform plan and said, “It's time to face the fact that our tax code needs a dose of fairness when it comes to retirement savings, and that starts with cracking down on massive Roth IRA accounts built on assets from sweetheart, inside deals."

“Tax incentives for retirement savings," he added at the time, “are designed to help people build a nest egg, not a golden egg."

But Wyden soon abandoned his proposal; there was no chance the Republican-controlled Senate would pass it.

Meanwhile, Thiel's Roth grew.

And grew.

At the end of 2019, it hit the $5 billion mark, jumping more than $3 billion in just three years' time — all of it tax-free.

Thiel, a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, by then had brought his Roth under the auspices of a family trust company called Rivendell Trust. In “The Lord of the Rings," Rivendell is a secret valley populated by elves, a misty sanctuary against forces of darkness. Thiel's earthly version resides in a suburban Las Vegas office complex, across from a Cheesecake Factory, and is staffed by a small group of corporate lawyers.

And thanks to the Roth, Thiel's fortune is far more vast than even experts in tallying the wealth of the rich believed. In 2019, Forbes put Thiel's total net worth at just $2.3 billion. That was less than half of what his Roth alone was worth.

The ultrawealthy's hijacking of a tool meant for the middle class becomes especially striking when you consider what the retirement future looks like for many Americans.

There isn't one.

One in four working-age Americans has nothing saved for retirement, a 2020 Federal Reserve study found.

Individual retirement accounts emerged from the ruins of corporate pensions. The traditional IRA had existed since the 1970s for workers who didn't have pensions, but as corporations shifted the burden of saving for retirement to workers, too few Americans were setting up these accounts, condemning many to scrape by on Social Security in old age. By the 1990s, politicians on both sides of the aisle were fretting over the declining savings rates in the U.S.

It was against this backdrop that an idea Sen. Roth had been pushing for years finally found its moment.

One of the fathers of Reaganomics, Roth was determined to slash the federal budget, cut taxes and rein in the IRS. Starting in 1997, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Roth held a series of hearings that portrayed IRS agents as menacing thugs. Roth's investigations sparked legislation that gutted the IRS' collection powers for more than a decade.

But it was his championing of the Roth IRA that would earn the senator posthumous fame and a mention in the American Heritage dictionary. Roth's obsession was a new kind of IRA, which he said would “be a blessing to countless Americans as they prepare for the future."

It would also create an escape hatch from the entire income tax system.

Run-of-the-mill retirement plans — a traditional IRA or 401(k), for instance — defer taxes to a later date. The money that people put into their accounts is deducted from their income, so they aren't taxed up front, nor are the dividends, interest or gains on investments along the way. But when retirees withdraw money, they have to pay income tax on it.

A Roth, by contrast, eliminates tax liability rather than deferring it. People who open a Roth don't get the tax break on the money they initially put in. But once they deposit that money, their investments grow tax-free forever and retirees don't pay a penny of taxes on withdrawals. Even better, unlike a traditional IRA, the Roth doesn't require retirees to deplete the account as they age.

Sen. Roth promised that his new IRA would “provide relief to hard-working, middle-class Americans."

The law creating the Roth IRA passed in 1997 with overwhelming bipartisan support. A few tax wonks predicted that workers who were most likely to struggle financially in old age wouldn't open the accounts because they couldn't afford to save. Roths, they warned, would become a giveaway to mostly well-off taxpayers who would have saved anyway. Investing in a Roth was like locking in a rate on a mortgage when interest rates were low, an attractive proposition for wealthy Americans worried that Congress would raise tax rates in future years.

That's why the Clinton administration insisted on barring people who made too much from stashing money in a Roth. Surely, that would prevent the superrich from gaming the system to use Roths as tax shelters.

1999 Thiel Roth IRA worth:$1,664
1999 S&P 500 Roth IRA worth:$2,421

One day in early 1999, a deputy of Thiel's at the company that would become PayPal walked into the San Francisco office of Pensco Pension Services. It could have been an uneventful appointment. Instead, it changed Thiel's life.

Thiel, a Stanford law graduate, ran a small hedge fund and hadn't yet joined the ranks of the ultrawealthy. But he had outsized ambitions for his months-old tech venture, where he served as both chairman and CEO. He envisioned his company creating “a new world currency, free from all government control."

Influenced by libertarian Ayn Rand and Tolkien's fantasy trilogy, Thiel, then in his early 30s, carried himself like a contrarian philosopher king. A few years earlier, he had co-authored a jeremiad against multiculturalism that accused the administration of then-President Bill Clinton of waging class warfare. “Taxing the rich seems to have become an end in itself," he and his co-author wrote.

Pensco was a small firm that allowed its customers to put nearly any investment they wanted into a tax-advantaged retirement account. Thiel was about to become Pensco's whale.

In an interview with ProPublica, Pensco founder Tom Anderson recalled how Thiel and other PayPal executives had wanted to put startup shares of the company into traditional IRAs.

Anderson dangled something sweeter.

“I said, 'If you really think this is going to be big, you know, you might want to consider this new Roth,'" recalled Anderson, who is now retired. If the investment ballooned, he remembered saying, “'you're not going to pay tax on it when you take it out.' It's a no-brainer."

The math was compelling. Thiel wouldn't get a tax break up front, but he'd avoid an immense tax bill later on if the investment surged in value.

“They immediately grasped that," Anderson said. “And they did it."

What happened next deprived the U.S. government of untold millions in tax revenue. Perhaps billions. Thiel used his new Roth IRA to purchase shares of his startup.

