Pro Publica

A patient in a psychiatric ward was seen on video possibly being sexually assaulted. No one reported it.

by Duaa Eldeib and Tony Briscoe

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

A Chicago hospital with a history of patient-care violations didn’t tell police that a patient in its psychiatric unit may have been sexually assaulted by another patient, even though the incident was caught on surveillance video.

Nor did the facility, Roseland Community Hospital on the far South Side, closely monitor the alleged attacker — identified in records as a 49-year-old man with a history of sexual violence and aggression — as it was supposed to do.

Five months after the June 24 incident, hospital officials acknowledged, Roseland still has not identified the potential victim.

Roseland president and CEO Tim Egan said the hospital did not become aware of the incident until about two months after it happened. Yet even then, the hospital did not notify regulators at the Illinois Department of Public Health, as the agency said it should have done. The agency investigated the incident about a week after the hospital learned of it, after the first of two complaints to the agency.

The state public health department also did not contact law enforcement officials, doing so only last week after ProPublica raised questions about how the agency had handled the possible assault.

IDPH reported the incident to the Chicago Police Department and the Illinois State Police. Chicago police said Monday they have opened an investigation into the incident; Egan said police asked the hospital to hold the video footage. State Police have confirmed they received the report.

In response to ProPublica’s questions, IDPH also said that it is exploring changes to state public health regulations that would require hospitals to report suspected patient-on-patient sexual assaults to law enforcement. Currently, only alleged staff-on-patient assaults must be reported.

While Roseland knows the identity of the apparent aggressor, the identity of the potential victim is still in question. A complaint to state officials obtained by ProPublica identified the alleged victim as a 21-year-old developmentally disabled man with autism.

His caregivers said the young man, who lives in a state-funded group home, functions like a 9- to 11-year-old, is fascinated by fire trucks and bounces up and down at the sight of Christmas lights. They said the young man recently told a nurse he had been touched inappropriately at a hospital, which he didn’t name.

The caregivers have filed a report with Chicago police and also retained an attorney for him.

Egan, however, said in an interview that the 21-year-old, who is white, is “unequivocally” not the second patient. An internal hospital investigation has eliminated him because, he said, both patients in the video are Black. Federal records do not identify the two patients by race and say the face of the second patient is not visible.

Roseland’s behavioral health unit has a capacity of 24 patients, yet Egan said hospital officials had not interviewed any of the patients who were there the day of the alleged assault.

“The video depicts unacceptable behavior and is completely counter to Roseland Community Hospital’s commitment to providing safe and effective patient care,” Egan said.

He said the hospital continues to investigate the circumstances surrounding the incident, including whether it was consensual. Roseland began its investigation after it discovered the footage in August, Egan said, but IDPH arrived and asked for the video before the hospital was able to get answers.

The hospital would have called police immediately, Egan said, if it “looked like there was a crime committed.”

Egan said Roseland has implemented a number of changes over the past several months. The hospital has cut ties with the unit’s former medical director. Roseland also fired an employee who had been outside the day room in the psychiatric unit when “confirmed inappropriate sexual behavior between two patients” occurred, according to hospital records obtained by ProPublica.

“We have new policies and procedures. New physicians in charge of the behavioral health unit and a new chief quality officer being hired, and they will ensure this and other protections and precautions will be taken,” Egan said.

Roseland, a small nonprofit hospital, has long struggled financially and has faced repeated scrutiny from state and federal authorities. More than 70% of its patients received Medicare or Medicaid last year; around 90% of the facility’s patients were Black. After closing its adolescent behavioral unit in February, Egan said, it opened its adult unit in March. The hospital hopes to receive state funding to expand the adult unit and reopen the adolescent unit, he added.

“There is a tremendous need for behavioral health expansion on the South Side of Chicago specifically,” Egan said.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which regulates hospitals receiving federal funding, cited Roseland four times between July and September for incidents where its behavioral health unit placed patients in “immediate jeopardy,” its most serious citation that indicates patients had been in imminent danger of serious injury or death.

The hospital failed to properly monitor patients, adequately investigate the incident involving the two men and ensure the safety of its patients, “potentially affecting the care of all psychiatric patients,” according to documents obtained through open records requests.

At the time of the June 24 incident, Roseland had no social worker on staff in the behavioral health unit, an omission that allowed for more than 50 patients to be discharged from the hospital without proper planning for follow-up treatment, medication assistance or housing arrangements, according to federal records. Egan attributed those problems to former personnel.

“All the deficiencies that were uncovered since the IDPH survey have been corrected,” Egan said. “That’s why we’ve launched the investigation so we better understand any mistakes so they would be corrected immediately.”

“We meet every regulatory survey with absolute transparency,” he added.

The video of the two patients, according to federal inspection records, was discovered when hospital staff were looking at footage during an unrelated internal investigation. It was turned over to state investigators during a surprise visit in early September that was prompted by a complaint to the IDPH about the incident between the patients.

The footage showed “sexual activity” between two men in the corner of the day room; one of the patients has his hospital gown raised above his waist and is leaning into the other patient.

When the psychiatric unit’s director was told about the video by employees, she did not begin an immediate investigation or interview workers because she was scheduled to have time off the next three days, she told state investigators.

Roseland officials told state investigators that the hospital had begun an inquiry into the incident on Aug. 31. But by Sept. 2, the hospital’s quality department had not received a report from the unit’s director, despite hospital policy that requires employees to report situations that could or did result in physical or psychological harm, federal records show.

“This occurrence should have been reported and an investigation should have been conducted immediately,” the chief nursing officer told the state investigators.

An advocate for people with disabilities said hospital officials lost valuable time.

“Memories do fade,” said Stacey Aschemann, a vice president at Equip for Equality, a nonprofit with offices across Illinois. “So timely investigating is essential to figuring out who was involved, maybe who wasn’t doing their job, if that was a concern. Timeliness is really important in these circumstances.”

And although the incident is described in federal reports as “sexual activity,” a catch-all phrase used when consent cannot be determined, it is impossible to know for sure whether consent was given without identifying the second patient, all the more reason the hospital should have investigated, Aschemann said.

Only the face of the alleged assailant was visible on the video, records show. Hospital workers told state investigators they “believed” they knew his identity: a man with a history of psychosis, aggressive behavior and an “inability to maintain safety” of himself or others, records show. But workers told state investigators that they had not definitively determined either patient’s identity, according to federal records.

The hospital was cited by inspectors for failing to provide him one-on-one monitoring.

Roseland’s risk manager also expressed concern for the safety of the patients because of the improper monitoring, telling state investigators in September: “There is potential for harm if an investigation is not done right away to maintain safety measures or correct any concerns.”

In response to the investigation’s findings, according to federal documents, the hospital built a wall to eliminate blind spots in the recessed area in the day room and to provide clear visibility for staff and cameras. The hospital, the documents show, also revised its policy to add precautions for supervising patients who act out sexually and planned staff training on identifying and reporting potential abuse.

By late September, federal officials determined that the hospital had returned to compliance.

The second complaint about the incident was filed in October and alleges that the hospital “intentionally lied” to IDPH about not knowing the identities of the two patients, both of whom are named and had been frequently admitted to the psychiatric unit. Egan disputes that claim.

The complaint, which was obtained by ProPublica, was filed with the inspector general for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, which reached out to the state Department on Aging and the Department of Human Services to determine which agency might investigate the incident.

All three state agencies said they followed protocol and did not have the jurisdiction to investigate the complaint, which falls to IDPH. The other agencies ensured that IDPH, which licenses state hospitals and investigates complaints on behalf of the federal Medicare agency, was notified.

Federal officials determined IDPH “fully investigated the June 24, 2021, incident, cited the facility at the highest level, and did not need to reopen the prior investigation,” said IDPH spokesperson Melaney Arnold.

Arnold said hospitals should report sexual assaults to the police and IDPH. Her agency did not initially alert police, she said, in part because investigators learned of the incident more than two months after it occurred and do not know the identities of the two patients. Following questions from ProPublica, Arnold said the agency notified police.

In addition to exploring changes to its reporting regulations, IDPH is also updating its rules on how closely some patients must be monitored and procedures for how incidents involving patient sexual activity are investigated.

Three months after the incident, the 49-year-old was charged with misdemeanor battery after he shoved a man’s head against a wall in the emergency room of a hospital in Chicago’s south suburbs, court records show. After he failed to return to court, he was taken into custody and was still being held in Cook County Jail on Monday.

Efforts to reach him and his family were unsuccessful, and he is not being named because he hasn’t been charged criminally in the Roseland incident.

ProPublica also is not naming the 21-year-old because he is allegedly a victim of sexual assault. His caregivers and the home where they work are not being named because doing so could identify the 21-year-old.

The caregivers blame inaction by hospital and public health officials for a monthslong delay in reaching out to the 21-year-old to see if he needed treatment. The caregivers said they had noticed behavioral changes they couldn’t explain in the young man when he returned to the group home following his hospitalization at Roseland.

The caregivers said they learned of the incident in early November — more than four months after the alleged assault — from the Illinois Department of Human Services following ProPublica’s inquiries with the state. The caregivers said the state described the incident as an alleged assault.

“We had never heard anything. We should have been notified immediately,” one caregiver said in an interview, adding: “It makes us feel like they don’t care about the individuals — that they don’t matter. Had this happened to a well-bodied person … more would have been done.”

Since the incident, the 21-year-old has had frequent outbursts and has repeatedly tried to run away from his group home, the caregivers said. They are reluctant to send him to Roseland again.

“We don’t know what’s been done to him,” one of the caregivers said.

They saw me and thought the worst

As Sojourner Gibbs pulled out of her parking space at a Sam's Club in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, one afternoon last summer, she felt the familiar, sickening symptoms of diabetic shock. Weakness, confusion. She began to sweat and shake uncontrollably. And then, Gibbs said, panic set in.

Her car lurched forward a few feet. She slammed on the brakes. The groceries she had just purchased for her family's Juneteenth barbecue jostled in the back. People started honking their horns. A concerned woman walked up to her car. “I'm a diabetic! I need help!" Gibbs yelled.

The woman called 911. Dispatcher notes show a report of a “Black female sitting/screaming" in a gold Ford Expedition. “Appears scared." Moments later: “Needs EMS."

Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office deputies arrived before the paramedics. First just one, then three more. Gibbs, a doctoral candidate in public policy, thrashed in the front seat, her body stiffening. She recalls telling deputies she was diabetic. The sheriff's department report says she told deputies to “go away."

She insists she heard one say, “This bitch is lying. She's high on something."

As deputies surrounded the car, Alicia Dardar, who is white and grew up in Jefferson Parish, pulled up nearby. Dardar felt uneasy as she saw what was happening, she said, and she thought of George Floyd, who a month earlier had been killed by a Minneapolis police officer. She started recording with her cell phone.

Her video shows the four deputies dragging Gibbs out of the driver's side door. Gibbs cries, “I don't know why you're doing this." Then a deputy grabs one of Gibbs' legs from underneath her, sending her face-first into the dirt. They secure her hands behind her back with zip ties, restraining her as paramedics arrive.

She remembers thinking of her sons, 10 and 4, and praying: Please, Lord, do not take me.

When paramedics arrived and took Gibbs' blood sugar level, it was 17 milligrams per deciliter. Levels below 40 milligrams can be critical, even fatal. She said one paramedic told her, “You could have died." While she was in the ambulance, deputies combed through her belongings in her SUV.

Over the next few months, Gibbs would file a complaint with the sheriff's internal affairs division, hoping the officers involved would face consequences. What she didn't know at the time, but would later learn, is that the Sheriff's Office would fail to follow its own internal investigations policy. Despite her complaints, no official would ever interview her or Dardar before exonerating the officers of all wrongdoing. The Sheriff's Office did not respond to questions about Gibbs' case.

Had the scene in the parking lot played out in New Orleans, just four miles away, Gibbs' pursuit of answers likely would have had very different results. That's because just over a decade ago, the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report about policing in the city. It found that the New Orleans Police Department had failed to properly track and review when its officers used force, that its internal investigation system was deeply flawed, that officers were disproportionately shooting and killing Black people, and that years of ignored complaints and stonewalling had eroded public trust.

The report led to a settlement agreement with the city in 2013 that has resulted in drastic overhauls in policing, turning a troubled department into a model — albeit an imperfect one — of reform. Federal monitors wrote in February that despite still needing some improvement, NOPD had become a “changed agency."

But the DOJ has never launched an investigation in Jefferson Parish, a suburb of about 440,000 people west of New Orleans that straddles the banks of the Mississippi River. Its Sheriff's Office is one of the largest in the state, with jurisdiction over the entirety of the parish's 665 square miles, including those cities that have their own police departments.

Here, policing looks a lot like it did in New Orleans a decade ago, with racial disparities in the people officers shoot, little transparency in cases where force is used, and a flawed internal affairs process that critics say protects problematic deputies instead of the public. Records and data collected over the last year by WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica support the claims that many Black residents have made for years: that deputies treat white residents and residents of color in significantly different ways.

More than 70% of people who deputies shot at during the past eight years were Black, more than double the 27% of the population that is Black, the news organizations' investigation found. Seventy five percent of the people who died — 12 of 16 — after being shot or restrained by deputies during that time were Black men.

The disparities resemble those of the Louisiana State Police, which has come under heavy fire recently over a pattern of violence directed at Black arrestees. At that agency — which Black lawmakers have asked the Department of Justice to investigate — 67% of incidents where the police used force in recent years have targeted Black Louisianans, the Associated Press reported Sept. 9. Black people make up nearly one-third of the state's population.

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office, when questioned about such incidents, failed to provide vital details, exhibiting a lack of transparency. In response to public records requests, the office could not account for how often its deputies use force. It also refused to provide the news organizations with copies of complaints against deputies.

After failing to respond to weeks of emails and voicemails, Sheriff Joe Lopinto declined to be interviewed for this story and did not respond to written questions. He said only that when his deputies commit serious misconduct, they are arrested, noting that at least nine deputies have been booked since he became sheriff in 2017, although he could not say how many of those incidents involved officers inappropriately using force.

Based on news reports, only one of those bookings appeared to involve excessive force — a 21-year Sheriff's Office veteran who was accused of pepper-spraying a man without justification.

Gibbs said she has heard stories of abuses by Jefferson Parish deputies for years, but she didn't see herself as someone who would ever have a reason to worry.

“I thought as long as I do the things I'm supposed to do, I'd be OK," she said. “We pay our taxes. We have a very nice home. We go to work. We go to school. We educate our children."

In the end, though, she said, none of it mattered. The deputies didn't see a woman experiencing a medical emergency. They saw a Black woman acting irrationally, pegged her as a drug addict, and treated her as such, she said.

“They had a narrative in their minds of who I was and why I was and where I was. And no matter how many times I said I'm diabetic, no one responded to that," Gibbs said. “They saw me and thought the worst."

Across the Parish Line

Carved out of land that belonged to Orleans Parish until 1825, Jefferson Parish encompasses sprawling suburbs outside the city and stretches down to fishing villages on the Gulf of Mexico. The histories of the two parishes are intertwined, their shared border revised over the years by annexations for reasons both political and pragmatic.

As the two communities grew, their histories diverged. New Orleans is an international port city, a tourist mecca famous as the birthplace of jazz. Jefferson Parish boomed in the white flight movement of the 1950s and 1960s, once electing David Duke, the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, to the state legislature.

Although the population has diversified over the years — Black people now account for more than a quarter of the population, and Latinos have grown to account for 15% — Jefferson Parish voters supported Donald Trump in the past two presidential elections and sent conservative Republicans to Congress, including former U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Rep. Steve Scalise.

And while the margins of victory have grown tighter in recent years, the area's conservative bent has repercussions for the oversight of the Sheriff's Office. That's because the Jefferson Parish sheriff, like the majority of the country's sheriffs, is an elected position and answers only to the voters.

The sheriff also derives considerable power from the Louisiana Constitution, which prescribes that the position be unconstrained by governmental or civilian oversight. Sheriffs don't answer to politicians, unlike in New Orleans, where the police chief is appointed by the mayor and can be fired. In New Orleans, the City Council approves the police budget, but the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office is funded through sources, such as property and sales taxes, that do not require outside approval. Public calls for accountability ultimately can only end up with the sheriff.

The late Sheriff Harry Lee, who served for 28 years until his death in 2007, called his job “the closest thing there is to being a king in the U.S." Lee openly espoused racist views in public statements, once declaring: “If there are some young Blacks driving a car late at night in a predominantly white area, they will be stopped." He eventually backed off the order, but he announced 20 years later that his solution to violent crime was “only stopping Black people."

When Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the federal levees flooded New Orleans in 2005, it prompted a large crowd of mostly Black people to attempt to cross the Crescent City Connection bridge into Jefferson Parish. They were confronted by sheriff's deputies and Gretna Police Department officers and forced to turn back. At least one officer fired a shot in the air, according to local reports.

No one was hurt, but the law enforcement blockade led to protests and allegations of racism from civil rights groups. Lee defended the officers' actions, saying the area had already accepted thousands of evacuees and didn't have enough supplies to care for thousands more.

Although the DOJ later found that the officers hadn't intentionally broken any laws, Jonathan Smith, who was with the DOJ at the time, said the events were a “big red flag." Federal investigators knew at the time that Jefferson Parish was “a troubled department," said Smith, who served as chief of the Special Litigation Section for DOJ's civil rights division from 2010 to 2015. He added, though, that he could not discuss whether any specific agency was of interest during his tenure.

Ultimately what happened on Danziger Bridge in New Orleans three days later overshadowed the Jefferson Parish blockade. There, NOPD officers shot six Black people who were part of a crowd fleeing the flooded city, killing two of them. Police attempted to cover up the murders by planting evidence, fabricating witnesses and falsifying reports, an investigation later found.

A united front of civil rights attorneys, elected officials and Black and white residents demanded accountability. The DOJ launched its yearlong investigation. And in 2011, the department issued its damning report.

“NOPD's failure to ensure that its officers routinely respect the Constitution and the rule of law undermines trust within the very communities whose cooperation the Department most needs to enforce the law and prevent crime," DOJ investigators concluded. Two years later, the DOJ entered into a consent decree with the police department, which agreed to sweeping changes in how it operates and strict outside oversight.

Several former federal officials told the news organizations there is no particular set of problems that trigger a DOJ investigation, which is a necessary step before the department can seek a consent decree. High-profile flare-ups — like the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, or the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore — tend to bring scrutiny.

There are, however, certain patterns of misconduct that have proven to be of interest to the Department of Justice, Smith said. Most of them involve findings of racial disparities, and many involve the police using excessive force and failing to discipline officers for wrongdoing.

Smith said that a lack of accountability is “probably the most important thing I've seen in every department where there's been a problem. That gives people impunity to engage in bad conduct."

Evidence of problematic policing, however, does not ensure that a federal investigation will be conducted. At the time Smith was with the DOJ, he said he had a maximum of 15 attorneys working on police investigations. While the department would not provide updated numbers on staffing, it's clear the Civil Rights Division has to make some hard choices about where to focus its efforts among the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country, Smith said.

DOJ involvement also tends to go in waves and largely tracks the politics of the president. President George W. Bush pursued just three consent decrees; President Barack Obama pursued 15. And under President Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions circulated a memo cautioning against their use and entered into zero.

After President Joe Biden's election, Attorney General Merrick Garland quickly rescinded Sessions' order and announced investigations into the Minneapolis and Louisville, Kentucky, police departments following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The DOJ also opened an investigation into the Phoenix Police Department in response to accusations that officers used excessive force against homeless people.

Absent a consent decree, imposing more accountability on the sheriff's office would probably require an amendment to the state constitution, according to experts, which is unlikely to pass given the opposition from both law enforcement and the public.

Advocates say that leaves the DOJ as their best hope, citing the changes they've seen in New Orleans.

“The consent decree has played a significant role in the way the NOPD shows up now," said Norris Henderson, the founder and executive director of the New Orleans-based advocacy group Voice of the Experienced, which promotes criminal justice reforms. “JPSO has been operating with reckless abandon for years."

A Department That Polices Itself

One night last August, a little after 4 a.m., Theresa Burke arrived at her son Ferel's hospital room in New Orleans, summoned by a phone call from a nurse who said he had been brought in by deputies, bruised and bloodied.

Hours earlier, Burke had tried to find Ferel, 13 at the time, after hearing he had been detained for stealing a car with two friends and attempting to run from officers. She didn't think to contact local hospitals. The deputies who met Burke outside her son's door tried to stop her, telling her she wasn't authorized to see him. She refused to take no for an answer.

As Burke approached her son's hospital bed, where he was lying on his side, his wrists handcuffed behind his back, the 32-year-old dental assistant hit record on her phone. She provided a copy of the resulting video to WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica. Burke can be heard gently calling her son's name. “Ferel? Ferel, wake up."

He was drenched in sweat, his face bloody, Burke said. He wavered in and out of consciousness.

“Look at me," she said, keeping her voice low so the guard at the door couldn't hear. “Look at me. What's wrong?"

“Beat me up," he responded.

“Beat you up? Who beat you up?" Burke asked her son.

“Police."

Burke paused to compose herself and said: “Mama gonna take care of it. Don't worry, ya hear?"

But as she sought accountability and an explanation for her son's injuries, Burke would find no easy answers from a department that answers only to itself.

Over the next year, she would hear conflicting accounts: Her son said a deputy grabbed his hair and smashed his head into the pavement. The deputy who arrested him wrote that Ferel suffered minor injuries that could have been incurred in the car wreck or during the arrest.

But here's one thing all parties ultimately agreed upon: an officer struck Ferel. The arresting deputy said Ferel resisted, so he “delivered two closed fist strikes to Mr. Burke's abdomen," after which he “finally complied."

In New Orleans, since the DOJ investigation, that simple fact — admitted to by the officer himself — would have prompted an internal affairs investigation, even without a formal complaint, experts said.

In addition, the department's use-of-force policy includes a detailed list of prohibited actions, such as neck holds, warning shots, shooting at moving vehicles and pistol whipping. It states that officers have a duty to intercede when they suspect a colleague is using excessive force. There is also a separate 14-page policy laying out the reporting requirements for uses of excessive force.

But none of that applies in Jefferson Parish.

The Sheriff's Office has a policy that says deputies should only use as much force as necessary to protect themselves and the public. It does not include a list of prohibited actions. Instead, it states that “generally" deputies should not fire warning shots or shoot at moving vehicles unless the driver is using deadly force.

The policy also does not say what level of force should prompt an intervention or internal investigation. It states only that when a deputy's use of force results in an injury to either the deputy or a civilian, the deputy must complete a report while a ranking officer goes to the scene to determine and document if there are witnesses or evidence.

In Jefferson Parish, it's not clear that the department is tracking how its officers use force at all. In response to requests, the department provided only records of shootings. But the vast majority of use-of-force incidents — like Ferel's — do not involve shootings, experts say. However, in response to requests for records regarding those non-shooting incidents, the Sheriff's Office provided none, instead sending along files on a suicide and murders committed by civilians. The research organization Police Scorecard Project made a similar request for data on use-of-force incidents. The Sheriff's Office responded by saying those records don't exist.

For a long time, New Orleans' system was similarly broken.

But after the DOJ intervened, the NOPD created a Use of Force Review Board that reviews all incidents. The outcomes of use-of-force investigations are published in an online database. The number of times NOPD officers have reported using force has fallen by half over the past five years, from 754 in 2015 to 338 last year, due largely to improved training, according to the consent decree monitor and criminal justice experts.

In Jefferson Parish, there was no independent monitor Burke could turn to for help. She posted on Instagram about Ferel's injuries: “I am deeply saddened," she wrote, “and I want justice for my child."

Then she hired attorney Chris Murell, who filed a civil lawsuit and asked the Sheriff's Office to provide all records related to Ferel's arrest and injuries. Their response, reviewed by a reporter for WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica, did not include an internal affairs investigation, a use-of-force review or any mention of discipline. The only time the punching is mentioned is in a single sentence in a report prepared by the deputy who arrested him.

These factors — the deputy's admission, the boy's hospitalization, his mother publicly accusing the deputy of attacking her son — should have raised red flags within the Sheriff's Office and prompted an internal affairs investigation, said Sam Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“I would assume that hospitalization of a use-of-force victim would automatically trigger an [internal affairs] investigation," Walker said. “The officer's claims cannot be accepted without at least some investigation."

But Burke said that's exactly what happened. And some people in the parish seem to be OK with that, she said.

“They're going to stand together [with] their police officers if they do wrong, especially if it's a Black kid," Burke said. “They don't care."

“My Son Has a Bullet Wound"

Even in the most high-profile use-of-force incidents — when officers shoot someone and or a person dies in custody — the Sheriff's Office has faced similar criticisms. Since 2018, a string of incidents where deputies shot Black people has prompted mounting calls for reform. Those calls intensified last summer amid the nationwide protests in response to Floyd's death and allegations that the office concealed from the public that a deputy shot 14-year-old Tre'mall McGee.

Tre'mall and three friends ran from deputies in March 2020 after being pulled over in a stolen car. Tre'mall was facedown, trying to squeeze under a shed in a backyard, when a deputy shot him in the shoulder. (The deputy said the boy moved his arm and he feared Tre'mall had a gun. The boy did not.) The deputy could not be reached for comment.

