ProPublica

Senate Democrats seek probe of tech firm accused of colluding with landlords to hike apartment rents

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The senator tasked with overseeing federal antitrust enforcement is urging the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether a Texas-based company’s price-setting software is undermining competition and pushing up rents.

Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust and Consumer Rights, sent a letter to the DOJ’s Antitrust Division this month. It was also signed by two other Democrats, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.

“We are concerned that the use of this rate setting software essentially amounts to a cartel to artificially inflate rental rates in multifamily residential buildings,” the letter said. It encouraged the DOJ to “take appropriate action to protect renters and competition in the residential rental markets.”

In mid-October, a ProPublica investigation documented how real estate tech company RealPage’s price-setting software uses nearby competitors’ nonpublic rent data to feed an algorithm that suggests what landlords should charge for available apartments each day. Legal experts said the algorithm may be enabling violations of antitrust laws.

ProPublica detailed how RealPage’s User Group, a forum that includes landlords who adopt the company’s software, had grown to more than 1,000 members, who meet in private at an annual conference and take part in quarterly phone calls. The senators raised specific questions about the group, saying, “We are concerned about potential anticompetitive coordination taking place through the RealPage User Group.”

RealPage did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

RealPage has said that the company “uses aggregated market data from a variety of sources in a legally compliant manner” and that its software prioritizes a property’s own internal supply and demand dynamics over external factors such as competitors’ rents. The company has said its software helps reduce the risk of collusion that would occur if landlords relied on phone surveys of competitors to manually price their units.

The DOJ declined to comment on the letter.

The department five years ago reviewed RealPage’s plan to acquire its biggest competitor in pricing software, but federal prosecutors declined to seek to block the merger, which doubled the number of apartments RealPage was pricing.

The senators noted that transaction, saying RealPage has made more than 10 acquisitions since 2016. They said in data-intensive industries, “the ability to acquire more data can result in the algorithms suggesting higher prices and can also increase the barriers to entry” for other competitors. The lawmakers encouraged the department “to consider looking back at RealPage’s past behavior to determine whether any of it was anticompetitive.”

The letter follows two others sent by lawmakers urging the DOJ or Federal Trade Commission to investigate RealPage. Since ProPublica’s investigation was published, three lawsuits have been filed on behalf of renters alleging that the software is artificially inflating rents and facilitating collusion. RealPage has denied allegations in a lawsuit filed in San Diego, and it has not responded to calls for comment about the other two legal actions, filed in federal district court in Seattle.

These 20 churches are violating federal law by supporting political candidates: expert assessments

The endorsement of political candidates by religious leaders from the pulpit has grown increasingly brazen, aggressive and sophisticated in recent years.

ProPublica and The Texas Tribune have found 20 apparent violations in the past two years of the Johnson Amendment, a law that prohibits church leaders from intervening in political campaigns. Two occurred in the last two weeks as candidates crisscross Texas vying for votes. The number of potential violations found by the news outlets is greater than the total number of churches the IRS has investigated for intervening in political campaigns in the past decade, according to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Under the law, pastors can endorse candidates in their personal capacities outside of church and weigh in on political issues from the pulpit as long as they don’t veer into support or condemnation of a particular candidate. But the law prohibits pastors from endorsing candidates during official church functions such as sermons.

Violations can lead to the revocation of a church’s tax-exempt status.

Descriptions of the 20 videos we identified are below. ProPublica and the Tribune had three experts review each of them. They agreed that the cases below violate the law. The experts were Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a tax and election law expert at the University of Notre Dame; Ellen Aprill, an emerita tax law professor at Loyola Marymount University’s law school; and Sam Brunson, a law professor at Loyola University Chicago.

We’re Not Endorsing a Candidate, but…

In these cases, pastors said they were not endorsing candidates, but their actions equated to an endorsement, according to the experts. Some acknowledged that the law did not allow them to endorse before making their statements.

Mercy Culture

Location: Fort Worth, Texas

Pastors: Landon Schott, Heather Schott and Steve Penate

Context: Pastors at Mercy Culture expressed support for political candidates in at least three sermons this year. All three instances violated the Johnson Amendment, according to the experts. During one such instance on Feb. 6, the Schotts and Penate spoke in favor of Nate Schatzline, who is running for a seat in the state House. “Now, obviously, churches don’t endorse candidates, but my name is Landon and I’m a person before I’m a pastor. And as an individual, I endorse Nate Schatzline,” Landon Schott said. Schatzline’s appearance ended with Schott stating: “We declare Mercy Culture Church is behind you. We declare Mercy Culture Church is praying for you. We declare Mercy Culture Church is supporting you.” Early voting for the March 1 primary began eight days after the church service. Schatzline qualified for a runoff, which he won on May 24. He will face Democratic nominee KC Chowdhury, a Democrat, in Tuesday’s general election.

Expert assessment:

Brunson: “If it’s part of the religious services, his disclaimer doesn’t work and it’s a clear violation of the Johnson Amendment (albeit an almost clever, and definitely self-aware, attempt to avoid that). Penate saying ‘do something with us’ is absolutely an endorsement. If they’re doing it in their capacity as pastors, this violates the Johnson Amendment.”

Church and candidate response: Mercy Culture, Landon Schott and Heather Schott did not respond to questions or requests for comment. Both Penate, a church elder who said he was not speaking on behalf of the church, and Schatzline stated in separate interviews that they did not believe any laws were broken. “Mercy Culture has never endorsed anyone,” Penate said. “Mercy Culture has never told anyone to vote a certain way. Never.”

Unite Church

Location: Anchorage, Alaska

Pastor: Josh Tanner

Context: On Jan. 16, Tanner introduced his congregation to Kelly Tshibaka, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, and let her speak about how she expressed her faith during her career in government. “OK, so I want you to know that we’re not just gonna be doing an endorsement for Kelly today, even though I am endorsing Kelly for U.S. Senate. And you can vote for whoever you want. I’m just letting you know who I’m voting for. It’s gonna be her.”

Tshibaka was among the top candidates to advance to the November general election. She will face incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Patricia Chesbro on Tuesday.

Expert assessment:

Aprill: “That the pastor says he personally endorses the candidate at an official function of the church makes the statement campaign intervention.”

Church and candidate response: Unite Church, Tanner and Tshibaka did not respond to requests for comment.

“Uncle Bill”: A New “Family”-Based Strategy

Some churches coordinated with one another to provide their congregations with a list that singled out specific candidates and omitted others.

Gateway Church

Location: Southlake, Texas, northwest of Dallas

Pastor: Robert Morris

Context: Morris is among a group of Dallas-area pastors who have coordinated to highlight certain candidates running for public office. Since 2021, Morris has shown his congregation the names of specific candidates for office at least three times. In each of those cases, Morris violated the Johnson Amendment, according to experts. (Morris also showed the names during an Oct. 23 service.) During an April 18, 2021, sermon, a day before the start of early voting, Morris displayed the names of nine candidates running in nonpartisan races for school board and City Council on a screen. “And so we’re not endorsing a candidate,” Morris said. “We’re not doing that. But we just thought because they’re a member of the family of God, that you might want to know if someone in the family and this family of churches is running.” All but one of the candidates whose names were shown either won their race or qualified for a runoff.

Expert assessment:

Mayer: “This is a new (at least to me) technique, to join a group of like-minded churches and then identify to the congregation anyone who is a member of any of those churches who is a candidate for elected public office, as opposed to just identifying members of your congregation who are candidates. But this technique, even with the disclaimers made by the pastor here, is still a violation of the Johnson Amendment. While the pastor tries to avoid the violation by making various disclaimers and saying he is just giving the congregation the names and they can do what they want when they vote, those are not sufficient to cure the violation. But they do provide an argument that there is not a violation and so muddies the waters a bit, even though I believe that argument ultimately fails legally.”

Church response: Lawrence Swicegood, Gateway Media executive director, said in an emailed statement:

“At Gateway Church:

We DON’T:

  • Support any specific political party
  • Endorse political candidates

We DO:

  • INFORM our church family of other church family members who are seeking office to serve our community.
  • ENCOURAGE our church family to vote as God leads them.
  • PRAY for our elected officials regardless of their political party, or affiliation.”

First Baptist Grapevine

Location: Grapevine, Texas, northwest of Dallas

Pastor: Doug Page

Context: On April 18, 2021, Page showed his congregation the same list of candidates as Morris. “This is not an endorsement by us. We are not endorsing anyone. However, if you’re part of a family, you’d like to know if Uncle Bill is running for office, right? And so that’s all we’re going to do is simply inform you,” Page said.

Expert assessment:

Mayer: “This is a violation of the Johnson Amendment for the same reasons as the Gateway Church violations.”

Church response: “As is clearly stated in the sermon clip you provided, these candidates were named for information only, not for endorsement. First Baptist Grapevine does not and will not endorse candidates for public office. Our primary focus is the gospel of Jesus Christ and seeking to follow His will for our lives,” Page said in an emailed statement.

Dueling Endorsements

For these nonpartisan races in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, pastors from different churches endorsed opposing candidates.

Koinonia Christian Church

Location: Arlington, Texas

Pastor: Ronnie W. Goines

Context: The first race involved candidates for the Mansfield school board. In a May 1 sermon, Goines implored his congregation to vote for Benita Reed in a local nonpartisan race on May 7. He said that Reed was the most qualified candidate in the race because she has worked in education for almost 30 years, but that scare tactics were being used against her. He then showed a mailer targeting Reed that read, “MISD put ‘woke’ politics over the safety of our children.” Then, Goines said, “All we got to do, people, is let’s go make a long line outside the polls and get this woman elected.” He later said: “Koinonia, we need, Dr. Reed needs a thousand votes. She needs a thousand votes. We got right at 10,000 members.”

Expert assessment:

Aprill: “This is a direct campaign intervention. He says, ‘She needs a thousand votes.’”

Church and candidate response: Reached by phone, Goines directed the news organizations to the church’s spokesperson, who did not respond. Reed did not respond to emailed questions.

MoreChurch

Location: Mansfield, Texas, southwest of Dallas

Pastor: Truston Baba

Context: None of the candidates received more than 50% of the vote during the May 7 election, leading to a runoff between Reed and Craig Tipping. During a June 12 sermon, Baba encouraged his congregation to vote in the runoff election. He then praised Tipping. “And so, Craig, thank you for running. Thank you for being obedient to do what God’s called you to do. And I’m gonna support you. And I hope that people from More Church will not just complain but will actually get out and vote. You know, we go to the booth, and we go to get these little stickers. ‘I voted.’ Y’all know you get the ‘I voted’ sticker? Come on. There’s a big one. Get out. Get the sticker. Let’s vote and help make a difference locally. Come on. Give a hand for my friend Craig today.” Tipping, a physical therapist, won on June 18.

Expert Assessment:

Aprill: “Having only one candidate appear is partisan. This pastor states at an official event that he supports the candidate. As noted earlier, that violates the prohibition. Moreover, the pastor’s comments are an endorsement of the candidate generally.”

Church and candidate response: Neither More Church nor Baba responded to requests for an interview or emailed questions. Tipping did not respond to emails requesting comment.

Life-Changing Faith Christian Fellowship

Location: Frisco, Texas, north of Dallas

Pastor: Dono Pelham

Context: The second set of dueling sermons involved two candidates in a nonpartisan race for Frisco City Council. On May 2, 2021, Pelham told his congregation that his wife, Angelia Pelham, had qualified for the runoff. He encouraged them to vote in the June 5, 2021, election in which Pelham faced Jennifer White, a veterinarian who described herself as the only conservative in the race. “I’m not about to endorse, but you’ll get the message,” Pelham said.

Expert Assessment:

Brunson: “He’s basically endorsing his wife, and I think it would be hard to argue anything different.”

Church and candidate response: Dono Pelham said in an emailed statement that he did not endorse his wife in the runoff. Angelia Pelham said she and her husband were “very clear and very intentional” about not violating the Johnson Amendment.

KingdomLife Church

Location: Frisco, Texas

Pastor: Brandon Burden

Context: Six days before that runoff election for the Frisco City Council, Burden supported White from the pulpit. Burden told churchgoers that God was working through the congregation to take the country, and particularly North Texas, back to its Christian roots. He framed the race between White and Pelham as one against Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney. Cheney had urged residents to put party politics aside and vote for Pelham because of her experience working for corporations such as PepsiCo Inc., The Walt Disney Co. and Cinemark. “I got a candidate that God wants to win,” Burden said. “I got a mayor that God wants to unseat. God wants to undo. God wants to shift the balance of power in our city. And I have jurisdiction over that this morning.” Pelham defeated White in the election.

Expert assessment:

Brunson: “It’s pretty obvious, from the context and other things that he has said, that it is clear who he is saying God wants to win.”

Church and candidate response: Neither Burden nor KingdomLife responded to multiple interview requests or to emailed questions. White said she wasn’t in attendance during the sermon. She said she does not believe pastors should endorse candidates from the pulpit, but she welcomed churches becoming more politically active. “I think that the churches over the years have been a big pretty big disappointment to the candidates in that they won’t take a political stance,” White said. “So I would love it if churches would go ahead and come out and actually discuss things like morality. Not a specific party, but at least make sure people know where the candidates stand on those issues. And how to vote based on that.”

“Vote Her Behind Right Out of Office”: Criticizing the Incumbent, Praising the Challenger

Pulpit criticism of sitting officeholders is permitted, except during campaigns when officeholders are running as candidates. In the cases below, pastors criticized the incumbents while praising their challengers during election season.

Legacy Church

Location: Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pastor: Steve Smothermon

Context: During a July 10 sermon, Smothermon attacked New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who supports abortion rights, and praised Republican Mark Ronchetti for seeking to end abortion in New Mexico. “We have the Wicked Witch of the North. Or you have Mark Ronchetti,” Smotherman said. Later in the sermon, Smotherman said, “You better get registered to vote, and we better vote her behind right out of office.” Grisham and Ronchetti will face each other in Tuesday’s gubernatorial election.

Expert assessment:

Aprill: “This is a campaign intervention. The pastor is endorsing Ronchetti and opposing Ronchetti’s opponent.”

Church and candidate response: Legacy Church, Smothermon and Ronchetti did not respond to requests for comment.

Friendship-West Baptist Church

Location: Dallas

Pastor: Frederick Douglass Haynes III

Context: At the end of the church service on May 8, Haynes criticized state leaders’ response to the deadly February 2021 winter storm and praised Beto O’Rourke for donating $25,000 to the church during that time. Haynes then invited O’Rourke to speak with his congregation. “I just want to say, because I think we need to know this in a very public way, that when there was a crisis February last year and the ineptitude of our state leadership, and then you had (Ted) Cruz going to Cancun. Lord Jesus, so Cruz went to Cancun and then (Greg) Abbott’s friends got paid. And while that was going on, Beto O’Rourke was using resources from his foundation. He was on the ground, serving people, blessing people and just, just, just doing what God wants us to do.” O’Rourke, who announced in November 2021 that he would challenge Greg Abbott in the race for governor, then gave a 10-minute speech about how the faith community played a pivotal role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act. O’Rourke was identified as a gubernatorial candidate in a caption on the church’s livestream. He ended his May speech by expressing hope that people of color who were targeted by the restrictive voting laws passed by Republicans last year would provide the margin of victory on Nov. 8.

Expert Assessment:

Mayer: “Assuming the church is responsible for the caption (that ran under O’Rourke on the church’s livestream), this is a clear violation of the Johnson Amendment because the church explicitly identifies Beto O’Rourke as a candidate and the pastor expresses support for him.”

Church and candidate response: Haynes did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment. Chris Evans, communication director for O’Rourke’s campaign, said in an emailed statement: “Beto has enjoyed worshiping alongside the congregation at Friendship-West Baptist Church for years and is proud to call Pastor Haynes his friend. Pastor Haynes has long led the on-the-ground work of bringing people together to deliver for his community that Greg Abbott has absolutely failed and to fight for equality, justice, and opportunity across Texas.”

“My Dear Friend”: Hosting a Candidate

Some pastors introduced candidates during their sermons and allowed them to speak, while others interviewed them during church functions. The Johnson Amendment allows candidates to visit churches and speak to parishioners before elections, but it requires that churches maintain a “nonpartisan atmosphere” and give all candidates the same opportunity to visit.

St. Luke "Community" United Methodist Church

Location: Dallas

Pastor: Richie Butler

Context: On Oct. 23, a day before early voting began, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke visited the church. Butler introduced him as “the next governor of Texas.” He told parishioners: “We want to encourage him as he continues to run the race that is before him, and he needs us to get him across the finish line.” O’Rourke urged parishioners to vote and then gave a brief speech calling for fixing the state’s electric grid and expressing alarm over the high rate of school shootings and gun violence.

Expert Assessment:

Mayer: “This situation is a clear violation of the Johnson Amendment. Beto O’Rourke is introduced as the ‘next governor of Texas,’ which highlights both that he is a candidate and one whom the church supports. And O’Rourke’s comments are a sales pitch for his candidacy. There is no indication that any opposing candidate has been given a similar opportunity and, even if he had been, the favorable introduction of O’Rourke would still be across the line.”

Church and candidate response: In a statement, Butler said: “Black churches have been important hubs for civic engagement and organization in the fight for social justice since Reconstruction. The mixing of faith-based congregations and electoral engagement is not a new concept.” O’Rourke did not respond to a request for comment or emailed questions.