In 1999, single taxpayers were only allowed to contribute to a Roth if they made less than $110,000. Like many startups, PayPal offered its top executives low initial salaries and large stock grants. Thiel's income that year was $73,263, the IRS records show.

Thiel also had an advantage over most Americans with IRAs, who typically use them to purchase publicly traded stocks, bonds, mutual funds and certificates of deposit. Since Thiel used his Roth to buy shares of a private company, the value wasn't set on a public stock exchange.

Although the details of such purchases are not usually public, Thiel's financial assistant later disclosed them in a letter included in the entrepreneur's application for residency in New Zealand: “Mr. Thiel purchased his founders' shares in PayPal through his Roth IRA during PayPal's formation."

While SEC filings describing that time don't mention Thiel's Roth, they show that he bought his first slice of the company in January 1999. Thiel paid $0.001 per share — yes, just a tenth of a penny — for 1.7 million shares. At that price, he was able to buy a large stake for just $1,700.

In 1999, $2,000 was the maximum amount you could put into a Roth in a year.

Thiel's unusual stock purchase risked running afoul of rules designed to prevent IRAs from becoming illegal tax shelters. Investors aren't allowed to buy assets for less than their true value through an IRA. The practice is sometimes known as “stuffing" because it gets around the strict limits imposed by Congress on how much money can be put in a Roth.

PayPal later disclosed details about the early history of the company in an SEC filing before its initial public offering. The filing reveals that Thiel's founders' shares were among those the company sold to employees at “below fair value."

Victor Fleischer, a tax law professor at the University of California, Irvine who has written about the valuation of founders' shares, read the PayPal filings at ProPublica's request. Buying startup shares at a discounted $0.001 price with a Roth, he asserts, would be indefensible.

“That's a huge scandal," Fleischer said, adding, “How greedy can you get?"

Warren Baker, a Seattle tax attorney who specializes in IRAs, said he would advise clients who are top executives working at a startup not to purchase founders' shares with a Roth to avoid accusations by the IRS that they got a special deal and undervalued the shares. Baker was speaking generally, not about Thiel.

“I would be concerned about the fact that you can't support the valuation number as being reasonable," he said.

At the time Thiel bought his founders' shares, his own hedge fund had already loaned the new startup $100,000, California and SEC records show.

And soon after the company sold him the shares, millions of dollars poured in from investors, securities filings show. In just a month's time, the company sold a slice of itself to investors for $500,000. That June and August, another $4.5 million poured in from the venture fund arm of telecom giant Nokia and other investors, those records show.

The dot-com boom was in full swing. “We're definitely on to something big," Thiel told employees in late 1999, predicting that PayPal would become “the Microsoft of payments," according to “The PayPal Wars," a book by a former employee recounting those heady early years.

But when it came time for Pensco, the custodian of Thiel's Roth, to report the value of the account to the IRS at the close of 1999, none of the investor enthusiasm was apparent. Pensco told the IRS that Thiel's Roth was worth just $1,664 at the end of 1999, tax records show.

In an interview, Anderson said Pensco relied on the companies whose shares were in a Roth to say what they were worth. He didn't know how PayPal came up with its market value, but he said Thiel's purchase of those shares was “very legitimate."

From there, nothing would stop Thiel's Roth. In a Silicon Valley equivalent of Tolkien alchemy, his Roth would transform those PayPal shares into a tax-free fortune — one that would be safer than all the gems, gold and silver in the dragon Smaug's mountain.

After 1999, Thiel would never again contribute money to his Roth, tax records show.

He didn't need to. In just a year's time, the value of his Roth jumped from $1,664 to $3.8 million — a 227,490% increase.

Then in 2002, eBay purchased PayPal. That same year, Thiel sold the shares, still inside his Roth, his financial assistant later told New Zealand officials. The tax-free proceeds poured into his account. By the end of 2002, Thiel's Roth was worth $28.5 million, tax records show.

If he had held his shares outside of the Roth in a normal investment account, Thiel would have owed the IRS 20% of his gains and owed another 9% to California tax authorities. Because the shares were in a Roth, he had no tax bill when he sold them, saving him millions.

Suddenly, Thiel had an advantage few investors could claim: His own personal investment bank that wasn't subject to taxation. He could now use the cash inside the Roth to buy and sell nearly any investment he wanted. Thiel used the millions in proceeds from his PayPal windfall to invest in other Silicon Valley startups as well as his own hedge fund, according to his financial assistant's memo. Once again, Thiel's Roth scooped up startup shares at bargain-basement prices.

For instance, Thiel and colleagues in 2003 founded Palantir, a data analytics company, helped by an early investment from a CIA-backed venture fund. The company was named after the “seeing stones" made by elves in the “Lord of the Rings" trilogy, used to detect danger near and far.

Thiel used his Roth to buy shares of Palantir when it was still a private company, years before it was listed on the New York Stock Exchange, according to a ProPublica analysis of tax records, an SEC filing and shareholder records included in a civil suit.

Over the years, Palantir has won federal contracts from the military to hunt terrorists and from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to find undocumented immigrants. Even the IRS has a $99 million contract with Palantir to comb through data to identify tax cheats.

Then, in 2004, Thiel met Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard undergraduate who had come to Silicon Valley for the summer to work on growing the company that would become Facebook. Thiel invested $500,000, Facebook's first large outside infusion of cash. Those Facebook shares ended up — where else? — in Thiel's Roth IRA, an attorney for Facebook later disclosed in a letter filed in federal court. That ensured that Thiel wouldn't owe taxes on his early investment in the company.