Tre'mall's mother, Tiffany McGee, said she tried for months to get answers about her son's shooting, but said the Sheriff's Office stonewalled her: Tiffany said she met with the sheriff's criminal investigations bureau and asked to file a complaint. They sent her to the internal affairs division, which told her to contact the New Orleans branch of the FBI. The FBI sent her back to the Sheriff's Office, where detectives referred her to the head of the gun violence unit, who told her their officers hadn't shot at anyone recently.

When McGee pressed the sergeant, he asked, “He was shot with a firearm, not a Taser?" according to a recording of their conversation.

“My son has a bullet wound," she replied. “That is never going to go away. At 14 years old, OK?"

Frustrated, McGee finally turned to the media. When reporters questioned Lopinto last summer, he insisted the Sheriff's Office has a “great reputation of doing the right thing." But, he emphasized, “we have the authority to defend ourselves. And guess what? There's people out there that shoot at us."

Lopinto then lashed out at the attorneys and families suing him. He accused them of spreading a “false narrative for the sake of trying to get a payday" and dismissed Tre'mall's injuries as “non-life-threatening." In response to the family's lawsuit, the Sheriff's Office said its deputies' actions were “reasonable under the circumstances" and accused Tre'mall of negligence.

After WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica filed a public records request for investigative reports into every time deputies shot at someone since 2013, it received records for only 16 of 35 incidents. The Sheriff's Office withheld the remainder, saying some (nearly four years old) were still under investigation, were the subject of pending criminal litigation or involved juveniles. In at least a dozen of the 35 shootings, deputies' accounts were disputed by witnesses or the people who were shot at, according to public records, news reports and subsequent lawsuits.

The news organizations' review found that of the 40 people deputies shot at during the past eight years, 29 were Black — meaning 73% of people shot at by police were Black, more than double their share of the population. (In some of the 35 shootings, more than one person was shot at.)

After similar findings by the DOJ in New Orleans, NOPD now typically releases body camera footage within 10 days of an officer shooting at someone or an incident that results in the hospitalization or death of a civilian. Each shooting triggers independent reviews of witness interviews, autopsies and disciplinary hearings.

In New Orleans, “people can have faith in the process," said Stella Cziment with the New Orleans Independent Police Monitor, a civilian oversight agency. “There's a lot of eyes on that decision, and a lot of evidence behind that decision."

Without the benefit of that transparency, people in Jefferson Parish alleging abuses by deputies have turned to the courts. Since 2013, nearly twice as many lawsuits alleging wrongdoing by deputies have been filed against the Sheriff's Office as against the NOPD, despite NOPD having about 1,100 officers compared to about 760 at the Sheriff's Office, according to a WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica review. Three-fourths of the plaintiffs in the Jefferson Parish lawsuits were Black.

The litigation has exposed problems in how the Sheriff's Office handles some of its most serious cases. While it conducts criminal investigations to see if deputies violated the law, the Sheriff's Office repeatedly said in sworn statements in court filings that it did not conduct internal affairs investigations into high-profile deaths of people in police custody.

This is significant, said Lou Reiter, a national police consultant and trainer. Internal affairs investigations not only scrutinize the actions of the deputy but also assess the response of the organization as a whole. Is there a strong enough policy in place to prevent misconduct? Is it enforced? Did supervisors react appropriately and discipline those found to be in violation of the agency's ethical standards?

“They're a fact-finding, unbiased look to say, 'How can we protect all the stakeholders?' Because, in the end, if you don't do a good job, the community pays for it," Reiter said of internal affairs investigations.

Eric Parsa, 16, died in January 2020 after deputies — including one who weighed more than 300 pounds — sat on his back for at least nine minutes while he was facedown on the pavement of a parking lot, according to court records. The coroner ruled the severely autistic boy's death was an accident as a result of excited delirium, with “prone positioning" as a contributing factor.

The family filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff's Office, which issued a press release saying the suit was “rife with false claims and malicious accusations" and claiming that Parsa had attacked his father and deputies were trying to control him.

William Most, an attorney suing on behalf of Parsa's parents, asked through discovery if the Sheriff's Office had conducted an internal affairs investigation. The answer was no, according to court filings. No one was disciplined.

Most, looking to establish a pattern as to how the Sheriff's Office handles in-custody deaths, also asked about the May 2018 death of 22-year-old Keeven Robinson, whose family claims he died after deputies beat and choked him. Lopintotold reporters he suspected Robinson's death was due to a combination of asthma and poor air quality. But the coroner ruled his death a homicide by asphyxiation and that his injuries were consistent with someone squeezing his neck or choking him.

As with Parsa, the Sheriff's Office said it did not conduct an internal affairs investigation into Robinson's death. It also said no one was disciplined.

Walker, the criminal justice professor, said the absence of internal affairs investigations into such deaths is “inconceivable."

“I don't think this occurs anywhere else," he said.

A Flawed Complaints Process

After Gibbs' encounter with deputies, she was taken to a local hospital where she stayed for several hours while her blood sugar levels normalized. She returned home later that day with leaves and dirt in her hair from being thrown to the ground. Her arms were sore from where the deputies grabbed her. She had scratches on her wrists from being handcuffed.

She stood before her husband and two children, shaken and distraught, and wept.

Ten days after the incident, Gibbs — named after the famed abolitionist Sojourner Truth — filed a complaint with the sheriff's internal affairs division, hoping it would spur an investigation and result in disciplinary action against the deputies.

“I was pinned in the dirt by an officer's knees on my right shoulder and right thigh," Gibbs wrote. “In between cries, I said, 'Please don't kill me. I am a diabetic.'"

Since that day, she wrote, she'd had trouble sleeping, often lying awake at night thinking about how when she needed help, she “instead received harm."

She sent a follow-up email three days later, asking the Sheriff's Office to preserve any evidence of the encounter and to provide any police reports.

Days went by, then weeks, with no response. Nobody reached out to Gibbs for an interview, which is a direct violation of the sheriff's internal investigations policy. It states that the investigator shall “thoroughly exhaust all leads," which includes interviewing “the accused employee, all principals, and all witnesses."

When WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica filed a public records request for copies of all complaints against Sheriff's Office employees during the past two years, the office denied the request, calling it overly burdensome and an invasion of privacy. The agency said it couldn't even provide the number of complaints filed, stating such a number “does not exist."

When the news organizations narrowed their request, seeking only substantiated complaints from 2017 through mid-2020, the Sheriff's Office turned up only one report. It involved a deputy who was suspended for three days after being accused of slapping and choking a patient in an ambulance.

“If you find out one out of every 50 [complaints] is sustained, that indicates a failure to really investigate and take seriously complaints about use of force," Walker said.

Ashonta Wyatt, a leader in Jefferson Parish's Black community who helped found an organization called the Village Keepers to push for reforms of the Sheriff's Office, said the lack of accountability in the complaint process has damaged public trust.

“We feel almost at his mercy," she said of the sheriff. “I have family members and friends that will not drive in parts of Jefferson Parish. Ever. They just won't do it."

NOPD's complaint procedures prompted similar criticisms of opacity before the DOJ investigation, but the department now publishes the outcomes of all complaint investigations in a public database.

During the three-year span in which Jefferson Parish substantiated only one complaint, NOPD substantiated 247, according to the department.

No Body Cameras

It's been more than a year since Dardar took video of Jefferson Parish deputies dragging Gibbs out of her vehicle. Dardar grew up in Jefferson Parish during the reign of Sheriff Harry Lee and remembers when he ordered deputies to stop Black people driving in white neighborhoods. She said she had long worried about how the Sheriff's Office treats Black people. But witnessing what happened to Gibbs was difficult, she said, particularly because her 12-year-old son saw the whole thing.

“I don't see how you could treat a fellow human that way, especially one who's screaming for help and zero threat to you," she said.

Dardar's video is the only footage Gibbs has seen of what happened that day. That's because the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office remains one of the few large law enforcement agencies both in Louisiana and across the country that does not use body cameras.

About 80% of U.S. police departments with at least 500 sworn officers had body cameras as of 2016, according to the most recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Many more have adopted them since then. The St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office, one of the largest in Louisiana, entered into a $1.6 million, five-year contract that covers purchasing cameras, training officers on their use and storing the video footage.

The Gretna Police Department, located on the west bank of Jefferson Parish, followed suit in May.

“It's something that is good for the community, it's good for the officers," Police Chief Arthur Lawson said, according to local news reports. “If the officer is acting inappropriately or violates our policies, it gives us a tool there."

Lopinto, however, has consistently pleaded poverty, saying his department can't absorb the cost it would take to store the footage, which he estimated to cost at least $1.9 million annually.

After the shooting of 14-year-old Tre'mall McGee, the state House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution requesting that Lopinto, by Jan. 1, 2021, present a plan to outfit deputies with body cameras.

Rep. Rodney Lyons, D-Harvey, who introduced the resolution, said there is a “parish-wide consensus" in support of the technology. Lopinto, however, dismissed the resolution as doing “nothing" and having “no effect of law." He has yet to present a plan.

About three months after Gibbs filed her complaint with the Sheriff's Office, she received a letter from the department. It was 99 words. Gibbs read it slowly, carefully digesting every sentence. It said the investigation into her complaint had been concluded. All four deputies had been “exonerated."

“This means that the investigation and reviews have determined that the facts do not reflect a violation of this Department's Code of Conduct," the Sheriff's Office wrote, concluding by thanking Gibbs for bringing the matter to its attention.

Gibbs said the letter retraumatized her. But she was not surprised.

“If you want to perpetuate a certain conduct, you keep that person moving forward," she said. “Institutions protect institutions."

In response to a lawsuit Gibbs later filed against the Sheriff's Office, the department defended its deputies' actions as “reasonable under the circumstances" and wrote that Gibbs, “by virtue of her own actions and conduct, was guilty of negligence."

When a reporter told Gibbs the deputy who grabbed her leg from underneath her also shot 14-year-old Tre'mall and later was promoted to detective, she put her head in her hands and cried.

January 6 Select Committee subpoenas Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and other top aides

The U.S. House of Representatives select committee investigating the events of Jan. 6 issued subpoenas on Thursday to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and three other allies of former President Donald Trump.

These are the first subpoenas announced by the committee and represent its intensifying interest in what transpired in the White House before and during the assault on the Capitol. Demands for documents and depositions were also sent to former Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Scavino, former Pentagon Chief of Staff Kash Patel and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

The committee's letter to Meadows cited a June ProPublica report, which found that he was involved in shaping the rally that preceded the attack on the Capitol and presented evidence that organizers may have warned him about the dangers of an unpermitted march. The letter also cited emails Meadows sent to top Justice Department officials in the weeks before Jan. 6, asking the officials to investigate fringe theories pertaining to the 2020 election.

“The investigation has revealed credible evidence of your involvement in events within the scope of the Select Committee's inquiry. You were the President's Chief of Staff and have critical information regarding many elements of our inquiry," said the letter to Meadows, written by the committee chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.

ProPublica's reporting described senior Trump officials' efforts to contain an increasingly volatile situation in the days and hours before the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and added new details suggesting aides knew the day could turn chaotic.

The reporting also raised questions as to whether Meadows specifically was warned about the potential danger of an unpermitted march on the Capitol from the White House Ellipse, which had been announced days before Jan. 6 by far-right provocateur Ali Alexander.

Rally organizers Dustin Stockton and Amy Kremer feared that the march could present a legal liability and a public safety risk, according to Stockton and others. Stockton told ProPublica that he and Kremer sought to push top White House officials to address the concerns over the march.

He said he and Kremer agreed she would take the matter directly to Meadows. Shortly afterward, she 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 ever speaking to Meadows or any other White House official about her concerns going into Jan. 6. But in a Dec. 27 text from Kremer obtained by ProPublica, she told her fellow organizers that “the WH and team Trump are aware of the situation" with Alexander and that she needed “to be the one to handle both."

Through his adviser, Ben Williamson, Meadows declined to answer questions for our original story. Meadows and Williamson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the subpoena.

The full picture of what Meadows and the other officials knew remains unclear, but the committee has asked that the Trump allies provide documents by Oct. 7 and appear for depositions the following week.

From Your Site Articles

40 million people rely on the Colorado River. It’s drying up fast

by Abrahm Lustgarten

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: Killing the Colorado

The Water Crisis in the West

On a 110-degree day several years ago, surrounded by piles of sand and rock in the desert outside of Las Vegas, I stepped into a yellow cage large enough to fit three standing adults and was lowered 600 feet through a black hole into the ground. There, at the bottom, amid pooling water and dripping rock, was an enormous machine driving a cone-shaped drill bit into the earth. The machine was carving a cavernous, 3-mile tunnel beneath the bottom of the nation's largest freshwater reservoir, Lake Mead.

Lake Mead, a reservoir formed by the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, is one of the most important pieces of infrastructure on the Colorado River, supplying fresh water to Nevada, California, Arizona and Mexico. The reservoir hasn't been full since 1983. In 2000, it began a steady decline caused by epochal drought. On my visit in 2015, the lake was just about 40% full. A chalky ring on the surrounding cliffs marked where the waterline once reached, like the residue on an empty bathtub. The tunnel far below represented Nevada's latest salvo in a simmering water war: the construction of a $1.4 billion drainage hole to ensure that if the lake ever ran dry, Las Vegas could get the very last drop.

For years, experts in the American West have predicted that, unless the steady overuse of water was brought under control, the Colorado River would no longer be able to support all of the 40 million people who depend on it. Over the past two decades, Western states took incremental steps to save water, signed agreements to share what was left and then, like Las Vegas, did what they could to protect themselves. But they believed the tipping point was still a long way off.

Like the record-breaking heat waves and the ceaseless mega-fires, the decline of the Colorado River has been faster than expected. This year, even though rainfall and snowpack high up in the Rocky Mountains were at near-normal levels, the parched soils and plants stricken by intense heat absorbed much of the water, and inflows to Lake Powell were around one-fourth of their usual amount. The Colorado's flow has already declined by nearly 20%, on average, from its flow throughout the 1900s, and if the current rate of warming continues, the loss could well be 50% by the end of this century.

Earlier this month, federal officials declared an emergency water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time. The shortage declaration forces reductions in water deliveries to specific states, beginning with the abrupt cutoff of nearly one-fifth of Arizona's supply from the river, and modest cuts for Nevada and Mexico, with more negotiations and cuts to follow. But it also sounded an alarm: one of the country's most important sources of fresh water is in peril, another victim of the accelerating climate crisis.

Americans are about to face all sorts of difficult choices about how and where to live as the climate continues to heat up. States will be forced to choose which coastlines to abandon as sea levels rise, which wildfire-prone suburbs to retreat from and which small towns cannot afford new infrastructure to protect against floods or heat. What to do in the parts of the country that are losing their essential supply of water may turn out to be the first among those choices.

The Colorado River's enormous significance extends well beyond the American West. In addition to providing water for the people of seven states, 29 federally recognized tribes and northern Mexico, its water is used to grow everything from the carrots stacked on supermarket shelves in New Jersey to the beef in a hamburger served at a Massachusetts diner. The power generated by its two biggest dams — the Hoover and Glen Canyon — is marketed across an electricity grid that reaches from Arizona to Wyoming.

The formal declaration of the water crisis arrived days after the Census Bureau released numbers showing that, even as the drought worsened over recent decades, hundreds of thousands more people have moved to the regions that depend on the Colorado.

Phoenix expanded more over the past 10 years than any other large American city, while smaller urban areas across Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California each ranked among the fastest-growing places in the country. The river's water supports roughly 15 million more people today than it did when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992. These statistics suggest that the climate crisis and explosive development in the West are on a collision course. And it raises the question: What happens next?

Since about 70% of water delivered from the Colorado River goes to growing crops, not to people in cities, the next step will likely be to demand large-scale reductions for farmers and ranchers across millions of acres of land, forcing wrenching choices about which crops to grow and for whom — an omen that many of America's food-generating regions might ultimately have to shift someplace else as the climate warms.

California, so far shielded from major cuts, has already agreed to reductions that will take effect if the drought worsens. But it may be asked to do more. Its enormous share of the river, which it uses to irrigate crops across the Imperial Valley and for Los Angeles and other cities, will be in the crosshairs when negotiations over a diminished Colorado begin again. The Imperial Irrigation District there is the largest single water rights holder from the entire basin and has been especially resistant to compromise over the river. It did not sign the drought contingency plan laying out cuts that other big players on the Colorado system agreed to in 2019.

New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — states in the river's Upper Basin — will most likely also face pressure to use less water. Should that happen, places like Utah that hoped to one day support faster development and economic growth with their share of the river may have to surrender their ambition.

The negotiations that led to the region being even minimally prepared for this latest shortage were agonizing, but they were merely a warm-up for the pain-inflicting cuts and sacrifices that almost certainly will be required if the water shortages persist over the coming decades. The region's leaders, for all their efforts to compromise, have long avoided these more difficult conversations. One way or another, farms will have to surrender their water, and cities will have to live with less of it. Time has run out for other options.

Western states arrived at this crucible in large part because of their own doing. The original multistate compact that governs the use of the Colorado, which was signed in 1922, was exuberantly optimistic: The states agreed to divide up an estimated total amount of water that turned out to be much more than what would actually flow. Nevertheless, with the building of the Hoover Dam to collect and store river water, and the development of the Colorado's plumbing system of canals and pipelines to deliver it, the West was able to open a savings account to fund its extraordinary economic growth. Over the years since, those states have overdrawn the river's average deposits. It should be no surprise that even without the pressures of climate change, such a plan would lead to bankruptcy.

Making a bad situation worse, leaders in Western states have allowed wasteful practices to continue that add to the material threat facing the region. A majority of the water used by farms — and thus much of the river — goes to growing nonessential crops like alfalfa and other grasses that feed cattle for meat production. Much of those grasses are also exported to feed animals in the Middle East and Asia. Short of regulating which types of crops are allowed, which state authorities may not even have the authority to do, it may fall to consumers to drive change. Water usage data suggests that if Americans avoid meat one day each week they could save an amount of water equivalent to the entire flow of the Colorado each year, more than enough water to alleviate the region's shortages.

Water is also being wasted because of flaws in the laws. The rights to take water from the river are generally distributed — like deeds to property — based on seniority. It is very difficult to take rights away from existing stakeholders, whether cities or individual ranchers, so long as they use the water allocated to them. That system creates a perverse incentive: Across the basin, ranchers often take their maximum allocation each year, even if just to spill it on the ground, for fear that, if they don't, they could lose the right to take that water in the future. Changes in the laws that remove the threat of penalties for not exercising water rights, or that expand rewards for ranchers who conserve water, could be an easy remedy.

A breathtaking amount of the water from the Colorado — about 10% of the river's recent total flow — simply evaporates off the sprawling surfaces of large reservoirs as they bake in the sun. Last year, evaporative losses from Lake Mead and Lake Powell alone added up to almost a million acre feet of water — or nearly twice what Arizona will be forced to give up now as a result of this month's shortage declaration. These losses are increasing as the climate warms. Yet federal officials have so far discounted technological fixes — like covering the water surface to reduce the losses — and they continue to maintain both reservoirs, even though both of them are only around a third full. If the two were combined, some experts argue, much of those losses could be avoided.

For all the hard-won progress made at the negotiating table, it remains to be seen whether the stakeholders can tackle the looming challenges that come next. Over the years, Western states and tribes have agreed on voluntary cuts, which defused much of the political chaos that would otherwise have resulted from this month's shortage declaration, but they remain disparate and self-interested parties hoping they can miraculously agree on a way to manage the river without truly changing their ways. For all their wishful thinking, climate science suggests there is no future in the region that does not include serious disruptions to its economy, growth trajectory and perhaps even quality of life.

The uncomfortable truth is that difficult and unpopular decisions are now unavoidable. Prohibiting some water uses as unacceptable — long eschewed as antithetical to personal freedoms and the rules of capitalism — is now what's needed most.

The laws that determine who gets water in the West, and how much of it, are based on the principle of “beneficial use" — generally the idea that resources should further economic advancement. But whose economic advancement? Do we support the farmers in Arizona who grow alfalfa to feed cows in the United Arab Emirates? Or do we ensure the survival of the Colorado River, which supports some 8% of the nation's GDP?

Earlier this month, the Bureau of Reclamation released lesser-noticed projections for water levels, and they are sobering. The figures include an estimate for what the bureau calls “minimum probable in flow" — or the low end of expectations. Water levels in Lake Mead could drop by another 40 vertical feet by the middle 2023, ultimately reaching just 1,026 feet above sea level — an elevation that further threatens Lake Mead's hydroelectric power generation for about 1.3 million people in Arizona, California and Nevada. At 895 feet, the reservoir would become what's called a “dead pool"; water would no longer be able to flow downstream.

The bureau's projections mean we are close to uncharted territory. The current shortage agreement, negotiated between the states in 2007, only addresses shortages down to a lake elevation of 1,025 feet. After that, the rules become murky, and there is greater potential for fraught legal conflicts. Northern states in the region, for example, are likely to ask why the vast evaporation losses from Lake Mead, which stores water for the southern states, have never been counted as a part of the water those southern states use. Fantastical and expensive solutions that have previously been dismissed by the federal government — like the desalinization of seawater, towing icebergs from the Arctic or pumping water from the Mississippi River through a pipeline — are likely to be seriously considered. None of this, however, will be enough to solve the problem unless it's accompanied by serious efforts to lower carbon dioxide emissions, which are ultimately responsible for driving changes to the climate.

Meanwhile, population growth in Arizona and elsewhere in the basin is likely to continue, at least for now, because short-term fixes so far have obscured the seriousness of the risks to the region. Water is still cheap, thanks to the federal subsidies for all those dams and canals that make it seem plentiful. The myth persists that technology can always outrun nature, that the American West holds endless possibility. It may be the region's undoing. As the author Wallace Stegner once wrote: “One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope."

40 million people rely on the Colorado River -- and it's drying up fast

On a 110-degree day several years ago, surrounded by piles of sand and rock in the desert outside of Las Vegas, I stepped into a yellow cage large enough to fit three standing adults and was lowered 600 feet through a black hole into the ground. There, at the bottom, amid pooling water and dripping rock, was an enormous machine driving a cone-shaped drill bit into the earth. The machine was carving a cavernous, 3-mile tunnel beneath the bottom of the nation's largest freshwater reservoir, Lake Mead.

Lake Mead, a reservoir formed by the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, is one of the most important pieces of infrastructure on the Colorado River, supplying fresh water to Nevada, California, Arizona and Mexico. The reservoir hasn't been full since 1983. In 2000, it began a steady decline caused by epochal drought. On my visit in 2015, the lake was just about 40% full. A chalky ring on the surrounding cliffs marked where the waterline once reached, like the residue on an empty bathtub. The tunnel far below represented Nevada's latest salvo in a simmering water war: the construction of a $1.4 billion drainage hole to ensure that if the lake ever ran dry, Las Vegas could get the very last drop.

For years, experts in the American West have predicted that, unless the steady overuse of water was brought under control, the Colorado River would no longer be able to support all of the 40 million people who depend on it. Over the past two decades, Western states took incremental steps to save water, signed agreements to share what was left and then, like Las Vegas, did what they could to protect themselves. But they believed the tipping point was still a long way off.

Like the record-breaking heat waves and the ceaseless mega-fires, the decline of the Colorado River has been faster than expected. This year, even though rainfall and snowpack high up in the Rocky Mountains were at near-normal levels, the parched soils and plants stricken by intense heat absorbed much of the water, and inflows to Lake Powell were around one-fourth of their usual amount. The Colorado's flow has already declined by nearly 20%, on average, from its flow throughout the 1900s, and if the current rate of warming continues, the loss could well be 50% by the end of this century.

Earlier this month, federal officials declared an emergency water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time. The shortage declaration forces reductions in water deliveries to specific states, beginning with the abrupt cutoff of nearly one-fifth of Arizona's supply from the river, and modest cuts for Nevada and Mexico, with more negotiations and cuts to follow. But it also sounded an alarm: one of the country's most important sources of fresh water is in peril, another victim of the accelerating climate crisis.

Americans are about to face all sorts of difficult choices about how and where to live as the climate continues to heat up. States will be forced to choose which coastlines to abandon as sea levels rise, which wildfire-prone suburbs to retreat from and which small towns cannot afford new infrastructure to protect against floods or heat. What to do in the parts of the country that are losing their essential supply of water may turn out to be the first among those choices.

The Colorado River's enormous significance extends well beyond the American West. In addition to providing water for the people of seven states, 29 federally recognized tribes and northern Mexico, its water is used to grow everything from the carrots stacked on supermarket shelves in New Jersey to the beef in a hamburger served at a Massachusetts diner. The power generated by its two biggest dams — the Hoover and Glen Canyon — is marketed across an electricity grid that reaches from Arizona to Wyoming.

The formal declaration of the water crisis arrived days after the Census Bureau released numbers showing that, even as the drought worsened over recent decades, hundreds of thousands more people have moved to the regions that depend on the Colorado.