Grace Woodlands

Location: The Woodlands, Texas, north of Houston

Pastor: Steve Riggle

Context: Also on Oct. 23, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican running for reelection, visited Grace Woodlands. During the sermon, Riggle said that Texas needs leaders like Patrick who “will stand for values that are critical to the future of this nation.” Riggle praised Patrick as a “strong person” of faith whom “God has given us at the very top.” Patrick then spoke to the congregation and cast the election in stark terms. “This is not a race between Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “This is a race about darkness and light. This is a race about powers and principalities. And the devil is at full work in this country.”

Expert Assessment:

Brunson: “This is a clear endorsement of Patrick by the pastor of a church acting in his capacity as pastor in the course of ordinary church meetings. This violates the Johnson Amendment.”

Church and candidate response: Riggle said that his church did not endorse any candidate and said his introduction was focused on biblical values, not politics. He added that he believes the Johnson Amendment should be overturned.

“The government has no right at any time to, in any way, tell the church who it can have or who it cannot have to speak,” he said. “It can’t tell the church what it can preach on or not preach on. This is America, and we believe in a free church, not one controlled by the government.”

Patrick did not respond to requests for comment or emailed questions.

Sojourn Church

Location: Carrollton, Texas, north of Dallas

Pastor: Chris McRae

Context: During a May 1 sermon, McRae told parishioners that they were being lied to by an “invisible enemy” about issues of race, gender and abortion. He said they needed to “wake up” and confront the lies. McRae then invited Kevin Falconer, the mayor of Carrollton and a Republican candidate for Denton County Commissioner, to the pulpit to speak. “I can’t, as my friends will say, I can’t endorse him. But I do know that God loves Falcons,” McRae said. He also told his congregation he thought Steve Babick would win the upcoming nonpartisan mayoral election to fill the vacancy left by Falconer. Both Falconer and Babick won their elections.

Expert assessment:

Aprill: “That is campaign intervention to me, even though the pastor states that he is asking Kevin to speak about communion. Context makes it an indirect campaign intervention.”

Church and candidate response: Sojourn Church, McRae and Falconer did not respond to requests for comment. Babick said he was unaware of any statements McRae made about him or his candidacy. “I’m not necessarily in favor or against it,” Babick said of the Johnson Amendment.

Woodlands Church

Location: The Woodlands, Texas, north of Houston

Pastor: Kerry Shook

Context: On Jan. 16, Shook introduced Christian Collins to his congregation. Collins was campaigning for the Republican nomination for Texas’ 8th Congressional District, which includes parts of Houston and several surrounding cities. “And so, the primaries are coming up in March, and I just wanted y’all to get to know Christian, my dear friend, and his love for Jesus Christ and pray for all of those Christ followers who are doing something that I would never do,” Shook said. The sermon occurred two and a half months before the Republican primary election. Collins lost the race.

Expert Assessment:

Aprill: “Specifically naming the primary and the candidate and saying we need Christ followers makes it campaign intervention to me.”

Church and candidate response: Woodlands Church, Kerry Shook Ministries and Kerry Shook did not respond to requests for comment. Through a spokesperson, Collins declined to comment.

Abundant Life Church

Location: Willis, Texas, north of Houston

Pastor: Dave Stovall

Context: At the end of his sermon on Dec. 5, 2021, Stovall introduced Collins as a candidate for the 8th Congressional District. He praised Collins for founding the Texas Youth Summit, a two-day conference that promotes conservative political activism among students. “Would you stand in honor of Christian Collins and the leader, servant-leader that he is and what he has done for this community?” Stovall asked. Collins had pledged to join the congressional Freedom Caucus, a voting bloc made up of some of the most conservative members of Congress, in contrast to his chief opponent, former Navy SEAL Morgan Luttrell, who won the Republican primary.

Expert Assessment:

Mayer: “This is a clear violation of the Johnson Amendment for the same reasons as the previous passage from Woodlands Church. (The similarity of this passage and the one from Woodlands Church makes me wonder if the pastors had been given suggested scripts from the same source.)”

Church and candidate response: Abundant Life Church and Stovall did not respond to requests for comment, including the news organizations’ question about whether it had invited Luttrell or any other candidate to speak at the church. Through a spokesperson, Collins declined to comment.

Destiny Christian Church

Location: Rocklin, California, northwest of Sacramento

Pastor: Greg Fairrington

Context: In a conversation with California gubernatorial candidate Anthony Trimino, a Republican, during a May 15 church service, Fairrington told his congregation that the state needs a leader with a “vibrant faith in Jesus Christ.” He praised Trimino for his effort to unseat Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, and prayed for the Republican candidate. “Lord God, that you would inspire voters here in the state of California to cast their vote for the sanctity of life. Lord God, that they would get behind a conservative Christian candidate,” Fairrington said. Trimino came in sixth in an open party primary election on June 7. He did not advance to the November general election.

Expert Assessment:

Mayer: “This passage is a clear violation of the Johnson Amendment because it implicitly identifies Anthony as a candidate, specifically mentions voting and calls on the audience to get behind a conservative, pro-life Christian candidate (implicitly, such as Anthony).”

Church and Candidate Response: Destiny Christian Church, Fairrington and Trimino did not respond to requests for comment.

Carver Park Baptist Church

Location: Waco, Texas

Pastor: Gaylon P. Foreman

Context: On April 7, Foreman livestreamed a Q&A at the church with Marlon Jones, a candidate for the Waco Independent School District school board. “Again, I endorse him fully and completely, and I wish that you would prayerfully consider helping support this mighty man of God, so he can help make kingdom impact on the Waco ISD,” Foreman said. Experts said Johnson Amendment violations can occur at any church function, not just during sermons. Jones lost the May 7 election.

Expert Assessment:

Brunson: “This pastor doesn’t even pretend not to be endorsing the candidate, which is the honest approach. He’s clearly endorsing.”

Church and candidate response: Foreman defended his discussion with Jones. “I told him about the show and he agreed to appear. I didn’t hear from or have any other contact with any other candidates or I would have gladly allowed them to appear as well,” Foreman said. “On the show, I did acknowledge that I personally supported him and that I felt that he was the best candidate. I also asked about how our community could help him. For as long as I’ve been serving as pastor, I’ve always made it clear that I never tell others who to vote for but do encourage everyone to vote.”

Jones said in an interview with the news organizations that he thought Foreman provided information and did not violate the Johnson Amendment. “I think during the broadcast Pastor Foreman was very intentional about encouraging people to vote but not necessarily saying this is who we should vote for.” Jones, who is also a pastor, added: “Saying ‘this is something I am doing’ does not necessarily mean your congregation will do that.”

Praising Trump Before the 2020 Election

In the days leading up to the 2020 election, some pastors extolled the ways in which former President Donald Trump had delivered for Christians.

Cowboy Church of Corsicana

Location: Corsicana, Texas, southeast of Dallas

Pastor: Derek Rogers

Context: On Oct. 14, 2020, Rogers told his congregation that even though pastors aren’t supposed to talk about politics, parishioners needed to support Trump’s reelection bid. “I do not understand how anybody that calls himself a Christian could vote for the agenda and the platform of Joe Biden,” he said. “President Trump, he ain’t the greatest dude in the whole world, but he’s the closest thing that we got to what we need.”

Expert Assessment:

Mayer: “This is a clear violation of the Johnson Amendment because it identifies two candidates by name and explicitly tells the congregation for which of them they should vote.”

Church response: Rogers did not respond to requests for comment.

Beth Sar Shalom

Location: Carrollton, Texas, north of Dallas

Pastor: Steven Ger

Context: Ger explained to congregants why they should support Trump over Biden for president two days before the election. “I like what our president has done. He made his promises. And he kept his promises.” He later called Trump the “most pro-life president ever” and said, “Vice President Biden would be the most pro-abortion president ever.”

Expert Assessment:

Mayer: “The passage is a clear violation of the Johnson Amendment because it identifies two candidates, describes their positions and then says which position (and therefore candidate) should be voted for.”

Church response: Executive Pastor Don Jones initially said he was willing to be interviewed, but neither he nor Ger responded to follow-up calls and emailed questions.

Trinity Family Church

Location: Forney, Texas, east of Dallas

Pastor: Marty Reid

Context: In a sermon two days before the Nov. 3, 2020, election, Reid told his congregation that even though Trump “doesn’t know much” about Christianity, “I believe God has raised up President Trump for such a time as this".

Expert Assessment:

Aprill: “Clearly an endorsement of Trump and campaign intervention.”

Church response: Trinity Family Church and Reid did not respond to requests for comment.

They were trying to help run elections. Then they were criminally investigated

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 the wake of the 2020 presidential election, Republican officials around the country have been giving increasing attention and resources to investigating election crimes. Most have focused on the alleged wrongdoing of voters.

But Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is also working a different angle: His office has been criminally investigating the people who help run elections.

Over the past two years, Paxton’s office opened at least 10 investigations into alleged crimes by election workers, a more extensive effort than previously known, according to records obtained by ProPublica. One of his probes was spurred by a complaint from a county GOP chair, who lost her reelection bid in a landslide. She then refused to certify the results, citing “an active investigation” by the attorney general.

In at least two of the cases, Paxton’s office unsuccessfully tried to indict election workers, attempts that were first reported by the Austin American-Statesman. In the remaining eight investigations identified by ProPublica, it is unclear just how far the probes went. As of mid-October, none of the cases resulted in criminal charges.

The attorney general’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Most of Paxton’s investigations of election workers center on allegations of obstructing a poll watcher, which is banned by a controversial and recently expanded law that experts fear could open the door for turmoil in the election process. Texas is one of the few states where blocking the view or limiting the movements of poll watchers — partisan volunteers who monitor election sites — can bring criminal penalties. Obstruction is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

Experts worry such investigations could exact a stiff price, chilling participation in the process, slowing down elections and fostering misinformation and distrust in the vote. These probes may be a harbinger of potential chaos in the midterms.

“To have law enforcement policing around and creating the perception that these elections are not secure is doing enormous damage to democracy,” said Lorraine Minnite, a political scientist at Rutgers University, Camden who has studied voter fraud allegations.

Paxton, who has been under a securities fraud indictment for seven years, has touted his eagerness to pursue election-related crimes. He created a unit dedicated to doing so five years ago, long before so-called election integrity units became a trend in Republican-controlled states. (He’s denied wrongdoing in the ongoing securities fraud case.)

Between January 2020 and September 2022, records show, the office opened at least 390 cases looking into potential election crimes. That includes criminal investigations of both voters and election workers. It’s not clear how many cases Paxton’s office attempted to prosecute. But the records show that, like other prosecutors’ efforts around the country, Paxton often comes up empty. His office secured five election-related convictions during that period.

A skeptic of the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s election, Paxton has been soliciting tips from the public about the upcoming midterms, during which he will be operating with broad new powers. Last year, the Texas Legislature dramatically expanded the state’s ability to pursue criminal sanctions against election officials. This year’s midterms will be the first general election where law enforcement could use the new criminal statutes to prosecute.

Paxton will also be sending a “task force” to Harris County, which contains Houston, a Democratic stronghold, to respond to “legal issues” with the election, according to a letter from the Texas secretary of state. Paxton is up for reelection in the midterms, in a race that polls indicate could be close.

America’s voting system depends on the thousands of public employees and volunteers, often retirees, who do the tedious job of managing elections. Officials have long reported challenges in recruiting enough poll workers to run elections efficiently. Now, prospective poll workers may find themselves wrestling with the possibility of facing criminal charges.

This growing scrutiny and animosity have taken a toll. Officials have resigned en masse, as conspiracy theories and physical threats have increasingly become a part of the job. Over the last two years, roughly a third of Texas’ election administrators have left their posts, according to the Texas secretary of state.

Paxton’s election worker investigations span large, heavily Democratic cities and deep-red rural counties alike. Some officials learned they were under scrutiny when they were contacted by sergeants in Paxton’s office. Others told ProPublica they were unaware an investigation had occurred. At least five suspects were in their 60s or 70s. Several cases were prompted by a referral from the Texas secretary of state. Others stemmed from complaints made by small-town sheriffs or voters.

Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for the secretary of state, said the office is required to refer complaints to the attorney general if there is reasonable cause to believe a crime occurred.

Dana DeBeauvoir said she has already seen the impact of Paxton’s efforts on the ground — and in her own life. She told ProPublica that in her 36 years as the top election official in Travis County, where Austin is located, nothing compared to the disruption she saw in the 2020 election.

When an unmasked poll watcher named Jennifer Fleck began photographing the counting of ballots, which was against the rules, a volunteer asked her to leave. Fleck refused, then began screaming and banging on the window of the room where votes were being counted, DeBeauvoir said. Ultimately, the police arrived, arrested Fleck and charged her with criminal trespass.

Officers allegedly found that Fleck had a “button camera on her shirt” connected to a “recording device that had been secreted in Fleck’s pants,” according to police records. Fleck also faces a perjury charge because she swore in an affidavit that she would not use recording devices. The case is pending.

Weeks later, DeBeauvoir said, the county attorney informed her that Paxton’s office had a different view of the incident: DeBeauvoir herself was now the subject of a criminal investigation. Attorneys advised her to not speak about the case.

“I never felt more alone,” DeBeauvoir said. “Everything that was being said was completely untrue. And I could not defend myself.”

The next year, Paxton attempted to prosecute DeBeauvoir for obstructing a poll watcher, court records show. In an unusual move, when his office brought her case before a grand jury, prosecutors didn’t do it in Travis County — where DeBeauvoir lives and the incident took place — but in a suburban county that is more conservative.

Yet, in a rarity for the criminal justice system, the grand jury in April 2021 declined to indict her.

“I was completely terrified” by the investigation, DeBeauvoir said.

Fleck did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Among the new powers Paxton will now be able to wield: The Legislature made it a felony for an election official to send a mail-in voting application to a person who didn’t request one. It gave new authority to poll watchers, allowing them “free movement” around voting facilities. And it broadened the obstruction statute Paxton had used to try to prosecute officials like DeBeauvoir.

“We’ve seen this kind of onslaught of laws that are essentially treating voting booths like crime scenes,” said Liz Avore, senior policy adviser at Voting Rights Lab, a nonprofit that analyzes election legislation. She said Texas’ new poll-watching provisions could hamstring election officials who witness partisan volunteers harassing voters and make it hard to keep polling places “a safe place for voters to cast their ballots.”

Even when investigations don’t result in criminal charges, they can be used as a pretext to disrupt the election process.

In 2020, Cynthia Brehm was running for reelection as chair of the Bexar County Republican Party. She secured more votes than any other candidate in the March primary, but it was a close race and she’d have to go through a runoff to retain her seat. In June, Brehm made a Facebook post suggesting George Floyd’s death was staged. Sen. Ted Cruz and other top Texas Republicans called for her to resign. Her chances were starting to look bleak.

Then Brehm made a move that would have surprising consequences. She filed a complaint with Paxton’s office about the election, records show, prompting the attorney general to open a criminal investigation into the county elections administrator.

A police report details what the official stood accused of. First, that the primary results were incorrect. Second, that there were “several other” allegations “that include obstructing poll watchers.”

In July, Brehm lost in the runoff by 32 points. But as party chair, she held the authority to certify the results. She refused to do so — pointing to the fruits of her complaint.

“The Texas Attorney General has an active investigation ongoing into the results of the Primary Election,” Brehm wrote in a press release justifying her decision. “I Cynthia Brehm, have determined that every aspect of this election has been severely compromised.”

In response to a public records request, Paxton’s office said the investigation into the elections administrator, Jacquelyn Callanen, is now closed. Brehm and Callanen did not respond to requests for comment. The winning candidate ultimately took over Brehm’s post.

At least three suspects in Paxton’s investigations were the top election officials in their counties, but his probes have also ensnared volunteers. In 2020, Robert Icsezen, a Houston-based attorney and self-described “election nerd,” volunteered to serve on his county’s signature verification committee, which is responsible for checking the signatures on mail-in ballots. On Oct. 14, a poll watcher asked Icsezen to let her into the area where ballots were being processed, he said. He thought that wasn’t permitted and turned her away. Later that morning, he received a call from a local official, who told him the secretary of state’s office said he needed to let the poll watcher in. The woman never returned, Icsezen said.

Shortly thereafter, an officer in Paxton’s election police unit contacted Icsezen. Assuming it was all a misunderstanding, Icsezen agreed to speak with him, he said.

Eight months later, Paxton’s office brought the case before a grand jury and unsuccessfully tried to indict Icsezen for obstructing a poll watcher, records show.

“I have four kids,” Icsezen told ProPublica. “There could have been cops coming to my door to cuff me and take me away.”

He will not volunteer to help in another election, he said.

COVID-19 origins: Investigating a 'complex and grave situation' inside a Wuhan lab

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Series: Coronavirus

The U.S. Response to COVID-19

“A Secret Language of Chinese Officialdom”

Toy Reid has always had a gift for languages — one that would carry him far from what he calls his “very blue-collar” roots in Greenville, South Carolina. In high school, Spanish came easily. At nearby Furman University, where he became the first person in his family to attend college, he studied Japanese. Then, “clueless but curious,” as he puts it, he channeled his fascination with the Dalai Lama into a master’s degree in East Asian philosophy and religion at Harvard. Along the way, he picked up Khmer, the national language of Cambodia, and achieved fluency in Chinese.