As Thiel's Roth and fortune ballooned, he scolded Americans for their financial imprudence. In a 2006 Forbes column, headlined “Warning: Save, Save, Save," Thiel lamented the low household savings in the U.S. and called for most Americans to live within their means.

“Forgo the new kitchen and sundeck," he wrote. “Shoot to put away 15% of the paycheck." His closing advice: “Living modestly and saving well is better than dying broke."

In an interview on the website Big Think, Thiel said the U.S. tax system has “fairness problems" in which “you have super rich people paying a lower rate than people in the middle or upper middle class."

The answer wasn't taxing the rich more, he said, but “taxing the middle class and the upper middle class a lot less" and cutting their dependence on expensive programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

By then, Thiel had purchased a Ferrari and had bought and sold a penthouse in the San Francisco Four Seasons. In 2005, he sought residency in New Zealand, which had become a destination for some ultrawealthy people who saw it as a safe haven should civilization collapse.

“I have long admired the people, culture, business environment and government of New Zealand, as well as the encouragement which is given to investment, business and trade in New Zealand," Thiel later wrote in a letter to the country's government.

Thiel applied as an investor. His application, prepared by his then-financial assistant, Jason Portnoy, touted the size of his Roth. Thiel transferred $749,967 to a bank in New Zealand, keeping it under the umbrella of the Roth.

The country, where the “Lord of the Rings" movies were filmed, approved Thiel's application. The New Zealand Herald later revealed that the country had secretly granted Thiel full citizenship. The newspaper obtained Thiel's application through a public records request, and those documents included Portnoy's letter.

In the next two years, Thiel's Roth reached new heights, reflecting Facebook's meteoric rise. In his bestselling book on startups, “Zero to One," Thiel wrote: “Money makes money." By the end of 2008, the Roth was worth $870 million.

Up to this point, Thiel was one of the few Americans who had managed to amass prodigious Roth accounts. Among the others were at least three additional PayPal alums who eventually built Roths worth more than $80 million each, according to tax records and SEC filings.

Even so, the existing income limits managed to keep most of the superrich out.

Then, in the latter years of the George W. Bush administration, Congress took a wrecking ball to those defenses, and the wealthy stormed in.

The change centered on an unsexy-sounding maneuver known as a Roth conversion. It works like this: If you have money in a traditional IRA, you can transform it into a Roth as long as you pay one-time income tax on the money. By converting the account to a Roth, no additional income taxes are ever due.

Conversions had existed since the Roth's conception, but they had been restricted to Americans making below $100,000 per year.

In 2006, Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress were seeking to slash taxes on capital gains, the type of income that can be generated when stocks or other assets are sold. But they faced a problem. Budget rules required them to find a way to make up for the lost revenue.

Their solution was widely viewed as a gimmick: using one tax cut to pay for another tax cut. A provision was included in the Bush bill that lifted the ban on the wealthy making Roth conversions. Since the maneuver requires a payment of tax up front, it counted in short-term congressional budget models as actually raising revenue. The tax breaks didn't come until later. “It will have large and damaging effects on the federal budget for decades to come," wrote budget expert Len Burman in the specialty publication Tax Notes.

The new backdoor into the Roth opened in 2010 and set off a frenzy of conversions among hedge fund managers, industrialists and heirs, the tax records reviewed by ProPublica show.

Weschler, the Berkshire Hathaway executive, amassed a giant traditional IRA in his years as a private equity partner and hedge fund manager. He converted a whopping $130 million. His boss, Warren Buffett, converted $11.6 million. After paying the one-time tax, both men saw their Roth accounts soar.

In his statement, Weschler said he opened a retirement account as a 22-year-old junior financial analyst in 1983 and began contributing the maximum amount allowed, along with a generous match from his employer. Weschler said his Roth is so large because he chose investments carefully, had “exceptional luck" and had nearly four decades for it to grow.

Weschler said he could envision the late Sen. Roth holding up his experience as “an aspirational example of the power of deferred consumption" that could “hopefully help motivate generations of future savers."

He added that he paid more than $28 million in federal taxes to convert his account to a Roth.

Some of the wealthy managed to avoid even that one-time tax bill.

Three members of the Ebrahimi family, whose patriarch made a fortune at the software firm Quark, collectively converted $65 million into Roths in 2010 and 2011. Farhad Ebrahimi, one of the heirs of the fortune, has supported left-wing causes and became known for walking around the Occupy Boston protest in 2011 wearing a hand-lettered T-shirt that declared he was a member of the 1% and said: “Tax me, I'm good for it."

Kind of.

He converted $19.4 million into a Roth, which would have triggered $6.8 million in income tax. But thanks to losses generated by other investments, he wiped out the tax bill on the conversion. Ebrahimi declined to comment.

In 2009, word of Thiel's secret weapon leaked for the first time.

In a story headlined, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Taxpayer Money," Gawker Media, citing anonymous sources, revealed that Thiel held his Facebook investment in a tax-free Roth.

The Great Recession, though, caught up with Thiel. His hedge fund racked up big losses.

Thiel then did something unusual: For five years starting in 2010, he dipped into his Roth for at least $254 million, the IRS tax return data obtained by ProPublica shows. That is almost unheard of among the wealthy, tax advisers say, because it shrinks the pot of money that can be invested tax-free. Because Thiel was still in his 40s, he was too young to pull money from a Roth without paying income tax plus a 10% penalty on these withdrawals.