Phoenix expanded more over the past 10 years than any other large American city, while smaller urban areas across Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California each ranked among the fastest-growing places in the country. The river's water supports roughly 15 million more people today than it did when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992. These statistics suggest that the climate crisis and explosive development in the West are on a collision course. And it raises the question: What happens next?

Since about 70% of water delivered from the Colorado River goes to growing crops, not to people in cities, the next step will likely be to demand large-scale reductions for farmers and ranchers across millions of acres of land, forcing wrenching choices about which crops to grow and for whom — an omen that many of America's food-generating regions might ultimately have to shift someplace else as the climate warms.

California, so far shielded from major cuts, has already agreed to reductions that will take effect if the drought worsens. But it may be asked to do more. Its enormous share of the river, which it uses to irrigate crops across the Imperial Valley and for Los Angeles and other cities, will be in the crosshairs when negotiations over a diminished Colorado begin again. The Imperial Irrigation District there is the largest single water rights holder from the entire basin and has been especially resistant to compromise over the river. It did not sign the drought contingency plan laying out cuts that other big players on the Colorado system agreed to in 2019.

New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — states in the river's Upper Basin — will most likely also face pressure to use less water. Should that happen, places like Utah that hoped to one day support faster development and economic growth with their share of the river may have to surrender their ambition.

The negotiations that led to the region being even minimally prepared for this latest shortage were agonizing, but they were merely a warm-up for the pain-inflicting cuts and sacrifices that almost certainly will be required if the water shortages persist over the coming decades. The region's leaders, for all their efforts to compromise, have long avoided these more difficult conversations. One way or another, farms will have to surrender their water, and cities will have to live with less of it. Time has run out for other options.

Western states arrived at this crucible in large part because of their own doing. The original multistate compact that governs the use of the Colorado, which was signed in 1922, was exuberantly optimistic: The states agreed to divide up an estimated total amount of water that turned out to be much more than what would actually flow. Nevertheless, with the building of the Hoover Dam to collect and store river water, and the development of the Colorado's plumbing system of canals and pipelines to deliver it, the West was able to open a savings account to fund its extraordinary economic growth. Over the years since, those states have overdrawn the river's average deposits. It should be no surprise that even without the pressures of climate change, such a plan would lead to bankruptcy.

Making a bad situation worse, leaders in Western states have allowed wasteful practices to continue that add to the material threat facing the region. A majority of the water used by farms — and thus much of the river — goes to growing nonessential crops like alfalfa and other grasses that feed cattle for meat production. Much of those grasses are also exported to feed animals in the Middle East and Asia. Short of regulating which types of crops are allowed, which state authorities may not even have the authority to do, it may fall to consumers to drive change. Water usage data suggests that if Americans avoid meat one day each week they could save an amount of water equivalent to the entire flow of the Colorado each year, more than enough water to alleviate the region's shortages.

Water is also being wasted because of flaws in the laws. The rights to take water from the river are generally distributed — like deeds to property — based on seniority. It is very difficult to take rights away from existing stakeholders, whether cities or individual ranchers, so long as they use the water allocated to them. That system creates a perverse incentive: Across the basin, ranchers often take their maximum allocation each year, even if just to spill it on the ground, for fear that, if they don't, they could lose the right to take that water in the future. Changes in the laws that remove the threat of penalties for not exercising water rights, or that expand rewards for ranchers who conserve water, could be an easy remedy.

A breathtaking amount of the water from the Colorado — about 10% of the river's recent total flow — simply evaporates off the sprawling surfaces of large reservoirs as they bake in the sun. Last year, evaporative losses from Lake Mead and Lake Powell alone added up to almost a million acre feet of water — or nearly twice what Arizona will be forced to give up now as a result of this month's shortage declaration. These losses are increasing as the climate warms. Yet federal officials have so far discounted technological fixes — like covering the water surface to reduce the losses — and they continue to maintain both reservoirs, even though both of them are only around a third full. If the two were combined, some experts argue, much of those losses could be avoided.

For all the hard-won progress made at the negotiating table, it remains to be seen whether the stakeholders can tackle the looming challenges that come next. Over the years, Western states and tribes have agreed on voluntary cuts, which defused much of the political chaos that would otherwise have resulted from this month's shortage declaration, but they remain disparate and self-interested parties hoping they can miraculously agree on a way to manage the river without truly changing their ways. For all their wishful thinking, climate science suggests there is no future in the region that does not include serious disruptions to its economy, growth trajectory and perhaps even quality of life.

The uncomfortable truth is that difficult and unpopular decisions are now unavoidable. Prohibiting some water uses as unacceptable — long eschewed as antithetical to personal freedoms and the rules of capitalism — is now what's needed most.

The laws that determine who gets water in the West, and how much of it, are based on the principle of “beneficial use" — generally the idea that resources should further economic advancement. But whose economic advancement? Do we support the farmers in Arizona who grow alfalfa to feed cows in the United Arab Emirates? Or do we ensure the survival of the Colorado River, which supports some 8% of the nation's GDP?

Earlier this month, the Bureau of Reclamation released lesser-noticed projections for water levels, and they are sobering. The figures include an estimate for what the bureau calls “minimum probable in flow" — or the low end of expectations. Water levels in Lake Mead could drop by another 40 vertical feet by the middle 2023, ultimately reaching just 1,026 feet above sea level — an elevation that further threatens Lake Mead's hydroelectric power generation for about 1.3 million people in Arizona, California and Nevada. At 895 feet, the reservoir would become what's called a “dead pool"; water would no longer be able to flow downstream.

The bureau's projections mean we are close to uncharted territory. The current shortage agreement, negotiated between the states in 2007, only addresses shortages down to a lake elevation of 1,025 feet. After that, the rules become murky, and there is greater potential for fraught legal conflicts. Northern states in the region, for example, are likely to ask why the vast evaporation losses from Lake Mead, which stores water for the southern states, have never been counted as a part of the water those southern states use. Fantastical and expensive solutions that have previously been dismissed by the federal government — like the desalinization of seawater, towing icebergs from the Arctic or pumping water from the Mississippi River through a pipeline — are likely to be seriously considered. None of this, however, will be enough to solve the problem unless it's accompanied by serious efforts to lower carbon dioxide emissions, which are ultimately responsible for driving changes to the climate.

Meanwhile, population growth in Arizona and elsewhere in the basin is likely to continue, at least for now, because short-term fixes so far have obscured the seriousness of the risks to the region. Water is still cheap, thanks to the federal subsidies for all those dams and canals that make it seem plentiful. The myth persists that technology can always outrun nature, that the American West holds endless possibility. It may be the region's undoing. As the author Wallace Stegner once wrote: “One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope."

'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 Indeed.com. 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?"

“Yes."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Smear Campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mobster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confessions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patrick again admitted his involvement in six murders.

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

“Who else did you kill?" Adam asked.

“That's about it," Patrick said.

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

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

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

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

Prison Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He said he hoped he had been helpful.

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

A Possible Clue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luminant argued against the proposal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We'll Be Opportunistic"

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

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

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

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

The company did not respond to requests for comment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failed Legislation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those price caps remain the same today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Demanding Answers"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why we can't make vaccine doses any faster

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

Series: Coronavirus

The U.S. Response to COVID-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing the Pentagon Papers in a new light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can the ends justify the means? Not for me.

The unfinished business of Flint's water crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Investigation of the Investigators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She added: “Let's get this right."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arkansas state prosecutor was fired for speaking out against jail time for people who fall behind on rent

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An Arkansas prosecutor has been fired after speaking out against the state's criminal eviction statute in an October ProPublica story. Garland County deputy prosecutor Josh Drake was let go from his position on Oct. 31 by Michelle Lawrence, the prosecuting attorney.

Arkansas is the only state where landlords can file criminal charges rather than civil complaints against tenants for falling behind on rent. Drake told ProPublica, “I hate that law. It's unconstitutional." It constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, he said, echoing other Arkansas legal experts and advocates across the political spectrum.

Under the law, which dates to 1901, if a tenant's rent is a day overdue, they forfeit their right to be in the property. If they don't leave their homes within 10 days of getting a notice from their landlords, they can be charged with a misdemeanor and fined for each day they overstay.

Evictions in the state can snowball from charges to warrants to arrests to jail time, leaving people with criminal records that hinder their ability to find a new home or get a job. In civil evictions, by contrast, landlords can pursue unpaid rent and other additional fees from tenants, but the process doesn't include daily fines for staying in the property without paying or put tenants at risk of jail time.

ProPublica found that since 2018, more than 1,000 cases have been filed under the criminal eviction statute. During that time, judges have sentenced at least 37 renters to jail after charges stemming from the law, which is officially known as “failure to pay rent, failure to vacate." Women and people of color have disproportionately been charged.

Even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's national moratorium on evictions did not stop the criminal filings. Since the Sept. 4 order, at least 49 people have been charged, with more than two dozen cases filed in the last month. Meanwhile, the number of new cases of the coronavirus in Arkansas has risen dramatically since mid-September. The state will soon have over 1,000 hospitalized because of the virus, according to Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Landlords told ProPublica they preferred the criminal statute to civil evictions because the criminal process is cheaper. Taxpayers shoulder the cost when county attorneys like Lawrence and Drake pursue tenants. In civil eviction hearings, landlords have to cover their attorney fees.

Drake had been prosecuting cases on behalf of Garland County, in central Arkansas, since March 2018 on a part-time basis. Lawrence called Drake into her office the day after ProPublica's story ran and said she was firing him because his remarks drew media and statewide attention to her office, Drake said.

Lawrence, who began working in Garland County's prosecuting attorney's office in 1994 and was elected as the prosecuting attorney in 2016, declined to comment, citing an office prohibition on speaking about personnel matters.

During Drake's tenure, he handled at least a dozen criminal eviction cases. Like many landlords, state legislators and prosecutors, he had the impression that the statute never led to arrests or jail time. That's not true, however. Since 2018, 45 people have been arrested exclusively for failing to pay rent and not leaving, according to state records.

Despite his misimpression, Drake nevertheless disliked the statute because he said it effectively transformed county attorneys and law enforcement officers into collection agents for landlords. But he said he felt he had no choice but to prosecute the cases because it was his job. He never voiced his objections until the ProPublica story.

“I stand by what I said. I still feel the same way," he said. “It's one of those things that I've always been ashamed of, but I've never been in a situation where I could do anything about it." Now, he said, “I can at least call more attention to it."

If Lawrence “wants to be the one that sticks up for the landlord and continues using tax money to evict people, then there is nothing I can do about it other than point it out to people," he said.

Other elected prosecuting attorneys in the state have declined to prosecute the eviction cases. Prosecutors in the state's most populous county, Pulaski, have stopped accepting the filings altogether. In other jurisdictions, judges have stopped hearing cases under the statute. Of the 21 largest counties in the state, ProPublica and the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network found only five contained district courts that processed any criminal eviction filings in 2020.

After the CDC moratorium this September, a judge and attorney in the state's western Polk County chose to stop pursuing the cases until further notice. Judge Danny Thrailkill told ProPublica he has long approached the law with unease. “You hate to enforce it because a lot of people don't have anywhere to go," he said. “It's really a civil matter."

Andy Riner, a prosecuting attorney who was just elected into a circuit judge position that will begin in January, said he had found the statute ineffective to begin with. “If you're fining someone who is already broke, that doesn't get their attention, that doesn't improve their conduct," Riner said. “It just doesn't make any sense."

Five years ago, a circuit court judge ruled the statute violated the Eighth Amendment's clause banning cruel and unusual punishment, as well as federal and state bans on debtors prisons, but his ruling did not cover the entire state. Other judges have upheld the statute.

Advocates are planning to try to get the law repealed in the next session of the state legislature.

“Like I hoped from the first time I stepped foot in the state and learned about the law, I hope that the legislature will repeal it," Drake said.

Do you have access to information about evictions that should be public? Email maya.miller@propublica.org and ellis.simani@propublica.org. Here's how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely.

For more coverage, read ProPublica's previous reporting on evictions and debt collection.

Junior staffer says top Alaska officials told her to keep allegations of misconduct secret

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

Officials in the office of Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, including his chief of staff, knew for months that his appointed attorney general had sent unwelcome personal text messages to a low-level staffer but told the woman to keep it quiet, the staffer told the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica.

In her first media interview, the woman said that Tara Fradley, the office manager in the governor's Anchorage office, helped her compose a text to then-Attorney General Kevin Clarkson on April 4 asking him to stop inviting her to his home at night, something he had done at least 18 times. The woman also said that Dunleavy's chief of staff, Ben Stevens, became aware of the texts by early April but that no human resources investigators contacted her until two months later, after a whistleblower wrote an anonymous letter that was obtained by the news organizations and by an attorney working on an effort to recall Dunleavy from office.

“I was like: 'The chief of staff knew about this for months. For months. And now you expect me to believe you care about me?'" the woman said, recalling her first meeting with a human resources manager in the state Division of Personnel and Labor Relations in mid-June.

“I said, 'I'll be honest with you, I think you're only doing this because you've been exposed,'" said the woman, who asked not to be named because she was the target of workplace misconduct and does not want to become a public figure.

The woman said she spoke directly with Stevens, a former state senator and Republican Party leader, to discuss the attorney general's overtures multiple times and met with the governor in June.

In the meeting with Dunleavy, the woman said, she was tearful and the governor seemed sympathetic, telling her she had done nothing wrong.

Clarkson resigned on Aug. 25, two hours after the Daily News and ProPublica reported that he sent hundreds of text messages to the junior state employee and had quietly been placed on unpaid leave for the month of August. In a statement at the time, Clarkson apologized for what he called “an error in judgement, which I recognize as wholly and only mine."

Clarkson did not respond to interview requests or specific questions for this story. Fradley declined to be interviewed.

Stevens, in a phone interview, said he worked to protect the junior employee but could not talk in detail about how he and the governor's office responded after the woman first reported to her supervisor that Clarkson's invitations were making her uncomfortable. He said he considers any claim that he would act against the woman's best interests in order to protect the attorney general to be a “personal insult."

“I will say this right now. For what reason would I do anything to prevent the truth from coming out for anybody, other than the fact to follow the law?" Stevens said. “The law says not to discuss what's going on inside an investigation."

He said Dunleavy opponents, chiefly those working on the recall drive, are fueling efforts to criticize the administration's response to Clarkson's text messages. A spokesman for Dunleavy, a Republican, noted that one of the attorneys who worked on the recall now represents the junior state employee in settlement negotiations with the state.

With Clarkson gone, Dunleavy and his administration refused for months to answer questions about what they knew about the attorney general's behavior and when they knew it, citing the privacy of personnel matters.

Dunleavy's office and the Department of Law have denied certain public records requests as burdensome “fishing expeditions," tried to stop reporters from asking questions about the attorney general at news conferences and, as Stevens most recently asserted Monday, said that Alaska law prevents Dunleavy from speaking about the matter.

On Tuesday, after the Daily News and ProPublica presented the governor's office with a timeline of events related to Clarkson, based on interviews and a proposed settlement agreement between the junior employee and the state, spokesman Jeff Turner provided a statement that described elements of certain meetings and discussions.

The woman and the governor's office disagree on the timing of some events and Stevens declined to discuss what was said in the meetings, but they generally agreed on the sequence of events: That the woman notified her supervisor of Clarkson's advances by early April, that the supervisor helped her compose a text that the woman sent to the attorney general on April 4 and that Stevens was made aware of that text soon after.

A series of meetings began in June after word of the misconduct leaked outside the governor's office.

“My Final Straw"

The woman was working in the governor's Anchorage office in March when Clarkson began to send her an average of 20 texts per day. The 558 notes included invitations to come have dinner or sip wine at his house at night. He peppered the messages with kiss emoji, workplace selfies and comments on the woman's beauty.

Clarkson occasionally visited her at Dunleavy's office, the woman said, stroking her hair or kissing her on the top of the head. She said she regrets not telling the married attorney general to stop the behavior earlier but feared for her job.

His advances began just six weeks after Dunleavy made headlines by seeking President Donald Trump's help in clearing immigration hurdles facing Clarkson's wife and stepson. The governor praised Clarkson's commitment to conservative values and marital devotion in a letter to the president.

The junior staffer said she felt she needed to turn Clarkson down tactfully.

“I was so incredibly uncomfortable with the calls at night," she said in an interview. “My final straw came when I blocked him for a few days."

The woman said that at one point, Clarkson visited the office looking for her, causing her to have a panic attack.

The woman said her supervisor, Fradley, whom she had already told about Clarkson's overtures, could see she was bothered by the attorney general's arrival.

“Her desk overlooks mine, and she could see him staring at me," the woman said.

Finally, on April 4, the woman sent Clarkson a carefully worded text that she said had been ghostwritten by Fradley. It read:

“I apologize for not responding to your calls or texts in the past few days. I've had a lot on my mind and needed to give myself some time to navigate my thoughts. First and foremost, I have the utmost respect for you as the AG. We both work in the highest level of state serving the Governor and our constituents. That being said, I think it's time I set clear boundaries in order to maintain the best work relationship & professionalism. You are no doubt gifted in the kitchen! And while I thank you for inviting me to your home for dinner, I don't think it's appropriate, nor do I feel comfortable going to your home. Please remember that this is my personal phone."

She added that if Clarkson had any work-related questions, he could call her at her office number or her state of Alaska email address.

“I don't accept evening or late night calls on my personal cell phone," she wrote.

It's unclear if Clarkson tried to reply, because the woman said she blocked his number. In a statement accompanying his resignation, Clarkson said he ceased his messages to her at that time.

Around the time the text was sent, Fradley told Stevens, the chief of staff, about Clarkson's behavior, according to interviews with the woman who received the texts and the proposed settlement agreement with her that was written by the state.

The governor's office says that Stevens did not meet with the woman directly to talk about Clarkson at any point in March or April and that Stevens “never discussed the text communications with the complainant."

“The complainant's supervisor informed Stevens that a message 'setting boundaries' was sent to Clarkson and no other issues about the complainant were brought to Mr. Stevens' attention until June 1," Turner wrote on Tuesday.

In the following weeks, throughout April and May, the woman said, she tried to avoid being in the governor's office whenever Clarkson visited, finding excuses to leave the room. The woman said that Fradley, in the meantime, told her she would need to deal with these occasional, continued visits from the attorney general.

Fradley “clearly could see I was trying to avoid him," she said.

“He Wanted Me to Just Deny It"

In early June, the Daily News and ProPublica obtained a copy of an anonymous whistleblower letter describing Clarkson's interactions with the state employee. It said Dunleavy and Stevens were aware the attorney general had been sending inappropriate messages and inviting the woman to his home but had refused to sanction him.

On June 5, the newsrooms filed a public records request to the governor's office and the Department of Law asking for all text messages between Clarkson and the woman.

The woman who had received the messages said she began to get the cold shoulder in the governor's office. People were polite but wouldn't look her in the eye, she said.

She said she approached Fradley and asked her if anything was wrong.

Fradley “pulled me into an empty office. She just said: 'Look, there is an anonymous letter that went out.'" (Stevens never actually saw the letter, he said. “I heard people talk about it, but I never saw it.")

The woman said she did not write the whistleblower letter and told Fradley so.

“I have two kids to provide for and a mortgage. Like, why would I put myself in a situation to potentially lose my job? I have too much to lose," she said.

The woman said she met with Stevens to talk about Clarkson in June. She asked the chief of staff how she should respond to a reporter's questions about the Clarkson situation.

Stevens shrugged his shoulders, she said. “He said, 'Just say, “What situation?"'"

“I was like, 'Excuse me?' And he just said, 'Say, “What situation?"'" she said.

“He wanted me to just deny it. And I said 'OK,' but I didn't do what he said. ... I just stayed quiet."

When a reporter described that conversation to Stevens, Stevens said he would not discuss what exactly he said to the woman in June, citing the human resources investigation.

“It makes no sense that we would, that this office would do anything to protect the attorney general," Stevens said. “And to say that we suppressed, and that there was an effort to suppress it on anything, is an insult."

The governor's office says Stevens first met with the woman to talk about Clarkson on June 7. At that meeting, “Stevens mentioned she needed 'thick skin' in response to several inquiries from the press and Scott Kendall," head of the Dunleavy recall effort, a spokesman for the governor wrote..

At a later meeting, the woman asked Stevens to place her in a job paying $80,000 a year, a significant pay raise, according to the governor's office. Stevens said he would help her get in contact with potential employers, Turner wrote.

Like Clarkson, Stevens is one of Alaska's most powerful unelected public officials. The heads of each state department report to him, and he wields the power of the governor to run day-to-day state operations.

Stevens had served as the majority leader and Senate president and is the son of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. Dunleavy named him chief of staff in July 2019, replacing former Alaska Republican Party Chairman Tuckerman Babcock. Clarkson at the time oversaw state civil litigation and criminal prosecutions. He served as the governor's ethics supervisor, and as chief legal counsel he worked to defend Dunleavy from the ongoing recall effort.

Opponents of the governor launched a recall petition in July 2019 in response to Dunleavy's cuts to the state budget. The Division of Elections rejected the recall petition, based on Clarkson's legal advice, but Alaska courts have ruled the effort could proceed. It has not yet qualified for the ballot.

“He Just Didn't Take the Hint"

A flurry of meetings followed the appearance of the anonymous letter in June. At Fradley's suggestion, the woman said, she met directly with Dunleavy about Clarkson. One of Dunleavy's special assistants was also present.

Dunleavy “asked me, 'What was going on?' And I said: 'I've been feeling really uncomfortable around the attorney general. He's made many, many invitations for me to come over to his home. I told him, I thought if I kept making enough excuses, he would probably get the clue. But it never happened. He just didn't take the hint.'"

Dunleavy told the woman she hadn't done anything wrong and told her he'd think about what to do next.

Before leaving the meeting with the governor, the woman said, she played a voicemail that she had received from Kendall, who had worked as chief of staff for Dunleavy's predecessor Bill Walker. Kendall had received a copy of the anonymous letter.

Kendall said he left the voicemail on June 1 telling the woman that while they didn't know each other, he had read a letter describing harassment by the attorney general and offered to put her in touch with a lawyer if she needed one. She never responded, he said.

According to a timeline of the events written by the Department of Law and included in the proposed settlement agreement with the woman, the governor's office did not request a human resources investigation until June 11, at least 68 days after the woman's supervisor in the governor's office became aware of the misconduct and informed Stevens.

A human resources manager within the state Division of Personnel and Labor Relations, Camille Brill, asked the woman to meet. The woman did not know the exact date of the meeting but said it was in early to mid-June, based on her correspondence with Brill. (The proposed settlement agreement, written by state officials, lists a June 12 meeting between the woman and a human resources investigator.)

The woman said Brill told her that she was reaching out at the request of Stevens, the chief of staff, and that Stevens was concerned about her. The woman said she was guarded and skeptical. “I said: 'Why is he doing it now? Is it because the press has a hold of this?'"

It was Brill whom the woman said she told, “I think you're only doing this because you've been exposed."

The woman said she refused to give Brill copies of her text exchanges with Clarkson. The attorney general, in the meantime, had also declined to hand over any text messages to his colleagues at the Department of Law.

Brill said she could not comment on her conversations with the woman or any other personnel matter.

On June 19, months after Fradley told Stevens about the April 4 text message the junior employee sent to Clarkson about setting boundaries, the Department of Law responded to the Daily News and ProPublica request for any text messages between Clarkson and the woman with a blanket denial.

“The Department has no records," the denial letter said.

“Sincerely, Kevin Clarkson, Attorney General," it concluded.

The state made no attempt to determine if Clarkson was telling the truth. Alaska public records law works on a kind of honor system.

If the attorney general had work-related public records on his phone, including those that might demonstrate misconduct, he was expected to hand them over, said Chief Assistant Attorney General Alan Birnbaum, who handled the request. When Clarkson claimed no such records existed, no further effort was made to obtain the texts.

“The attorney general does not have and did not have, and therefore did not delete, public records that he sent to or received from (the employee) on his state-owned or personal devices," Birnbaum wrote.

Asked what steps the Department of Law took to avoid a conflict of interest, given that Clarkson was the head of the department and the records request denials were issued in his name, Birnbaum wrote on June 26 that “no reason exists to question the accuracy of the attorney general's response."

According to the governor's office, Stevens and the junior employee met again in mid-July. Stevens told the woman the administration was at that time “willing to financially assist her with counseling expenses or legal expenses to help her with press inquiries," Turner wrote.

“Oddly, the complainant did not inform Stevens that she had already engaged Susan Orlansky, an attorney that is also involved with the Recall Dunleavy effort," the Dunleavy statement said.

Orlansky, who was one of the lead attorneys on the recall, said in a phone interview that she began representing the state employee when her original attorney, who worked at the same firm, became unavailable.

An “Unprecedented Lack of Transparency"

Clarkson was placed on unpaid leave in August, an action that the state intended to keep private. The governor and his communications staff initially claimed they could not reveal information about Clarkson's misconduct because of personnel privacy laws or regulations.

The Daily News and ProPublica published a report on Clarkson's text messages and his suspension on Aug. 25. Dunleavy soon issued a statement saying Clarkson had resigned. Dunleavy said he was deeply disappointed by Clarkson's conduct and would “continue to insist upon professional conduct from all our employees, regardless of their position in state government."