But it was his career as a China specialist for the Rand Corporation and as a political officer in East Asia for the U.S. State Department that taught him how to interpret a notoriously opaque language: the “party speak” practiced by Chinese Communist officials.

Party speak is “its own lexicon,” explains Reid, now 44 years old. Even a native Mandarin speaker “can’t really follow it,” he says. “It’s not meant to be easily understood. It’s almost like a secret language of Chinese officialdom. When they’re talking about anything potentially embarrassing, they speak of it in innuendo and hushed tones, and there’s a certain acceptable way to allude to something.”

For 15 months, Reid loaned this unusual skill to a nine-person team dedicated to investigating the mystery of COVID-19’s origins. Commissioned by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the team examined voluminous evidence, most of it open source but some classified, and weighed the major credible theories for how the novel coronavirus first made the leap to humans. An interim report, released on Thursday by the minority oversight staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP), concludes that the COVID-19 pandemic was “more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident.”

As part of his investigation, Reid took an approach that was artful in its simplicity. Working out of the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington and a family home in Florida, he used a virtual private network, or VPN, to access dispatches archived on the website of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). These dispatches remain on the internet, but their meaning can’t be unlocked by just anyone. Using his hard-earned expertise, Reid believes he unearthed secrets that were hiding in plain sight.

Ever since the Chinese city of Wuhan was identified as ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic, a contingent of scientists have suspected that the virus could have leaked from one of the WIV’s complex of laboratories. The WIV is, after all, the venue for some of China’s riskiest coronavirus research. Scientists there have mixed components of different coronaviruses and created new strains, in an effort to predict the risks of human infection and to develop vaccines and treatments. Critics argue that creating viruses that don’t exist in nature runs the risk of unleashing them.

The WIV has two campuses and performed coronavirus research on both. Its older Xiaohongshan campus is just 8 miles from the crowded seafood market where COVID-19 first burst into public view. Its newer Zhengdian campus, about 18 miles to the south, is home to the institute’s most prestigious laboratory, a biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) facility, designed to enable safe research on the world’s most lethal pathogens. The WIV triumphantly announced its completion in February 2015, and it was cleared to begin full research by early 2018.

Like many scientific institutes in China, the WIV is state-run and funded. The research carried out there must advance the goals of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As one way to ensure compliance, the CCP operates 16 party branches inside of the WIV, where members including scientists meet regularly and demonstrate their loyalty.

Week after week, scientists from those branches chronicled their party-building exploits in reports uploaded to the WIV’s website. These dispatches, intended for watchful higher-ups, generally consist of upbeat recitations of recruitment efforts and meeting summaries that emphasize the fulfillment of Beijing’s political goals. “The headlines and initial paragraphs seem completely innocuous,” Reid says. “If you didn’t take a close look, you’d probably think there’s nothing in here.”

But much like imperfect propaganda, the dispatches hold glimmers of real life: tension among colleagues, abuse from bosses, reprimands from party superiors. The grievances are often couched in a narrative of heroism — a focus on problems overcome and challenges met, against daunting odds.

As Reid burrowed into the party branch dispatches, he became riveted by the unfolding picture. They described intense pressure to produce scientific breakthroughs that would elevate China’s standing on the world stage, despite a dire lack of essential resources. Even at the BSL-4 lab, they repeatedly lamented the problem of “the three ‘nos’: no equipment and technology standards, no design and construction teams, and no experience operating or maintaining [a lab of this caliber].”

And then, in the fall of 2019, the dispatches took a darker turn. They referenced inhumane working conditions and “hidden safety dangers.” On Nov. 12 of that year, a dispatch by party branch members at the BSL-4 laboratory appeared to reference a biosecurity breach.

once you have opened the stored test tubes, it is just as if having opened Pandora’s Box. These viruses come without a shadow and leave without a trace. Although [we have] various preventive and protective measures, it is nevertheless necessary for lab personnel to operate very cautiously to avoid operational errors that give rise to dangers. Every time this has happened, the members of the Zhengdian Lab [BSL4] Party Branch have always run to the frontline, and they have taken real action to mobilize and motivate other research personnel.

Reid studied the words intently. Was this a reference to past accidents? An admission of an ongoing crisis? A general recognition of hazardous practices? Or all of the above? Reading between the lines, Reid concluded, “They are almost saying they know Beijing is about to come down and scream at them.”

And that, in fact, is exactly what happened next, according to a meeting summary uploaded nine days later.

The dozens of pages of WIV dispatches that Reid unearthed, particularly those from November 2019, helped shape the conclusion of the interim report. Working out of a small, windowless room in the Hart building that they nicknamed “the Bat Cave,” the researchers cross-referenced Reid’s analysis with myriad clues, from procurement notices and patent filings to records of ongoing scientific experiments at the WIV. As their investigation grew, so did a timeline that unfolded across the walls like a giant checkerboard.

Given advance access to hundreds of pages of the Senate researchers’ findings and analysis, Vanity Fair, in partnership with ProPublica, spent five months investigating their underlying evidence. We analyzed WIV documents, consulted with experts in CCP communications, asked biocontainment experts to help analyze documents and reviewed with independent scientists the possible evidence that certain vaccine research may have begun far earlier than acknowledged.

We also traced the hazards that arose as the WIV built a lab to research the world’s most dangerous pathogens. Taken together, our reporting provides critical context that is not included in the pared-down 35-page interim report. It offers the most detailed picture to date of the months leading up to the COVID-19 outbreak, including new details on the intense pressure the lab faced to produce breakthrough research, its struggles to grapple with mounting safety issues and a previously unreported series of references to a mysterious incident shortly before the virus began infecting its first victims.

The Senate HELP minority committee did not release a detailed 236-page analysis that Reid drafted as a companion report. Nor did the interim report provide context for the documents he unearthed. These omissions came as hundreds of pages were whittled down to 35 in the days before the report was released. Though some members of the Senate team reviewed a small number of classified documents, the interim report relied only on publicly available material. A spokesperson for the Senate HELP minority committee told Vanity Fair and ProPublica: “What has been included in the interim report are the facts the Committee has determined are ready for, and worthy of, publication at this time. The Committee’s bipartisan oversight investigation is still ongoing, and what is worthy of inclusion will find its way into the final report.”

Vanity Fair and ProPublica downloaded more than 500 documents from the WIV website, including party branch dispatches from 2017 to the present. To assess Reid’s interpretation, we sent key documents to experts on CCP communications. They told us that the WIV dispatches did indeed signal that the institute faced an acute safety emergency in November 2019; that officials at the highest levels of the Chinese government weighed in; and that urgent action was taken in an effort to address ongoing safety issues. The documents do not make clear who was responsible for the crisis, which laboratory it affected specifically or what the exact nature of the biosafety emergency was.

The interim report also raises questions about how quickly vaccines were developed in China by some teams, including one led by a military virologist named Zhou Yusen. The report called it “unusual” that two military COVID-19 vaccine development teams were able to reach early milestones even faster than the major drug companies who were part of the U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed program.

Vanity Fair and ProPublica spoke to experts who said that the timeline of Zhou’s vaccine development seemed unrealistic, if not impossible. Two of the three experts said it strongly suggested that his team must have had access to the genomic sequence of the virus no later than in November 2019, weeks before China’s official recognition that the virus was circulating.

The authors of the interim report do not claim to have definitively solved the mystery of COVID-19’s origin. “The lack of transparency from government and public health officials in the [People’s Republic of China] with respect to the origins of SARS-CoV-2 prevents reaching a more definitive conclusion,” the report says, adding that its conclusion could change if more independently verifiable information becomes available.

Throughout the pandemic, the WIV has largely remained a black box, owing to the Chinese government’s refusal to cooperate with international probes. By mining the WIV’s own records, Toy Reid and Senate researchers unearthed new clues that support the interim report’s assessment that a lab accident was “most likely” responsible for the pandemic.

In response to detailed questions, a Chinese Embassy spokesperson, Liu Pengyu, dismissed allegations of a lab leak and said that an international team convened by the World Health Organization concluded that “the allegation of lab leaking is extremely unlikely. The conclusion should be respected. … From the very beginning, China has taken a scientific, professional, serious and responsible attitude in origins tracing.” Some American politicians and journalists “distort facts and truth,” he said, adding that the U.S. should “stop using the epidemic for political manipulation and blame games.”

“Open the Aperture of Your Mind”

More than two years after the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset, the question of its origin has remained a scientific whodunit for the ages. Did the virus come from a caged infected animal, languishing in the warren of stalls at a Wuhan wholesale market? Or did it come from the nearby Wuhan Institute of Virology, where China’s top coronavirus researchers, some partly funded by the U.S. government, were splicing together coronavirus strains to gauge how they might become most infectious to humans?

A bitter battle has ensued between a group of virologists who assert their research points to a market origin and an alternate group of academics and online sleuths who argue there’s been an attempted cover-up of a more likely lab origin. Four months ago, the World Health Organization’s Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens revised an earlier conclusion and said that both scenarios remain on the table, due to insufficient evidence, and require further investigation.

In June 2021, with efforts to learn the truth at a virtual standstill, Burr drafted Dr. Robert Kadlec, the former Health and Human Services assistant secretary for preparedness and response under President Donald Trump, to assemble a team to examine the leading hypotheses. Burr, the ranking member of the Senate HELP committee, is retiring at year’s end. A spokesperson for Burr declined to make him available for an interview.

In the foreword of the interim report, Burr wrote, “My ultimate goal with this report is to provide a clearer picture of what we know, so far, about the origins of SARS-CoV-2 so that we can continue to work together to be better prepared to respond to future public health threats.”

Burr has served in the U.S. Congress for 28 years, first as a congressman and then, since 2005, as a senator. By today’s standards, he is a moderate Republican, having voted to convict Trump in the Jan. 6 impeachment. Long known for his work on biodefense issues, he helped lead passage of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act in 2006 and also worked to speed up the FDA’s approval of drugs for rare diseases.

The pandemic also immersed him in scandal, as ProPublica has previously reported. In February 2020, after receiving Senate intelligence committee briefings on the health threat of COVID-19, he sold up to $1.7 million in stock holdings before the market tanked, sparking a Justice Department investigation into insider trading. Burr said he relied on public news reports to guide his decision to sell stocks. He stepped aside as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee after the FBI seized his cellphone. In January 2021, the DOJ closed its investigation without charging him.

The Senate HELP committee paid the salaries of seven researchers, but little more, so Kadlec cobbled together the best team he could. From the State Department, he borrowed a veterinary epidemiologist as well as Reid, whom he’d met just weeks earlier through a mutual friend who was a Dalai Lama aficionado. At the time, Reid was detailed to the office of Sen. Marco Rubio to work on China policy issues. Kadlec also leaned on scientific advisers with expertise in virology, epidemiology and biodefense.

Kadlec, a former Air Force officer who worked with Burr years earlier on bioterrorism issues, has served under both Republican and Democratic presidents. In 2003, he deployed to Iraq for the Department of Defense and played a critical role in debunking the false claims that trailers there doubled as mobile bioweapons labs. That experience, he says, equipped him to navigate the murky world of“dual-use research,” where civilian scientific work sometimes has a clandestine military purpose.

In February 2020, in his role at HHS, Kadlec allowed sick Americans on a cruise ship to return to the U.S. Angry that the move added to the domestic COVID-19 case count, Trump threatened to fire him. And when Rick Bright, a senior HHS official turned whistleblower, accused the Trump administration of politicizing the pandemic response, he also alleged that Kadlec demoted him in retaliation and used federal funds to bestow contracts on favored drugmakers. The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis investigated. While it did not issue formal findings against Kadlec, it noted in a press release that an HHS division under Kadlec’s control awarded a lucrative contract to a drugmaker, despite regulators’ warnings about its troubled manufacturing plants. Calling the experience “very hurtful,” Kadlec says, “I got slimed in the press.” He adds, “I still carry that with me today.”

Kadlec says the investigation of the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster, in which seven astronauts died, inspired his approach to the inquiry. It showed that “in complex disasters and events, there is always a political side, an engineering side, a human error side,” he says. “These things happen for a variety of reasons, so you have to open the aperture of your mind.”

In recruiting Reid, Kadlec found an analyst who would look for clues in places a typical scientist wouldn’t. “The things that I’ve been researching and translating are not really science,” Reid says. “It’s the party speaking to the world of science and trying to manage it.”

“Complex and Grave Situation”

Even the authors of the relentlessly cheerful party branch dispatches and meeting summaries in the WIV archive found it hard to sugarcoat the events of Nov. 19, 2019, Toy Reid discovered as he delved into the WIV’s archives.

Seven days after the Zhengdian party branch members wrote their memo about rushing to the front line to defend against viral dangers, fallout arrived in the form of an official visitor from Beijing. That visitor, Dr. Ji Changzheng, is the technology safety and security director for the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the sprawling state agency that oversees more than 100 research institutions in China, including the WIV. His visit was billed as a senior safety-training seminar for a small high-level audience, including the WIV’s research department heads and top biosafety officials.

But the meeting, chronicled in a one and a half page summary uploaded to the WIV website on Nov. 21, was no pro forma seminar. According to Reid, it appears to have been “out of the ordinary and event driven,” and distinct from the annual safety training, which had been held in April.

For Reid, the import of Ji’s opening remarks practically leapt off the page. Ji told the assembled group that he had come bearing “important oral remarks and written instructions” from General Secretary Xi Jinping and China’s premier, Li Keqiang, to address a “complex and grave situation.”

Though the summary’s language is characteristically vague, Ji described:

many large-scale cases of domestic and foreign safety incidents in recent years, and from the perspective of shouldering responsibility, standardizing operations, emergency planning, and inspecting hidden dangers one-by-one, [he] laid out a deep analysis, with many layers and taken from many angles, which vividly revealed the complex and grave situation currently facing [bio]security work.

The WIV’s deputy director of safety and security spoke next, summarizing “several general problems that were found over the course of the last year during safety and security investigations, and [he] pointed to the severe consequences that could result from hidden safety dangers.

But what drew Reid’s full attention was the word Ji used to describe the important “written instructions” he was relaying from Beijing: “pishi.” When China’s senior leaders receive written reports on a worrying or important issue, they will write instructions in the margins, known as pishi, to be carried out swiftly by lower-level officials. As Reid interpreted it, the pishi that Ji arrived with that day appeared to have come directly from Xi, arguably China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. To Reid, it suggested that Xi himself had been briefed on an ongoing crisis at the WIV.

Is it possible that Ji meant to invoke the authority of China’s supreme leader in a general way? As Reid acknowledges, “When Chinese officials want to be taken seriously by whoever their audience is, they invoke more senior officials.” To assess whether Ji had simply been dropping Xi’s name, as a way to underscore the importance of his message, Reid researched nine of Ji’s visits to different facilities prior to the pandemic. All were characterized as annual or routine. None mentioned a pishi. “There wasn’t this bandying about of Xi,” Reid says.

Further, when Chinese officials are invoking a higher authority in general terms, they will typically cite an important speech, says Reid. For example, Ji could have referenced the one Xi gave at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ plenary session in May 2018. As Reid puts it, “If he just wanted to invoke the authority of Xi, the natural way to do that is to say, ‘Remember when he came to speak to all of us?’” Invoking the pishi, Reid believes, was “taking it to another level.”

Ji did not respond to questions and a request for comment sent to the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The director general at the WIV and the head of the WIV party committee did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Vanity Fair and ProPublica examined research from Chinese academics on pishi and separately got three experts on CCP communications to review the WIV meeting summary. All agreed that it appeared to be urgent, nonroutine and related to some sort of biosafety emergency. Two also agreed that it appeared Xi himself had issued a pishi.

A former senior U.S. intelligence official said that, while the pishi in the dispatch is not necessarily a smoking gun, he reads it as saying that “there is some issue related to lab security, which doesn’t come up very often, that needed to be seen by Xi Jinping.” He added, “Something signed off on by the General Secretary (Xi) and Premier (Li) is high priority.”

Another longtime CCP analyst said it was not possible to conclude from the document that Xi and Li had actually issued a pishi related to a specific incident, or even that they had been informed of one. Ji, in her view, might well have been invoking their names without their knowledge to underscore the importance of his message. However, she said that, given the party’s preference for positive communications, the acknowledgment of a “‘complex and grave situation’ means ‘We are facing something really bad.’” She also said that the language of the summary implied that the situation in question was happening at that time.

Reading between the lines is essential to understanding what the WIV dispatches really mean. As Geremie Barmé, an emeritus professor of Chinese history at the Australian National University, who analyzed key documents at our request, said of CCP communications, “The style of self-protection, of rounding things out, of avoiding the truth, is a highly developed, bureaucratic art form.”

Without more evidence, it is impossible to know the details of what the assembled group knew and discussed that day. But at least one news report supports the notion that the virus may have been circulating at that time. In March 2020, a veteran journalist with the South China Morning Post reported that she reviewed internal Chinese government data on early cases of COVID-19 that included a 55-year-old in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, who contracted COVID-19 on Nov. 17, 2019.

That was just two days before Ji arrived at the WIV, bearing urgent instructions from the highest levels of China’s government.

“Black Swans and Gray Rhinos”

A virologist and former Army officer, James LeDuc spent half a century studying how infectious diseases impact public health and national security. Over the course of his career, he witnessed China’s rise from a “not well-developed country” to a biotechnology superpower, he told Vanity Fair and ProPublica.