During the life of his Roth, Thiel also has made money outside it. He took in an additional $687 million of income from 1999 to 2018, largely from gains on investments, tax records show. All told, over that period he paid $206 million in federal taxes, including the taxes on the early Roth withdrawals.

In four of those years, however, Thiel managed to cut his federal income tax bill to zero.

In 2011, Thiel caught the attention of the IRS. The agency launched an audit, tax records show. The records don't spell out what the IRS was looking at or if it involved Thiel's Roth. Whatever the case, the audit was closed years later and Thiel didn't owe any more taxes, tax records show.

By 2012, large IRAs began to attract scrutiny, falling under the klieg lights of presidential politics.

That January, The Wall Street Journal reported that Mitt Romney, the former private equity executive running for the GOP nomination, had listed on a financial disclosure form that he had amassed an IRA worth between $20 million and $102 million. The story ran on the front page and launched waves of coverage in other publications. Romney had a traditional IRA, not a Roth. But how, people wondered, could the account have grown so large, given that the government imposed strict limits on how much money could be put into one of the tax-deferred accounts?

Citing former company insiders and documents, the Journal reported that during Romney's time as CEO at investment giant Bain Capital, executives there had effectively bypassed the contribution limits by putting extremely low-valued shares from private equity deals into their IRAs, then watching them balloon.

ProPublica's analysis of the tax records show that by the end of 2018, at least seven other current or former Bain executives had amassed IRAs worth $25 million or more, with three exceeding $90 million.

Other financiers also found ways to supersize their retirement accounts. Michael Milken, for example, the 1980s junk bond king who went to prison for fraud and was later pardoned by President Donald Trump, had traditional IRAs valued at $509 million.

A senior adviser to Milken declined to answer questions, “since it's not our practice to publish or discuss Mike Milken's private financial information, I can't help you on this one."

Romney lost the 2012 election, but the IRA revelation provoked a lasting backlash. Wyden asked the investigative arm of Congress to look into the matter. In a landmark report issued in 2014, the Government Accountability Office sounded the alarm, finding the mega IRAs stood “in contrast to Congress's aim."

IRS officials told investigators that the federal government was losing more and more money to “IRA abuses." The GAO investigators flagged “aggressive" valuation tactics by private equity. And while it didn't mention Thiel or his PayPal co-founders, the report laid out how startup founders' shares could be used to render IRA contribution limits irrelevant. “Individuals can manipulate contribution limits by grossly undervaluing investments at the time the individual uses an IRA to purchase them," the congressional investigators wrote.

The report estimated that, as of 2011, there were around 300 taxpayers with IRAs worth more than $25 million. That detail reverberated around the media and Capitol Hill. Few knew that most of those accounts were minuscule compared to Thiel's, which that year was valued at nearly $1.6 billion.

A series of reform proposals followed. Wyden, who now holds Roth's old position as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has become the leading proponent of rolling back what he calls “unfair strategies used by the privileged to rake in subsidies and dodge tax bills with so-called 'mega Roth IRAs.'" In 2016, he released a plan that would require owners of Roth IRAs worth more than $5 million to take money out of the accounts. Amid howls of protest from the retirement industry and a Senate and House controlled by Republicans, Wyden's proposal went nowhere.

The IRS, meanwhile, was floundering in its efforts to police retirement accounts. At one point the agency recommended Congress prohibit IRA accounts from buying investments that aren't traded on a public market, such as founders' shares. That went nowhere, too. Instead, Congress began slashing the IRS' budget, kneecapping the agency for more than a decade.

In 2009, an internal team had recommended the agency at least collect data on unorthodox assets held in IRAs. But it took more than five years for the agency to mandate disclosure of those investments. Even then, the agency simply required tax forms to say whether an IRA held stock in a private company, not the name of the company or the price per share.

By 2015, the agency was struggling to handle the paper forms sent in by the companies that administer IRAs. The agency couldn't afford to digitize them. Another two years went by before the IRS started electronically transcribing the forms.

After years of plodding, the agency said it was finally ready in 2019 to use the data to target potential abusers for audits. And that's before the real fighting begins over hotly contested issues such as how to value shares in a startup that aren't publicly traded. IRS officials have complained to congressional investigators that challenging such valuations is costly and time-consuming, and that it requires a small army of experts to go up against deep-pocketed taxpayers.

The IRS did not respond to detailed questions. But as ProPublica has reported, in tax disputes with the superrich, the IRS is completely outmatched.

In his book “Zero to One," Thiel argues that fortunes are built not by luck or unfair advantage, but by discerning investors and founders who are more courageous than their peers, leaders who zig when the crowd zags. Thiel devotes an entire chapter to the importance of keeping secrets, writing that “every great business is built around a secret that's hidden from the outside."

A secret of Thiel's is that his fortune was built not just with brains but also with massive tax breaks. By 2019, Thiel's holdings had grown so vast and diverse that his $5 billion was spread across 96 subaccounts inside his Roth.

As his wealth grew, Thiel showered millions of dollars on Republican politicians and groups with an anti-tax agenda, including Club for Growth Action. In 2016, he became the rare Silicon Valley titan to endorse Donald Trump.

The Trump years, which fueled a market boom, were good for Thiel and his Roth. In 2018, he moved his Roth from Pensco to Rivendell, the family trust company named after Tolkien's elven sanctuary.