He also said he couldn't comment on the matter.

“State law provides guidelines and protections for all state employees including confidentiality on personnel matters. The governor's office is bound by and conforms to those laws," the statement said.

On Sept. 1, at the governor's first news conference following the resignation, Dunleavy spokesman Turner prevented a Daily News reporter from participating when the reporter would not tell him, ahead of time, what questions would be asked.

The governor did not hold subsequent weekly press conferences for seven weeks after reporters made it clear they would continue asking basic questions about Clarkson's actions and the state's response over the past eight months. (A spokesman said Dunleavy was out of the office for part of September on two hunting trips and granted one-on-one interviews unrelated to Clarkson during the press conference blackout.)

The Daily News and ProPublica have requested interviews with Dunleavy, to talk about Clarkson's conduct, numerous times since learning of the text messages in June. All requests have been denied. Anchorage's NBC affiliate, Alaska's News Source, reported that Dunleavy declined the station's requests to interview him on Sept. 7, 8 and 14.

On Oct. 9, the Alaska Press Club, a nonprofit that serves reporters and newsrooms statewide, wrote an open letter to the governor describing an “unprecedented lack of transparency" from the administration.

In response to a Daily News and ProPublica request for text communications among governor's office employees, the state refused to fulfill the request.

“Searching for, collecting and duplicating public record text messages, if any, would not benefit the public enough, if at all, to justify the diversion of state resources to provide the records," wrote Birnbaum, the chief assistant attorney general.

An Oct. 30 analysis by the state's nonpartisan Legislative Research Services division concluded that claim appears to violate the state public records act. The records act makes no exception for cases in which searching for a public record “would require the state to work hard," the analysis found.

“The Alaska Supreme Court has never held that a record requested under the (Alaska Public Records Act) can be withheld merely because producing it would be an administrative burden on the state, and nothing in the APRA authorizes withholding a public record for that reason," legislative counsel Daniel Wayne wrote.

A separate analysis by the same agency concluded that as the head of his department within the executive branch, Clarkson is “exempt from confidentiality provision of the State Personnel Act." In other words, the governor is free to discuss the matter, the analysis found.

“Of course that begs the question, why won't they talk about it?" said Adam Marshall, a staff attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press who reviewed the state's claims. “And why were they citing this bogus legal provision as purported justification for refusing to talk about it?"

The woman to whom Clarkson sent all those texts, in the meantime, changed jobs Sept. 30 after a series of negotiations between her lawyer, Orlansky, and Acting Attorney General Ed Sniffen, email records show.

As of Tuesday, she was considering a proposed settlement offer from the state. The proposed agreement indicates that the state determined she was not qualified for the higher-paying position she asked Stevens about in June.

She eventually accepted an offer in a different department at the same salary she was making in the governor's office.

When she first complained about Clarkson's behavior, she didn't necessarily want it to become public, she said, only for the invitations and messages and visits to stop. She said she is no longer directly supervised by Dunleavy, Stevens or the governor's office staff but worries she will be fired or see her job defunded now for speaking out.

“Had it not been for this anonymous letter, it would have most likely just been swept under the rug," she said.

Trump won Florida after running this false ad tying Biden to Venezuelan socialists

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

In Florida, where President Donald Trump gained crucial support among Latino voters, his campaign ran a YouTube ad in Spanish making the explosive — and false — claim that Venezuela's ruling clique was backing Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

YouTube showed the ad more than 100,000 times in Florida in the eight days leading up to the election, even after The Associated Press published a fact-check debunking the Trump campaign's claim. Actually, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro expressed opposition to both presidential candidates.

The video was part of a broader Trump campaign strategy in heavily Latino South Florida that sought to tie Biden to Socialist leaders like Maduro and the late Cuban President Fidel Castro. Trump won Florida by about 375,000 votes, the largest margin in a presidential election there since 1988. He carried about 55% of the Cuban American vote, according to exit polls by NBC News.

“Latinos who live here in the U.S. have left socialist or communist regimes," said Diego Scharifker, a Venezuelan American lawyer, former city councilor in Caracas and co-founder of the pro-Biden group Venezolanos Con Biden. “There is of course a big impact or fear or scarring in the Latino community in the U.S. from communism. Trump with his false accusations and false information was fearmongering and playing on the pain to promote his agenda."

The ad illustrates gaps in the policing of misinformation by Google, which owns YouTube. While Google nominally prohibits all false claims in advertising, it rarely takes down political ads. In addition, shortcomings in its transparency tools make it harder for watchdogs and fact-checkers to scrutinize ads.

Google's political ad rules are “trying to have it both ways" with respect to fact-checking, said Bridget Barrett, a political communication researcher at the University of North Carolina. “In reality, basically everything stands." Google sees claims like the one about Maduro as being “within the public arena that should be contested by Biden's campaign or fact-checked by journalists," Barrett added.

YouTube approves ads by both human and machine review. Its policies prohibit any advertiser from making “a false claim — whether it's a claim about the price of a chair or a claim that you can vote by text message, that election day is postponed, or that a candidate has died."

Charlotte Smith, a company spokeswoman, told ProPublica in an email that “we don't make any special exceptions for politicians." Nevertheless, YouTube takes down only a “very limited" number of political ads making “demonstrably false claims that could significantly undermine trust in democratic or electoral processes," she said.

The Trump campaign ad “doesn't meet that bar," she said. “This video does not violate our policies. ... Political ads are known for being hyperbolic, and we're not going to attempt to adjudicate every claim or counterclaim."

Other platforms are at least somewhat more restrictive. While Facebook doesn't fact-check campaign ads, it banned new ones within a week of the election. (The Trump ad does not appear to have run on Facebook, according to its ad library. If it had, the ban may not have applied to it, because it began running on YouTube on Oct. 26, eight days before the Nov. 3 election.) Facebook's fact-checking partners do vet ads by political action committees and other third-party groups, some of which get removed. Twitter banned all political advertising. Although broadcast television stations aren't allowed to choose candidate ads by content, cable networks can, and sometimes do, reject ads. The Trump ad didn't appear on TV, according to Advertising Analytics, an ad-tracking firm.

The Trump campaign saw YouTube as a key to its strategy, according to a Politico report in September. It ran more than 18,000 video ads on YouTube this year. The campaign spent $106 million, including $37.2 million in the last month of the campaign, on Google's platform, including both YouTube ads and Google search ads.

The questionable video begins by describing Biden as “the candidate of Chavismo," referring to the brand of socialism associated with Hugo Chávez, the late leader of Venezuela, and Maduro's government. It then shows Diosdado Cabello, a Maduro ally and Venezuela's second-most powerful politician, saying on his television program that the “brisa Bolivariana," or the “Bolivarian breeze" of Latin American socialism, “is blowing, blowing, blowing, blowing. ... Let's see what happens. Maybe the Bolivarian breeze will reach the United States. In how much time? In 13 days until the elections." The term “Bolivarian" is an allusion to Simón Bolívar, the 19th-century revolutionary, claimed as an inspiration for many Latin American socialist movements.

Then the text on the screen reiterates that “the Chavistas" — the political party that controls Venezuela — “want Joe Biden to win." The video concludes with a statement that it was paid by the Trump campaign and Trump saying that he approved the message.

There's little doubt that the relationship between the Trump administration and the Maduro government is tense. Trump has imposed sanctions on Venezuela and on Maduro and Cabello personally. The U.S. government indicted both Maduro and Cabello on narco-terrorism and drug trafficking charges in March. Venezuelan state-run television has struck a “completely anti-Trump" tone, said Daniel Acosta-Ramos, an investigative researcher at First Draft, a nonprofit that tracks misinformation and an Electionland partner.

Yet Maduro said in late September that he didn't care who was elected. “If Trump wins the elections, we will confront him and defeat him, and if Biden wins, we'll confront him and defeat him too," he said. An AP fact-check of a video that resembles the one in the Trump campaign ad concluded that neither Biden nor Maduro “has declared that there is any kind of affinity between them or between their national projects."

In the television segment from which Cabello's “Bolivarian breeze" remark was clipped, he didn't explicitly mention Trump, Biden or the Democratic or Republican parties. While the remark could be interpreted as hoping that Biden would be elected and promote the agenda of his party's progressive wing, Cabello has a reputation for being a provocateur and saying unclear things on purpose, according to Acosta-Ramos. “That ambiguity creates an environment ripe for misinfo," he said.

The ad, Acosta-Ramos said, was “micro-targeted for people who know what the 'brisa Bolivariana' means. Not just Venezuelans, but also Cubans and Colombians."

Other YouTube ads from the Trump campaign reinforced the false message. They showed clips of Maduro referring to Biden as “Comrade Biden" in a 2015 speech. Although it was only a passing reference, and Maduro accused Biden shortly afterward of plotting to overthrow him, Donald Trump Jr. framed it as evidence that Biden was weak on socialism.

The Trump campaign's official bilingual Twitter account also claimed that Maduro's regime supported Biden. A tweet from President Trump called Biden a “PUPPET of CASTRO-CHAVISTAS." Trump ads on Facebook called Biden a “socialist" and pictured him with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders, both of whom refer to themselves as democratic socialists.

“There was a concerted effort by the Trump campaign and their allies to misrepresent Joe Biden and his values because they knew they couldn't win on Trump's disastrous record," a Biden campaign official told ProPublica.

Florida's Venezuelan population has grown to about 200,000, of whom an estimated 50,000 are registered to vote. In Doral, a city in Miami-Dade County that's home to many Americans of Venezuelan, Cuban and Colombian descent, Trump pulled in roughly 49% of voters in 2020, up from 29% in 2016. Overall, in Miami-Dade, Trump garnered nearly 200,000 more votes than he had in 2016, shaving the Democratic margin from 29% to 7%.

The Trump campaign, the White House and the Venezuelan Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.

The Trump ad may have attracted relatively little notice during the campaign because of inadequacies in the political ad report that Google established in 2018 to improve transparency. Unlike Facebook's political ad archive, Google's doesn't group identical ads together if, for instance, they were shown over different time periods. Google's transparency tools showed three different copies of the “brisa Bolivariana" ad, giving separate data for each. Google also doesn't make videos searchable or any ad content downloadable in bulk.

The design doesn't allow opponents, journalists or watchdogs to meaningfully analyze the 263,000 political video ads (and 361,000 other ads) that Google sold in 2020, Barrett said.

“You're just drowning in content and overwhelmed by these individual pieces of advertising content, and really many of them are the same, you're stuck trying to swim through this overwhelming sea of ads," Barrett said. Ads “can disappear into the depths of the ad library."

Google has said that it only allows advertisers to target political ads by users' location, age and gender, and that it discloses these targeting choices on its transparency website. The three copies of the “Bolivarian breeze" ad were targeted by location to Florida users.

Although it's not disclosed in Google's transparency tools, YouTube ads also may be targeted by language, for example to Spanish speakers, Smith said.

It's unclear exactly how much the Trump campaign spent on the ad and how many times it was shown. Google's data show that the Trump campaign spent between $1,000 and $5,000 on one copy of the ad; between $100 and $1,000 on another; and less than $100 on the third. Two of the copies were shown fewer than 10,000 times, and the third was shown between 100,000 and 1 million times. Facebook publishes more precise information.

Trump supporters amplified the campaign's message, professing to connect Biden and other Democrats to “Castro-Chavismo," a term linking Venezuelan socialism to Cuba's. False posts on social media, of undetermined origin, purported to show Jill Biden, Joe's wife, standing next to Fidel Castro. It was actually Jacqueline Beer, the wife of a Norwegian explorer.

“We saw a huge number of WhatsApp messages being shared in Venezuelan, Cuban groups, saying the governments of these countries that we escaped, [they] want Biden — so we should vote Trump," Acosta-Ramos said.

What a Biden staffer described as a flood of information put the Democrat's campaign on the defensive. The Biden campaign mounted its own fact-checking effort to push back against the claims about Biden and socialism. It invested heavily in outreach to Florida Latinos, including six-figure media buys in the last two weeks of the campaign targeting the community, a staffer said. At an early October rally in Miami, Biden said, “Maduro, who I've met, is a dictator, plain and simple, and he's causing incredible suffering among the Venezuelan people."

Ronny Rojas of Telemundo, Derek Willis and Ivette Leyva contributed reporting.

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The FBI is now investigating ‘Trump train’ that surrounded Biden campaign bus

"Biden camp cancels multiple Texas events after a "Trump Train" surrounded a campaign bus" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into a Friday incident in which a group of Trump supporters, driving trucks and waving Trump flags, surrounded and followed a Biden campaign bus as it drove up I-35 in Hays County, a law enforcement official confirmed to The Texas Tribune Saturday.

The confrontation, captured on video, featured at least one minor collision and led to Texas Democrats canceling three scheduled campaign events on Friday. The campaign officials cited “safety concerns" for the cancellations.

The highway skirmish came as Democrats close ground in a state that is polling like a potential battleground in the race for president. Recent polls indicate the presidential race in Texas between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden is tight, with some national prognosticators calling it a “toss-up."

“Rather than engage in productive conversation about the drastically different visions that Joe Biden and Donald Trump have for our country, Trump supporters in Texas [Friday] instead decided to put our staff, surrogates, supporters, and others in harm's way," said Tariq Thowfeek, Texas communications director for the Biden campaign.

On Saturday night, Trump tweeted a video of the Trump supporters following the Biden bus saying, “I LOVE TEXAS!"

When reached for comment, the Texas GOP Chairman Allen West dismissed questions regarding the incident. “It is more fake news and propaganda. Prepare to lose ... stop bothering me," West said in a statement.

The bus tour was separate from vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris' visit to the state Friday.

Texas Congressional candidate and former state senator Wendy Davis was on the Biden bus at the time, according to multiple sources, including U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and Travis County Democratic Party Chair Katie Naranjo, and a now-deleted tweet from the Biden Operations Director for Texas, David Gins. A spokesperson for Davis declined to comment.

The tour, which started on Wednesday in Amarillo and went through East Texas, the Gulf Coast, along the Texas-Mexico border, and Central Texas faced protests of varying sizes along the way.

Friday's campaign events started with a small gathering in Laredo that was met with few protesters. From there, staffers drove to San Antonio. Around 12:30 p.m. on Friday, a social media user using the hashtag #TrumpTrainTexas posted on Twitter, “Trolling is FUN." The user called for other Trump supporters to “escort the Biden [bus] coming through San Antonio."

Screenshot via Twitter

Eric Cervini, a volunteer for the Biden campaign who grew up in Round Rock and flew in from Los Angeles, said he was driving on I-35 from San Antonio to the next event when he saw a long line of 40-50 vehicles along the side of the highway with Trump and American flags.

Screenshot via Twitter

Cervini told the Tribune that when he arrived in San Marcos, he started to hear from people on the bus that the Trump supporters had started following them closely, honking their horns and shouting. According to the Biden campaign, multiple trucks pulled in front of the bus and appeared to try to slow it down. The campaign canceled the event in San Marcos and proceeded directly to Austin where another event was scheduled at the AFL-CIO in downtown Austin.

A person with knowledge of the events who spoke to the Tribune on the condition of anonymity said New Braunfels police responded to requests for assistance and provided an escort throughout their jurisdiction. During that time, the person said, the group of Trump supporters fell back behind the police.

In a statement, New Braunfels City Manager Robert Camareno said the police department received calls, “of the Trump Train following the Biden/Harris campaign bus ... NBPD responded and did not observe any traffic violations."

Naomi Narvaiz, a Texas Republican Party official in San Marcos, said Trump supporters formed the convoy after learning of the bus's movements up the interstate on Facebook from fellow supporters in San Antonio.

“We decided we would jump on 35 to show support for our president," she said. “I didn't see anyone being overly aggressive."

On Twitter, Narvaiz wrote: “We sent the @JoeBiden @KamalaHarris bus out of Hays! Your kind aren't welcome here!"

“We don't want any of the values or policies that the Democratic Party is embracing," she told the Tribune on Saturday. “We don't want any of those in Texas."

Screenshot via Twitter

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett disagreed, accusing President Trump of inciting “aggressive, abusive conduct".

“Those who fear their party is about to lose Texas resort to such desperate tactics. We have to stand up to these bullies just as we seek to protect the right of every last Texan to vote out the Bully-in-Chief," Doggett said in a statement to the Tribune.

Naranjo, chair of the Travis County Democratic Party, said she was on the phone with a staffer on the bus who alerted her that they were being closely followed by a group of Trump supporters.

According to Naranjo, the staffer on the bus told her a truck collided with one of the staff member vehicles. Neither of the vehicles stopped. The collision was partially caught on video and posted on Twitter. The video does not show how the collision began.

Screenshot via Twitter

As the bus continued to pass through multiple jurisdictions in Hays County, different police departments received reports about the caravan.

In a statement, the city of Kyle said police received a report that two or more vehicles may have made contact on Friday around 4 p.m. Officers responded to the area but no vehicles stopped to share information with law enforcement.

“From videos of the event that have now surfaced on social media, it appears that the vehicle contact actually occurred within San Marcos, Texas, prior to the campaign bus arriving in Kyle," a statement from the Kyle Police Department read. “All involved parties are being referred to the San Marcos Police Department should they desire to file any type of report with law enforcement.

A San Marcos spokesperson said police received a call from the Biden campaign bus requesting a police escort but weren't able to catch up to the bus before it exited the city due to traffic. The police have not spoken to either driver about the collision and said they weren't able to determine who was at fault.

According to Hays County Sheriff Gary Cutler, the Biden campaign did not notify his office that it would be passing through the county to allow law enforcement to prepare for any possible confrontations. “The planning of this was questionable," said Cutler, a Republican running for reelection on Tuesday.

Democratic officials say Trump supporters created a dangerous situation on Interstate 35 and continued following the bus into Austin.

Travis County Precinct 4 Constable George Morales was at the AFL-CIO parking lot at 11th and Lavaca streets for a planned press conference and said the group initially tried to step on the property, but law enforcement asked them to stay on the sidewalk. He said the group was aggressively shouting but did not get physical.

The press conference was canceled as well as a subsequent campaign event in Pflugerville with the Austin Young Dems due to safety concerns.

State Rep. Sheryl Cole, D-Austin, shared the cancellation on Twitter, calling it a “first for her."

“Unfortunately, Pro-Trump Protestors have escalated well beyond safe limits. Sorry to all who looked forward to this fun event."

Miguel Gutierrez Jr. and Emily Goldstein contributed to this report

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/10/31/biden-trump-texas-bus/.

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Here's why Bush v. Gore still matters in 2020

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

Twenty years after the Supreme Court decision known as Bush v. Gore effectively decided a presidential election, it's back on the country's mind. President Donald Trump, who is lagging in polls amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and refuses to commit to leaving office quietly should his bid for reelection fail, has said he believes the Supreme Court will intervene in the upcoming election to hand him a second term. He cited that role to justify rushing the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, who was sworn in as a justice on Monday and could potentially break a 4-4 tie. Lawyers representing the president's campaign and the Republican Party have taken to citing Bush v. Gore frequently in preelection court filings. And the case's echoes are only underscored by the presence of three current justices — Chief Justice John Roberts, Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh — each of whom worked for the Republicans in the 2000 ballot recount battles in Florida that culminated in the historic Supreme Court decision.

Democrats got agitated this week when Kavanaugh, appointed by Trump in 2018, included a nearly page-long disquisition on Bush v. Gore in an opinion explaining his vote not to reinstate a six-day buffer after Election Day for mail-in ballots, which are expected to lean heavily Democratic, to arrive at election offices in Wisconsin. Then, only two days later, Democrats were cheered by the news that the court had let stand, at least for now, post-Election Day buffer periods in two other key swing states, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. The notion of a conservative court handing the presidency to Trump seemed that much more distant a prospect.

However, opinions by Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch appended to Wednesday's decisions, when read together with Kavanaugh's opinion, suggest more is afoot. Bush v. Gore is poised for a revival at the high court. That will probably occur in a different scenario than what happened in 2000. The election forecaster FiveThirtyEight projects only a 4% chance of the election being decided by a recount.

But Bush v. Gore has never been the dead letter it's popularly perceived to be, and it could be a factor in a number of election battles this year. Before 2020, the Supreme Court had mentioned the case only once in two decades. But in the state courts and lower federal courts, it's quietly but repeatedly taken on new roles over the years, serving to resolve everything from how ballot signatures are reviewed to the deadline for mail-in ballots to reach election officials. This election cycle, with the help of Kavanaugh, Alito and Gorsuch, as well as a welter of GOP lawyers pushing to take Bush v. Gore in a new direction, the case is undergoing a radical transformation. If completed, legal scholars believe, that transformation will have far-reaching and deleterious consequences for efforts to expand voting rights.

What Was Bush v. Gore?

By the early morning hours after Election Day 2000, it was clear that the election contest between the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, and the Democrat, Al Gore, would come down to Florida's 25 electoral votes. With Bush up in the state by a very thin margin, Gore moved to have machine-tabulated ballots manually recounted. Weeks of legal wrangling ensued, with litigation pingponging around various Florida state courts, twice reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. Eventually, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a statewide manual recount but offered little guidance to ballot counters other than that they had to discern the “clear intent of the voter." Many Florida counties used punch card ballots at the time, and some Floridians failed to fully punch out the paper tab, called a “chad," leaving their votes unclear. New phrases entered the American lexicon: “hanging chads" (partially detached), “dimpled chads" (indented but not detached) and so on.

With an important mid-December deadline approaching, Bush's lawyers asked the Supreme Court to intervene. Late on a Tuesday, just hours ahead of the deadline, the court, by a 5-4 vote, put a stop to the Florida recount, all but declaring Bush the next president. In an unsigned opinion, five of the court's more conservative justices found that the Florida Supreme Court's recount rules were vague and inconsistent, resulting in “arbitrary and disparate treatment" of ballots. So, for example, counters in Miami-Dade County might deem a particular hanging chad a vote for president while counters in Palm Beach County might not.

The Constitution gives broad discretion to state legislatures to decide how to appoint the electors it sends to the electoral college. The Bush v. Gore majority held that the Florida recount procedures violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which requires that the state not “value one person's vote over that of another." On this point there was broad agreement; two justices from the court's liberal wing, Stephen Breyer and David Souter, largely agreed with the five conservatives.

The question remained: what to do about it? Souter and Breyer thought the U.S. Supreme Court should do what it would usually do and send the case back to the Florida Supreme Court with instructions for how to cure the problem. The five conservatives, however, decided that there wasn't enough time left to fix the recount process and complete it. Two decades later, their reasoning remains the subject of widespread criticism. (The late Justice Antonin Scalia joined the majority opinion but privately called the equal protection rationale, “as we say in Brooklyn, a piece of shit," according to “First," a well regarded 2019 biography of retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.) In essence, the majority read into an earlier Florida Supreme Court ruling the suggestion that the Florida Legislature wanted the vote count finalized before the mid-December deadline.

Is Bush v. Gore Precedent?

The prevailing view has been no. In that interpretation, Bush v. Gore is a one-off that judges and lawyers are free to ignore. A binding precedent, by contrast, requires that lower courts (and the high court itself) abide by it.

Despite that view, the ruling's influence appears to be very much alive: It has been cited in hundreds of federal and state cases, dating from the years just after the 2000 election to this week. How can these dueling interpretations coexist? Consider the most often quoted sentence in Bush v. Gore: “Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances, for the problem of equal protection in election processes generally presents many complexities." The not-precedent camp points to the first clause as dispositive. But others insist the second clause is every bit as important as the first, and if read in that way, the sentence sounds not so much like a disavowal of future relevance as a word of caution for other judges: Don't apply the court's analyses in rote fashion; be sensitive to the facts of the case.

Disagreements over whether Bush v. Gore should be considered a precedent are widespread, including in federal courts. For example, judges on the federal appellate court in Cincinnati decided in 2003 that Bush v. Gore was precedent “we are bound to adhere to." Thirteen years later, another set of judges on that same court dismissed the opinion as “non-precedential." Still other judges split the difference, like one on the appeals court in Richmond this year, who called Bush v. Gore “of limited precedential value."

Bush v. Gore Since Bush v. Gore

For a case that's widely regarded as an aberration, Bush v. Gore has done all right for itself outside the U.S. Supreme Court. Not only has it been cited well over a hundred times by state supreme courts and federal courts of appeals, that tally grows to about 500 when lower courts are included — from litigation over the 2003 vote to recall California Gov. Gray Davis to this year's court battle over felon reenfranchisement in Florida. That means there's a chance Bush v. Gore could reprise its role this year at the center of the resolution of the presidential race, should, say, Pennsylvania become to 2020 what Florida was for 2000. (Indeed, the case has already been raised as part of the ongoing litigation about how to handle mail-in ballots in the state.)

It could also help decide the outcome of other key races, a particularly consequential possibility given that control of the Senate is at stake this year. In 2008, for example, Norm Coleman, an incumbent Republican senator from Minnesota, tried to use Bush v. Gore to challenge the process by which election officials decided whether absentee ballots were valid. He was unsuccessful, and his Democratic opponent, the comedian Al Franken, ultimately won the seat.

Over the past two decades, Bush v. Gore has evolved beyond the partisan identity it maintains in the public imagination. An examination of judicial decisions and court filings in more than 150 cases suggests its invocation won't necessarily benefit one party or the other.