In December 1985, LeDuc, then a supervisor at the U.S. Army medical research center, Fort Detrick, arrived at the Wuhan Institute of Virology to help work on a trial of drug efficacy for the hantavirus, a life-threatening disease transmitted by rodents. “China was emerging from the Cultural Revolution. Everyone was on bicycles,” he recalls. “I can remember giving a talk — the screen was a sheet one of us had to hold. The windows were broken out.”

Two and a half decades later, with help from French scientists and engineers, the WIV laid the cornerstone for China’s first BSL-4 laboratory. That facility, the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, would become synonymous with the country’s lofty biotech ambitions. “China has said repeatedly and forcefully — and they’re backing up their words with actions — that they intend to own the bio-revolution,” the biodefense expert Dr. Tara J. O’Toole testified in November 2019 before a U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities. O’Toole served as one of Kadlec’s scientific advisers for the report.

Today, China operates three BSL-4 laboratories and plans to build at least five more. (Biolabs are rated 1-4, from least to most secure, according to standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and international public health agencies.)

China’s progress has been fast — arguably too fast for its infrastructure to keep pace. It remains dependent on other countries for critical technology and supplies, leading to chronic procurement hurdles that party branch members refer to as the “stranglehold problem.” It has a thin bench of experts to run the most advanced laboratories. China “didn’t have the background of how to run [advanced laboratories] safely,” says LeDuc. “They were trying to do their best.”

From 2010 until his retirement in 2021, LeDuc served as director of the Galveston National Laboratory, one of eight BSL-4 facilities in the U.S. During that time, he went out of his way to help improve standards at the WIV. He brought several of the WIV’s scientists to Galveston for training and invited its officials to attend an international conference he hosted.

In 2016, LeDuc returned to the WIV for a scientific meeting in which he shared a new set of recommendations. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity had urged the U.S. government to more intensively screen proposals for what it called “gain-of-function research of concern” in which scientists manipulate dangerous pathogens to gauge their likelihood of sparking a pandemic.

LeDuc says his presentation was “not necessarily well received. Most of the folks were scientists and could care less about policy.” But he felt he had a responsibility to warn them all the same. “It’s enlightened self-interest that we are doing everything to ensure [China’s] success,” he says. “We want to make sure they have the best practices. If someone screws up, we all suffer.”

Poring through publicly available documents, Kadlec’s researchers saw that China’s top scientists had been sounding the alarm too. “The biosafety laboratory is a double-edged sword; it can be used for the benefit of humanity but can also lead to a ‘disaster,’” warned a March 2019 article co-written by Yuan Zhiming, director of the WIV’s BSL-4 laboratory. “With increasing numbers of high-level biosafety laboratories constructed in China, it is urgent to establish and implement standardized management measures.”

That same month, the director of China’s CDC cautioned that bioengineering technologies would “also be available to the ambitious, careless, inept and outright malcontents, who may misuse them in ways that endanger our safety.” Writing in the journal Biosafety and Health, the director at the time, George Fu Gao, also urged that “modifying the genomes of animals (including humans), plants, and microbes (including pathogens) must be highly regulated.”

Meanwhile, reports of sloppy practices, hazardous conditions and inadequate oversight reverberated across China’s laboratories, according to documents unearthed by Reid and reviewed by Vanity Fair and ProPublica. A 2018 study by a municipal agency in Zhangjiajie, which canvassed 37 laboratories in the area, came to a scorching conclusion. “Our findings allow for no optimism about biosafety conditions,” the study said. “There are many hidden safety dangers, including occupational exposure, hospital acquired infections, environmental hazard, lack of training, those without credentials taking posts, management systems that do not operate effectively, leadership that does not place enough importance [on lab safety], deficient supervision and management by relevant health departments, etc.”

On Nov. 7, 2018, an official with the Municipal Health Inspection Bureau of Guangzhou, China’s largest manufacturing hub, identified a litany of hazards found during laboratory biosafety inspections: improper use of disinfectants, substandard management of samples, personnel with inadequate training and protective gear, and laboratory wastewater released directly into sewage systems.

The WIV was by no means exempt from such problems, according to reports in its own archives. In 2011 and 2018, inspections of WIV laboratories turned up lapses including improper storage of viral samples and management failings.

Then, on Dec. 24, 2018, an incident that was impossible to conceal helped catapult lab safety to the top of China’s policy agenda. Three students at Beijing Jiaotong University burned to death after improperly stored chemicals exploded inside the school’s laboratory.

On Jan. 21, 2019, Xi Jinping gave a speech to the CCP’s Central Party School, where budding young cadres receive their higher education. Conveying a sense of “anxious urgency,” according to The New York Times, he stressed the need to prepare for two kinds of risks: “black swans and gray rhinos.” He was referring to two concepts popularized in bestselling books: A black swan is a rare and unpredictable event, while a gray rhino is an obvious risk that is ignored until it poses an immediate threat. Xi proceeded to describe potential security problems in China’s state laboratories, leaving no doubt that he was concerned about the issue.

With Xi himself calling for action, a biosecurity bill that had been on the back burner became a top priority and later passed. In October 2019, Gao Hucheng, chairman of a National People’s Congress committee responsible for environmental protection, argued for its importance before the Congress’ standing committee.

In the fall of that year, according to declassified intelligence in a U.S. State Department fact sheet, several researchers inside the WIV became sick “with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.” The fact sheet did not say who the researchers were or how the US government learned of their illnesses.

As the Chinese government raced to overhaul biosafety regulations, scientists at the WIV faced a conflicting imperative: Beijing’s demand for scientific breakthroughs, which created pressure to perform cutting-edge experiments that could be published in prestigious journals. A party branch dispatch noted that Tong Xiao, a member of the WIV’s CCP committee, often told scientists there: “Don’t look at your work duties as pressure. Every task is an opportunity and a ladder for continuous self-improvement. Our team’s belief is that suffering losses is good fortune.”

“They’ve got this really aggressive regime breathing down their neck,” says Reid. “These guys are in a political pressure cooker.”

“A Doom Loop of Pressure”

In 2002, an outbreak of the SARS coronavirus that originated in China spread around the world, killing 774 people and infecting more than 8,000. At first, China tried to conceal the problem. When that became impossible, it played down the severity, falsely claiming the epidemic was under control. Meanwhile, in two separate incidents in 2004, SARS accidentally leaked from a top laboratory in Beijing and led to mini outbreaks.

In the wake of the debacle, China committed to a long-term project to not only repair its public-health reputation but also achieve the cutting-edge scientific prowess worthy of a true global superpower.

In 2004, French president Jacques Chirac flew to Beijing to sign a scientific cooperation agreement that would help catapult China into the big leagues. Welcomed with lavish ceremony, amid Champagne and strutting soldiers, Chirac pledged that France would sell China four mobile BSL-3 laboratories, help build a world-class BSL-4 lab and partner on essential research.

Eleven years and $44 million later, construction of the BSL-4 lab was complete. Set high above a flood plain, the four-story concrete laboratory was designed to withstand a magnitude 7 earthquake. By early 2018, it had been accredited to research the world’s most dangerous pathogens, including Ebola, Marburg and Nipah viruses. Xi Jinping himself hailed it as “of vital importance to Chinese public health.”

From the outside, the WIV appeared to be a transparent hub for top-caliber international collaborations. That ethos was best embodied by a fearless scientist named Shi Zhengli. She had risen through the ranks at the WIV to become director of its Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases and deputy director of its BSL-4 lab. Fluent in French, she had trained at the BSL-4 Jean Mérieux-Inserm Laboratory in Lyon and was well known in China as “bat woman” for her intrepid exploration of their caves to collect samples. “Shi Zhengli was totally aware of how to handle viruses,” Gabriel Gras, a French biosafety and biocontainment technology expert who helped train the WIV’s BSL-4 staff, told Vanity Fair and ProPublica. “She has handled these all her life.”

As the BSL-4 lab there became one of the nation’s most exalted scientific showpieces, Shi’s research grew in importance and scope. In a 2015 research paper, Shi and a University of North Carolina virologist named Ralph Baric proved that the spike protein of a novel coronavirus could be used to infect human cells. Using mice as subjects, they spliced the spike of a novel SARS-like virus from a bat into a version of the 2003 SARS virus, creating a new infectious pathogen. The virus manipulation was completed at Baric’s BSL-3 lab in North Carolina. This gain-of-function experiment was so fraught that the authors essentially put a warning label on it, writing, “scientific review panels may deem similar studies … too risky to pursue.”

In March 2018, Shi partnered with Baric and a longtime collaborator, Peter Daszak, on a $14 million grant proposal to genetically manipulate bat coronaviruses to see how they might cause pandemics. The proposal called for possibly enhancing the viruses with something called a furin cleavage site to boost their entry into human cells. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) rejected the grant proposal for not adequately assessing the risks posed by a supercharged virus.

It is not clear whether WIV scientists continued the research on their own. Shi and Baric did not offer comment. In his response to our request for comment, Daszak did not address the DARPA grant. He said that he had not reviewed the Senate report and instead pointed to another report, which he recently co-authored in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that “strongly indicates” a natural origin for SARS-CoV-2.

Though Shi was most often pictured in the Chinese press in her white, pressurized oxygen suit, required for BSL-4 research, published papers show that she and the researchers she supervised did much of their work in BSL-3 and even BSL-2 facilities, which the WIV allowed prior to the pandemic. The interim report enumerates several types of risky research conducted at the WIV at BSL-3 and BSL-2 levels. Animal experiments to test the efficacy of vaccines generated highly infectious aerosols that are “difficult to detect,” the interim report says, adding that “there were concerns about conducting this type of research in a BSL2 laboratory.”

In early 2017, the collaboration with the French fizzled and Gras, the last French expert there, departed. The French had served as designers and contractors but never became partners. “I think the French did not really have a strong interest in working with Wuhan,” in part due to diverging research interests, Gras said. He added that Yuan Zhiming, the BSL-4 director, “was not an easy person. He can put pressure on people.” Yuan did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Long before the lab began its riskiest work, there were alarming signs of trouble ahead. In 2016, during severe flooding, the waters rose so high that nearby streets were impassable, and researchers had to hike through a forested area to reach the laboratory and ensure its safety, Zhengdian lab party branch members recounted in a WIV dispatch that Toy Reid unearthed.

The decision to build the walls out of stainless steel caused a considerable challenge. Stainless steel is “very vulnerable to corrosion” from disinfectants, Bob Hawley, the former chief of safety and radiation protection at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease, told Vanity Fair and ProPublica. Hawley is an expert adviser to the interim report.

Even in 2016, Chinese technicians were already struggling with how to properly disinfect laboratory surfaces and other items, according to emails obtained in a FOIA lawsuit. That July, Yuan emailed an NIH staffer he’d met the previous year under the subject line “ask for help.” He wrote that he was seeking “some suggestion for the choice of disinfectants” used in the BSL-4 laboratory. “I am sorry to disturb you and I really hope you could give us some suggestion,” he wrote.

As LeDuc observed, “They were looking for expertise wherever they could find it.”

Yuan himself identified the shortage of expertise as one of many problems that imperiled safe operations in China’s laboratories. In the September 2019 issue of the Journal of Biosafety and Security, he described a threadbare system where maintenance costs were “generally neglected” and “several high-level BSLs have insufficient operational funds for routine yet vital processes. Due to the limited resources, some BSL-3 laboratories run on extremely minimal operational costs or in some cases none at all.”

Gerald Parker, associate dean for Global One Health at Texas A&M University’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and an expert adviser to the interim report, told Vanity Fair and ProPublica that he found Yuan’s revelations “jaw-dropping.” The combination of biosafety problems and limited maintenance funds is “a recipe for disaster,” he said. “You further couple that with an authoritarian regime where you could be penalized for reporting safety issues. You are in a doom loop of pressure to produce, and if something goes wrong you may not be incentivized to report.”

As the Zhengdian lab party branch members noted in their dispatch of Nov. 12, 2019, which the interim report includes: “In the laboratory, they often need to work for four consecutive hours, even extending to six hours. During this time, they cannot eat, drink or relieve themselves. This is an extreme test of a person’s will and physical endurance.”

A four- to six-hour shift in a positive pressure suit would be “unusually lengthy,” said Hawley, given the stress of dehydration, lack of mobility and noise from oxygen that is so loud it requires hearing protection. “Usually, it’s only a couple of hours at the maximum.”

Larry Kerr, a virologist who recently retired as HHS’s director of the Office of Pandemics and Emerging Threats and served as an expert adviser to the Senate report, told Vanity Fair and ProPublica, “My gut feeling is that the WIV was not ready to go hot when they turned everything on [at the BSL-4] and started doing experiments in early 2018.” He added: “Even the WIV’s people are saying, ‘We don’t have the resources and capabilities to keep this up and running.’ It’s like, holy crap, if you are working in a lab like that, I don’t understand why people don’t shut it down.”

But the showpiece laboratory remained as busy as ever. As Reid said of the WIV dispatches he analyzed, “The feel you get from all these documents is: It’s just produce, produce, produce, like an actor preparing to take the stage before they’re ready.”

“The CCP’s Version of ‘Cover Your Ass’”

By the fall of 2019, trouble was brewing at the WIV, according to documents turned up by Toy Reid.

On Sept. 11, 2019, the CCP’s No. 15 Inspection Patrol Group arrived at the Beijing headquarters of the WIV’s parent organization, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), to conduct a two-month political inspection. The inspection was part of a larger routine sweep of 37 state organizations. According to the inspection team’s leader, its purpose was to sniff out any “violations of political discipline, party organizational discipline, [financial] ethics discipline, discipline with regard to the masses, work discipline, and discipline in one’s personal life.” They were also on the lookout for instances of insufficient loyalty to the CCP’s mission.

The Beijing inspectors identified more than a dozen “principal problems” at CAS, among them a “‘persistent gap’ between Xi Jinping’s important instructions on pursuing ‘leap frog development in science and technology’ and CAS’s implementation of Xi’s instructions.” In short: not enough progress, despite all the pressure.

A week earlier, on Sept. 3, more than 50 managers and staffers at the WIV had met to discuss a looming internal audit that would evaluate political discipline, according to a party branch dispatch. The scientists and their overseers were facing scrutiny at every level.

A trail of evidence from that fall appears to show the WIV trying to address a crisis. “That’s when you start to see emergency response activity,” says Larry Kerr, the former director of the HHS pandemic office.

It began within 24 hours of the start of the CAS inspection. On Sept. 12 between 2 and 3 a.m., the interim report says, the WIV took down its Wildlife-Borne Viral Pathogen Database, which contained more than 15,000 samples from bats. The database had been a resource for researchers globally. A password-protected section only accessible to WIV personnel contained unpublished sequences of bat beta-coronaviruses — the family of coronaviruses to which SARS-CoV-2 belongs. Public access to the database has not yet been restored.

The Senate researchers analyzed a trail of procurements and patent applications, which, the interim report notes, suggest that “the WIV struggled to maintain key biosafety capabilities at its high-containment BSL3 and BSL4 laboratories.” On Dec. 11, a team of WIV researchers submitted a patent application in China for a device to filter and contain hazardous gases inside a biological chamber, like the ones it used to transport infected animals. The application, which Vanity Fair and ProPublica reviewed, noted that defective air hoses on animal carriers can lead to “multi-stage” risks when airborne pathogens are involved, and warned that a “stable high-efficiency filtering device” and corrosion-resistant frame were “urgently needed.” The following year, in November 2020, the WIV applied for a patent for a new disinfectant compound that it argued would reduce “the corrosion effect to metal, especially stainless steel material,” the interim report says.

The patent application, which listed seven inventors, including Yuan Zhiming, vividly describes concerns related to its prior disinfectant:

Long-term use will lead to corrosion of metal components such as stainless steel, thereby reducing the protection of … facilities and equipment. It can not only shorten its service life and cause economic losses, but also lead to the escape of highly pathogenic microorganisms into the external environment of the laboratory, resulting in loss of life and property and serious social problems.

In the words of one China analyst who serves as an adviser to Western companies, when Chinese officials “describe the solution to a problem, that’s how you find out what went wrong.”

Vanity Fair and ProPublica analyzed the WIV website and found that there may have been an after-the-fact attempt to reframe the events of November 2019. On Nov. 11, the WIV appeared to republish the entire section of its website containing institutional and party branch news. Every dispatch from prior dates, even those from several years earlier, contains underlying data that indicates that it was changed on that day.

While this could have resulted from routine site maintenance, it raises another possibility: that WIV officials removed or revised documents in an effort to insulate themselves from blame ahead of the Nov. 19 visit from Ji Changzheng, the CAS biosecurity official.

The first dispatch to be posted after Nov. 11 was the one from the Zhengdian lab party branch enumerating how its members had rushed to the front lines every time there had been a biocontainment lapse. The dispatch was dated Nov. 12, but the underlying data suggested the file was actually uploaded on Nov. 19, the day of Ji’s urgent visit.

Matthew Pottinger, who researches China-related issues at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and was President Trump’s former deputy national security adviser, told Vanity Fair and ProPublica, “This is the CCP’s version of ‘cover your ass.’”

“Scientifically, Technically Not Possible”

As Senate researchers explored the question of when the outbreak began, they and their scientific advisers examined the surprisingly fast vaccine development by several Chinese research teams.