In Tolkien's fantasy world, elves can be killed in battle or succumb to grief, but they don't die of old age or disease. Thiel has told people he hopes to live to be 120 years old. That might be a bit optimistic, but he is not taking any chances and is investing in anti-aging technology companies. He's even tucked some of those shares into his Roth, SEC and tax records show.

Assuming a modest 6% annual return and no withdrawals, his tax-free golden egg could be worth about $263 billion in 2087, when Thiel plans to celebrate his 120th birthday. That's larger than the current gross domestic product of New Zealand, his adopted homeland.

“There is good news and bad news," Thiel told The Washington Post when asked about living more than a century. “The bad news is: If you don't believe in the good news, you're not saving enough for retirement and likely to spend much of your old age in poverty."

“The financial planning," Thiel said, “takes on a very different character."

New details suggest senior Trump aides knew Jan. 6 rally could get chaotic

On Dec. 19, President Donald Trump blasted out a tweet to his 88 million followers, inviting supporters to Washington for a “wild" protest.

Earlier that week, one of his senior advisers had released a 36-page report alleging significant evidence of election fraud that could reverse Joe Biden's victory. “A great report," Trump wrote. “Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!"

The tweet worked like a starter's pistol, with two pro-Trump factions competing to take control of the “big protest."

On one side stood Women for America First, led by Amy Kremer, a Republican operative who helped found the tea party movement. The group initially wanted to hold a kind of extended oral argument, with multiple speakers making their case for how the election had been stolen.

On the other was Stop the Steal, a new, more radical group that had recruited avowed racists to swell its ranks and wanted the President to share the podium with Alex Jones, the radio host banned from the world's major social media platforms for hate speech, misinformation and glorifying violence. Stop the Steal organizers say their plan was to march on the Capitol and demand that lawmakers give Trump a second term.

ProPublica has obtained new details about the Trump White House's knowledge of the gathering storm, after interviewing more than 50 people involved in the events of Jan. 6 and reviewing months of private correspondence. Taken together, these accounts suggest that senior Trump aides had been warned the Jan. 6 events could turn chaotic, with tens of thousands of people potentially overwhelming ill-prepared law enforcement officials.

Rather than trying to halt the march, Trump and his allies accommodated its leaders, according to text messages and interviews with Republican operatives and officials.

Katrina Pierson, a former Trump campaign official assigned by the White House to take charge of the rally planning, helped arrange a deal where those organizers deemed too extreme to speak at the Ellipse could do so on the night of Jan. 5. That event ended up including incendiary speeches from Jones and Ali Alexander, the leader of Stop the Steal, who fired up his followers with a chant of “Victory or death!"

The record of what White House officials knew about Jan. 6 and when they knew it remains incomplete. Key officials, including White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, declined to be interviewed for this story.

The second impeachment of President Trump focused mostly on his public statements, including his Jan. 6 exhortation that the crowd march on the Capitol and “fight like hell." Trump was acquitted by the Senate, and his lawyers insisted that the attack on the Capitol was both regrettable and unforeseeable.

Rally organizers interviewed by ProPublica said they did not expect Jan. 6 to culminate with the violent sacking of the Capitol. But they acknowledged they were worried about plans by the Stop the Steal movement to organize an unpermitted march that would reach the steps of the building as Congress gathered to certify the election results.

One of the Women for America First organizers told ProPublica he and his group felt they needed to urgently warn the White House of the possible danger.

“A last-minute march, without a permit, without all the metro police that'd usually be there to fortify the perimeter, felt unsafe," Dustin Stockton said in a recent interview.

“And these people aren't there for a fucking flower contest," added Jennifer Lynn Lawrence, Stockton's fiancee and co-organizer. “They're there because they're angry."

Stockton said he and Kremer initially took their concerns to Pierson. Feeling that they weren't gaining enough traction, Stockton said, he and Kremer agreed to call Meadows directly.

Kremer, who has a personal relationship with Meadows dating back to his early days in Congress, said she would handle the matter herself. Soon after, Kremer told Stockton “the White House would take care of it," which he interpreted to mean she had contacted top officials about the march.

Kremer denied that she ever spoke with Meadows or any other White House official about her Jan. 6 concerns. “Also, no one on my team was talking to them that I was aware of," she said in an email to ProPublica. Meadows declined to comment on whether he'd been contacted.

A Dec. 27 text from Kremer obtained by ProPublica casts doubt on her assertion. Written at a time when her group was pressing to control the upcoming Jan. 6 rally, it refers to Alexander and Cindy Chafian, an activist who worked closely with Alex Jones. “The WH and team Trump are aware of the situation with Ali and Cindy," Kremer wrote. “I need to be the one to handle both." Kremer did not answer questions from ProPublica about the text.

So far, congressional and law enforcement reconstructions of Jan. 6 have established failures of preparedness and intelligence sharing by the U.S. Capitol Police, the FBI and the Pentagon, which is responsible for deploying the D.C. National Guard.

But those reports have not addressed the role of White House officials in the unfolding events and whether officials took appropriate action before or during the rally. Legislation that would have authorized an independent commission to investigate further was quashed by Senate Republicans.

Yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she would create a select committee to investigate Jan. 6 that would not require Republican support. It's not certain whether Meadows and other aides would be willing to testify. Internal White House dealings have historically been subject to claims of “executive privilege" by both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Our reporting raises new questions that will not be answered unless Trump insiders tell the story of that day. It remains unclear, for example, precisely what Meadows and other White House officials learned of safety concerns about the march and whether they took those reports seriously.