The ruling has continued to be invoked in its original context, guiding judicial oversight of ballot recounts. That makes it an inviting tool for a president who has repeatedly mused publicly about halting vote tabulations after Election Day. But the case could just as soon help speed along a recount, as the president has seen firsthand in November 2016, when Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein petitioned for a recount of votes cast in Michigan, a state Trump then appeared to have won by only a few thousand votes. Stein's recount didn't change the outcome, but federal judges in that case relied in part on Bush v. Gore to ensure the recount got done on time, ruling in favor of Stein's request to waive a waiting period mandated by state law before beginning a recount. The delay, they reasoned, might prevent the state from completing the recount ahead of a key federal deadline. Once a state grants a right to a recount, a federal appeals judge wrote, “the State could not use arbitrary or unreasonable procedural rules to make that right a nullity."

Bush v. Gore has been applied in contradictory ways in different cases, both to disqualify large numbers of ballots or to ensure that ballots aren't arbitrarily rejected. Just after the 2018 election, for example, Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson's reelection campaign and a state Democratic Party committee filed a federal lawsuit challenging the way Florida election officials verified signatures on vote-by-mail and provisional ballots. When a state lets residents vote by mail, the campaign's legal team argued in a filing that relied on Bush v. Gore, the Equal Protection Clause forbids the state from luring “its voters into a procedurally arbitrary vote-by-mail trap that results in their disenfranchisement." In response to Nelson's suit, the courts bemoaned “Florida's lack of any standards or formal training requirements" for those who assess ballot signatures, as well as the state's failure to notify some Floridians in time to fix improperly rejected ballots. A judge ordered the state to give those voters until 11 days after the election to submit affidavits and proof of identity so their votes would count. (Despite that interim victory, Nelson came up short and lost his seat.)

On the other side of the partisan divide, GOP lawyers this year are deploying Bush v. Gore aggressively. Attorneys for Republican legislators in North Carolina, for instance, recently argued that a state elections board plan to extend the period of time that officials could accept ballots postmarked by Election Day violated Bush v. Gore. In essence, they claimed that the case permitted their clients to use the Equal Protection Clause as a tool to reduce the number of eligible voters who got to cast a ballot. The full appeals court rejected the argument, with one of the judges in the majority calling the plaintiffs' argument “deeply troubling." The plaintiffs had suffered no harm, she wrote, and their sole aim was to reduce the number of eligible voters allowed to legally cast their ballot. (Three of the court's more conservative judges wrote a dissent agreeing with the plaintiffs. On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request to temporarily block the extension.)

There's more of this to come. On Oct. 23, a lawsuit filed in Nevada by the Trump campaign and the state Republican Party argues that the state runs afoul of Bush v. Gore because it offers a way to challenge in-person voters but fails to offer a mechanism for challenging voters who send their ballot through the mail, a potential opening salvo in an attack on mail-in voting in an important swing state.

Bush v. Gore and the Ghost of William Rehnquist

Until recently, Bush v. Gore's ongoing influence on federal elections has been fairly quiet, adapting to new issues of election administration in an incremental, case-by-case manner. It now seems on the verge of a metamorphosis. In recent years, Bush v. Gore — or, more precisely, a side note in it, a line of reasoning that indisputably is without precedential effect — has begun to gain currency among conservative jurists and election lawyers. In the past week, four members of the Supreme Court's conservative wing became advocates for the cause, seeking to transform a long-marginal idea into the law of the land. Should a majority of the high court embrace the thinking, the court's new right-leaning supermajority will have near-total power over courtroom efforts to shape federal elections — a set of circumstances that election law scholars and voting rights lawyers fear could seriously hinder efforts to expand the franchise in the United States.

Separate from the unsigned majority opinion in Bush v. Gore, the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, joined by Scalia and Thomas, authored a concurring opinion offering “additional grounds" for putting an end to the Florida ballot recount. Ordinarily, when a state supreme court rules on an issue of state law, that state court decision can't be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, an outgrowth of the federal system in the United States. In his concurrence, however, Rehnquist claimed to have identified an exception to this rule in the context of state laws governing presidential elections. In that context, Rehnquist wrote, the U.S. Supreme Court, in fact, could second-guess a state supreme court's interpretation of its own state's election law.

Rehnquist's argument hinged on a narrow reading of the U.S. Constitution's Presidential Electors Clause, which says, “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct," the electors that vote for the president and vice president. In the chief justice's view, the Constitution gave state legislatures exclusive authority to run presidential elections, and when, as in Florida in 2000, a state court (or governor) interfered in the election laws passed by the legislature, that runs afoul of the U.S. Constitution, which means that the federal Supreme Court can intervene to help preserve the state legislature's power over how the state runs its presidential elections.

The dissenting justices expressed puzzlement and incredulity at Rehnquist's unusual reading of the Presidential Electors Clause. By his logic, they observed, a state legislature was unconstrained by its state constitution when prescribing laws related to presidential elections. The Supreme Court's own precedents, the late Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, rejected Rehnquist's interpretation. “Legislature" in the Presidential Electors Clause, he wrote, meant the state legislature acting in its ordinary lawmaking capacity, subject to a gubernatorial veto and the state constitution as interpreted by the courts, not as an all-powerful synod.

This week, Rehnquist's theory not only received the imprimatur of four sitting justices; it saw its scope expand. First, on Monday, came Kavanaugh's riff on Bush v. Gore in his concurrence in the Wisconsin vote-by-mail extension case. It excavated Rehnquist's theory and held it out as the correct reading of the Constitution. It was an odd place for Kavanaugh to articulate his pro-Rehnquist thesis, because, as Kavanaugh acknowledged, it was entirely irrelevant to the Wisconsin case. The Wisconsin case was appealed from a federal court, not a state court, and there's no question the U.S. Supreme Court has the power to review the decisions of lower federal courts. Kavanaugh's footnote suggested he was eager to convey his point of view out into the world, possibly to encourage future litigants to present the court with opportunities to elevate Rehnquist's concurrence to the level of precedent. That signal may not be necessary. Throughout the country, Republican election lawyers are already doing just that.

No other justice joined Kavanaugh's concurrence, but just two days later, three of them would join him in extolling the virtues of Rehnquist's theory. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court declined to roll back similar vote-by-mail buffer periods in two other swing states, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Unlike in Wisconsin, the extensions of time were authorized by state courts relying on state law, the kind of decision over which the federal Supreme Court ordinarily has no authority. Given the partisan polarization around voting by mail this year, Democrats celebrated the outcome. The festivities, however, were muted. Accompanying each order was a lengthy statement signed by some or all of justices unhappy about the outcome — Alito, Gorsuch and Thomas — and warning that the cases might not be over yet.

Both statements declared their support for adopting Rehnquist's Bush v. Gore concurrence and went further still, indicating that, within state government, the legislature also has exclusive control over congressional elections. (The Constitution authorizes Congress to override the legislature.) The statement written by Alito, which was appended to the Pennsylvania order, suggested that the Supreme Court might yet intervene after the election, potentially rejecting some large number of ballots that were mailed by Election Day but that arrived at election offices within the three day buffer period.

The more realistic reason for Bush v. Gore to alarm Democrats is that the Supreme Court's four most conservative justices — Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Thomas — seem to be champing at the bit to cut state courts out of federal elections altogether. “Conservative judges have increasingly shown hostility to expanded voting rights, even during a pandemic," said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. The approach embodied in the Rehnquist concurrence, known to lawyers as the independent state legislature doctrine, is one of many tools “that is making it harder for other actors to protect voting rights."

Can they get a fifth justice on their side? Barrett's views aren't yet known, but Roberts doesn't seem eager to embrace the Rehnquist theory. This Monday, in a brief opinion, the chief justice distinguished the situation in Wisconsin, where a federal court had modified election rules, and in Pennsylvania, where the state supreme court had done so, relying on “the authority of state courts to apply their own constitutions to election regulations."

Still, other courts are running with the interpretation favored by the four conservative justices. On Thursday, a federal appeals court voted 2-1 to order Minnesota to separate late-arriving mail-in ballots, finding that a state court-ordered buffer period was likely illegal. Their reasoning? Plucked more or less straight from Kavanaugh's Wisconsin concurrence.

Rehnquist's theory poses greater risks to Democrats than Republicans, at least in the near term. Over the past decade or so, Republicans have done an impressive job of taking over state legislatures. In the key swing states of North Carolina and Pennsylvania, there is a Democratic governor, a liberal majority on the state supreme court, and a Republican-controlled legislature. Biden's lawyers surely would prefer their odds in the supreme courts of those states than in a U.S. Supreme Court that's more conservative than it's been in decades.

Trump’s border wall is costing taxpayers billions more than initial contracts: federal spending data review

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On the same day in May 2019, the Army Corps of Engineers awarded a pair of contracts worth $788 million to replace 83 miles of fence along the southwest border.

The projects were slated to be completed in January 2020, the Corps said then. Four months into this year, however, the government increased the value of the contracts by more than $1 billion, without the benefit of competitive bidding designed to keep costs low to taxpayers.

Within a year of the initial award, the value of the two contracts had more than tripled, to over $3 billion, even though the length of the fence the companies were building had only grown by 62%, to 135 miles. The money is coming from military counter-narcotics funding.

Those contract spikes were dramatic, but not isolated. A ProPublica/Texas Tribune review of federal spending data shows more than 200 contract modifications, at times awarded within just weeks or months after the original contracts, have increased the cost of the border wall project by billions of dollars since late 2017. This is particularly true this year, in the run-up to next week's election. The cost of supplemental agreements and change orders alone — at least $2.9 billion — represents about a quarter of all the money awarded and more than what Congress originally appropriated for wall construction in each of the last three years.

President Donald Trump made construction of the border wall a signature issue during his 2016 campaign, claiming that his skills as a builder and businessman would allow his administration to build the wall in a more cost-efficient way than his predecessors. “You know the wall is almost finished," he told a crowd of supporters in Arizona recently, and they weren't paying a “damn cent" for the border wall. It was “compliments of the federal government."

Yet an accounting of border wall contracts awarded during his presidency shows that his administration has failed to protect taxpayer interests or contain costs and stifled competition among would-be builders, experts say. In all, Trump's wall costs about five times more per mile than fencing built under the Bush and Obama administrations.

Experts say the frequent use of so-called supplemental agreements to add work or increase the price has amounted to giving no-bid contracts to a small group of pre-selected construction firms, many with executives who have donated to Trump or other Republicans.

Some contracts and add-ons have been handed out without press releases or announcements, making it harder for the public to track the expanding costs.

Charles Tiefer, a University of Baltimore contracting expert, said the contracting actions involving the border wall project are unusual for the normally restrained Corps, whose contracts aren't typically characterized by massive price increases. Tiefer called the amount of money awarded through modifications “amazingly high."

“These (border wall) modifications do not look like something the Army Corps of Engineers would get by competitive bidding," Tiefer said. “The taxpayer is paying much more than if the whole contract were out for competitive bids."

The Government Accountability Office told ProPublica and the Tribune that it was looking into the contract modifications as part of a broader review of the process the Corps has used to award border wall contracts using military funds. The report is expected to be released early next year.

While adding work to a contract is not unusual on its own, some of the very rapid and significant supplemental agreements in some of the border wall contracts raise red flags and don't always provide enough information to determine if they are problematic, said Stan Soloway, president and CEO of Celero Strategies and former deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and reform during the Clinton administration.

Raini Brunson, a spokesperson for the Corps, said she couldn't comment on specific contracts, instructing reporters to file records requests for more information. But she added that modifications are “made all the time for a variety of reasons." And while the Corps doesn't provide specific updates on a regular basis, she said contract awards and modifications are posted on federal procurement websites and in databases accessible to the public.

But the sites can be difficult to navigate, and the databases often don't reflect recent changes. Neither U.S. Customs and Border Protection nor the Corps publicly maintains a comprehensive list of all border wall contracts and their modifications. Some projects lack enough detail on government websites to even determine basic facts, such as what the additional work is for.

Some of the border wall contract modifications essentially amount to new projects that in some cases then undergo their own modifications.

A review of recent Corps non-border wall contracts shows no recent contract add-ons that approach the scale of border wall awards. Two contracts for walls surrounding a Florida reservoir awarded in early 2019 for about $130 million have had no cost increases, according to federal procurement data.

Of the Corps' five largest active non-border wall contracts in fiscal 2020, three received no additional money through supplemental agreements, and a fourth received three supplemental agreements totaling $584, according to usaspending.gov. A fifth contract, to replace locks along the Tennessee River, did increase substantially, but 98% of the rise was due to pre-agreed contract options, not after-the-fact supplemental agreements or change orders that have been added on to so many border wall contracts.

Building a wall along the southern border has been one of Trump's core promises and perhaps one of his most politically divisive battles.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a lawsuit brought by advocacy groups over a move to shift billions of dollars from the military for border wall construction after Congress refused to fully fund the project. The federal government's own watchdog agencies are reviewing some of the contracts after lawmakers raised concerns that political favoritism played a role in how the government awarded them.

Among the biggest beneficiaries of the wall contract changes is Galveston-based SLSCO, which has won the second-most in border wall contracts since 2017, about $2.2 billion, including nearly half a billion dollars in supplemental agreements. North Dakota-based Fisher Sand & Gravel has also won more than $2 billion in contracts since building a controversial private border fence in the Rio Grande Valley, which a ProPublica/Tribune investigation found was in danger of toppling if not fixed and properly maintained. On May 6, federal officials gave the firm a $1.2 billion contract, first reported by the Arizona Daily Star; the government did not publicly announce the massive award. The company's CEO, Tommy Fisher, could not be reached for comment. SLSCO officials referred questions about its border wall contracts to CBP.

“Spiraling Costs"

When Trump first touted his plan to build a “beautiful" wall all along the southern border, he said it would cost $8 billion — $12 billion tops — and that Mexico would pay for it.

The nation's self-anointed “best builder" bragged in 2017 that his construction know-how and savvy would bring the price of his border wall “WAY DOWN!" once he got involved in the process.

In the last three years, the administration has awarded nearly 40 contracts to 15 companies worth at least $10 billion to build more than 500 miles of fencing plus roads, lighting and other infrastructure, according to the most recent usaspending.gov data compiled by ProPublica and the Tribune. (Initially, the president proposed building 1,000 miles of wall, but he later revised that figure down to 450 to be completed before the end of his first term.)

In an October update, the administration said it had identified $15 billion — most of it from military funds — to build a total of 738 miles, which comes out to roughly $20 million a mile.

That's compared with the $2.4 billion the government spent from 2007-15 to build 653 miles of fence, as well as gates, roads, lighting and other infrastructure, according to the GAO.

Roger Maier, a CBP spokesman, said it's not reasonable to compare prior expenses to current ones. “CBP is constructing a border wall system which includes a combination of various types of infrastructure such as an internally hardened steel-bollard barrier 18' to 30' high, new and improved all-weather roads, lighting, enforcement cameras and other related technology to create a complete enforcement zone," he wrote in response to questions. “This is very different than the barriers we constructed in 2007-2009 where it was just the 18' steel-bollard barriers in some locations and vehicle barriers in others."

So far, Trump's administration has completed 360 miles, with an additional 221 under construction, according to CBP. Very little of that has added new fencing where there was none, though. Most of the work has been replacing shorter vehicle barriers and dilapidated fences with more imposing 30-foot bollard poles largely on land already owned by the federal government in Arizona and California.

Much less work has been done in Texas, one of the busiest border regions in terms of drug and migrant crossings, but which features the border's largest stretch without barriers. That is due both to the Rio Grande that snakes its way along the 1,200-mile Texas border, dividing the U.S. and Mexico, and the fact that most of the land is privately owned.

Trump declared a national emergency in 2019 after the Democrat-led House refused to give him more than $5 billion to fund the border wall, instead offering $1.4 billion to build fencing in the Rio Grande Valley Sector. The impasse led to a 35-day partial government shutdown before Trump bypassed Congress. By declaring a national emergency, Trump was able to shift billions of dollars from the Department of Defense and the Treasury Department. The rest comes from CBP appropriations.

To those following the border wall construction closely, the contracting process has triggered alarm.

“I'm just extremely concerned about the spiraling costs of the border wall … and about the amount of money that they are having to take away from DOD projects to build this wall," said Scott Amey, general counsel of the Project on Government Oversight, which is tracking the increasing costs of border wall-related contracts.

“Trump is trying to make good on a campaign promise that he made four years ago, and he's rushing through the construction of the wall," he added.

In February, the administration waived 10 federal contracting laws to speed up construction along the southwest border, doing away with rules that promote contract competition and small-business participation, as well as requiring justifications for the exercise of contract options, which prompted experts to issue warnings about the potential outcome.

In awarding additional money through contract modifications, the agency has frequently cited “unusual and compelling urgency" to further erode rules requiring a competitive bidding process. Experts say that “urgency" has little credibility and has led to environmental and other damage along the border.

“Whenever you do that, there are some compliance risks, and ... there's the risk of not getting really adequate, robust competition," Soloway said. “The more and better competition you have, the more and better decisions you can make."

A July report from the DHS Office of Inspector General said costs for the border wall could grow exponentially due to CBP's poor planning ahead of construction in an apparent rush to build the wall.

The agency “has not fully demonstrated that it possesses the capability to potentially spend billions of dollars to execute a large-scale acquisition to secure the southern border," the inspector general reported.

Until it improves its acquisition planning and management, the DHS watchdog said, “any future initiative may take longer than planned, cost more than expected and deliver less capability than envisioned to secure the southern border."

In response, DHS and CBP said they were being “chastised" for following the president's executive order from 2017, which directed the “immediate construction of a physical wall."

The inspector general countered that DHS' lead role in building the border wall doesn't exempt it from “following congressional requirements and established acquisition practices to safeguard taxpayers dollars from fraud, waste, and abuse."

A Track Record of Violations

There's no universal list of all border-wall-associated contracts. ProPublica and the Tribune found 68 contracts since late 2017 using CBP news releases, DOD and Corps announcements, and a search of federal databases for a group of 12 companies given pre-approval status by the Corps. Roughly two dozen of these contracts have only been awarded a minimum guarantee of about $2,000 but no border wall work yet. Not included in this list are millions more awarded to companies for peripheral services including acquiring land, aerial imaging, the removal of munitions debris and cactuses, and environmental monitoring.

Of the awarded contracts identified by ProPublica and the Tribune, four companies earned the vast majority of the funds — about $9 billion. The analysis focused on the total value of the contracts, rather than the amount spent to date. Top officials at the firms have been frequent donors to Republican candidates, and records show some of the companies have a host of safety violations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for offenses including failing to provide adequate shade to workers and not operating equipment safely, as well as wage violations.

One contract obtained by a Montana company shows how the awards can grow to several times their original size. In May 2019, BFBC LLC, a subsidiary of Barnard Construction, won a$142 million contract just a few days after it learned it was one of 12 construction firms selected by the Corps.

The contract called on the firm to replace about 5 miles of aging, low-slung vehicle barriers with 30-foot-high steel bollards near Yuma, Arizona. The project, one of the first to be paid for with diverted military funds, was widely publicized and featured a quick turnaround, with completion scheduled for Jan. 31, 2020.

What was less publicized was that the contract was open-ended. In technical terms, it was “undefinitized," which is allowed when the government seeks to begin work immediately, but which experts say provides little incentive to keep costs contained.

Four months later, the contract was “definitized," bringing the cost to more than $440 million. A DOD announcement says the money was for “replacement of El Centro and Yuma vehicle and pedestrian barrier," but it gives no additional details.

Six months later, in March 2020, the Corps issued a $172 million change order. This time, no press release or announcement hailed the contract modification; a federal database says the money is for “additional miles" near Yuma, but it provides no details.

Then, in April, a week after Democratic members of Congress urged border wall funds be redirected to the then-exploding coronavirus pandemic, BFBC received its biggest contract modification to date: $569 million for 17 additional miles in San Diego and El Centro — or $33 million per mile. A Corps spokesperson told the Daily Beast it awarded the half-billion-dollar contract add-on without competitive bidding because the firm was already “mobilized and working in close proximity."

Congressional Democrats called on the GAO to investigate what Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, called a “no-bid contract to an apparently politically connected, private contractor" as part of the federal watchdog's broader review of Corps contracts. Campaign finance reports show BFBC's owner is a longtime GOP donor who has given nearly $200,000 since 2017 to Republican causes and candidates, including to those in his home state of Montana as well as Texas and Arizona. Company officials could not be reached for comment.

Southwest Valley Constructors, a New Mexico-based affiliate of Kiewit Corp. that formed several months after Trump's inauguration, has received the most in border wall contracts since 2017. This subsidiary alone has been awarded contracts worth at least $2.7 billion for about 100 miles of border wall work in Arizona and Texas. More than $2 billion of that has come from the single May 15, 2019 contract and subsequent modifications.

While most of the work is ongoing, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials in Arizona have already raised concerns that the company's work is dropping groundwater levels at a wildlife refuge, according to emails obtained by the Arizona Daily Star. In South Texas, a judge issued a temporary restraining order against the company after descendants of the family that started the Jackson Ranch Church and Cemetery accused it of working in such “hurried manner" that it was causing excessive shaking and vibrations at the historical sites.

The firm already faces three serious OSHA violations related to excavation safety rules that stem from a single inspection, sparked by a complaint. Southwest Valley Contractors is contesting them. Kiewit and its subsidiaries have a long track record of violations related to worker safety, the environment and employment. Since 2000, it has paid more than $5 million in penalties, records show. Kiewit representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

The $2.2 billion Texas-based SLSCO has won since 2018 has been for at least nine contracts for border wall construction, including about $300 million to build 13 miles of fencing on top of concrete levees in the Rio Grande Valley. That fencing skirts the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, La Lomita Chapel and the National Butterfly Center, which Congress exempted from border wall construction in 2018.

The firm's work has come under scrutiny previously: A section of fencing built by the company in Calexico, California, blew over in January during the construction process, which officials blamed on high winds and drying concrete.

The firm has also received more than $410 million in supplemental agreements to a $390 million contract originally awarded in April 2019 to build fencing west of El Paso. Some of that money went to pay for an additional 2.4 miles of fencing; it's not clear what the rest went to.

As the presidential election approaches, both contractors and administration officials are racing against the clock: Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, has pledged to cancel the existing contracts if he is elected. If this happens, construction firms would likely be awarded termination fees and get paid based on the amount of work they have completed by the time contracts are canceled.

While there's not an overall estimate of how much that could cost, court documents filed by the administration as part of the legal battle over the use of military funds provide a window into what a Biden administration might face come January: A single contract awarded to BFBC in November 2019 for 33 miles of fence replacement in Arizona, currently valued at about $420 million, could cost the government nearly $15 million to terminate.

“While ending construction is easy to say, it might not be so easy, because he'll have to consider the phase of construction, gaps in the wall that could be exploited and the termination costs for existing contracts, which can come with a high price tag for taxpayers," said Amey, with the Project on Government Oversight. “President Trump might have boxed in Biden, requiring completion of certain portions of the wall whether he likes it or not."

Top FEC official's undisclosed ties to Trump raise concerns over agency neutrality

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Debbie Chacona oversees the division of the Federal Election Commission that serves as the first line of defense against illegal flows of cash in political campaigns. Its dozens of analysts sift through billions of dollars of reported contributions and expenditures, searching for any that violate the law. The work of Chacona, a civil servant, is guided by a strict ethics code and long-standing norms that employees avoid any public actions that might suggest partisan leanings.

But Chacona's open support of President Donald Trump and her close ties to a former Republican FEC commissioner, Donald McGahn, who went on to become the 2016 Trump campaign's top lawyer, have raised questions among agency employees and prompted at least one formal complaint. Chacona, a veteran agency staffer who has run the FEC's Reports Analysis Division, or RAD, since 2010, has made her partisan allegiance clear in a series of public Facebook posts that include a photo of her family gathered around a “Make America Great Again" sign while attending Trump's January 2017 inauguration.

The public display of partisanship bewildered some FEC staffers, according to a former agency employee. For decades, the agency expressly banned employees from engaging in such partisanship, a cultural ethos that has stuck even after those rules were relaxed in 2011. Chacona's duties included discerning whether the inaugural committee's disclosures of donor information appeared to contain any “serious violations" of the law, an FEC procedures manual states.

Tyler Culberson, who worked under Chacona as a senior campaign finance analyst from 2010 to 2015, told ProPublica that staffers were trained to never betray political preferences that could call into question their division's “neutrality."

“Any public display of support or opposition to any candidate, campaign, anything on the federal level — we didn't do it," Culberson said. “When you are regulating partisan committees, the display of partisanship suggests the possibility of preferential treatment to that committee or candidate. So the mere appearance of it is problematic."

The inaugural committee, a nonprofit distinct from Trump's presidential campaign, filed its initial 510-page report in April 2017, detailing a record-breaking $107 million raised from more than 1,000 contributors. Within two weeks, a news story and then a watchdog complaint filed with the FEC highlighted a host of misidentified and shady donations. Several months later, when the committee amended its filing to address the issues, Chacona ultimately signed off on it, records show. But the updated report continues to list donors whose addresses don't exist in public records. The committee has had other problems too: State prosecutors have accused it of spending lavishly on Trump properties, and federal investigators subpoenaed the nonprofit for donor records in an effort to track down any illegal contributions made by foreign nationals.