The work of one military vaccinologist caught their attention: Zhou Yusen, director of the State Key Laboratory of Pathogen and Biosecurity at the Academy of Military Medical Sciences Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology, in Beijing. Zhou had spent years working to develop vaccines for pathogens including SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), a novel coronavirus first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. A 2016 report by the WIV featured Zhou as a key partner on its MERS vaccine research. And in November 2019, he collaborated on a paper with a team of WIV scientists that included Shi Zhengli.

On Feb. 24, 2020, Zhou became the first researcher in the world to apply for a patent for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. His proposed vaccine worked by reproducing a part of the virus’s spike protein known as the receptor binding domain. In order to start vaccine development, researchers would have needed the entire SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequence, the interim report says.

Shi Zhengli has said that her lab was the first to sequence the virus and completed that work on the morning of Jan. 2, 2020. That sequence is the one Zhou said he worked with in his Chinese patent application, which Vanity Fair and ProPublica reviewed.

According to the interim report, there are limits to how fast a vaccine can be developed. In particular, it said that “animal studies are designed to last a specific length of time and cannot be curtailed without compromising the resulting data.”

In his patent application and in subsequently published papers, Zhou documented a robust research and development process that included both adapting the virus to wild-type mice and infecting genetically modified ones with humanized lungs.

Vanity Fair and ProPublica consulted two independent experts and one expert adviser to the interim report to get their assessment of when Zhou’s research was likely to have begun. Two of the three said that he had to have started no later than November 2019, in order to complete the mouse research spelled out in his patent and subsequent papers.

Larry Kerr, who advised on the interim report, called the timeline laid out in Zhou’s patent and research papers “scientifically, technically not possible.” He added, “I don’t think any molecular biology lab in the world, no matter how sophisticated, could pull that off.”

Rick Bright, the former HHS official who helped oversee vaccine development for the U.S. government, told Vanity Fair and ProPublica that even a four-month timetable would be “aggressive,” especially when the virus in question is new. “Things aren’t usually that perfect,” he said.

Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, told us the timetable was very fast but “feasible for a group with substantial existing expertise and ongoing work” on developing similar SARS-related coronavirus vaccines, but only if “everything went right.”

Zhou and his colleagues described their COVID-19 vaccine research in a preprint posted on May 2, 2020. When it was published in a peer-reviewed journal three months later, Reid found, Zhou was listed as “deceased.” The circumstances of his death have not been disclosed.

Battle Lines

In the early hours of Jan. 1, 2020, Wuhan officials closed the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market after identifying it as the site of the world’s first cluster of SARS-CoV-2 infections. Animals for sale were carted away, stalls were sanitized and an epidemiology team spent days collecting environmental samples.

How did the virus arrive in Wuhan, a metropolis of 11 million people hundreds of miles north of China’s teeming bat caves? It was such an unlikely place for a coronavirus outbreak that WIV scientists had in the past used Wuhan residents as a control group when screening people in the countryside of Yunnan Province for exposure to bat-borne viruses. The assumption was that urbanites in Wuhan would have little contact with bats.

To many scientists, the answer was clear: The wildlife trade in China had brought live animals, an obvious source of disease, into dangerously close proximity with people. Years earlier, something similar had happened with SARS, which spilled over into multiple different markets that sold live animals across Guangdong Province over the course of months.

But the interim report also highlights questions that soon arose regarding the market theory. If the wildlife trade was the culprit, where was the trail of infected animals? And where was the animal host?

The question of where COVID-19 came from has never been a purely scientific one. From the start, in both China and the U.S., it has been politicized almost beyond recognition.

In April 2020, Trump declared at a press conference that COVID-19 — or “kung flu,” as he soon began calling it — had come from a lab in China. When pressed on the evidence for this claim, he declared: “I can’t tell you that. I’m not allowed to tell you that.”

As a conspiratorial rabble trained its sights on the WIV generally, and Shi Zhengli specifically, Western scientists rushed to their defense. “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” read a statement signed by 27 scientists and published by the Lancet medical journal on Feb. 19, 2020. It would later emerge that one of the scientists who’d signed that statement had sought to conceal his own role in orchestrating it and creating the impression of a consensus, as Vanity Fair has reported previously. That scientist didn’t address this issue when he replied to our request for comment for this article.

By then, however, the battle lines had been drawn. If you backed the lab-leak theory, you were with Trump. If you believed in science, you supported the natural-origin theory generally and the market-spillover theory in particular.

On Feb. 25, 2022, a team of researchers from China’s CDC published a preprint revealing that of the 457 swabs taken from 18 species of animals in the market, none contained any evidence of the virus. Rather, the virus was found in 73 swabs taken from around the market’s environment, all linked to human infections. And although some seafood and vegetable vendors in the market tested positive, no vendors from animal stalls did.

The next day, a team of scientists including Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, published a preprint identifying the Huanan market as the “unambiguous epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Using mapping software, they analyzed the locations of 155 of the earliest known cases reported by the Chinese authorities to the World Health Organization and found them to be centered on the market. A companion analysis led by Jonathan Pekar, a bioinformatics graduate student at the University of California San Diego, said there had been not one but “at least two” spillover events at the market.

The Worobey paper described its findings as “dispositive evidence” for a market origin. The New York Times catapulted the preprints to international attention. When the peer-reviewed version was published in Science in July, the “dispositive evidence” language was gone. In a detailed response to our request for comment, Worobey said that the removal of those words was the authors’ editorial choice and that the language in Science was “no less definitive” than the preprint: “It was replaced with similar language: ‘our analyses indicate that the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 occurred through the live wildlife trade in China.’”

By contrast, the interim Senate report concludes that “the hypothesis of a natural zoonotic origin no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt, or the presumption of accuracy.” The available evidence doesn’t fit the patterns of previous outbreaks, it states, including outbreaks of SARS in 2003 and avian influenza in 2013. Those outbreaks saw many independent spillover events in multiple locations, and those viruses “exhibited much greater genetic diversity than early SARS-CoV-2 strains.” And within six months of the first known case of SARS, the report says, Chinese health officials found evidence of the virus in palm civets and raccoon dogs.

The interim report also points out that, “almost three years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, there is still no evidence of an animal infected with SARS-CoV-2, or a closely related virus, before the first publicly reported human COVID-19 cases in Wuhan in December 2019.”

Worobey said, “Our two recent papers establish that a natural zoonotic origin is the only plausible scenario for the origin of the pandemic.” Before this story ran, Worobey posted his comments to us, as well as additional ones, on Twitter, so they would not be “ignored or filtered,” and stated he had not been given sufficient time to respond.

While the China CDC found no evidence of the virus in animals in the market, Pekar told Vanity Fair and ProPublica that the removal of animals from the market by the start of 2020 made it difficult to “actually sample the correct animals for SARS-CoV-2.”

The Senate’s interim report is no likelier than the Worobey and Pekar studies to close the book on the origins debate, nor does it attempt to. If anything, it seems destined to escalate the battle just as Republicans in Congress hope to retake the majority in the midterm elections. They aim to haul Dr. Anthony Fauci, the outgoing director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, into Benghazi-style hearings.

The dispute over COVID-19’s origins, fought in the halls of Congress and on the web pages of scientific preprints, has become more toxic and divisive as time has passed. On Twitter, what should be scientific debate has devolved into a mosh pit of poop emojis and middle school insults. It is unclear what is driving the animus, but political advantage, egos, scientific reputations and research dollars all hang in the balance.

“Under the Thumb of the Party State”

In early February 2020, as COVID-19 was spreading beyond China, James LeDuc of the Galveston National Laboratory began fielding calls from journalists asking if SARS-CoV-2 could have originated from a lab.

He didn’t think so. Nonetheless, on Feb. 9, he emailed his longtime colleague and mentee at the WIV, Yuan Zhiming. LeDuc encouraged him to “conduct a thorough review of the laboratory activities associated with research on coronaviruses so that you are fully prepared to answer questions dealing with the origin of the virus.” He included a three-page list of “some areas where you may wish to investigate.”

Included in LeDuc’s proposed review were the following questions: “Is there any evidence to suggest a mechanical failure in biocontainment during the time in question? -were biological safety cabinets used and appropriately certified? -Exhaust air filtration systems working correctly?”

The questions were apt. Two and a half months earlier, according to the interim report, procurement officials at the WIV posted a call for bids on a government website seeking a costly air incinerator. The post was dated Nov. 19, 2019, the very day that the visiting CAS safety official arrived to address a “complex and grave” situation there.

Prior to the wider adoption of HEPA filters in the 1950s, air incinerators were used to “superheat air coming from one place and going to another, in order to render them free of any microbial agent,” said Bob Hawley, the former safety chief at the Army’s Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease. “If somehow the HEPA filter system failed, because there was a tear or breach … then your quick fix would be to bring in an air incinerator.”

LeDuc says he never heard back from Yuan.

Toy Reid, who is now in Jakarta, Indonesia, resuming his work for the State Department, says that WIV scientists are not “free agents” who can candidly share what occurred in their laboratories. “The WIV is under the thumb of the party state,” he says. “Just because you can’t see the political pressures they’re under doesn’t mean they’re not under them. American scientists have been slow to realize that.”

Without the cooperation of China’s government, we can’t know exactly what did or didn’t happen at the WIV, or what precise set of circumstances unleashed SARS-CoV-2. But the dispatches that Reid unearthed, when overlaid with additional evidence the Senate team compiled, point to a catastrophe in the making: political pressure to excel, inadequate resources to safeguard risky work and an effort to skirt blame once a crisis hit.

As Reid sees it, the international community must continue to demand answers. “If you just throw your hands in the air and say, ‘We’ll never know because it’s China,’ and just move on — if you take that defeatist approach to things — you can’t prepare yourself to prevent something like this from happening in the future.”

Election deniers failed to hand Wisconsin to Trump — but paved the way for future GOP success

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Ever since claims of election fraud arose in 2020, Wisconsin has seen its share of quixotic attempts to taint the presidential results.

A group of phony electors tried to claim the state’s electoral votes for Donald Trump. Wisconsin’s top lawmaker launched a yearlong inquiry led by a lawyer spewing election fraud theories. And its courts heard numerous suits challenging the integrity of the 2020 election and the people administering it.

All those efforts failed, sometimes spectacularly.

But on a more fundamental level, the election deniers succeeded. They helped change the way Election Day will look in 2022 for crucial midterm elections in Wisconsin — and they are creating an even more favorable climate for Trump and Republicans in 2024.

This summer, the conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court banned most drop boxes for ballots, which had provided another quick and convenient method of voting during the pandemic, rather than relying on the mail. Until a federal judge intervened, the ruling also meant that people with disabilities could not have help delivering their ballots to their municipal clerks.

More recently, in Waukesha County, a judge sided with the Republican Party in a ruling that barred local clerks from fixing even minor errors or omissions — such as a missing ZIP code — on absentee ballot envelopes. The clerks could contact the voter or return the ballot to be corrected. In a state already known for limiting voter access, this was another example of a push toward more controls.

And the Wisconsin Assembly and the Senate, both dominated by Republicans, have passed a raft of bills that would tighten voting laws. Each was vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat. But Evers is in a close race for reelection against Republican Tim Michels, who has said that “on day one” he will call a special session of the Legislature to “fix the election mess.”

Philip Rocco, associate professor of political science at Marquette University in Milwaukee, describes a dynamic he has seen across the country playing out on a large scale in Wisconsin. An onslaught of attacks on the voting process, he said, produces “an atmosphere of procedural chaos going into Election Day.”

“Just in general, it’s created a dangerous environment for elections to occur in.”

Republicans, who often benefit from lower turnout, frame the battles around issues of law, while Democrats argue that the fight is over voting rights. Neither side sees any benefit in giving in.

The seemingly daily news of legal machinations, legislative committee hearings, proposed laws or official investigations of Wisconsin’s election system have left many voters worried about what to expect when they next try to cast a ballot and unsure of whether their vote will count.

A swing state with 10 electoral votes and a history of razor-thin margins, Wisconsin will once again be a key prize in the 2024 presidential race.

Just how important the state is became clear in August, when the Republican National Committee announced that it will hold its 2024 convention in Milwaukee, a typically overlooked, Democratic-led city. The convention will saturate the state’s largest media market, reaching the conservative-leaning suburbs and the quiet towns and farms beyond.

But first comes November’s midterm election, with a chance to consolidate Republican power in the state and shape oversight of coming elections. Both ends of the political spectrum are keenly aware of the stakes.

“What can happen in 2024 is largely going to be determined by what happens this November,” said Wisconsin attorney Jeffrey Mandell, president of a progressive firm dedicated to protecting voting rights.

Endless Legal Battles

Nine attorneys, a parade of dark suits and briefcases, descended on a Waukesha County courtroom in southeast Wisconsin in September. Once again, the extreme minutiae of Wisconsin election law was being litigated.

The question before them: how to deal with absentee ballot envelopes that arrive with only partial addresses of witnesses?

Until then, municipal clerks had been able to simply fill in the information. Now, the Republican Party of Waukesha County argued that was unlawful and wanted to prohibit clerks from doing so. For some voters, that could mean having their ballots returned and figuring out how to fix them in time to have their vote counted.

A lawyer for the GOP-controlled Legislature favored a prohibition. Lawyers for government regulators, Democrats and the League of Women Voters argued against it. Ultimately, the GOP side prevailed.

In his ruling, Circuit Judge Michael J. Aprahamian added his voice to the doubts about absentee voting in Wisconsin and about the oversight provided by the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission, which has seen its every move scrutinized since Trump and his allies started questioning the 2020 results in Wisconsin.

Aprahamian excoriated the commission, saying that “it is little wonder that proponents from all corners of the political spectrum are critical, cynical and suspicious of how elections are managed and overseen.”

As court scenes like these play out elsewhere in Wisconsin, a healthy slice of the litigation can be traced to one man: Erick Kaardal, a Minnesota lawyer and special counsel to the anti-abortion Thomas More Society, a nonprofit law firm.

Despite some high-profile setbacks in Wisconsin, Kaardal told ProPublica he plans to keep scrutinizing the fine points of Wisconsin election law, a subject that takes up at least 122 pages in state statute.

His ongoing targets include the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which interprets laws and gives guidance to municipal clerks around the state; the Electronic Registration Information Center, a voter roll management consortium; and the Center for Election Innovation & Research, a nonprofit that seeks to improve turnout.

“We’ll be litigating with the WEC and ERIC and CEIR for years to come,” Kaardal said.

Kaardal’s persistence is not appreciated by everyone. A federal judge admonished him for “political grandstanding” and filing bad-faith litigation against then-Vice President Mike Pence in December 2020 to prevent the counting of electoral votes. And in May, a judge in Madison said it was “ridiculous” for Kaardal to label pandemic-related grants to election offices as bribes.

In defending his tactics, Kaardal cited his years of legal experience and investigative abilities. He said he merely wants to hold government accountable and make elections fair.

Among Kaardal’s most passionate causes is his ongoing effort to document election fraud at nursing homes. During the pandemic, Kaardal alleges, an unknown number of cognitively impaired people ruled incompetent to vote under court-ordered guardianships somehow voted, perhaps with illegal assistance. He believes the voter rolls are not being updated to accurately reflect the court orders.

Kaardal brought lawsuits against 13 probate administrators across Wisconsin to force the release of confidential documents revealing the names of individuals under guardianship who have had their right to vote stripped by the court. His petition was denied in one case, but the others are ongoing.

Dane County Clerk of Court Carlo Esqueda worries that Kaardal’s quest is giving people the wrong impression. He points out that a person under guardianship can still vote. In some instances, that right is taken away because of extreme cognitive issues.

“Talk radio is saying everybody under guardianship should not be able to vote. That’s simply not true,” he said.

Election clerks, too, cite disinformation as they face mounting pressure over how they handle absentee ballots.

Celestine Jeffreys, the clerk in Green Bay, was forced to defend her integrity when a local resident represented by Kaardal filed a formal complaint with the Wisconsin Elections Commission this year, accusing her of “ballot harvesting” in the spring 2022 municipal elections by accepting multiple absentee ballots from an individual voter. The complaint is still pending.

Matt Roeser, the resident who filed the complaint, told ProPublica that the heavy reliance on absentee voting during the pandemic “opened up a door we’ve never had opened before. It created a lot of suspicion.”

Jeffreys said in a court filing that she had the discretion at the time to accept multiple ballots if they involved someone delivering their own ballot and a ballot for a disabled person.

Her legal brief called the complaint “another attempt by Attorney Kaardal to court scandal where there is none — intentionally undermining public confidence in legitimately-run elections in the process.”

Energized Activists

Wisconsin resident Harry Wait drew national attention in July when he announced that he’d gone on a state website and arranged for absentee ballots in the names of the Racine mayor, the state Assembly speaker and several others to be sent to his home.

The site requires only that voters enter their name and date of birth, and Wait claimed it had insufficient safeguards to prevent fraud.

The antic angered the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which held that it was a serious breach meant to undermine the state’s election system. Authorities charged Wait with election fraud, a misdemeanor, and misappropriation of ID information, a felony.

Notwithstanding the charges, Wait was treated like a hero a week later at a meeting of the right-leaning group he leads inside a Racine dive bar.

Wait formed H.O.T. Government, which stands for honest, open, transparent, four years ago over perceived government misconduct in Racine. It’s now focused on rooting out what it sees as widespread election fraud throughout Wisconsin and is taking special interest in absentee ballots. The group even briefly considered a plan to steal leftover drop boxes in southeast Wisconsin to ensure they couldn’t be used after the state Supreme Court ruling.