The former president has a well-established pattern of bolstering far-right groups while he and his aides attempt to maintain some distance. Following the 2017 “Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump at first appeared to tacitly support torch-bearing white supremacists, later backing off. And in one presidential debate, he appeared to offer encouragement to the Proud Boys, a group of street brawlers who claim to protect Trump supporters, his statement triggering a dramatic spike in their recruitment. Trump later disavowed his support.

ProPublica has learned that White House officials worked behind the scenes to prevent the leaders of the march from appearing on stage and embarrassing the president. But Trump then undid those efforts with his speech, urging the crowd to join the march on the Capitol organized by the very people who had been blocked from speaking.

“And if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore," he said.

One Nation Under God

On Nov. 5, as Joe Biden began to emerge as the likely winner of the 2020 presidential election, a far-right provocateur named Ali Alexander assembled a loose collection of right-wing activists to help Trump maintain the presidency.

Alexander approached the cause of overturning the election with an almost messianic fervor. In private text messages, he obsessed over gaining attention from Trump and strategized about how to draw large, angry crowds in support of him.

On Nov. 7, the group held simultaneous protests in all 50 states.

Seven days later, its members traveled to Washington for the Million MAGA March, which drew tens of thousands. The event is now considered by many to be a precursor of Jan. 6.

Alexander united them under the battle cry “Stop the Steal," a phrase originally coined by former Trump adviser Roger Stone, whom Alexander has called a friend. (Stone launched a short-lived organization of the same name in 2016.) To draw such crowds, Alexander made clear Stop the Steal would collaborate with anyone who supported its cause, no matter how extreme their views.

“We're willing to work with racists," he said on one livestream in December. Alexander did not return requests for comment made by email, by voicemail, to his recent attorney or to Stop the Steal PAC's designated agent.

As he worked to expand his influence, Alexander found a valuable ally in Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist at the helm of the popular far-right website InfoWars. Jones, who first gained notoriety for spreading a lie that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax, had once counted more than 2 million YouTube subscribers and 800,000 Twitter followers before being banned from both platforms.

Alexander also collaborated with Nick Fuentes, the 22-year-old leader of the white nationalist “Groyper" movement.

“Thirty percent of that crowd was Alex Jones' crowd," Alexander said on another livestream, referring to the Million MAGA March on Nov. 14. “And there were thousands and thousands of Groypers — America First young white men. … Even if you thought these were bad people, why can't bad people do good tasks? Why can't bad people fight for their country?"

Alexander's willingness to work with such people sparked conflict even within his inner circle.

“Is Nick Fuentes now a prominent figure in Stop the Steal?" asked Brandon Straka, an openly gay conservative activist, in a November text message, obtained exclusively by ProPublica. “I find him disgusting," Straka said, pointing to Fuentes' vehemently anti-LGBT views.

Alexander saw more people and more power. He wrote that Fuentes was “very valuable" at “putting bodies in places," and that both Jones and Fuentes were “willing to push bodies … where we point."

Straka, Fuentes and Jones did not respond to requests for comment.

Right-wing leaders who had once known each other only peripherally were now feeling a deeper sense of camaraderie. In an interview, Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio described how he felt as he walked alongside Jones through the crowds assembled in Washington on Nov. 14, after Jones had asked the Proud Boys to act as his informal bodyguards.

“That was the moment we really united everybody under one banner," he said. “That everyone thought, 'Fuck you, this is what we can do.'" According to Tarrio, the Proud Boys nearly tripled in numbers around this time, bringing in over 20,000 new members. “November was the seed that sparked that flower on Jan. 6," he said.

The crowds impressed people like Tom Van Flein, chief of staff for Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz. Van Flein told ProPublica he kept in regular contact with Alexander while Gosar led the effort in Congress to shoot down the election certification. “Ali was very talented and put on some very good rallies on short notice," Van Flein said. “Great turnout."

But as Jan. 6 drew nearer, the Capitol Police became increasingly concerned by the disparate elements that formed the rank and file of the organization.

“Stop the Steal's propensity to attract white supremacists, militia members, and others who actively promote violence, may lead to a significantly dangerous situation for law enforcement and the general public alike," the Capitol Police wrote in a Jan. 3 intelligence assessment.

Yet the police force, for all its concern, wound up effectively blindsided by what happened on Jan. 6.

An intelligence report from that day obtained by ProPublica shows that the Capitol Police expected a handful of rallies on Capitol grounds, the largest of which would be hosted by a group called One Nation Under God.

Law enforcement anticipated between 50 and 500 people at the gathering, assigning it the lowest possible threat score and predicting a 1% to 5% chance of arrests. The police gave much higher threat scores to two small anti-Trump demonstrations planned elsewhere in the city.

However, One Nation Under God was a fake name used to trick the Capitol Police into giving Stop the Steal a permit, according to Stop the Steal organizer Kimberly Fletcher. Fletcher is president of Moms for America, a grassroots organization founded to combat “radical feminism."

“Everybody was using different names because they didn't want us to be there," Fletcher said, adding that Alexander and his allies experimented with a variety of aliases to secure permits for the east front of the Capitol. Laughing, Fletcher recalled how the police repeatedly called her “trying to find out who was who."

A Senate report on security failures during the Capitol riot released earlier this month suggests that at least one Capitol Police intelligence officer had suspicions about this deceptive strategy, but that leadership failed to appreciate it — yet another example of an intelligence breakdown.