Separately, emails and other records obtained by ProPublica show Chacona had frequent, friendly interactions on matters professional and personal with McGahn. The two worked together at the agency from 2008 through September 2013, when McGahn briefly entered private practice then went to work in 2015 as counsel for Trump's presidential campaign. After the election, he served as White House counsel.

Chacona did not respond to requests for comment. McGahn said, “I don't comment on nonsense."

Over the course of McGahn's FEC tenure, concerns over his ties with Chacona were relayed through official agency channels: at least one colleague complained directly to Chacona's supervisor that her closeness to the attorney could undermine the agency's nonpartisan credibility, and the relationship was the backdrop for a 2011 inspector general report that was shared with commissioners.

The emails between Chacona and McGahn, obtained by ProPublica through the Freedom of Information Act, show that Chacona sought McGahn's advice on fine points of campaign finance law and regulation, and engaged in derogatory exchanges about Ellen Weintraub, a Democratic FEC commissioner, and Fred Wertheimer, one of the country's leading advocates for campaign finance reform. Democracy 21, Wertheimer's nonprofit, helped file the FEC complaint against Trump's inaugural committee.

Larry Noble, a former FEC general counsel who served in Republican and Democratic administrations, told ProPublica that an official in Chacona's position must be “fair" to all commissioners, and that expressing negative views to a commissioner about someone with business before the agency “raises questions about whether the person will get a fair shake."

Noble added that, overall, it's “inappropriate for the head of a division to have such a relationship with just one commissioner. It makes you wonder in what ways she's steered RAD toward that ideological view in both subtle and obvious ways — what kind of things the division went after, and what kinds of things it didn't."

Chacona's division provides the public's only window into how money is spent and raised on elections. She manages a staff of 70 employees, a portion of whom flag irregular contributions and potential spending violations that can prompt audits, civil penalties and, in rare cases, criminal prosecutions.

Culberson said that Chacona is “ultimately the one who will say, 'We're not going to question this; we are going to question this.' There is a level of putting her finger on the scale if she wanted to."

It is unclear whether the Trump campaign has received favorable treatment from Chacona. The FEC declined to address detailed questions from ProPublica, including whether Chacona and McGahn communicated about campaign finance issues during the 2016 election cycle, interactions that would introduce the prospect of favoritism.

Ann Ravel, a Democrat who served on the commission, said Chacona's show of support for the president and the emails detailing her consultations with McGahn warrant an internal investigation to determine if there was any wrongdoing.

“You assume everything Debbie is saying is based solely on her expertise and knowledge," she said. “At the very least, she should never, at any point, be involved in any decisions relating to Trump."

Chacona's contacts with McGahn may have run afoul of a government ethics regulation meant to address circumstances in which close relationships can call into question an employee's decision-making, said Kathleen Clark, a government ethics expert at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. That rule requires that employees get approval from a designated agency official in cases where a “reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts" might question the federal employee's “impartiality."

McGahn is not involved in the president's 2020 campaign, according to Tim Murtaugh, the campaign's communications director. He is now a partner at Jones Day, a Washington, D.C., law firm that has been paid millions of dollars this cycle by the campaign.

Murtaugh declined to say whether the campaign was aware of McGahn and Chacona's relationship in 2016, if the two were in touch over disclosure filings that year or if the campaign is in communication with Chacona now.

“As Usual, You Schooled Me"

The tenure of McGahn, appointed to the FEC by President George W. Bush, was punctuated by discord between Republican and Democratic commissioners. Known as pugnacious and relentlessly partisan, McGahn led the agency's GOP wing as it regularly pushed back on campaign finance regulation. Votes on possible violations often resulted in a 3-3 deadlock as commissioners split along party lines, a lasting legacy that has earned him the reputation as one of the panel's most influential members of all time.

The acrimonious dynamic was exacerbated by the Supreme Court's controversial 2010 Citizens United decision, which laid the foundation for removing essentially all limits on corporate and nonprofit election spending, as well as lifting restrictions on individual contributions to political action committees.

As elections were flooded with far more money than ever before, the importance of Chacona's division grew.

In this uncharted regulatory terrain, she looked to McGahn for guidance.

“Wondering if a Super PAC that contributes to another Super PAC is still held to the contribution limit," Chacona asked McGahn in the summer of 2012, her email including a smiley face. “Your thoughts please."

“No limit," he responded.

Part of the exchange is redacted, so it's unclear where Chacona landed on the matter, but in her final response to him she said that “I even thought of some of what you said on my own (probably from reading all of your stuff over the years)."

The trove of emails shows that she shared McGahn's negative view of those who saw Citizens United as a potential danger to democracy.

In early 2010, Chacona and McGahn privately mocked Wertheimer, whose watchdog group, Democracy 21, often files FEC complaints. In a press release, Wertheimer contended that the Citizens United decision was “out of touch with the American people."

Chacona forwarded the quote to McGahn, wondering if Wertheimer “ever talked with anyone outside the beltway about this stuff," because, she said, “they pretty much don't have a clue." Chacona concluded, “Sounds like he's the one out of touch," ending the sentence with another smiley face.

McGahn replied that Wertheimer has “zero intellectual honesty, and will say anything about anyone."

The contempt extended to Weintraub. In one 2011 exchange, the two discussed a Politico article that quoted Weintraub as saying she considered the Republican panelists “colleagues" and “not pals," prompting Chacona to ask, with her customary smiley face, “How broken up are you that Ellen doesn't consider you a pal?"

Chacona told McGahn, who was quoted in the story deriding “superficial compromise," that he came across as “sensible and sincere."

McGahn responded that to Weintraub a deadlocked commission vote is “a failure to give guidance, but [to] everyone else, it's a green light."

A year later, early in what would become a more than $2 billion presidential contest between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama — then the most expensive race in American history — Chacona and McGahn were critical of journalists scrutinizing FEC disclosure reports. She wrote to him decrying a “media frenzy" over the issue. McGahn characterized the intense interest as “disclosuremania."

The emails show Chacona held McGahn in high regard. “As usual, you schooled me," she wrote in one exchange about the Supreme Court and campaign finance. In an email about disclosure rules, she told him, “I should know by now you are always a step (or 2, 3, 4…) ahead."

“A Bit Too Cozy"

Chacona's closeness to McGahn prompted at least one top FEC official to complain to Chacona's supervisor, Patricia Orrock, about the appearance of a potential conflict of interest that could jeopardize the agency's integrity.

Lynn Fraser, who retired in May 2017 as the head of the FEC's Alternative Dispute Resolution program, told ProPublica that she was troubled by interactions between the RAD official and the commissioner, which she described as “a bit too cozy."

Fraser said she spoke up because the appearance that the head of RAD had a personal or political bias for McGahn, a staunch Republican, could hurt the division's promise of neutrality and might unintentionally influence RAD analysts worried about challenging a boss with a clear point of view.

“Conflicts of interest are tricky little things because sometimes people don't even realize they have a conflict, they don't perceive it as such," Fraser added. “And that's actually more dangerous. It can color your worldview without you even being really aware of it. And Don was persuasive. He's really smart. And he knows campaign finance."

In a closed door meeting, while McGahn was still a commissioner, Fraser said she asked Orrock to explain to Chacona that her relationship with the commissioner “looks really bad."

“It's the appearance of impropriety that starts raising peoples' concerns," Fraser said she remembers telling Orrock, who remains Chacona's supervisor. “I got the assumption, and that's all it was, that she would say something to Debbie."

It's not clear whether Orrock, who did not respond to a request for comment, ever talked with Chacona.

Fraser's concerns did not come in a vacuum. In 2011, Chacona's husband, Marcus, lodged a complaint with the FEC's inspector general. The complaint included allegations that he had received anonymous calls relating to his wife and McGahn.

“The nature of this contact is to apparently alert me about the nature of their relationship and they expressed that it is more than professional," he wrote.

The resulting report, which was shared by commissioners, was unable to determine who was behind the calls because Marcus Chacona, who declined to comment, stopped cooperating and refused to turn over his phone records.

A Look at the Trump Inaugural Committee's Filing

Almost as soon as Trump was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2017, reporters noted the crowd size at the event was smaller than it was for Obama's first inauguration in 2009. The accurate assessment touched off days of blustery pushback from the White House, which took on the media over its inaugural coverage. Chacona posted an image on Facebook of the event showing a packed crowd on the National Mall. “Here's a real picture from yesterday," she wrote.

But while the dispute played out publicly, more significant problems faced the 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee.

The nonprofit group had raised more than double what Obama's inaugural committee collected in 2009, and the FEC required it to account for its donors. When Trump's committee filed its initial FEC disclosure form in April 2017, the Huffington Post created a public spreadsheet to crowdsource its effort to vet the names, companies and addresses.

Within days, the news outlet detailed hundreds of reporting mistakes, such as obscuring the true buyer of inaugural tickets and disclosing inaccurate donor addresses.

A week after the story was published, Wertheimer's Democracy 21 and other watchdog groups filed a formal FEC complaint, arguing that inaugural officials had recklessly filed reports “they knew or should have known did not include required information."

Trump's committee amended its filing to address some problems and asserted that the complaint raised mostly “technical reporting issues" and should be dismissed. To support its argument, the committee noted that RAD had sent both of Obama's inaugural committees formal requests for more information — inquiries the Obama committees satisfied by amending their filings.

The FEC general counsel sided with Trump's committee in an October 2017 report and recommended the commission dismiss the complaint. While acknowledging that “we do not know the full extent of the Inaugural Committee's inaccurate reporting," the report concluded that the Trump committee had made “analogous errors" to those of Obama. “We do not believe it is an efficient use of Commission resources to pursue this matter," it said.

In a footnote, the report explicitly states that Chacona had “discretion" over the Trump committee's amended report, and that RAD chose not to formally request more information.

Years later, the Trump inaugural has still not resolved all of its reporting problems, and the committee continues to list donors with questionable addresses, according to an examination by CNBC. One $25,000 donation, for example, came from a Singapore address that does not appear in public records. It is illegal for an inaugural to accept donations from a foreign national, but in its report, the Trump committee asserted that the donor was an American citizen. An additional $100,000 came from a contributor whose Anaheim, California, address also could not be verified. Both discrepancies were confirmed by ProPublica.

An inaugural committee spokesman said that if “additional corrections" to its report “are ever required, they will be addressed." He also said that McGahn played no role in responding to Democracy 21's complaint.

Wertheimer, who had been ridiculed by McGahn and Chacona years earlier, told ProPublica that he “can't see any reasonable explanation" for why RAD hasn't asked the inaugural committee to resolve these discrepancies. He said the FEC should “look at whether this was a political decision or a policy decision that can be justified."

Veterans Affairs secretary headlines GOP fundraiser as COVID c​ases surge

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Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie headlined a fundraiser for the North Carolina Republican Party last week, taking time away from his job leading the government's second-largest agency at a moment when COVID-19 cases are surging in VA hospitals.

Though legal, campaigning by cabinet secretaries is a departure from historical norms. Nevertheless, it's become standard practice in the administration of President Donald Trump. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has hit the campaign trail for Trump, and several other cabinet members recently visited Iowa. Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, is also campaigning in North Carolina. Trump himself has routinely blurred politics with official functions, most prominently by hosting the Republican convention on the White House lawn, and he's brushed off more than a dozen staff violations of the federal Hatch Act, which limits political activity by government employees.

Wilkie, in particular, was already under fire for frequent trips that appear to have partisan agendas. In a letter last week, the top Democrats on the House and Senate veterans committees accused Wilkie of using taxpayer-funded travel to boost Trump and other Republican candidates.

“Leaders at VA have historically risen above partisan politics," Senate veterans committee ranking member Jon Tester of Montana and House committee chairman Mark Takano of California said in their letter to Wilkie. “Furthermore, efforts to engage in overtly political activity may have come at the expense of legitimate functions of the department's mission."

The letter highlighted Wilkie's previous official trips to North Carolina, Maine and Montana for appearances with GOP senators in tough reelection races. The partisan tilt of the Montana trip was especially pronounced because it included no events with Tester despite his key post on the Senate panel that oversees the VA.

Wilkie's latest visit to North Carolina, his home state, was not part of an official trip, according to the VA's response to a Freedom of Information Act request. That indicates his fundraiser appearance wasn't paid for by taxpayers. Wilkie's spokeswoman declined to say who footed the bill for his travel or why he was in North Carolina on a weekday instead of at his job.

“He attended this event as a private citizen," spokeswoman Christina Noel said.

The party's financial disclosures, which might show donations and expenditures connected to the event, are not yet available for that time period. The North Carolina GOP's finance director, Amanda Parrish, didn't respond to messages seeking comment.

The event took steps to comply with the Hatch Act. The invitation, obtained by ProPublica, omitted Wilkie's official titles, referring to him as “honorable" (a general signifier for people who have been Senate confirmed). The invitation also said “his participation is not a solicitation for funds," but it listed suggested donations ranging from $250 to $2,500.

The email accompanying the fundraiser invitation said the organizers wanted “this event jam-packed (within CDC guidelines)." But a photo posted on Facebook by the state party chairman showed people indoors less than 6 feet apart and not wearing masks.

Noel declined to comment on what public health measures Wilkie observed to participate in the event.

Other political figures who attended, including state Rep. Holly Grange and Trump campaign organizer Matt Dula, didn't respond to requests for comment.

From North Carolina, Wilkie traveled to Arizona, Utah and Colorado for what appeared to be official functions, according to posts on his Twitter account.

A former aide to North Carolina's endangered incumbent senator, Thom Tillis, and former Sen. Jesse Helms, Wilkie is widely viewed as aspiring to elected office in the state. North Carolina's other senator, Richard Burr, is not seeking reelection in 2022. Noel didn't respond to a question about Wilkie's political ambitions.

Wilkie has faced criticism for appearing disengaged from the VA's critical programs. He's also under investigation by the department's inspector general for allegations, which Wilkie has denied, that he attempted to collect dirt on a congressional staffer who said she was sexually assaulted in a VA hospital. The results of the probe are expected soon.

The VA hospital system currently has almost 4,500 active cases of COVID-19 (including veterans and employees), a 70% increase from a month ago. More than 3,700 VA patients have died of the virus.

Veterans are a key constituency for Trump, a favorite topic in his tweets and at rallies. The VA is accommodating more political events this year by relaxing a long-standing policy that discourages site visits by political candidates close to an election. Noel didn't respond to a question about the change.

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How Trump’s success with Cuban American voters could help tip Florida his way

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With Florida again looking pivotal in the presidential race, Donald Trump and Joe Biden have found themselves revisiting a decades-old question that could decide a crucial share of votes: What to do about Cuba?

It's a debate that many analysts thought was largely over. When President Barack Obama traveled to Havana in 2016 to “bury the Cold War" between the two countries, the tentative support of many Cuban Americans surprised even hopeful Democrats. That fall, Hillary Clinton — who had called for ending the United States economic embargo against Cuba “once and for all" — won more Cuban votes in Florida than Obama had collected in 2012.

Four years later, the Cold War is decidedly back. In a sustained barrage of punitive measures, Trump has restricted travel to the island, blocked investment and withdrawn most American diplomats from Havana. Visas for Cubans to visit or join family in the United States have been cut sharply. The administration has even begun to limit the ways Cuban Americans can send money to their relatives.

But while Cuban Americans oppose many of those specific policies, according to a survey this summer by Florida International University, two-thirds broadly support Trump's confrontational stance toward the island's Communist government.

“Ultimately, most Cuban Americans view logistical inconveniences as a small price to pay for freedom and accountability of a dictatorship that has oppressed its people for far too long," said Mercedes Schlapp, a Cuban American who served in the Trump White House and is a senior adviser to the Trump campaign.

Biden argues that the president's tough line should be judged by the results, not the rhetoric. “The administration's approach is not working," he said on a visit to Miami this month. “Cuba is no closer to democracy than it was four years ago."

Yet if recent polling holds, analysts said, Trump could win 60% of the Cuban American vote — surpassing the estimated 50% to 54% he won in the 2016 election. “Trump has gone through the roof with the poll numbers from Hispanics," the president told a group of Cuban American supporters at the White House last month. “I guess they didn't know I love you, but I do."

Even as the race in Florida has tightened, it remains to be seen whether the Cuba issue is still potent enough, almost 62 years after the revolution, to help swing the state and its 29 electoral votes; along with New York, Florida has the third-largest number of electoral votes, after California and Texas. The two-thirds of Cuban Americans who live in Florida account for only about 5% of its roughly 14 million voters. But their shifting views on American policy are again drawing outsize attention in a state that remains closely divided between the two parties.

“This clearly is a harder line" toward Cuba, said Guillermo Grenier, a sociologist at Florida International University who has overseen its surveys of Cuban American opinion for nearly 30 years.

To Miami's old guard, who fled Cuba after the 1959 revolution, Obama's attempt to promote change through closer engagement was always dangerously naive. By not conditioning his opening on human rights improvements, they argued, Obama threw then-President Raúl Castro an economic lifeline while demanding nothing in return. The regime's continued repression of political critics thereafter was entirely predictable.

Still, Democrats were confident that Cuban American demographics were shifting their way. Whatever the recalcitrance of Cuban elders, their children and grandchildren appeared less wedded to the coercive approach that had so long failed to bring meaningful change on the island. More recent immigrants — who were generally more skeptical that the government in Cuba could be dislodged and were more connected to relatives there — also supported freer travel and closer economic ties.

So, after years of growing Cuban American support for the Democratic Party, one of the most striking results of the FIU poll was the 76% of recent Cuban immigrants who reported having registered to vote as Republicans. Only 5% the respondents, who came to the United States between 2010 and 2015, said they had become Democrats; the rest described themselves as independents.

Even as the Democrats have gained ground, the Republican Party has been more active and better organized among Latinos in South Florida. Hard-liners on Cuba remain powerful across local Spanish-language media outlets. “For Republicans, it's always a home game in Miami," said Ana Sofía Pelaez, a leader of the Miami Freedom Project, a progressive Cuban group focused on social issues.

Younger, hipper Republican partisans have also begun to emerge. Among the more prominent is a kooky YouTube personality, Alexander Otaola, who left Cuba in 2003 and offers a comedic, reggaeton-infused alternative to the vitriolic talk radio that still echoes on local airwaves. Otaola has become a boisterous Trump evangelist, exhorting his audience to beware the Democrats' “socialist" tendencies.

The biggest influencer has been Trump himself. His warnings that the Democrats will deliver America to socialism, while silly to some voters, have been repeated constantly in advertising and social-media posts that target Florida refugees from Venezuela and Nicaragua as well as Cuba. The purported threat of self-described democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been a staple theme of that campaign, which has established at least a notional coherence between Trump's domestic politics and his bellicose stance toward leftist regimes in Latin America.

“They have been relentless," said Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Democrat and Cuban-American state senator, of the “socialism" attack. “So relentless that it has been somewhat effective."

Another big factor in Trump's success with Cuban American voters has been his willingness to show up. Trump was mocked by some critics last month when he recalled a “beautiful" award he said he had received from veterans of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. (No such award is known to exist.) But he should hardly have to prove his loyalty to the cause. The very first stop on Trump's first foray into presidential campaigning in 1999 was the two-room Bay of Pigs Library and Museum in Miami's Little Havana, where he turned up with his then-girlfriend, Melania Knauss. “My policy," he said then, “is you have to keep pressure on Castro."

As president, Trump has tried to ratchet up that pressure. In addition to blocking tourism, investment and trade, he all but shuttered the American Embassy in Havana, citing mysterious, suspected attacks on diplomats there. Visas for Cubans to visit the United States were cut to 10,167 last year from a high of 41,001 in 2014. His administration also suspended a family reunification program that had authorized more than 125,000 Cubans to join relatives in the United States since 2007, and it sharply increased the deportation of Cuban asylum-seekers.

Cuban Americans' response to those measures has been contradictory. In the FIU poll, 71% of the respondents said the United States' long-running economic embargo against Cuba hasn't worked, yet 60% said it should remain in place. Many of them also said Washington's Cuba policy was less important to them than other issues, including the economy, health care, race relations and even China policy.

Florida Democrats admitted that they have had little success in trying to focus attention on the collateral damage to Cubans from Trump's policies. The Democrats may have done even less to argue the Obama administration's case that closer contact with the United States is the best way to push the Cuban government toward greater political and economic freedom for the island.

“I think a lot of Democrats have concluded that while there are strong intellectual arguments for those initiatives, politically they just don't pay off," said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Miami.

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Nonwhite Georgia voters have to wait in line for hours. Here are 2 critical reasons why

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Kathy spotted the long line of voters as she pulled into the Christian City Welcome Center about 3:30 p.m., ready to cast her ballot in the June 9 primary election.

Hundreds of people were waiting in the heat and rain outside the lush, tree-lined complex in Union City, an Atlanta suburb with 22,400 residents, nearly 88% of them Black. She briefly considered not casting a ballot at all, but decided to stay.

By the time she got inside more than five hours later, the polls had officially closed and the electronic scanners were shut down. Poll workers told her she'd have to cast a provisional ballot, but they promised that her vote would be counted.

“I'm now angry again, I'm frustrated again, and now I have an added emotion, which is anxiety," said Kathy, a human services worker, recalling her emotions at the time. She asked that her full name not be used because she fears repercussions from speaking out. “I'm wondering if my ballot is going to count."

By the time the last voter finally got inside the welcome center to cast a ballot, it was the next day, June 10.

The clogged polling locations in metro Atlanta reflect an underlying pattern: the number of places to vote has shrunk statewide, with little recourse. Although the reduction in polling places has taken place across racial lines, it has primarily caused long lines in nonwhite neighborhoods where voter registration has surged and more residents cast ballots in person on Election Day. The pruning of polling places started long before the pandemic, which has discouraged people from voting in person.

In Georgia, considered a battleground state for control of the White House and U.S. Senate, the difficulty of voting in Black communities like Union City could possibly tip the results on Nov. 3. With massive turnout expected, lines could be even longer than they were for the primary, despite a rise in mail-in voting and Georgians already turning out by the hundreds of thousands to cast ballots early.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court's Shelby v. Holder decision in 2013 eliminated key federal oversight of election decisions in states with histories of discrimination, Georgia's voter rolls have grown by nearly 2 million people, yet polling locations have been cut statewide by nearly 10%, according to an analysis of state and local records by Georgia Public Broadcasting and ProPublica. Much of the growth has been fueled by younger, nonwhite voters, especially in nine metro Atlanta counties, where four out of five new voters were nonwhite, according to the Georgia secretary of state's office.

The metro Atlanta area has been hit particularly hard. The nine counties — Fulton, Gwinnett, Forsyth, DeKalb, Cobb, Hall, Cherokee, Henry and Clayton — have nearly half of the state's active voters but only 38% of the polling places, according to the analysis.

As a result, the average number of voters packed into each polling location in those counties grew by nearly 40%, from about 2,600 in 2012 to more than 3,600 per polling place as of Oct. 9, the analysis shows. In addition, a last-minute push that opened more than 90 polling places just weeks before the November election has left many voters uncertain about where to vote or how long they might wait to cast a ballot.

The growth in registered voters has outstripped the number of available polling places in both predominantly white and Black neighborhoods. But the lines to vote have been longer in Black areas, because Black voters are more likely than whites to cast their ballots in person on Election Day and are more reluctant to vote by mail, according to U.S. census data and recent studies. Georgia Public Broadcasting/ProPublica found that about two-thirds of the polling places that had to stay open late for the June primary to accommodate waiting voters were in majority-Black neighborhoods, even though they made up only about one-third of the state's polling places. An analysis by Stanford University political science professor Jonathan Rodden of the data collected by Georgia Public Broadcasting/ProPublica found that the average wait time after 7 p.m. across Georgia was 51 minutes in polling places that were 90% or more nonwhite, but only 6 minutes in polling places that were 90% white.

Georgia law sets a cap of 2,000 voters for a polling place that has experienced significant voter delays, but that limit is rarely if ever enforced. Our analysis found that, in both majority Black and majority white neighborhoods, about nine of every 10 precincts are assigned to polling places with more than 2,000 people.

A June 2020 analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School found that the average number of voters assigned to a polling place has grown in the past five years in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina — all states with substantial Black populations that before Shelby needed federal approval to close polling places under the Voting Rights Act. And though dozens of states have regulations on the size of voting precincts and polling places or the number of voting machines, the analysis found that many jurisdictions do not abide by them.

Georgia's state leadership and elections officials have largely ignored complaints about poll consolidations even as they tout record growth in voter registration. As secretary of state from 2010 to 2018, when most of Georgia's poll closures occurred, Brian Kemp, now the governor, took a laissez-faire attitude toward county-run election practices, save for a 2015 document that spelled out methods officials could use to shutter polling places to show “how the change can benefit voters and the public interest."

Kemp's office declined to comment Thursday on the letter or why poll closures went unchallenged by state officials. His spokesperson referred back to his previous statements that he did not encourage officials to close polling places but merely offered guidance on how to follow the law.