Wait has made it clear he’s no fan of the Wisconsin Elections Commission. “I’m going to make a declaration today that WEC is our enemy,” he told the crowd inside the bar.

He was proud how, in his view, he had exposed the flaws in the state government’s MyVote website, set up to help Wisconsinites find their polling place, register to vote or order an absentee ballot. The website, he said, “really needs to be shut down.”

Wait said in an interview that he plans to defend his action in court on the basis that, in his view, the MyVote system is “not a legal channel to order a ballot. It’s a rogue system.”

The administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, Meagan Wolfe, has defended the online system. It “requires a person to provide the same information or more information than he or she would have to provide if the person made the ballot request through traditional mail,” she said at a commission meeting.

Still, the commission agreed to a new safeguard: When it gets a request to send an absentee ballot to a new address, it will notify the voter via postcard. The commission also asked clerks to be on the lookout for unusual requests.

At a preliminary hearing on his case, in September, Wait was represented by Michael Gableman, a leading figure among Wisconsin election deniers.

A former state Supreme Court justice, Gableman was special counsel for the Wisconsin Assembly, tasked with investigating the 2020 election. While spending more than $1 million in taxpayer money, he lent oxygen to election-fraud theories — including Kaardal’s accusations about nursing home irregularities — but couldn’t prove any. Attempts to reach Gableman for comment for this story were unsuccessful.

Even after being dismissed from that role by the Assembly speaker, Gableman has continued to exert influence within the state Republican Party to stoke the anger of citizens. Among hard-right activists, Gableman’s view of Wisconsin as a hotbed of election fraud is now taken for granted, as is the belief that voting options should be restricted, not opened up.

“I want it back to in-person, one day,” said Bruce L. Boll, a volunteer with We the People Waukesha, one of numerous groups supporting tighter controls. “Voting should not be a whim. It should be something you plan for and you do. Like your wedding day.”

Responding to this new atmosphere of distrust, the Wisconsin Elections Commission has proposed creating an Office of Inspector General to help it investigate the growing number of complaints and allegations of impropriety.

Chaos and Controversy

The chaos and controversy around voting rules has caught some Wisconsinites off guard. The drop-box ruling was especially disconcerting to people with disabilities and their relatives.

Before the August primary, Eugene Wojciechowski, of West Allis, went to City Hall to pay his water bill and drop off his ballot and his wife’s at the clerk’s office. A staffer asked him for ID and then told him he could not deliver his wife’s ballot. Not even spouses of the disabled could do so at the time, thanks to the state Supreme Court decision.

“I said: ‘What do you mean? She’s in a wheelchair,’” Wojciechowski recalled. He noted that the ballots were “all sealed and witnessed and everything.”

The voting constraints were “stupid,” he said, but ultimately he decided he would just mail his wife’s ballot for her, even though it was unclear at the time whether that was permitted.

He has filed an official complaint with the Wisconsin Elections Commission and weeks later remains exasperated.

“I mean, what the hell is going on in this city? I’ve lived here all my life,” Wojciechowski said.

“They’re stopping people from voting, that’s all it is.”

The state Supreme Court decision came in response to a suit brought by a conservative group, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. An attorney for the group, Rick Esenberg, argued that regulators had issued unlawful guidance allowing ballots to be delivered on behalf of others, including potentially “paid activists, paid canvassers who go around and collect ballots and place them in a mailbox.” Those allegations echoed a widely circulated conspiracy theory about people, labeled mules, delivering heaps of fraudulent ballots.

Esenberg conceded in his oral arguments that he had no evidence of that type of activity in Wisconsin.

Four people with disabilities sued in federal court, including Martha Chambers, of Milwaukee, who was left paralyzed from the neck down after being thrown from a horse 27 years ago.

“Here they are making things more difficult for me, and my life is difficult enough,” she said.

A federal judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the state elections commission to tell local clerks that voters with disabilities must be allowed to receive help from someone of their choosing to return their absentee ballots. The clerks do not have to confirm that the voter is disabled or ask the emissary for ID.

Still, it’s not at all certain that the ruling will be followed uniformly.

The state has approximately 1,850 local clerks who administer elections in cities, towns and villages. Even before the federal ruling, practices were wildly inconsistent, said Barbara Beckert, director of external advocacy for Disability Rights Wisconsin.

“There is continuing confusion in Wisconsin as voting practices and policies continue to change in response to litigation as well as action by the Legislature,” Beckert said.

Political observers say there’s increased trepidation among all kinds of voters over whether their ballot will count and who will be watching at the polls.

“People are afraid,” said Milwaukee native Bruce Colburn, a union activist and lead organizer of Souls to the Polls, a traditional get-out-the-vote drive in Black communities. “Are they going to do something wrong? Then you have all these lawyers and people making complaints in the court system for nothing. And it makes it more difficult. It scares people. If they get something wrong or they don’t do it exactly right, something’s going to happen to them.”

Jeffreys, the clerk in Green Bay, described poll watchers on primary day this year as “aggressive and interfering.” Rather than being cordial and unobtrusive, she said, some observers were repeatedly questioning voting officials and disrupting the process.

“That, I think, is a really big change with elections in Wisconsin. There’s just a lot more of a gaze, and the gaze is not always friendly and cooperative.”

Unlike poll workers, who carry out official duties and must be local residents, poll watchers can come from anywhere. They are not required to undergo training.

“Observers are a very important part of the process,” Jeffreys said. “They lend transparency; they help educate people. They themselves become educated. But sometimes observers have anointed themselves as the people who will uncover problems. And oftentimes observers are not equipped with the information in order to do that.”

The result, she said, can be baseless allegations.

Pointing Toward 2024

If Republicans in Wisconsin want to find a way around the Democratic governor, Evers, and his veto pen, they have two choices.

They can unseat him in November or bulk up their legislative advantage to what is called a supermajority. Achieving supermajorities in both the Assembly and the Senate, which would make bills veto-proof, is considered the longer shot. Winning the governor’s race is not.

Michels, the Republican nominee, is the owner of a construction company and has never held public office. He was endorsed by Trump in the primary.

Michels has embraced the idea that the 2020 election was not run fairly, even though a state recount showed Biden won and multiple courts agreed. Asked if the 2020 election was stolen, Michels told the “Regular Joe Show” on the radio in May: “Maybe, right. We know there was certainly a lot of bad stuff that happened. There were certainly illegal legal ballots. How many? I don’t know if Justice Gableman knows. I don’t know if anybody knows. We got to make sure. I will make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

A Michels victory would set the stage for reconsideration of a range of restrictive voting laws that were vetoed by Evers.

Among the bills passed by Republicans and blocked by Evers were proposals that would require the state to use federal databases to check citizenship status; remove voters from the rolls based on information submitted for jury selection; make it harder to request an absentee ballot; and classify it a felony to incorrectly attest that a person is “indefinitely confined” so they can vote absentee (a provision widely used during the pandemic).

Wisconsin already is a place that researchers have identified as difficult for voters to navigate. The Cost of Voting Index, a Northern Illinois University project that studies each state, lists it near the bottom, at 47th, because of a strict voter ID law, limits on early voting and proof of residency requirements that affect registration drives.

“Over the last several election cycles, other states have adopted policies that remove barriers to voting,” one of the researchers, Michael J. Pomante II, now with the election protection group States United Action, said in an email.

But Wisconsin, he added, “has continued to pass and implement laws that create barriers to casting a ballot.”

In 2024, all these factors — from who is able to vote to who runs the executive branch and who runs the Legislature — will play a role in determining which presidential candidate gets Wisconsin’s electoral votes.

The governor and the Wisconsin Elections Commission are part of the state’s certification process, with the secretary of state making it official by affixing the state seal. And the state Supreme Court stands ready to rule on election law disputes.

The Nov. 8 midterm election will determine which party holds the office of governor and secretary of state when voting occurs in 2024. Michels has proposed a “full reorganization” of the Wisconsin Elections Commission if he is elected.

He hasn’t explained what that would look like, other than to say in a primary debate that he envisioned replacing it with a board made up of appointees named by each of the state’s congressional districts. Wisconsin now has eight seats in the U.S. House, five held by Republicans and three by Democrats.

Evers, by contrast, backs the commission in its current form. He noted its origins in the state’s Legislature seven years ago.

“Republicans created this system, and it works,” he said in a statement released to ProPublica. “Our last election was fair and secure, as was proven by a recount, our law enforcement agencies, and the courts.”

GOP senator cited COVID when he dumped shares ahead of stock market crash: FBI records

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After Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., told his broker to sell off more than a million dollars in stock a week before the 2020 coronavirus market crash, he called his brother-in-law, Gerald Fauth. Immediately after, Fauth called his wealth manager to sell off almost $160,000 in stock.

Fauth sounded “hurried,” according to a witness cited by the FBI in newly released documents. In explaining why he wanted to dump the stock, Fauth suggested he had special knowledge.

I know a senator, he said.

That appears to contradict what Burr’s lawyer told ProPublica, when we broke the news that the senator and his brother-in-law sold stock on the same day. In that story, the lawmaker’s attorney denied Burr and Fauth had coordinated.

That detail and others were revealed this week, after a judge ordered the Justice Department to further unredact documents related to its insider trading investigation into Burr. Federal prosecutors closed that investigation without filing charges last year, but as of earlier this year, a civil investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission remained ongoing.

Burr and Fauth could not immediately be reached for comment about the latest document release. In the past, Burr has denied trading on material nonpublic information, and Fauth has repeatedly hung up on ProPublica when asked about his trades.

Here’s a rundown of what’s new from the filing:

A Previous Transaction

Before Burr’s big stock dump on Feb. 13, 2020, the senator engaged in another transaction that suggested he anticipated investor concerns.

The day before his big stock sell-off, Burr purchased $1,189,000 in the Federated U.S. Treasury Cash Reserves Fund, about three-quarters of all the money he and his wife had in their joint account. That purchase had not been previously reported. “Investors often purchase U.S. Treasury funds to hedge against a potential market downturn,” an FBI agent noted.

Why Did Burr Trade?

When the scandal first broke, Burr denied his trades were motivated by inside information he learned as a member of the health and intelligence committees, but rather by news reports from CNBC.

Though this section remains lightly redacted, the FBI appears to have interviewed someone involved in executing Burr’s stock sell-off. That person did not recall Burr mentioning CNBC.

The person said Burr cited the coronavirus, saying it could affect the stock market and cause problems with the supply chain, since American companies rely on Chinese suppliers. (Burr also apparently mentioned that the surge in support for Sen. Bernie Sanders as the Democratic presidential nominee was a risk to the market.)

Did Burr Have a Source?

The FBI’s application for a warrant to search Burr’s phone remains heavily redacted in places, but it cites extensive texts and phone calls with someone about the impending coronavirus crisis.

“In total, between January 31, 2020, and April 7, 2020, (redacted) and Senator Burr exchanged approximately 32 text messages, nearly all of which concerned, in one way or another, the COVID-19 pandemic,” an FBI agent wrote.

That person’s identity remains unknown.

But the exchanges Burr had with this person are part of the reason the FBI was alleging there was probable cause to believe “Burr used material, non-public information regarding the impact that COVID-19 would have on the economy, and that he gained that information by virtue of his position as a Member of Congress.”

One More Call

The day the scandal first broke, Burr was facing demands that he resign from left and right, including from liberal Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and conservative Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

One of his first calls that evening? His brother-in-law.

According to the FBI, at 7:31 p.m. a call was placed from Burr’s cellphone to Fauth’s cellphone.

It lasted four and a half minutes. What was discussed is unclear.

At that point, it wasn’t yet publicly known that Fauth had dumped stock the same day as Burr. ProPublica broke that story two months later.

A week later the FBI asked a judge for a warrant to search Burr’s phone, news of which prompted Burr to step down as chair of the intelligence committee.

How a secretive billionaire handed his fortune to the architect of the right-wing takeover of the courts

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

An elderly, ultra-secretive Chicago businessman has given the largest known donation to a political advocacy group in U.S. history — worth $1.6 billion — and the recipient is one of the prime architects of conservatives’ efforts to reshape the American judicial system, including the Supreme Court.

Through a series of opaque transactions over the past two years, Barre Seid, a 90-year-old manufacturing magnate, gave the massive sum to a nonprofit run by Leonard Leo, who co-chairs the conservative legal group the Federalist Society.

The donation was first reported by The New York Times on Monday. The Lever and ProPublica confirmed the information from documents received independently by the news organizations.

Our reporting sheds additional light on how the two men, one a judicial kingmaker and the other a mysterious but prolific donor to conservative causes, came together to create a political war chest that will likely supercharge efforts to further shift American politics to the right.

As President Donald Trump’s adviser on judicial nominations, Leo helped build the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority, which recently eliminated Constitutional protections for abortion rights and has made a series of sweeping pro-business decisions. Leo, a conservative Catholic, has both helped select judges to nominate to the Supreme Court and directed multimillion dollar media campaigns to confirm them.

Leo derives immense political power through his ability to raise huge sums of money and distribute those funds throughout the conservative movement to influence elections, judicial appointments and policy battles. Yet the biggest funders of Leo’s operation have long been a mystery.

Seid, who led the surge protector and data-center equipment maker Tripp Lite for more than half a century, has been almost unknown outside a small circle of political and cultural recipients. The gift immediately vaults him into the ranks of major funders like the Koch brothers and George Soros.

In practical terms, there are few limitations on how Leo’s new group, the Marble Freedom Trust, can spend the enormous donation. The structure of the donation allowed Seid to avoid as much as $400 million in taxes. Thus, he maximized the amount of money at Leo’s disposal.

Now, Leo, 56, is positioned to finance his already sprawling network with one of the largest pools of political capital in American history. Seid has left his legacy to Leo.

“To my knowledge, it is entirely without precedent for a political operative to be given control of such an astonishing amount of money,” said Brendan Fischer, a campaign finance lawyer at the nonpartisan watchdog group Documented. “Leonard Leo is already incredibly powerful, and now he is going to have over a billion dollars at his disposal to continue upending our country’s institutions.”

In a statement to the Times, Leo said it was “high time for the conservative movement to be among the ranks of George Soros, Hansjörg Wyss, Arabella Advisors and other left-wing philanthropists, going toe-to-toe in the fight to defend our constitution and its ideals.” Leo and representatives for Seid did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Marble Freedom Trust is a so-called dark money group that is not required to publicly disclose its donors. It has wide latitude to spend directly on elections as well as on ideological projects such as funding issue-advocacy groups, think tanks, universities, religious institutions and organizing efforts.

The creators of the Marble Freedom Trust shrouded their project in secrecy for more than two years.

The group’s name does not appear in any public database of business, tax or securities records. The Marble Freedom Trust is organized for legal purposes as a trust, rather than as a corporation. That means it did not have to publicly disclose basic details like its name, directors and address.

The trust was formed in Utah. Its address is a house in North Salt Lake owned by Tyler Green, a lawyer who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Green is listed in the trust’s tax return as an administrative trustee. The donation does not appear to violate any laws.

Seid’s $1.6 billion donation is a landmark in the era of deregulated political spending ushered in by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. That case, along with subsequent changes and weak federal oversight, empowered a tiny group of the super rich in both parties to fund groups that can spend unlimited sums to support candidates and political causes. In the last decade, donations in the millions and sometimes tens of millions of dollars have become common.

Individuals could give unlimited amounts of money to nonprofit groups prior to Citizens United, but the decision allowed those nonprofits to more directly influence elections. A handful of billionaires such as the Koch family and Soros have spent billions to achieve epochal political influence by bankrolling networks of nonprofits.

Even in this money-drenched world, Seid’s $1.6 billion gift exceeds all publicly known one-time donations to a politically oriented group.

The Silent Donor

One day in November 2015, the employees of Tripp Lite, a manufacturer of power strips and other electrical equipment, gathered for a celebration at the company’s headquarters on the South Side of Chicago. Cupcakes frosted in blue and white spelled out the numbers “56.” An easel held up a sign hailing Tripp Lite’s longtime leader: “Congratulations Barre!”

A small, balding man with a white goatee and a ruddy complexion took the microphone. Barre Seid was known as someone who preferred to keep a low profile, but on the 56th anniversary of his leadership of Tripp Lite, he couldn’t resist the chance to address his employees. Later, as he bit into a cupcake, Seid posed for a company photographer, who later uploaded the photo to the company’s Facebook page.

Even this semipublic glimpse of Seid was rare.

For several decades, a select group of political activists, academics and fundraisers was ushered to Tripp Lite headquarters to pitch Seid at his office. Despite his status as one of the country’s most prolific funders of conservative causes, and despite his decades as the president and sole owner of one of the country’s most successful electronics makers, Seid has spent most of his 90 years painstakingly guarding his privacy.

There are no art galleries, opera companies, or theaters or university buildings emblazoned with his name in his hometown of Chicago. There’s even some confusion over how to pronounce his last name. (People who’ve dealt with him say it’s “side.”)

The Lever and ProPublica pieced together the details of his life and his motivations for his extensive donations through interviews, court records and other documents obtained through public-records requests.

One of the only photos of Seid that The Lever and ProPublica could find shows him as a 14-year-old walking in a small group across a college campus. Born in 1932 to Russian Jewish immigrants, Seid grew up on the South Side of Chicago, the oldest of two brothers, according to Census records. A precocious child, he was chosen for a special bachelor’s degree program at the University of Chicago, not far from his childhood home.