On Dec. 31, the officer sent an email expressing her concerns that the permit requests were “being used as proxies for Stop the Steal" and that those requesting permits “may also be involved with organizations that may be planning trouble" on Jan. 6.

A Capitol Police spokesperson told ProPublica on April 2, “Our intelligence suggested one or more groups were affiliated with Stop the Steal," after we asked for a copy of the One Nation Under God permit, which they declined to provide.

Yet 18 days later, Capitol Police Acting Chief Yogananda Pittman told congressional investigators that she believed the permit requests had been properly vetted and that they were not granted to anyone affiliated with Stop the Steal. Pittman did not respond to ProPublica requests for comment.

Last week, a Capitol Police spokesperson told ProPublica, “The Department knew that Stop the Steal and One Nation Under God organizers were likely associated," but added that the police believed denying a permit based on “assumed associations" would be a First Amendment violation. “The Department did, however, take the likely association into account when making decisions to enhance its security posture."

Kenneth Harrelson, an Oath Keeper who allegedly ran the far-right group's “ground team" in D.C. on Jan. 6, went to Washington to provide security for Alexander, according to Harrelson's wife. Harrelson has pleaded not guilty to felony charges in connection with the riot and is one of the Oath Keepers at the center of a major Department of Justice conspiracy case.

Harrelson's wife, Angel Harrelson, said in an interview with ProPublica that her husband was excited to visit Washington for the first time, especially to provide security for an important person, but that he lost Alexander in the chaos that consumed the Capitol and decided to join the crowd inside.

“Historic Day!"

As the movement hurtled toward Jan. 6, what started as a loosely united coalition quickly splintered, dividing into two competing groups that vied for power and credit.

On one side, Alexander and Jones had emerged as a new, more extreme element within the Republican grassroots ecosystem.

Their chief opposition was the organization Women for America First, helmed by Kremer and other veterans of the tea party movement, itself once viewed as the Republican fringe. Kremer was an early backer of Trump, and her tea party work helped get Mark Meadows elected to the House of Representatives in 2012.

The schism was rooted in an ideological dispute. Kremer felt Alexander's agenda and tactics were too extreme; Alexander wanted to distinguish Stop the Steal by being more directly confrontational than Kremer's group and the tea party. “Our movement is masculine in nature," he said in a livestream.

Trump promoted both groups' events online at various times.

Stop the Steal, through its alias One Nation Under God, obtained a Capitol Police permit to rally on Capitol grounds, while Kremer and Women for America First controlled the National Park Service permit for a large gathering on the White House Ellipse.

Alexander and Jones wanted to speak at the Ellipse rally, but Kremer was opposed. The provocateurs found a powerful ally in Caroline Wren, an elite Republican fundraiser with connections to the Trump family, particularly Donald Trump Jr. and his partner, Kimberly Guilfoyle. Wren had raised money for the Ellipse rally and pushed to get Alexander and Jones on stage, according to six people involved in the Jan. 6 rally and emails reviewed by ProPublica.

Pierson, the Trump campaign official, had initially been asked by Wren to help mediate the conflict. But Pierson shared Kremer's concern that Jones and Alexander were too unpredictable. Pierson and Wren declined to comment.

On Jan. 2, the fighting became so intense that Pierson asked senior White House officials how she should handle the situation, according to a person familiar with White House communications. The officials agreed that Alexander and Jones should not be on the stage and told Pierson to take charge of the event.

The next morning, Trump announced to the world that he would attend the rally at the Ellipse. “I will be there. Historic day!" he tweeted. This came as a surprise to both rally organizers and White House staff, each of whom told ProPublica they hadn't been informed he intended to speak at the rally.

That same day, a website went live promoting a march on Jan. 6. It instructed demonstrators to meet at the Ellipse, then march to the Capitol at 1 p.m. to “let the establishment know we will fight back against this fraudulent election. … The fate of our nation depends on it."

Alexander and his allies fired off these instructions across social media.

While Kremer and her group had held legally permitted marches at previous D.C. rallies and promoted all their events with the hashtag #marchfortrump, this time their permit specifically barred them from holding an “organized march." Rally organizers were concerned that violating their permit could create a legal liability for themselves and pose significant danger to the public, said Stockton, a political consultant with tea party roots who spent weeks with Kremer as they held rallies across the country in support of the president.

Lawrence and Stockton's fellow organizers contacted Pierson to inform her that the march was unpermitted, according to Stockton and three other people familiar with the situation.

While ProPublica has independently confirmed that senior White House officials, including Meadows, were involved in the broader effort to limit Alexander's role on Jan. 6, it remains unclear just how far the rally organizers went to warn officials of their specific fears about the march.

Another source present for communications between Amy Kremer and her daughter and fellow organizer, Kylie Kremer, told ProPublica that on Jan. 3, Kylie Kremer called her mother in desperation about the march.

Kylie Kremer asked her mom to escalate the situation to higher levels of the White House, and her mother said she would work on it, according to the source, who could hear the conversation on speakerphone. “You need to call right now," the source remembered the younger Kremer saying.

The source said that Kylie Kremer suggested Meadows as a person to contact around that time.

The source said that in a subsequent conversation, Amy Kremer told her daughter she would take the matter to Eric Trump's wife, Lara Trump. The source said that Kremer was in frequent contact with Lara Trump at the time.

Stockton said that he was not aware of Kremer talking to the family about Jan. 6, but added that Kremer regularly communicates with the Trump family, including Lara Trump. He also said that Kremer gave him the distinct impression that she had contacted Meadows about the march.