The inaction has left Black voters in Georgia facing barriers reminiscent of Jim Crow laws, said Adrienne Jones, a political science professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta who has studied the impact of the landmark Shelby decision on Black voters.

Voter suppression “is happening with these voter impediments that are being imposed," Jones said.

“You're closing down polling places so people have a more difficult time getting there. You're making vote-by-mail difficult or confusing. Now we're in court arguing about which ballots are going to be accepted, and it means that people have less trust in our state."

In August, on the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the Democratic Party of Georgia, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and three Georgia voters sued the state and more than a dozen counties in federal court, alleging that some of the state's most populous areas have disenfranchised voters for more than a decade with long lines caused by inadequate staff, training, equipment and voting locations.

The suit, which was dismissed after the judge ruled the parties had no standing to file, warned of upheaval during the Nov. 3 election.

“As bad as the situation would be in normal circumstances, the burden is made far worse by the global pandemic," the lawsuit stated. “Absent judicial intervention, Georgia is set for more of the same (and likely far worse than it has ever seen) in November."

Republican Brad Raffensperger, who took over as secretary of state in January 2019, has called for more resources and polling places, but he has been unable to push these changes through the GOP-controlled legislature.

Raffensperger's office blames Democrats and county elections officials for opposing his efforts to improve access. “As Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger pushed legislation that would force counties to expand polling locations and directly address these issues," Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said in an email.

“Unfortunately, every single Democratic Senator and Representative voted against this proposal saying that it would cause 'confusion.' Georgia voters deserve to know who is actually holding back progress and it isn't the Secretary of State's Office."

Democrats and voting rights groups said they opposed the Raffensperger-backed bill because they believed it weakened state election supervision and made it harder for people to vote. The proposal shifted even more responsibility for elections from the state to counties, “without the necessary training, funding or support," Lauren Groh-Wargo, chief executive of Fair Fight, a voting rights group founded by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, said at the time.

A History of Discrimination

Georgia's history of voting violations stretches back more than a century, with poll taxes, literacy and citizenship tests, and intimidation that disenfranchised many Black citizens.

Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Georgia and eight other states with histories of discrimination were required to seek federal approval before making changes such as eliminating polling places in Black neighborhoods or shifting polling locations at the last minute. Dozens of counties and townships in six more states also had to seek pre-clearance.

Then in 2013, in a case brought by Shelby County, Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the method for determining which jurisdictions had to seek prior approval, saying it was unconstitutional because it was outdated. The court suggested that Congress could pass new guidelines, but lawmakers have been unable to reach agreement, leaving the pre-clearance requirement unenforceable.

Jones, the Morehouse professor, said the recent changes would clearly have required federal approval if not for the Shelby decision.

“All of these kinds of exercises … would have had to be considered by the Department of Justice — or would not have been suggested because it would have been clear that the Department of Justice would have dinged them," she said. “And part of that has to do with the importance of Black voters, particularly in the Democratic Party."

Exacerbating Shelby's impact in Georgia was an explosion in voter registrations. Thanks in part to the state's “motor voter" law that updates records whenever a voter interacts with the Department of Driver Services, the state's voter rolls have swelled by a third since the 2012 presidential election. In two metro Atlanta counties, Gwinnett and Henry, the voting population shifted from majority white to majority nonwhite, contributing to Georgia's transition from red state to purple.

As the number of voters was swelling, county officials across the state began a steady stream of closures of polling locations.

By June 2020, Georgia voters had 331 fewer polling places than in November 2012, a 13% reduction. Because of added pressure from the coronavirus pandemic, metro Atlanta alone had lost 82 voting locations by the time June's primary rolled around. Nearly half of the state's 159 counties had closed at least one polling place since 2012.

Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, and DeKalb County realigned dozens of precincts after some municipalities were annexed or newly established. Other counties cited changes in voter behavior, or tight budgets, but the Georgia Public Broadcasting/ProPublica analysis found only nominal savings.

In Union City, about 20 minutes southwest of Atlanta in Fulton County, the number of active voters has grown about 60% since 2012.

Three polls were open for the June primary, with 9,000 voters assigned to the Christian City Welcome Center. Two additional polling places are being set up for the Nov. 3 election, including one that will reduce the burden on the Welcome Center. Three others, however, will still have more than 5,000 voters each.

In a September county elections board meeting, Fulton officials said the goal had been to add more polling places in 2020 to accommodate population growth. The coronavirus pandemic resulted in closures or relocations, but most sites have been reopened.

Urban Congestion at the Polls

The influx of voters meant that already overburdened polling places got even busier.

Statewide, the number of voters served by the average polling place rose 47%, from 2,046 voters in 2012 to 3,003 as of Oct. 9, according to the analysis. Some rural counties have as many as 22,000 voters assigned to a single polling place.

Forsyth County, one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, has grown its voter rolls by nearly 60% — or 60,000 voters — in the last eight years. Forsyth, a mostly white county about 45 minutes' drive north of Atlanta, now averages about 8,000 voters per polling place. Officials cut nine of its 25 polling places in 2013 and another after the 2016 election, but added back five locations in 2019. No additional sites are expected to be opened for the November election.

Fulton County added nearly a quarter-million voters while consolidating voting locations. When the coronavirus struck, the last-minute unavailability of two polling places forced the assignment of 16,000 people to vote in June at Park Tavern, a restaurant/event space that reported 350 voters in line before the first vote was cast.

Six of Gwinnett County's seven most congested polling places serve predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods. In Lawrenceville, home to one of the largest Black populations in the county, a judge ordered polls at the Gwinnett County Department of Water Resources to stay open late during the primary for the nearly 7,000 voters assigned there. It was one of 16 polling locations with missing voting machines on the morning of the primary election.

Angela Maddox, a health care worker, cast her ballot there for the Aug. 11 primary runoff, when only local rather than statewide races were on the ballot. She said she was grateful that equipment was in place and low turnout meant no lines. The reports of voters waiting six hours or more in the primary were “disgusting," she said.

“I know it's a big problem and it seems to continuously happen in Black communities," she said. “That's where you tend to see a lot of the machines breaking down, or fewer machines, or any and everything to not count our vote, which is not fair."

Gwinnett County officials obtained federal approval in 2010 — before the Shelby decision — to reduce the number of polls from 163 to 156, citing cost savings and operational efficiency. Since then, the county has kept the same number of polling places while adding more than 175,000 active voters. The average polling place handled 3,649 voters in the June primary and is set for 3,719 for November.

Who's to Blame?

Since the Shelby decision, the Georgia State Election Board, chaired by Raffensperger, has been the primary body for investigating and potentially sanctioning counties found to have violated election laws and procedures.

But the election board has rarely investigated the sort of violations that the U.S. Department of Justice once stepped in to review under the Voting Rights Act.

**Since 2010, when Kemp began his eight-year stint as secretary of state, the board has heard hundreds of cases, citing individuals for such violations as wearing political gear to the polls, and rebuking counties for mishandling voter registrations or absentee ballots. But it has taken no action to examine the poll closures that have been approved post-Shelby and has allowed a backlog of dozens of complaints to accumulate. In 2015, Kemp's office sent the letter to county elections officials that included advice on closing polling places.

In September, with Georgia in the national spotlight over its handling of elections, the board cleared a backlog of nearly 100 outstanding cases dating back to 2014, and referred several to the attorney general's office for further review. Among those was Fulton County's alleged mishandling of the June primary. The attorney general's office is still investigating.

In early October, the secretary of state's office told four counties that had long lines, absentee ballot problems and late opening or closing polls in the primary — Fulton, DeKalb and Gwinnett in the metro Atlanta area and Chatham County in southeast Georgia —to avoid a repeat by providing weekly updates on poll worker training, polling places and line management plans.

Besides the board's actions, the Georgia Senate considered a proposal filed in February and endorsed by Raffensperger. It would have required county elections supervisors to add more equipment or poll workers, or split up any precincts with more than 2,000 voters, if there was a wait longer than an hour measured at three different points on Election Day.

More than 1,500 of Georgia's 2,655 precincts have at least 2,000 voters — many of them in urban Democratic counties — and Raffensperger said at the time that voters should never have to wait more than 30 minutes.

But the bill, SB 463, was opposed by Democratic lawmakers and voting rights groups, who argued that any revamping in an election year would cause confusion and create more ways to keep people from casting their ballot.

“Do you have any concerns about trying to change the rules of the game in the middle of an election cycle when we have so much litigation that is currently pending with respect to the state's handling of previous elections?" state Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democrat from Atlanta, asked during the floor debate.

The bill originated in the state Senate, which approved it. The proposal then went to a state House of Representatives committee, where Republicans substituted a version that didn't address the polling place issue and barred the secretary of state and county elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters. Their redesign never reached a floor vote, eliminating any prospect of legislative changes in the 2020 session, which ended in June.

That same month, after the primary election, Raffensperger held a press conference in Fulton County outside Park Tavern, which had processed more voters than 96% of the state's polling places. Flanked by posters highlighting recent election woes, he urged local officials to add poll workers and voting locations while improving technical support and training.

“We know that we need a more diverse pool of voting locations to spread the load of voters that we are anticipating," Raffensperger said.

Nikema Williams, chair of Georgia's Democratic Party, said that while state officials took little or no action to stop widespread voting problems in non-white communities, local elections officials are also responsible, since they ultimately decide whether to close or open more voting sites.

“We added counties as a defendant in the [August] lawsuit because we want to make sure that we're getting this right," she said. “And at the end of the day, what matters to us is that voters are not negatively impacted at any level of the electoral process."

Although the judge chided Democratic officials for offering vague remedies and failing to provide sufficient evidence that long lines are likely in November, Phi Nguyen, litigation director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta, said there is plenty of evidence in plain sight.

Nguyen's organization has challenged a number of Georgia election laws in court, including the “exact match" policy that blocks voter registrations that do not exactly match a state or federal database. AAAJA also filed a lawsuit that forced Gwinnett County to change its process for rejecting absentee ballots.

She said the metro Atlanta counties' election administrators have not kept up with the wave of newer, more diverse voters, increasing the chances of disenfranchisement.

Nguyen was a poll monitor at the Infinite Energy Center arena for the primary and did not leave until the final votes were cast, well after polls closed at 7 p.m. “Georgia made national news because of the breakdown in our election systems," she said. “Long lines are certainly an issue and they happen more often in under-resourced places, which tend to be where communities of color live."

Changes Before Election Day

Some counties in the metro Atlanta area have tried to increase polling locations before the November election.

Just weeks before Nov. 3, Fulton County approved 91 new polling places, focusing on areas where the lines were longest for the June primary. Fourteen polling places — including two of the four polling places in Union City — will still have more than 5,000 voters assigned, but that's a sharp drop from the 60 sites that had more than 5,000 voters assigned for the primary election, said Fulton County Elections Director Rick Barron.

“If you have fewer people assigned to a polling location, you have fewer people that are going to go to that location," he said. “We had some polling places in June where we had 9,000-17,000 voters assigned to these locations, so what this does is it spreads everyone out amongst many more locations."

The more than 16,000 primary voters who were assigned to Park Tavern are now split among five polling places, ranging from fewer than 1,500 voters to nearly 5,500. Park Tavern will remain a polling site, with about 4,300 voters.

But widespread rejiggering of polling locations just weeks before a presidential election comes with its own risks. A 2018 study of North Carolina voters from Stanford University found that relocating polling places decreases turnout, especially for younger voters.

For now, Fulton County officials are hoping for an 80% early voting rate to minimize voter confusion and other problems on Election Day, when the nation's eyes will once again be on Georgia. And they have doubled the election budget to $34 million, purchasing two mobile voting buses as polling sites to alleviate early lines and launching a massive outreach campaign to change voter behavior.

There are more than 30 early voting locations, including a mega-voting site at Atlanta's professional basketball arena equipped with 60 check-in computers and 300 voting machines. On the first day of in-person early voting Monday, Oct. 12, officials recorded the second-highest single-day total in recent years. Statewide, a record 128,000 Georgians braved long lines that first day.

Still, Kathy in Union City is worried that her vote won't be counted.

“When you look at the systemic issues that plague us as a society, oftentimes we're screaming but we're not being heard," she said. “Historically, we have seen that services and resources for Black communities have always been very inadequate, and this is just an extension of that. ... How could there be such a huge disparity?"

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How Trump's trade representative blew up 60 years of trade policy

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On a spring day in 2017, Robert Lighthizer walked through the doors of the office of the United States Trade Representative to introduce himself to the career staff who had shepherded American trade policy for a generation. After a chaotic few months awaiting Lighthizer's confirmation, officials were eager for stability; Lighthizer offered deep expertise in a cabinet full of government neophytes. As a Washington operative with years of experience in international trade, he seemed like the best appointment they were likely to get under the circumstances.

There was, nonetheless, considerable apprehension among the few hundred USTR staff gathered in the auditorium. President Donald Trump had built his campaign on scathing criticism of the treaties the people in the room had forged over years of hard work. “Free trade can be wonderful if you have smart people," Trump had said, the very first time he rode down the escalator in Trump Tower to announce his candidacy. “But we have people that are stupid."

Lighthizer offered a conciliatory tone at that first meeting — acknowledging, one official said, “that he would have a different approach that some of us might disagree with, but that he would be open to hearing our views.'' Remembered another: “He set out the broad goals of righting the wrongs that had been visited upon us but also tried to be reassuring and respectful of staff capabilities."

Over the next 3½ years, Lighthizer did listen to the staff he inherited. But this child of the Rust Belt, whose views were honed through years of fighting unfair practices by America's trading partners, made it clear he shared Trump's critique of U.S. trade policy in substance, if not tone.

Lighthizer set out on an audacious plan to rebalance American trade relationships around the world, levying sweeping tariffs, hamstringing international institutions, pulling out of agreements and threatening to ditch even more. His boss, a self-styled dealmaker, loved the tactics. Lighthizer delivered what Trump demanded and did it without claiming credit — preserving his post while other White House personnel came and went.

With the election just a few weeks away, it's worth taking stock of how this signature element of the Trump agenda has worked out. This story is based on interviews with dozens of current and former career staff at USTR, their counterparts in other countries, and interest groups — most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships with the Trump administration. Lighthhizer himself declined to be interviewed, as did most of his former top deputies.

The picture that emerges is complex. Even critics of the administration said that Lighthizer had a point when he argued that the gentler tactics of his predecessors had not been effective. And they acknowledge that the once-obscure USTR is more powerful than it's ever been, its mission reoriented from easing corporate investment barriers overseas to erecting hurdles that might force those companies to keep jobs in America after decades of manufacturing decline.

Along the way, Lighthizer has bent the rules of the international trading system and thrown businesses into turmoil as they race to comply with changes to import costs. He's ruptured international relationships, maintained tariffs on $350 billion worth of imports, and constructed a series of piecemeal and delicate agreements with trading partners that are as good as the next president's dedication to enforcing them.

So far, the promised benefits of this upheaval are hard to see. The gap between American imports and exports of goods is as big as it's ever been, while manufacturing output and job growth flatlined in 2019. To the extent that manufacturers have pulled out of China, they've shifted to countries like Vietnam and Mexico, rather than set up factories in the U.S. And Lighthizer has failed to achieve his most ambitious goals, as a tempestuous president's abrupt twists and turns sabotaged the patient, insistent approach on which his trade representative had built his reputation.

In their defense, turning the ship of global trade may take more than one four-year term. Lighthizer's stated goal is to return to a world in which everyone plays by the same rules, without the need for punitive barriers, and it's possible he could get there with time.

But it doesn't look likely. Lori Wallach, who runs the Global Trade Watch arm of the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen gives Lighthizer credit for trying to break down the mainstream bipartisan consensus that freer trade is always better. Still, she thinks that Trump's tactics have undermined his goal of reviving America's industrial might.

“Lighthizer has changed a lot of thinking in dramatic ways, which is terrific," Wallach said. At the same time, she acknowledged, “he has not been able to reverse decades of boneheaded, job-killing trade policies, such that we still see a trade deficit today that's bigger than when Trump took office, and ongoing outsourcing of jobs, despite good efforts to try and turn around a mess."

The Petitioners Bar

Despite spending his entire career in Washington, for the last few decades, Lighthizer's skeptical views of trade set him apart from the consensus that saw the North American Free Trade Agreement and other treaties passed with the enthusiastic support of both parties.

A native of Ashtabula, Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie, he grew up in relative affluence, insulated from the struggles of a region in the throes of a massive steel industry contraction. A product of Catholic schools, Lighthizer headed to college at Georgetown, and stayed there for law school. He then worked at the prestigious firm Covington & Burling until 1978, when Republican Senator Bob Dole of Kansas asked a partner there for any smart conservative lawyers who might join his Finance Committee staff. He became Capitol Hill's youngest staff director, and positioned himself squarely in the middle of the conservative mainstream, paring budgets and shepherding Ronald Reagan's massive tax cut package through Congress.

In 1983, he joined Reagan's White House as deputy trade representative, which required tackling everything from a grain treaty with the Soviet Union to textile imports from China. But he focused in particular on protecting industrial giants, some in his home state, from Japanese competition. Access to the U.S. market, he recognized, was a big enough carrot to extract concessions from trading partners.

''I try to be friendly in negotiations,'' he told The New York Times in 1984. ''I'm not the theatrical type. The art of persuasion is knowing where the leverage is.''

Ultimately, import quotas on Japanese steel and cars didn't save the Rust Belt — Japanese automakers simply set up shop in the union-free American South, while robots thinned the ranks of workers needed on factory floors.

Lighthizer's divergence from conservative orthodoxy began in the 1990s, when the Republican Party left him, and embraced the orthodoxy that globalization and national specialization were all to the good.

After leaving government, Lighthizer joined Skadden Arps Meagher & Flom, becoming a heavy-hitting tax lobbyist known for his deep expertise and quick wit. As the tax revision wars wound down, he refocused on trade, representing a coalition of American steel companies charging foreign competitors with benefitting from unfair practices like government subsidies. Lighthizer became known as the unofficial king of “the petitioners bar," lawyers who argued cases before the government entities that enforce trade rules. It was hardly a glamorous field. Moving plants to cheaper locales all over the world was rapidly becoming the default setting for American companies, and plenty of attorneys were making good money helping them do it.

“The message Bob had was not one that the big business groups were supportive of," said Terry Stewart, a longtime trade lawyer who worked with Lighthizer. “That led to a failure of the mainstream business community and economists and politicians to recognize the challenges that led to the disenfranchisement of blue collar workers."

Members of the petitioners bar are often true believers, since they've been up close and personal with the crippling wage pressure, intellectual property theft and illegal subsidies that left American factories so vulnerable to imports. Lighthizer fought ferociously before the International Trade Commission, once arguing that suffering anything more than a “spiritual injury" at the hands of foreign steelmakers should entitle his clients to protection. (The Commission didn't buy it.)

Lighthizer became increasingly outspoken after China joined the World Trade Organization in 2000, heralding a steep decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs as companies rushed to the factory boomtowns of Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Testifying before the U.S.-China Commission in 2010, Lighthizer scolded policymakers for “years of passivity and drift" toward China and urged a more aggressive approach. In 2008 and again in 2011, he wrote op-eds making the point that Reagan had been more than willing to throw up trade barriers to defend domestic producers.

For Lighthizer, the issue of the WTO is personal. The multilateral body ruled against the U.S. — and Skadden's clients — in numerous cases involving subsidy calculations. For the petitioners bar, it made the WTO's highest appellate court untenable.

“The fact that the Appellate Body had ruled against the U.S. repeatedly was the primary reason Lighthizer was determined to bring down the WTO," said a former USTR official.

Despite Lighthizer's tangles with chamber of commerce types, he breezed through Senate confirmation hearings in March 2017 by promising vigorous enforcement of existing trade agreements, drawing praise from both arch free-trader Orrin Hatch and fellow Ohioan Sherrod Brown.

The honeymoon would end quickly.

“It Was Like Someone Had Died"

Created by the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, the USTR has a clear if dated mission: To develop “open and non-discriminatory trading in the free world; and to prevent communist economic penetration."

The law reflected a broad consensus in favor of expanded trade. From the staunchly conservative Wall Street Journal editorial pages to top Democratic advisers, most believed that the benefits of open markets far outweighed the costs. Those who disagreed were dismissed as xenophobic and unsophisticated. Decades later, Donald Trump blamed NAFTA for a host of ills — from the rise of automation to the decline of unions — and it helped him win traditionally Democratic states like Michigan and Pennsylvania.

To be fair, conventional wisdom had begun to shift under President Barack Obama, as it became increasingly clear even to free-trade advocates that U.S. efforts to prevent China from flouting international rules and norms weren't working.

Obama spent much of his second term negotiating a trade pact with 12 other Pacific Rim countries, with the idea of creating a U.S.-centered economic bloc to counter China's influence, and tried to sell it to Congress. The Trans Pacific Partnership marked a rare point of agreement with Republican leadership, but an alliance of labor-oriented progressives and tea party conservatives opposed it. As trade emerged as a potent issue in the 2016 campaign, even the Democratric candidate Hillary Clinton — Obama's former secretary of state — was forced to turn against it as well.

Trump's surprise triumph in the election sent shock waves through the trade establishment. The day after the vote, a collection jar appeared on a countertop of the Geneva office, with a sign saying “Save America," recalled a former USTR employee. “That really was a moment in time when I knew that something was going to be different about this change," she said.

Obama's trade representative, Michael Froman, held a pep talk soon after the election, recalled Mark Linscott, the former assistant trade representative for Central and South Asian affairs, who left at the end of 2018. Trump will bring on some good people, Froman said, asking staff to give them a chance. Trump had promised to use tariffs as a cudgel, and Linscott thought that the tool, long out of favor among mainstream economists, might actually break some long-standing logjams.

“It did appear that this administration might be offering new approaches to leverage," Linscott said.

Many staffers harbored hopes that Trump would put his own stamp on the TPP agreement and move ahead with it. Instead, Trump pulled out of the deal on the first business day of his administration, stunning USTR officials who had devoted years to hammering out its intricately balanced details.

“It was like someone died," said one former staff member, describing the mood at headquarters on that rainy January Monday.

Negotiations on two other deals — the trade in services agreement and a broad European Union pact — were put on ice. Staff recall a briefing from Stephen Vaughn, a former Lighthizer law firm colleague who came on as acting USTR and then became general counsel, in which he told the legal team that there would be a dramatically scaled back focus on dispute settlement cases before the WTO — a key way in which USTR typically defends its interests.

“People left the room in tears," remembers a former USTR lawyer. “It felt like a bomb-dropping moment."

(Speaking for USTR, Deputy U.S. Trade Representative C.J. Mahoney denied this happened. “We have never turned down a case that the professional staff wanted us to file at the WTO," he said. In response to an inquiry, Vaughn said that was his recollection as well.)

Despite his popularity on Capitol Hill, Lighthizer's nomination had been held up in the Senate as Democrats bartered on another issue. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross managed trade policy in Lighthizer's absence, along with the virulently anti-China trade advisor Peter Navarro.

Using a national security trade provision, Ross tried to slow China's steel exports with broad steel and aluminum tariffs. His move antagonized allies like Canada and the European Union, which would make USTR staff's jobs harder for the rest of Trump's term.

Soon after confirmation in May, Lighthizer consolidated control and hired three of his Skadden deputies — Jamieson Greer as chief of staff, Jeff Gerrish as his deputy, and Pam Marcus as the deputy chief of staff. The Lighthizer loyalists formed a tight-knit decision making unit.

“Lighthizer and his team came in not as free traders," said one USTR staff member who served through the transition. “And they intuited, or just knew, that most of the civil service at USTR work there because they believe in free trade. So there was real suspicion of the civil service, that we were not making the kinds of recommendations that Lighthizer would want to hear."

Mahoney said that Lighthizer values career staff, frequently praising them in building-wide emails when deals are concluded. “The career staff has always been welcome in Bob's office," he said.

Nevertheless, in the first year and a half, USTR lost more than 20% of its personnel, with 64 departures and retirements. (Churn continues, but the Office of Personnel Management has not provided updated numbers.) Many who remained felt that Lighthizer represented an old guard, with regressive views of how the economy should work.

He made some efforts to promote women: Three of the six assistant trade representatives he has hired are women. But the organization's top leadership is all male, and some female staff expressed that he is dismissive toward women, which current USTR chief of staff Kevin Garvey strongly denied.

“There's a cadre of 75-year-old white men in the trade realm who just want to turn back the hands of time," said another staffer. “They don't understand that the world has changed."

“Like Asking a Vegan to Sell Meat"

To Trump, relationships with other countries usually come down to who's “winning." In trade, that usually refers to the trade deficit — that is, America's exports to a country minus its imports. Like his boss, Lighthizer focused on the goods deficit, since the U.S. imports far more stuff than it exports, which he sees as a problem. That leaves out services, including everything from the many billions in financial expertise the U.S. provides, to tourists and foreign students who attend college here. On that front, the U.S. actually sells more to the rest of the world than it buys.

The new administration gave trade negotiators new marching orders: Minimize imports and maximize exports. One former negotiator remembers her conversations with India, with which the U.S. services deficit was smaller than its goods deficit.