Seid attended the University of Chicago in the early years of the “Chicago school,” a group of professors and researchers who would reimagine the field of economics, assailing massive government interventions in the economy and emphasizing the importance of human liberty and free markets. After college, Seid served two years in the Army and eventually returned home to Chicago, according to testimony given decades later in a court case. He took a job as an assistant to an investor and businessman named Graham Trippe, whose company made headlights and would produce the rotating warning lights used by police cars, tow trucks and other emergency response vehicles.

By the mid-1960s, Seid had taken over as Trippe Manufacturing’s president. In the decades to come, the company, now called Tripp Lite, became a pick-and-shovel business of the digital gold rush. The company sells the power strips that supply electricity to computers and the server racks, cooling equipment and network switches that make data centers run. Business surged with the shift to cloud computing and the proliferation of vast data centers.

That boom vaulted him from the ranks of merely rich to the superrich. Seid was making around $30 million per year by the mid-1990s, tax records obtained by ProPublica show. His annual income, the vast majority of which came from Tripp Lite’s profits, took off in the mid-2000s and steadily rose, hitting around $157 million in 2018. Tripp Lite, which was 100% owned by Seid, contributed $136 million to his total income that year.

Even as Seid built a billion-plus dollar business, he drew scant public attention; Forbes never put him on its list of the wealthiest Americans, and business and political press rarely mentioned him.

Yet he was becoming a major donor. He gave at least $775 million in charitable donations between 1996 and 2018, a period in which he reported $1.7 billion in income, according to his tax records. Seid parceled out a small portion of those donations to Chicago-area universities, religious organizations, medical research and dozens of civic-focused groups.

While Seid has never spoken to the press about his ideology, evidence of his worldview has emerged here and there. His family foundation has supported the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute for Economics, named after two of the Chicago school’s intellectual leaders, Gary Becker and Milton Friedman. He has also donated to the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit that has a history of using inflammatory rhetoric and misleading tactics to undermine climate science.

Seid appeared to be the donor (listed as “Barry Seid”) who gave $17 million to fund the distribution during the 2008 presidential campaign of millions of copies of a DVD of the film “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War With the West.” The DVDs, which were sent specifically to households in presidential election battleground states, were criticized as virulently anti-Muslim.

Seid’s personality can be glimpsed in exchanges with George Mason University officials from the late 2000s to mid-2010s that came out in response to a public-records request by the activist group UnKoch My Campus. In the emails, Seid comes across as an intellectually probing figure, asking the dean of the law school to respond to news stories about the value of a law-school degree or the workings of higher education’s accreditation system. Seid drily addressed several administrators for the university, whose law school and economics department are known for their alignment with conservative, free-market principles, as “Fellow Members of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy.”

Seid appears to have continually sought new vehicles for dispensing his money and maintaining as much anonymity as possible. The GMU emails also show a redacted donor — who activists believed to be Seid based on other unredacted materials — routing donations to the school through DonorsTrust or the Donors Capital Fund, two donor-advised funds that provide an additional level of anonymity.

While the roots of Seid and Leo’s professional relationship aren’t clear, the two worked together at a small foundation Seid formed in 2009 called the Chicago Freedom Trust, a charity that gave out small grants to nonpolitical groups. Leo later joined the foundation’s board.

The GMU emails provide an inkling of the relationship between the two men. In early 2016, Seid emailed the dean of GMU’s law school and the head of a prominent American Jewish organization to urge them to work together. The dean, Henry Butler, forwarded Seid’s message to Leo seeking to better understand Seid’s intentions.

“Do you have any insight?” Butler wrote.

“I do not, but will find out,” Leo replied.

The Money

Billionaires tend to craft intricate estate plans to pass the family business to the next generation, fortified from taxation and protective of their vision. The apparently childless Seid didn’t have that option, but starting in April 2020, he set in motion a plan to make sure his fortune would go toward his favored causes.

That month, the Marble Freedom Trust was created, and Seid subsequently transferred his 100% ownership stake in Tripp Lite to the trust, according to the documents reviewed by The Lever and ProPublica.

In February 2021, Tripp Lite filed its annualreports with the state of Illinois as it had done for decades. But this time, Seid’s typewritten name had been crossed out as an officer of the company. Added as an officer, written in by hand, was Leonard Leo.

A Tripp Lite subsidiary in Nova Scotia, Canada, similarly removed Seid as a director and added Leo as a director in March 2021, according to disclosure filings.

Then, later that same month, Eaton Corporation, a large publicly traded company, acquired Tripp Lite for $1.65 billion.

The transactions appear to have been carefully sequenced to reap massive tax savings. Selling a company that has grown in value after decades of ownership is treated the same way for tax purposes as a person selling a share of stock. If the property has grown in value, capital gains taxes are due when it is sold.

But Seid transferred Tripp Lite to the Marble Freedom Trust, a nonprofit that is exempt from income tax, before the electronics company was sold. As a result, lawyers say, Seid avoided up to $400 million in state and federal income tax, preserving those funds for Leo’s operation.

“If the person who had owned the stock had sold the stock himself, he would’ve been taxed on the appreciation in the stock,” said Ellen Aprill, a tax law professor at Loyola Marymount University. “Whereas if you give it to the 501(c)(4), there’s no charitable deduction for giving the money, but you avoid the tax on all of that appreciation.”

Political advocacy nonprofits like the Marble Freedom Trust are formally called 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, after the section of the tax code. Informally, they are known as dark-money groups because donors can remain secret, in contrast to the public disclosures required of gifts to political campaigns or super PACs. While they can spend money directly advocating for or against candidates in political campaigns, such spending cannot be their primary purpose.

In giving to such a dark money group, Seid also avoided another federal levy, the gift tax, thanks to a change signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2015.

There’s a reason why giving money specifically to a trust might have been attractive for an older and ideological donor such as Seid. The founding documents that lay out how the trust will spend money can be harder to change than the governing documents of a corporation, according to Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a professor at Notre Dame Law School.

Mayer added that while corporations usually have at least three directors, trusts can have just a single trustee in charge of the organization’s activities.

Leo is the trustee and chairman of the Marble Freedom Trust. In other words, Leo is now in charge of the massive sum of money.

The Rainmaker

For decades, Leo had served as a top executive at the Federalist Society, helping lead the influential Washington-based conservative lawyers group that serves as a launching pad for careers on the right.

But in early 2020, Leo made an announcement that suggested he was taking his successful model for reshaping the courts to remake American politics at every level: local, state and federal. In an interview with Axios, Leo said he was stepping away from his day-to-day role with the Federalist Society to take a more active role steering a network of conservative dark money groups.

The plan was to expand the network’s scope to “funnel tens of millions of dollars into conservative fights around the country,” according to Axios. What Leo did not mention in the interview was the imminent creation of the Marble Freedom Trust, his biggest-ever war chest.

Leo’s long career as both a legal activist and a prodigious fundraiser for conservative causes shows a steady march toward becoming a central figure in the Republican Party’s successful strategy to fill as many judicial vacancies as possible with young, conservative judges skeptical of the federal government’s power. He served as an adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign, helping the candidate take a step no other major presidential candidate had ever taken: releasing a list of names he would draw on to nominate to the Supreme Court.

Coming at a moment when conservatives were wary of Trump’s past leanings, the move bolstered his support among social conservatives. Leo stayed on as a judicial adviser during Trump’s four years in office. During that time, Leo helped the president appoint and confirm more than 200 nominees to the federal bench, most famously Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Leo’s efforts to reshape the country’s judicial system began long before Trump’s political ascent. In 1991, he joined the Federalist Society, which was then in its early years and only beginning to build a pipeline for conservative jurists.

In the view of Leo and his allies, the U.S. legal system had drifted dangerously far from its roots, establishing privileged classes and doctrines that were not enumerated in the Constitution and would be unrecognizable to the Founders. Those same courts had also empowered a class of unelected bureaucrats dubbed the “administrative state” to impose needless regulations and to endow the federal government with too much power. Like his close friend Justice Antonin Scalia, Leo argued for an originalist view of the Constitution — namely, that the country’s founding document should be interpreted strictly based on how its 18th century authors understood its words at the time.

In 2005, Leo and his allies formed a dark money network to rally support for George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominees, John Roberts and Samuel Alito. But if Leo wanted to turn back the tide of what he saw as unchecked judicial activism, he needed to build something bigger, more lasting.

Leo set out to create a network of interlocking groups that could each play a part in returning the country to what he saw as its roots, whether by training future generations of Scalias, funding scholarship that made the case for originalism or bankrolling efforts to install conservative judges on the bench.

Between 2005 and mid-2021, Leo and his associates raised at least $460 million (not including the Marble Freedom Trust’s funds).

According to tax records, Leo’s network has funneled those hundreds of millions into ad campaigns and right-leaning groups. The Judicial Crisis Network — which is now called the Concord Fund and is headed by a former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas and Leo associate named Carrie Severino — has spent tens of millions airing ads during Supreme Court confirmation fights.

The group’s fundraising took off in 2016, when it led a campaign to block Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland’s confirmation. That year, Leo’s network received a $28 million infusion from a single anonymous donor. Leo and his network long refused to say who is paying for their advocacy campaigns.

Leo’s network has worked closely with Senate Republicans and has showered them with cash as well, recently donating $9 million to a dark money group affiliated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

While Leo is best known for his influence on the Supreme Court, he and his network have also worked to shift the balance of power throughout the judiciary — in federal district and appellate courts, and state supreme courts, too.

At the state level, the network funds groups supporting conservative gubernatorial and legislative candidates. Leo’s nonprofits and their subsidiaries have recently pushed states to tighten voting laws, opposed the teaching of critical race theory in schools and financed organizations pressing states to remove millions of Americans from the Medicaid rolls.

But now, with Seid’s largesse, Leo has nearly four times the amount he raised over 16 years at his disposal and ambitions to match.

“I have a very simple rule, which is, I’m engaged in the battle of ideas, and I care very deeply about our Constitution and the role of courts in our society,” Leo told The Washington Post in 2019 when asked about his donors. “And I don’t waste my time on stories that involve money and politics because what I care about is ideas.”

Mothers behind book-banning campaign claim their First Amendment rights are being violated

Mothers Behind Book-Banning Campaign Claim Their First Amendment Rights Are Being Violated

by Nicole Carr

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 group of Georgia mothers has been trying to get certain library books banned by reading sexually graphic passages aloud at school board meetings. Now, after the board barred one of the mothers from attending, the group is claiming in a federal lawsuit that their First Amendment rights have been violated.

In essence, members of the group, which has dubbed itself the Mama Bears, are arguing that they’re being censored — in their own pursuit of censorship.

At a February school board meeting in Forsyth County, Georgia, Mama Bears member Alison Hair wanted to draw attention to a book that was available at her son’s middle school library, according to the lawsuit. Turning to a page from “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel about a 9-year-old boy whose father was killed in the 9/11 attacks, Hair began to read: “I know that you give someone a blow job by putting your penis ...”

That’s as far as she made it before Board of Education Chair Wesley McCall cut her off. He reminded her of “the rules that we talked about in the beginning” of the meeting concerning the board’s policy about “profane comments.” He also let her know that “we understand your point” and stated that the district already has a vetting system in place “so these books are not read out loud to students.”

Hair continued to try to speak during her allotted three minutes, asking that she be given back the time that McCall spent interrupting her. “Here’s what I’m here to tell you,” she said. “I am here to confront evil.”

McCall cut her off again: “Your time is up.”

Hair returned to the Forsyth School Board meeting the following month, again attempting to read from a book and again getting cut off. The board later sent her a letter banning her from school board meetings until she agreed to follow board policies: “It was clear that your intent was not to comment to the Board in the public forum but was to disrupt the meeting of the Board of Education to draw attention to yourself and your beliefs.”

The lawsuit, filed in late July by the Institute for Free Speech on behalf of Hair, Mama Bears of Forsyth County, and Mama Bears Chair Cindy Martin, claims that “the Forsyth County School Board, embarrassed by debate about its choices, has gone so far as to silence and banish from its meetings any parent who simply reads aloud from its schools’ library books.”

Del Kolde, a senior attorney with the Institute for Free Speech Institute who’s representing the plaintiffs, said of the lawsuit: “It’s not about censoring the books. It’s about reading from the books in a public setting. We don’t see any irony.”

“To me, the irony is if you’re putting books in the system, why can I not read them in a public setting?” Hair told ProPublica. “But again, this is not about books. This is about my right to speak to the school board about concerns that we have regarding our children.”

According to Kevin Goldberg, an attorney and First Amendment specialist with the nonprofit free-speech advocacy group Freedom Forum, “There’s at least some merit to the suit. The premise is valid.” (Forsyth County Schools Chief Communications Officer Jennifer Caracciolo said the district and school board could not comment on pending litigation; individual school board members did not respond to requests for comment.)

Goldberg points out that “the First Amendment provides a right for parents to petition.” And he notes that “the suit is not the first of its kind and likely won’t be the last, because it has legs.”

Below, Goldberg provides commentary on the lawsuit. ProPublica has provided relevant excerpts from the suit to give some additional context to Goldberg's analysis.

Lawsuit: Plaintiffs — mothers who wish to protect their young children from Defendants’ questionable choices — want to exercise their right to criticize the placement of pornographic books in school libraries by accurately reading those books aloud at public meetings. The books’ language, after all, best illustrates why the parents contend the books are inappropriate for school. Plaintiffs want to read these books aloud because they want to elicit in these elected officials, and in their fellow citizens participating in the debate, the same emotions that struck them when they first read these words; embarrassment and motivation to action. They want their audience, including elected board officials, to hear the jarring, unsettling, and sexually graphic words in their original medium. If Plaintiffs cannot read these excerpts, then the power of their message is lost, indeed, the message itself is censored.

Goldberg: Parents have a right — and frankly, we want them to have a right — to be able to speak during these meetings. They also have a right to speak as they want to speak, and that right should be very broad. That’s why I think this case has some merit.

Lawsuit: At the February 15, 2022 school board meeting, Defendant McCall adopted the practice of opening every Public Comment period by purporting to read from the Public Participation Policy though he added language that cannot be found in the policy. This spoken variation of the policy adds a new category of things the boards can censor: A reading from something “inappropriate.”
We want to remind our citizens that public participation is to present issues or concerns to the Board” [the lawsuit quotes McCall as saying] “but in doing so we do not allow profane comments or comments which involve inappropriate public subjects. If your comments include anything that you might read tonight is … inappropriate to being stated in public you will be instructed to stop.

Goldberg: The policy as written is problematic, I think, from a First Amendment point of view. But certainly when you go off script, it raises a host of First Amendment problems, primarily because it tends to be vague.

The biggest problem with vagueness is that I don’t know how to moderate or calculate my speech, which means I’m likely to self-censor to not get in trouble. That is a clear First Amendment violation.

Vagueness also leads to selective enforcement. What we end up seeing here is one side being told to be quiet because they’re being inappropriate or disruptive.

Lawsuit: Protecting the innocence of Forsyth County’s children is central to Mama Bears and its members. Barring the availability of pornographic materials in school libraries is among the group’s chief concerns. …
The Mama Bears have identified over one hundred books they believe are inappropriate.

Goldberg: A stated purpose of their exercising their First Amendment right in this issue is to bar the availability of pornographic materials in school libraries. But pornography is protected by the First Amendment, and there’s no clear evidence that any of these materials are actually pornographic.

The First Amendment right of the parents is absolutely necessary for them to speak, to be a part of the process. It’s what makes the process work. It’s what helps us come to a final decision. But the parents should not be making that decision. The parents should not be imposing that decision. And that’s my real concern, that when they are imposing their decisions, their preferences on everybody else, we run into another First Amendment problem. They are now seeking to use the process to restrict the First Amendment rights of other parents.

Lawsuit: On March 17, 2022 Wes McCall sent Hair a letter banning her from attending future public meetings until she provided a guarantee in writing that she would follow the public participation rules and his directives. …
Though Hair did not attend any meetings after March 15, on May 11, 2022, the full FCS Board sent Hair a second letter, signed by each individual defendant Board member, confirming that she is banned from attending public meetings.

Goldberg: I would hope that they [the school board members] would be pushing to keep as many of these books in the library as possible, but they are at the same time shutting down speech.

Cohen v. California was a really fun and interesting case from the Supreme Court that was decided about 50 years ago. It’s best known as the “fuck the draft” case, where the guy wears the jacket in the L.A. County Courthouse that says “fuck the draft” on the back.

The court said, look, I mean, one man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric. If you don’t like it, avert your eyes. We do not think that the mere presence of bad words is sufficient to punish somebody.

Well, I think that applies here. If you can use the words “fuck the draft” in a courthouse, you can use them in a school board meeting.

The Fed keeps getting more powerful. A law professor explains if that’s bad for America

The Fed Keeps Getting More Powerful. Is It Bad for America?

by Jesse Eisinger

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

Law professor Lev Menand has a new book out on that strange institution, the Federal Reserve, what it does and how its power and responsibility have grown over time.

Menand is an associate professor at Columbia Law School specializing in finance and regulation. Before he joined the law school, he held various roles at the Treasury Department during the Obama administration and was an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, helping to oversee large lenders.