Through his adviser Ben Williamson, Meadows declined to comment on whether the organizers contacted him regarding the march.

Lara Trump, who spoke at the Ellipse on Jan. 6, did not immediately respond to a voicemail and text message asking for comment or to an inquiry left on her website. Eric Trump did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

Kremer did not answer questions from ProPublica about communications with Lara Trump. Donald Trump's press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The White House, at the time, was scrambling from one crisis to the next. On Jan. 2, Trump and Meadows called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Trump pressed Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes" that would swing the state tally his way. On Jan. 3, the president met with Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller and urged him to do what he could to protect Trump's supporters on the 6th.

Meanwhile, Wren, the Republican fundraiser, was continuing to advocate for Jones and Alexander to play a prominent role at the Ellipse rally, according to emails and multiple sources.

A senior White House official suggested to Pierson that she resolve the dispute by going to the president himself, according to a source familiar with the matter.

On Jan. 4, Pierson met with Trump in the Oval Office. Trump expressed surprise that other people wanted to speak at the Ellipse at all. His request for the day was simple: He wanted lots of music and to limit the speakers to himself, some family members and a few others, according to the source and emails reviewed by ProPublica. The president asked if there was another venue where people like Alexander and Roger Stone could speak.

Pierson assured him there was. She informed the president that there was another rally scheduled the night before the election certification where those who lost their opportunity to speak at the Ellipse could still do so. It was meant as an olive branch extended between the competing factions, according to Stockton and two other sources.

Chafian, a reiki practitioner who'd been working closely with Alex Jones, was put in charge of the evening portion of the Jan. 5 event.

The speakers included Jones, Alexander, Stone, Michael Flynn and Three Percenter militia member Jeremy Liggett, who wore a flak jacket and led a “Fuck antifa!" chant. (Liggett is now running for Congress.) Chafian had invited Proud Boy leader Tarrio to speak as well, but Tarrio was arrested the day before on charges that he had brought prohibited gun magazines to Washington and burned a Black Lives Matter banner stolen from a church.

Tarrio told ProPublica that he did not know the flag was taken from a church and that the gun magazines were a custom-engraved gift for a friend. He has pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor charge of property destruction; the gun magazine charge is still pending indictment before a grand jury.

“Thank you, Proud Boys!" Chafian shouted at the end of her speech. “The Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters — all of those guys keep you safe."

Wren, however, would not back down. On the morning of Jan. 6, she arrived at the Ellipse before dawn and began arranging the seats. Jones and Alexander moved toward the front. Organizers were so worried that Jones and Alexander might try to rush the stage that Pierson contacted a senior White House official to see how aggressive she could get in her effort to contain Wren.

After discussing several options, the official suggested she call the United States Park Police and have Wren escorted off the premises.

Pierson relayed this to Kylie Kremer, who contacted the police. Officers arrived, but ultimately took no action.

By 9 a.m.,Trump supporters had arrived in droves: nuns and bikers, men in American flag suits, a line of Oath Keepers. Signs welcomed the crowd with the words “Save America March."

Kylie Kremer greeted them gleefully. “What's up, deplorables!" she said from the stage.

Wren escorted Jones and Alexander out of the event early, as they prepared to lead their march on the Capitol.

At 11:57 a.m, Trump got on stage and, after a rambling speech, gave his now infamous directive. “You'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong," he said. “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard."

Lawrence, Dustin Stockton's fiancee and co-organizer, remembers her shock.

“What the fuck is this motherfucker talking about?" Lawrence, an ardent Trump supporter, said of the former president.

In the coming hours, an angry mob would force its way into the building. Protesters smashed windows with riot shields stolen from cops, ransacked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's chambers, and inflicted an estimated $1.5 million of damage. Roughly 140 police officers were injured. One was stabbed with a metal fence stake and another had spinal discs smashed, according to union officials.

The Stop the Steal group chat shows a reckoning with these events in real time.

“They stormed the capital," wrote Stop the Steal national coordinator Michael Coudrey in a text message at 2:33 p.m. “Our event is on delay."

“I'm at the Capitol and just joined the breach!!!" texted Straka, who months earlier had raised concerns about allying with white nationalists. “I just got gassed! Never felt so fucking alive in my life!!!"

Alexander and Coudrey advised the group to leave.

“Everyone get out of there," Alexander wrote. “The FBI is coming hunting."

In the months since, the Department of Justice has charged more than 400 people for their actions at the Capitol, including more than 20 alleged Proud Boys, over a dozen alleged Oath Keepers, and Straka. It's unclear from court records whether Straka has yet entered a plea.

In emails to ProPublica, Coudrey declined to answer questions about Stop the Steal. “I just really don't care about politics anymore," he said. “It's boring."

Meadows, now a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute, a think tank in Washington, appeared on Fox News on Jan. 27, delivering one of the first public remarks on the riot from a former Trump White House official. He encouraged the GOP to “get on" from Jan. 6 and focus on “what's important to the American people." Neither Meadows nor anyone else who worked in the Trump White House at the time has had to answer questions as part of the various inquiries currently proceeding in Congress.

Alexander has kept a low profile since Jan. 6. But in private, texts show, he has encouraged his allies to prepare for “civil war."

“Don't denounce anything," he messaged his inner circle in January regarding the Capitol riot. “You don't want to be on the opposite side of freedom fighters in the coming conflict. Veterans will be looking for civilian political leaders."

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?"


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.


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

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.


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