“'What's going to help shape our relationship is going to be things that you can do to help mitigate the deficit that we have,'" she recalled telling her counterparts, with whom the U.S. has a thorny relationship. “I had to be honest about it. 'This is what matters to them, so let's find ways to work together to make a dent in that.'"

For a while, some USTR staff hoped that the zero-sum, economic winners-and-losers approach might solve intractable problems, even though they'd been used to considering the broader implications of trading relationships alongside the scorecard of imports and exports.

“I quickly realized that it wasn't going to be effective," said another recently departed official. Relationships between countries are multilayered, this official said, and can involve many kinds of mutual support. “When you see an allyship boiled down to a trade deficit, you know it's not going to work."

USTR personnel faced a strange duality: Their agency had more authority than ever, but to do things that they often didn't agree with.

“It definitely feels like USTR under Lighthizer got its swagger back on some of these things," said a corporate trade lobbyist, “even though it was a swagger gained by any number of lifelong civil servants who'd spent their careers negotiating trade agreements having to go in and un-negotiate them."

USTR's foreign counterparts also felt the whiplash.

“We negotiated TPP with a big brother, and all of a sudden big brother stepped down," said Salvador Behar, a top TPP negotiator for Mexico. (The pact has since been carried forward by the rest of the parties, leaving the U.S. without the deal's preferential access to their markets.)

Some of the same USTR negotiators who handled the TPP also worked on the NAFTA update, but singing a different tune. “It's kind of like asking a vegan person to sell meat," Behar said. “How come the U.S., which has been the promoter of free trade, is asking me to close markets and call it free trade?"

For some USTR employees, the work pace slowed. While Froman had wanted detailed briefing materials, Lighthizer only asked for two-page memos. While Froman traveled tirelessly, sleeping on red-eye flights, Lighthizer conducted many negotiations in Washington, while staying at his Georgetown townhouse or commuting to his Palm Beach oceanside condo.

But the staff never knew what to expect. Trump often gave no notice of his tariff pronouncements, blindsiding careful USTR employees. “When you're getting calls from the private sector asking what's going on, and you have to somewhat jokingly say, 'I haven't checked Twitter,' That can be a challenge," said one former staffer.

The uncertainty hurt negotiations. As Trump pursued a deregulatory agenda on everything from financial services to the environment, trade officials trying to uphold parallel regulations in international trade agreements had domestic policy thrown in their faces.

“Our counterparts felt more free to say, 'you're rolling back things in the U.S., and we're supposed to keep raising our standards?'" said one former staffer.

Not having the backing of the higher-ups decreases a trade negotiator's leverage, explained Wendy Cutler, who worked at USTR for nearly 30 years before leaving in 2015.

“There are times when cabinet officers can't even give an answer to their counterparts, because the president is personally making so many decisions," said Cutler, now vice president at the Asia Society. “It affects your ability to solve problems, if your counterpart doesn't think you can live up to your word."

One example: In 2018, Mahoney, the deputy trade representative, was negotiating with two important trading partners. A career staffer in the room told ProPublica that in the middle of what Mahoney was handling as a give-and-take conversation, the White House sent orders that no, in fact, the deal on the table was final. Mahoney dutifully conveyed the take-it-or-leave-it message to his foreign counterparts, then hung up the phone, distraught, and asked, “How are these people ever going to believe anything I say ever again?" said the witness, who has since departed the agency.

Mahoney said this account was “not accurate," and called the call a “constructive negotiation."

Over time, staff gained respect for Lighthizer's management of his single most important constituent: the president. While USTR's profile heightened, Lighthizer largely avoided the limelight, knowing that upstaging his boss could hasten his exit. He also coped with Trump's more extreme trade impulses, like hiking tariffs without warning and threatening to end various alliances and agreements.

“Bob's calling card as a negotiator is consistency," said one longtime steel lawyer who'd worked with Lighthizer since the 1980s. “Here you have a guy whose calling card is consistency working for a guy whose calling card is inconsistency."

The China Gambit

Lighthizer, 73, could have retired in 2017 with the upwards of $15 million that ethics disclosures show he made over his Washington career. But Trump offered him a shot at a lifelong dream: curing what he saw as America's unhealthy reliance on China.

Previous trade chiefs had unsuccessfully wrestled with the problem. The world's second-biggest economy had become a market system that was fundamentally different from the capitalist model upon which most international trade laws and norms are predicated.

The U.S. had hoped China would converge with the free-market mainstream when it joined the World Trade Organization in 2000, setting low tariffs and allowing foreign corporations equal access to its consumers. But the Chinese executed an about-face around the time of the great financial crisis, when capitalist systems neared collapse. Returning to a managed economy, they subsidized exports, required outside companies to enter joint ventures with Chinese ones, and encouraged widespread piracy of intellectual property.

China's WTO entry should have prevented backsliding, but that required someone to take complaints to the institution's dispute settlement mechanism. As time passed, smaller countries didn't want to go up against the regional hegemon and American companies had become too globalized to care, so China was never held to account.

“I'm faulting the whole world for not trying to hold China's feet to the fire," said Jennifer Hillman, a former WTO appellate body judge.

In the TPP, the Obama administration negotiated a trade agreement with Pacific Rim nations that would theoretically be so attractive to China, it would meet the pact's requirements for fair competition so that it could join. Meanwhile, talks continued on long-standing issues like access to the Chinese market for American financial services companies.

“There was a recognition that we had to get tougher on China," said Jeff Moon, an independent consultant who was USTR's top China official just before Trump took office. “That was going to happen under Hillary. But the huge difference was, that Trump wants to do it with America alone."

The Trump administration's thinking: Assembling a coalition of nations to pressure China would never have worked. “If our standard for doing something is to wait for all the allies to be on board, we're going to waste a lot of time and suffer a lot in the interim," Mahoney said.

Instead of picking up where Obama left off, Lighthizer ordered up a report on China's intellectual property infringement that could be used to justify unilateral tariffs under Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act, which previous administrations had threatened but never imposed.

“The 301 is a blunt instrument that can be used to achieve what in this instance likely could not have been achieved through the WTO — significant and quick impact," said Kathleen Claussen, a former USTR lawyer who worked on China's intellectual property issues.

The strategy kicked off the month before Trump and Lighthizer visited Chinese President Xi Jinping in November 2017.

James Green, then a senior USTR officer in Beijing and one of the few China experts on staff, advised sealing the deal on previously negotiated issues before Trump's arrival, allowing Xi to claim a domestic victory. The Trump administration wanted China to “feel the pain," Green said.

“What I tried to argue internally was that the best opportunity we have to get concessions is before a presidential visit," said Green, now a senior research fellow at Georgetown University. “That was completely dismissed."

In June 2018, Lighthizer announced tariffs on about $50 billion worth of Chinese exports. China retaliated with steep duties on American agricultural goods. USTR hurled an even bigger tariff volley — and so it went until the end of 2019, when the administration delayed a new round of consumer goods tariffs set to go into effect right before Christmas.

Farmers, an important Trump political constituency, were compensated for the lost Chinese market with tens of billions of dollars in subsidies — more than the auto companies received during the last recession — and no obligation to repay them. But manufacturers, faced with higher prices for imported parts, got nothing. That helped drive the sector into a recession — a December 2019 study estimated that the tariffs depressed manufacturing employment in sectors on which they fell most heavily.

Meanwhile, talks proceeded. In January, China agreed to respect intellectual property, open its market to agricultural goods, and license American financial services providers, while committing to purchase $200 billion worth of U.S. goods. Although China had been pledging some of those commitments for years, Mahoney argued that the deal wouldn't have happened without applying tariffs.

“There were 10 rounds of negotiations with the Chinese on these issues before this administration," he said. “The strategy of talking to these people had been tried across two administrations and basically led to nothing."

Companies were relieved that the “Phase 1 Agreement" might herald a cessation of hostilities. But only 19% of companies surveyed by the American Chamber of Commerce in China thought the deal was worth years of tariff-driven disruption.

The pain has continued on both sides. Agricultural exports to China started rebounding in 2020, but are nowhere near their pre-trade war highs, as China has fallen short of its purchase commitments. Neither side dropped its tariffs significantly, while introducing complicated exemption processes. The tougher issues, regarding the tight control China's government exerts over its economy, were deferred to a second phase of talks.

Derek Scissors, a China scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, advised Lighthizer, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and the rest of Trump's economic team to use financial sanctions and bans on specific bad actors — state-owned enterprises and those that violate intellectual property protections — to attack China's practices directly. That would work better than bargaining for specific concessions like requiring China to buy large amounts of soybeans.

“I think that's his view," Scissors said of Lighthizer. “It's not the president's view. So he's got to negotiate with the Chinese, he's got to negotiate with the president, and to add to all that, he's got Steve Mnuchin going 'everything's fine, settled, sign here, deal's done.'"

In July, as Trump sought to refocus blame for the coronavirus on China, he acknowledged that a Phase 2 deal was unlikely.

Now, by Lighthizer's own metrics, the U.S. isn't winning the trade war. The trade deficit with China has barely budged, and it's widened with other countries like Vietnam as American companies responded to tariffs by moving operations elsewhere in the region.

Another factor undermining Lighthizer's approach is currency markets, which Treasury influences, not USTR. Asian countries have been holding their currencies artificially low relative to the dollar, which makes the goods the U.S. tries to sell overseas more expensive and decreases the potency of tariffs.

In September, a WTO panel ruled that the tariffs imposed under the 1974 Trade Act were illegal. Because Lighthizer's efforts to hobble the WTO included blocking the appointment of new judges, the high court that could overturn the decision on appeal no longer functions. The ruling stands, which would mean the WTO could authorize China to retaliate. China had already done so without authorization, another sign that the once-strict rules of international trade are being supplanted by a free-for-all in which each country does what it wants.

Business Flummoxed

Lighthizer brought another abrupt change to USTR: Making it clear that American business wasn't his only client.

The divergence came to a head quickly, during the overhaul of NAFTA, which Lighthizer conducted at warp speed for a trade agreement. In order to win over Democrats, he'd proposed getting rid of investor-state dispute settlement, which allows companies to sue governments in special courts over laws they perceive as discriminatory.

That and other issues had outraged trade groups, which complained that they needed a provision for settling disputes to protect their overseas investments from abroad. In early October 2017, heading into the fourth round of negotiations, National Association of Manufacturers vice president for government affairs Linda Dempsey requested an “urgent" meeting to discuss “increasing concerns throughout all the major US economic sectors," according to emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the watchdog group American Oversight.

USTR's chief of staff Jamieson Greer declined, suggesting that companies engage through already-scheduled staff briefings and the Industrial Trade Advisory Committees, a formal channel for stakeholders to weigh in on trade policies. (Under Lighthizer, some committee members say, that input has been ignored.)

At the conclusion of that round of talks, Lighthizer held a press conference at the stately white Winder Building, in a conference room packed with reporters. One asked about the business groups' objections, prompting an exasperated reply. Corporations purport to love free markets, Lighthizer snapped, waving his arms for emphasis. But instead of incorporating political risk into their international business decisions, now they want trade rules to protect them from anything that might go wrong?

“Why is it a good policy of the U.S. government to encourage investment in Mexico?" Lighthizer asked. In the end, he got what he wanted; the dispute settlement provision was mostly scrapped.

NAFTA wasn't the only matter on which business lobbies felt they had lost control. An ad hoc business group coalition held sometimes daily conference calls around Trump edicts, including his tweeted order that all U.S. companies move supply chains out of China. The coalition prepared a lawsuit should Trump actually invoke the 1977 law on which it was ostensibly based.

Trump didn't follow through. But the larger problem for businesses was that, even when USTR did want to act on their behalf, it didn't always ask their opinion. In the China negotiations, for example, nobody lobbied for specific purchase targets, which became the deal's largest selling point.

Although they're not usually cast as such, tariffs aren't so much a weapon against other countries as they are a signal to domestic business: Lighthizer was telling American companies that investing overseas wouldn't be the obvious choice it had been in the past.

“If that's your goal, I think that tariffs have worked their magic," said James Green, the former USTR staff member in Beijing. “He's made corporate America think about whether they want to invest their next dollar in China."

The biggest beneficiary of USTR's actions so far, on the other hand, may be tech companies: Google, Amazon and Facebook have hired at least a dozen USTR staffers since early in the administration, including high-level intellectual property specialists, and secured broad legal immunity concerning third-party content posted on internet platforms. Lighthizer's calendar shows 15 phone calls and meetings with Apple CEO Tim Cook in 2018 and 2019, more than any other corporate executive, as the iPhone maker lobbied for tariff exemptions. Some meetings were scheduled on less than a day's notice, correspondence shows.

On NAFTA, Lighthizer's willingness to tell business groups to pound sand was made possible by his skillful navigation of Congress, which has to sign off on comprehensive trade deals. The kumbaya moment, however, hasn't extended to the rest of Trump's narrower bilateral agreements, for which Lighthizer skipped lawmakers entirely.

“We need to be able to have Congress being full participants if we're going to make meaningful progress," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee, voicing irritation about the mini-deals and tariff measures for which Lighthizer hasn't sought congressional approval.

Yet for all their grumbling, lawmakers have balked at reining in Trump's authority. The Senate Finance Committee has floated legislation that would constrain using national security to justify tariffs, but the bill hasn't moved forward — in part because lawmakers recognize that Trump likely wouldn't sign it.

Of course, Lighthizer knows that.

“With a lot of what he's done, there's a pretty brutally practical calculus," said a House aide on trade. “If I don't exactly jump through these hoops, is the U.S. Congress going to stand up and prevent us from doing this?"

A Fight to the Finish

The pandemic thwarted some of Lighthizer's plans for 2020, but he hasn't stopped fighting for higher tariffs.

In early March, it became apparent that many China-made supplies and equipment needed to control and treat infections were subject to tariffs, giving rise to attacks on protectionism as a public health threat. USTR exempted some of those goods, but Lighthizer has since opposed broader relief for medical products. At a June Senate Finance Committee hearing, he said he would consider pulling out of a pharmaceutical agreement that committed the U.S. to zero tariffs.

“I would be far more in favor of increasing tariffs on the things that we need as a part of an overall plan to make sure that the next time we have domestic manufacturing capability in these areas," Lighthizer said.

Lighthizer also announced that he would pursue a broad WTO tariff “reset." Over many years of negotiation, WTO members have varying maximum tariff rates, with less-developed nations usually imposing higher duties to protect growing industries. The average U.S. tariff is among the lowest in the world, and the plan proposes raising the U.S. tariff ceiling much higher, giving USTR negotiators more leverage as they ask other countries to lower their barriers. If they refuse, as expected, the Trump administration could then jack up America's tariffs to match the world's most protectionist countries.

The reset proposal sent ripples of alarm through Geneva and trade-war-weary Washington. “The business community's concern is that an effort to reset tariffs risks ending up with higher tariffs everywhere," said John Murphy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president for international policy.

Meanwhile, Lighthizer's agency has started to destabilize. Stephen Vaughn, who was seen as a steadying influence, returned to his law firm last year. He had Lighthizer's trust and was seen as a conduit to the front office, making career staffers believe their advice was at least presented, if not heeded.

Lighthizer's original Skadden team returned to private practice earlier this year. In July, Lighthizer faced a staff revolt as he attempted to bring employees working at home during the pandemic back to the office. (Mahoney said this was optional.) Lighthizer then ordered that vacancies could no longer be filled from outside the agency, which Mahoney attributed to difficulties in interviewing candidates during the pandemic, and a rethinking of staffing levels.

If Joe Biden succeeds Trump, most experts expect a return to a less confrontational trade policy. But they recognize that Lighthizer's legacy can't be unwound quickly or neatly.

“I think Biden would come into office with a bank of goodwill," said Sam duPont, who worked at the agency's digital trade office until joining the German Marshall Fund earlier this year. “But the trade relationship with Europe, for example, is really strained. And a lot of things have been put in place that would have to be undone for that good will to be maintained."

Craig Allen, president of the U.S. China Business Council, served as Obama's ambassador to Brunei, a founding member of the TPP back in 2003. He keeps a framed replica of its Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Commerce and Navigation — a document that dates back to 1850 — in his office near Washington's Dupont Circle.

He remembered having to tell his diplomatic counterparts that the U.S. was withdrawing from the TPP, and worries that the relationship will never fully heal.

“It was painful, that we withdrew with nothing so much as a 'thank you very much." Allen continued. “All of our negotiating partners worked hard to meet our demands. It was very difficult for them to do so, and we walk away. But we are a democracy, and an ambassador must follow instructions."

What happens after a debt collection machine grinds to a halt

A year after Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare erased the $33,000 Carrie Barrett owed for unpaid hospital bills, the former Kroger grocery store clerk is figuring out how to open the food truck she's always dreamed of.

The nonprofit hospital system also erased more than $23,000 in debts owed by one of its own housekeepers who it sued for unpaid bills. And now she's dreaming of home ownership.

It's been one year since MLK50: Justice Through Journalism and ProPublica reported that Methodist was quietly erasing the debt owed by thousands of patients it'd sued over the past 19 years for unpaid hospital bills.

The debt cancellation, which wiped out nearly $12 million owed by more than 5,300 defendants, followed an investigation by the news organizations into the faith-based hospital's relentless efforts to collect on bills from low-income residents and even its own employees.

The hospital effectively ended the legal proceedings by filing thousands of notices with Shelby County General Sessions Court stating that the defendants' balances were now zero. The case-satisfied notices flooded the court clerk's office weeks after Methodist announced sweeping policy changes, including a far more generous charity care policy. More than half of the residents in the Memphis, Tennessee, metro area would qualify based on their household income.

While Methodist's decision to eradicate so much debt lifted a financial and psychological burden for many, it only addressed a piece of one of the myriad systems — such as low-wage jobs, lack of transportation and substandard housing — that make it hard for families to make ends meet.

I've stayed in touch with some of the defendants featured in last year's investigation, including Barrett, then a Kroger deli clerk who made $9.05 an hour, and a Methodist housekeeper who earned $12.15 an hour. I granted the housekeeper anonymity at the time because she worried that the hospital would fire her for talking to a journalist.

Today, Barrett said she's caught up on her bills, thanks in part to the generosity of a stranger who offered help after reading the initial stories.

Marilyn Boyd, who no longer works at the hospital and has now agreed to allow her name and photo to be used, said her finances are slightly better. She said she owes Methodist several thousand dollars for a 2014 surgery, but she hasn't been sued.

Still, neither has enough left after paying bills to establish an emergency fund. And in the last few months, unexpected expenses — for both of them, car repairs — forced them to borrow money.

A Debt Collection Machine Grinds to a Halt

Methodist filed more collection lawsuits in Shelby County General Sessions Court between 2014 and 2018 than all but one creditor.

Because it's a nonprofit, Methodist is required to offer some sort of financial assistance to low-income patients, although the IRS does not dictate how generous that assistance is.

For years, so many defendants sued by Methodist came to court that their cases consumed almost all of a courtroom's docket on Wednesday mornings, when a judge would hear nothing but Methodist's cases.

On one side would be a pair of Methodist attorneys and a contingent of Methodist employees. On the other side was the defendant — usually a black woman, almost never represented by an attorney. In front was a General Sessions Court judge, who was often unsympathetic to the defendants' request to pay less per month than Methodist wanted.

A comparison of the number of cases filed in the months and years before and after MLK50-ProPublica's investigation illustrates how Methodist's presence at the court went from massive to virtually nonexistent.

In 2018, the hospital filed just under 1,500 lawsuits, according to Shelby County General Sessions Court records.

Between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2019, the hospital filed close to 700 suits.

On June 27, MLK50 and ProPublica published the first story in the “Profiting from the Poor" investigation. Three days later, the hospital's president and CEO, Dr. Michael Ugwueke, announced the hospital would review its policies.

By July 3, 2019, the hospital had begun dropping lawsuits it'd filed against defendants and the finely tuned debt collection machine ground to a halt.

Between July and December 2019, Methodist filed two lawsuits. In 2020, it's only filed one suit. (Because of the pandemic, Shelby County General Sessions Court closed from March 13 to June 15.)

It's great news “that the hospital has made changes to its policy, that it's not further destabilizing people who got sick or injured and needed care," said Mark Rukavina, business development manager at Community Catalyst's Center for Consumer Engagement in Health Innovation.

Last year, Methodist estimated that raising the pay of its lowest-paid workers to at least $13.50 an hour would cost $14 million. It's unclear how the other changes affected Methodist's bottom line. The hospital declined an interview request for this story, as it has since MLK50 asked for an interview in June 2019.

“I'm Still Not Going to Give Up"

In 2007, Barrett spent two nights in the hospital after she complained of shortness of breath and tightness in her chest. Her initial hospital bill was just over $12,000.

The hospital sued her in 2010 and over the years, with attorney's fees and added interest, her debt ballooned to more than $33,000. Fifteen times, Methodist garnished money from her paycheck.

When I met Barrett, she was in court, facing off with Shelby County General Sessions Court Judge Betty Thomas Moore, who'd ordered her to pay $100 a month toward the debt. If she'd paid as ordered and Methodist didn't add any additional interest, she would have been 90 years old by the time she was debt-free.

“The only thing that kept me levelheaded was praying and asking God to help me," she said last year.

When the debt was erased, she rejoiced — literally. At her church last year, she gave her fellow parishioners an update.

“I have a zero balance," she said. “I just want to thank God for blessings that he has brought to me. … I thank him for the victory!"

Today, Barrett, 64, makes ends meet with her Social Security payment and the money she receives for being a foster parent. That, plus the money she makes catering — she's already taking orders for Thanksgiving — covers her bills.

She'd anticipated that any foster child she had would be in school, but then the coronavirus pandemic struck. Shelby County Schools have been closed for in-person learning since March; school resumed in August, virtual only.

Earlier this month, she was frustrated: Her foster child was having difficulty logging on for virtual school.

“I'm not that good on the computer," she admitted. “My mind ain't equipped for all that."

She doesn't plan to return to Kroger, although it has offered her a job. She has her mind set on a career: Running a food truck.

“The food truck, I was trying to get stuff going with that, and I'm still not going to give up, because that's my dream," Barrett said.

Not long after the investigation was published, a woman in California reached out to Barrett to say she was touched by her story and horrified that the hospital had sued her. She sent Barrett money then and did so again just weeks ago.

The timing was perfect: Barrett had just taken out a payday loan to get her brakes fixed. She was able to use the woman's gift to pay off the loan and catch up on some bills.

“She said she didn't forget me and she was thinking of me during this coronavirus situation," Barrett said.

Free to Hope for a Brighter Future

Perhaps what most shocked readers was that Methodist sued its own employees, including ones it paid very little.

A MLK50-ProPublica analysis of Shelby County General Sessions Court records, online docket reports and case files showed that between 2014 and 2018, Methodist won a judgment against and tried to garnish the paychecks of more than 160 Methodist employees, and actually garnished employees' pay more than 70 times.

Between 2012 and 2014, Boyd visited Methodist five times for chronic stomach ailments. Insurance through her hotel housekeeping job, where she made $10.66 an hour, left her with $17,500 in hospital bills.

Methodist sued Boyd in 2017, before she started working at the hospital. In June 2019, she owed the hospital more than $23,000. Of that, $5,800 were attorney's fees.

At a hearing last year in General Sessions Court, Boyd was wearing her hospital uniform, standing in front of a judge and attempting to negotiate a reasonable payment. Methodist's attorneys wanted $200 a month, which she knew she couldn't do, so she agreed to $75 every two weeks.

Other Methodist workers interviewed were furious that their employer had sued them, but Boyd was more resigned than angry. “You know how much you pay me. And the money you're paying, I can't live on," Boyd said last year. Being an employee and defendant is “really kind of sad."

Although Boyd was only making $12.25 an hour, she needed her job and was hesitant to use her name in the story or be identifiable in photographs, for fear the hospital would fire her.

My editors and I decided to grant Boyd anonymity, which eased her fears but also meant that she didn't receive the same generous gifts from strangers who reached out directly to Barrett through her church.

But Boyd, 52, did benefit from another piece of the hospital's broad reform measures: Methodist raised the pay of its lowest-paid employees to $13.50 an hour in September 2019 and has said it will raise the pay to a minimum of $15 an hour in January 2021.

When the coronavirus pandemic reached Memphis, Boyd was still cleaning hospital rooms, including those of COVID-19 patients. She worried that she'd catch the virus at work and infect her daughter, who had a high-risk pregnancy, or her grandchildren.

Her fears of catching the virus and the stress of the toll the virus wrought started disturbing her sleep.

“When you see people dying all day, people don't think about it, but it messes with your mind," Boyd said.

She started seeing a counselor.

“You'd have to have a cold heart" to remain unaffected by the deaths, she said. “But my heart is too soft. I don't even know these people and I'm crying."

In August, she left the hospital for a warehouse job that pays $15 an hour. “I can make a little more money and it's less stressful," Boyd said. She's on her feet for the entire 12-hour shifts, so she's saving up for better shoes.

After Methodist erased the debt, the collection item fell off her credit report. “It was a big chunk that came off my credit," Boyd said. “My credit score is a little better now."

“In a couple years from now, if I'm doing better, I want to get a house," she said. “And if my credit is going up, I'll be able to do those things one day."

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