I recently sat down with him to discuss the Fed, the economy, the capital markets, whether we are facing another financial crisis and why he thinks over-reliance on the Fed is bad for our economy and our democracy.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Thanks very much for joining me. Can you summarize the thesis of your book, “The Fed Unbound: Central Banking in a Time of Crisis”?

The Federal Reserve is an organization created by Congress for a limited, very important purpose to do a difficult job, which is to manage the U.S. money supply.

When you log on to a Bank of America or Citigroup account and you see a balance there, that’s the money that the Fed is managing. Those are not the same thing as green pieces of paper. And the Fed’s job is to ensure that you treat them the same, that you think of them the same. And that the amount of those Bank of America bucks is growing at a rate that is appropriate for the economy to put all of its resources to work, including all of its people.

The thesis of the book is that monetary liberalization, deregulation of the banking system and a lot of choices made during the second half of the 20th century caused the Fed to become “unbound.” Basically, what you have is the rise of a “shadow banking” system. All these financial companies that aren’t under the Fed’s purview, they start creating money. The Fed doesn’t have the tools to manage them, and then they run into problems during economic downturns, and the Fed pulls out all the stops and tries to backstop them — bail them out.

That’s the 2008 financial crisis. And that fundamental dynamic is still with us.

Essentially what you’re saying is that this institution, which is about 100 years old, the Federal Reserve, was created to manage money so that when there was a financial crisis, the Fed would come in and lend to them and cushion that blow. But over time, the Fed’s mandate had grown and its power had grown and we’re trying to figure out why that happened and whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Is that fair enough?

Fair enough.

Following the Great Depression, the Fed was very successful. We didn’t have intermittent banking panics. Every time there was a recession, people didn’t run on banks. We thought that we had solved monetary instability and financial crises until 2008. And what was 2008? It was a run on shadow banks. A whole group of financial institutions had come along and started to do what banks do. They started to create deposits of their own called different things. And they were exposed to the same run dynamics that you saw in the 19th century before the Fed was created. And the Fed decided if we don’t come in and backstop this system, it will collapse. But it was never expected that this would be how the Fed [acted]. The Fed was not designed to stabilize the shadow banking system.

Let’s just back up. You’ve given a preliminary definition of shadow banking, but walk us through it. These are not bank deposits that are backstopped by the federal government, by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Give us a really simple example. A money market fund is part of the shadow banking system, right? So it’s not like it’s an obscure financial system for the elite. Most middle-class Americans touch the shadow banking system.

Yeah. So there are three major types of shadow banking that I talk about in the book. You mentioned one, that’s the one that ordinary Americans are most likely to have encountered. The other types are primarily wholesalers for businesses, not ordinary individuals, but basically what they all have in common is they are non-bank firms that do not have a bank charter that are trying to reproduce the bank business model. The Fed doesn’t have the same set of tools to ensure that the money market fund [and other shadow bank institutions aren’t] taking too many risks.

The shadow banking system is huge, right?

In 2007, which was the peak of the shadow banking system, a peak we will eventually return to if further reforms are not made, it’s estimated that there were about $15 trillion of shadow bank-issued money instruments against $7 or $8 trillion of bank deposits and less than $1 trillion of government-issued cash.

In the aftermath, the shadow banking system got a lot smaller because we had a lot of major shadow banks fail like Lehman Brothers. And then over the last 10 to 15 years, it has grown again.

So now we’re back where the banking system is much bigger. There’s $18 trillion of deposits. And the shadow banking system is probably around the same size, maybe slightly smaller. It’s very hard to estimate the size, well, because it’s in the shadows.

You say that this is in the shadows, which is another way of saying it’s not fully regulated. So we had a financial crisis in 2008. You write that they essentially have two failures coming out of this. One is to not recognize the true nature of the crisis. They think of it as a 100-year flood rather than a fundamental aspect of structural fragility. And then the second thing is that we pass a sweeping financial reform, the Dodd-Frank act, that touches every corner of the financial system and yet is, I think your view would be, woefully inadequate. What does the Fed do right? What does the Fed do wrong?

So a stable and, in fact, growing money supply is an absolutely critical precondition for the sorts of economies that we live in today. If the money supply shrinks rapidly, our entire economic structure falls apart. People owe each other money. And if the amount of money in circulation starts to shrink rapidly, because the entities that have issued it are failing, then debtors can’t pay back their debts and they start defaulting. That turns into a vicious cycle.

You can think of the failure of banks a bit like the failure of power plants. If the Long Island Power Authority just shut down and stopped working, it would be very hard for any business on Long Island to continue to produce goods and services. The Fed and Congress ultimately stepped in to bail out and prevent the further collapse of this grid. Now that was necessary, otherwise we would have ended up in a great depression of the same scale or probably a larger, worse depression than in the ’30s.

So the Fed’s hand in 2008 was more or less forced. If we wanted to continue to operate this economy, we were held hostage by the players that were providing the infrastructure upon which the economy was operating. Where things went wrong was a failure to grapple with the deep problems with continuing to have an economy in which the public and households and businesses are at the mercy of unregulated power plants that are able to basically profit off economic activity during good times, and then hold the entire society as it were hostage for public support during bad times. We ended up making some changes but not addressing that fundamental problem.

Today we continue to have a dynamic where a very large financial sector is profiting off implicit and explicit public backstops and is fundamentally fragile in its design.

The pandemic was exactly such a shock. The lesson that the Fed learned from 2008 was to offer even more public support for the financial sector, even faster. And in one respect that was successful. But the dynamics of that, the implications for all of the rest of us of having this government agency making $3 trillion available for a bunch of financial firms that aren’t operating in the public interest, this is deeply troubling. It’s a dynamic that will eventually lead to either the failure of our democracy or the failure of our economy.

A dynamic leading to a failure of our democracy seems pretty dire and significant. I want to obviously explore that in a second and explore the implications of this, the quiet crash, the silent crash of March 2020. In some ways the Fed never stops bailing out the economy throughout that period from late 2008 through to March of 2020.

I do think in critical respects, we are still living in a 2008 financial crisis world. The acute phase of that crisis ended in early 2009, but we have not recovered from the damage.

The last 15 years are characterized by anemic growth, worsening inequality that is in part a byproduct of the Fed’s effort to juice economic growth, which disproportionately enriches asset owners. [We have] a financial sector that is not investing in expanding the productivity of the American economy.

We didn’t actually use this period to invest in expanding capacity. And we continue to have a financial system that is fragile.

By the time 2009 comes around, you have a financial system that is very weakened. Fed officials launch a program called quantitative easing. That’s initially targeted at the housing market. And so they go and buy hundreds of billions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities.

“Quantitative easing” is this wonky phrase, but there are two things about it. One is the Fed is buying securities and it didn’t used to do that; it used to just move short-term interest rates up and down. And then the second thing is it’s buying assets to help certain sectors of the economy. It’s a dramatic change that’s happening here with the Fed, right?

Yeah. Look, the Fed is operationally a bank. It’s supposed to be a bank just for banks. And it’s generally the way that it operated from the Second World War up to the 2008 crisis was to adjust the constraints on bank balance sheets.

Then there are subsequent rounds of QE where the Fed buys Treasury securities, the federal government’s debt, in an effort to bring down longer-term interest rates in the economy and further juice economic activity. So there’s not sufficient fiscal stimulus and the economy is coming back very slowly. And the Fed has moved its interest rates down to zero so that the banks can expand their balance sheets, but they’re not expanding their balance sheets at a rate sufficient to allow the economy to rebound.

The mechanism by which QE works is to increase asset prices. So you have a booming stock market, a booming government debt market, a booming housing market, even though you have an economy, an underlying economy that is still weaker than it was before the 2008 crisis.

It’s a troubling way in my view to do economic policy. It might be the ninth-best approach. It’s making one group of people who are already very well off even more well off. It is a very unhealthy place for society to be.

My friend, Chris Leonard, has written a book called “The Lords of Easy Money” about how the Federal Reserve “broke the economy.” Here in this interregnum between crises, what you’re saying is that the Fed was flooding the markets with purchasing power that was stimulating the asset markets and it was flowing to the wealthiest people, asset holders already. And we got something that looked like bubbles too, right? We get the crypto markets, we get NFTs, we get SPACs. The Fed in some ways is trapped into this because governments around the world are not spending wisely. They’re not helping the Fed out. They’re not helping the economy. In fact, they’re counterproductive. They’re embracing austerity.

Yeah. The failure of the fiscal authorities of legislatures in the United States and also in Europe to address economic weakness is a source of the pressure and the motivation on the Fed to experiment with massive asset purchases as an alternative approach to avoiding an even weaker economy.

We need to recognize this was a very bad policy mix that we ended up in, to inject huge amounts of liquidity into the financial system as opposed to, say, writing people checks or helping keep people in their homes or investing in infrastructure the way that Chinese government does.

There’s so many other ways to manage economic weakness. But if your approach is not to do any of those things and actually to restrict the amount of money available to governments and state and local governments to spend, and to cause layoffs of public-sector employment, if you’re not going to do any of those things and you just want to flush the financial system full of liquidity, one of the problems you’re going to have is that you’re going to get bubbles in financial markets.

So let’s go back to March of 2020. It’s poorly understood. Because in some ways the government and the Fed have learned from this critique that you’re leveling. The Fed does a bunch of things it had never done before, even in the financial crisis of 2008.

Yeah. In part the lesson they took from 2008 was never let things get so bad that we have a failure of a major firm like Lehman Brothers, because that’s a disaster. And so when things started to deteriorate in March of 2020, when there was just a run on the shadow banking system, just like there was in 2008, the Fed stepped in quickly.

It expanded its own balance sheet enormously, very rapidly. It didn’t do anything like this in 2008. This was a shock-and-awe approach to suggest to anybody running on a shadow bank that there was no need to run, that the Fed could take all the assets onto its own balance sheet, that there wasn’t going to be a repeat of Lehman Brothers.

With some encouragement from Congress, it also sets up facilities to lend to ordinary businesses and to state and local governments. But the actual dynamic, when you look at it carefully, is they’re getting breadcrumbs and these additional programs are helping to legitimize the much, much larger and fundamentally problematic lending programs for the financial sector.

Our politics are calcified. Our political system is subject to numerous veto points. The Fed in contrast is a committee run by one guy, Jerome Powell. A defender of the Fed would say: “Look, they can act very quickly. Yes, it goes through the financial system, which helps financiers and asset holders and the wealthy disproportionately, but eventually it trickles down and saves the economy. Your criticism really is with the political system, not the Federal Reserve.”

There is this dynamic in which the more the Federal Reserve tries to use its financial system-based tools to respond to economic problems, the more pressure it takes off the political system to produce legislative solutions that are more egalitarian and more effective at solving these same problems. A key predicate of this is our democracy doesn’t work, that our politics don’t work, that fundamentally legislators can’t make good policy, that we need to rely on a couple of unelected technocratic experts to make policy that most Americans don’t understand that benefits the financial sector disproportionately, and that’s the best we can do as a society and a polity.

I reject the idea that’s the best we can do.

We are dooming ourselves to very bad dynamics over time, a declining economy really, and potentially a declining society. To reinvigorate our economy and our society, we have to move beyond our reliance on central bank medicine and to revive a meaningful economic, legislative agenda and politics. And one thing that’s encouraging in this regard is that the last couple of years you’ve seen some of that. You’ve seen the legislature act in ways that it did not act between 2008 and 2020, reflecting some sense that mistakes were made during that period.

Now we have a very interesting and troubling period because we have the Fed confronting something much more traditional. We have an overheated economy. What do you think about the Fed’s job right now? Is the Fed doing the right thing? Is this a product of the shadow banking systems frailty or is this completely separate?

I think it’s important to recognize that the current inflationary dynamic is primarily a supply-side shock. The pandemic just scrambled the normal patterns of demand for goods and services, and we ended up with shortages in certain important goods and services, which caused prices to rise.

Then we have spiking commodity and energy prices due to geopolitical conflict and also due to the pandemic in various ways. The driving factors of this inflationary dynamic are not loose financial conditions.

Here again, we stand the risk of over-relying on the Fed to solve a set of problems that require action by the government through a variety of other tools. So it’s certainly the case that some amount of interest rate hiking is necessary. Interest rates were too low and should be hiked. But the big question is should they continue to be hiked to the point where they choke off the whole overall economy, to shrink the overall economy so that it can match up in size with the amount of oil and natural gas that’s currently being produced and the amount of key goods and services that are coming through our supply chains?

We don’t need the Fed to tighten to such an extent that it induces a recession. Instead, we need other government policies targeted at supplying more of the goods and services that are experiencing this shock. It would be very unfortunate if because of the high price of oil and gas, we cause people to lose jobs all across the economy.

I am cautiously optimistic that policymakers understand this now better than they have. We will be better off tolerating some amount of inflation for some period of time while the economy adjusts to an enormous shock rather than overreacting and trying to eliminate that inflation by creating a certainty of high unemployment and a bad investment outlook and climate for the economy going forward.

It’s so frustrating. The Fed functions through the financial system disproportionately helping the wealthy. It creates asset bubbles all throughout the economy. It then starts to tighten. And in doing so, it disincentivizes companies from investing and growing while courting a recession that will throw millions of average people out of work after those millions of average people have only barely begun to benefit from a decade of loose financial conditions by having their wages grow.

Let me just add one more piece that will really make your head explode. There’s a very good chance that to the extent the Fed follows through on aggressive tightening in the coming months, that it leads to financial instability. And so at the same time, as you have the Fed pursuing policies that push up unemployment, weaken the labor market and reduce business investment, the Fed may well find itself standing up all of its emergency facilities again to support the shadow banking system.

Essentially because they created bubbles and now…

The shock of removing them, yes, is going to cause a run dynamic in the shadow banking system. It could happen at any point really.

Well, that was where I was going to end this conversation, which is: Do you think we’re headed for another financial crisis? Because the fundamental fragility of the economy — the shadow banking system — has not been dealt with, and you have a Fed that is using these very blunt tools.

I think it’s entirely possible. Part of the problem we have is it’s very hard for officials or academic observers and even market participants to have a handle on the balance sheet strength of financial institutions that fund themselves in the [shadow banking system]. And so it’s difficult to anticipate when a run might happen.

The Fed needs to be very cautious. It’s not actually dealing with a financial system that can necessarily go to that speed and absorb that shock. We’re in a very uncertain and risky time from an economic and financial perspective right now. Everybody should be on high alert and people should demand that their Congress try to tackle these issues and think about these problems, because it’ll be much better to start moderating now than to wait for another big crash, to put in place safeguards and structures that are necessary for a healthy economy and flourishing society going forward.

Revealed: Joe Manchin's price for supporting climate bill

To accommodate the West Virginia senator, Democratic leadership agreed to legislation streamlining permits for the often-stalled Mountain Valley Pipeline and removing jurisdiction from a court that keeps ruling against the project.

From his Summers County, West Virginia, farmhouse, Mark Jarrell can see the Greenbrier River and, beyond it, the ridge that marks the Virginia border. Jarrell moved here nearly 20 years ago for peace and quiet. But the last few years have been anything but serene, as he and his neighbors have fought against the construction of a huge natural gas pipeline.

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Jarrell and many others along the path of the partially finished Mountain Valley Pipeline through West Virginia and Virginia fear that it may contaminate rural streams and cause erosion or even landslides. By filing lawsuits over the potential impacts on water, endangered species and public forests, they have exposed flaws in the project’s permit applications and pushed its completion well beyond the original target of 2018. The delays have helped balloon the pipeline’s cost from the original estimate of $3.5 billion to $6.6 billion.

But now, in the name of combating climate change, the administration of President Joe Biden and the Democratic leadership in Congress are poised to vanquish Jarrell and other pipeline opponents. For months, the nation has wondered what price Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin would extract to allow a major climate change bill. Part of that price turns out to be clearing the way for the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

“It’s a hard pill to swallow,” said Jarrell, a former golf course manager who has devoted much of his retirement to writing protest letters, filing complaints with regulatory agencies and attending public hearings about the pipeline. “We’re once again a sacrifice zone.”

The White House and congressional leaders have agreed to step in and ensure final approval of all permits that the Mountain Valley Pipeline needs, according to a summary released by Manchin’s office Monday evening. The agreement, which would require separate legislation, would also strip jurisdiction over any further legal challenges to those permits from a federal appeals court that has repeatedly ruled that the project violated the law.

The provisions, according to the summary, will “require the relevant agencies to take all necessary actions to permit the construction and operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline” and would shift jurisdiction “over any further litigation” to a different court, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In essence, the Democratic leadership accepted a 303-mile, two-state pipeline fostering continued use of fossil fuels in exchange for cleaner energy and reduced greenhouse emissions nationwide. Manchin has been pushing publicly for the pipeline to be completed, arguing it would move much needed energy supplies to market, promote the growth of West Virginia’s natural gas industry and create well-paid construction jobs.

“This is something the United States should be able to do without getting bogged down in litigation after litigation after litigation,” Manchin told reporters last week. He did not respond to questions from Mountain State Spotlight and ProPublica, including about the reaction of residents along the pipeline route.

ProPublica and Mountain State Spotlight have been reporting for years on how a federal appeals court has repeatedly halted the pipeline’s construction because of permitting flaws and how government agencies have responded by easing rules to aid the developer.

The climate change legislation, for which Manchin’s vote is considered vital, includes hundreds of millions of dollars for everything from ramping up wind and solar power to encouraging consumers to buy clean vehicles or cleaner heat pumps. Leading climate scientists call it transformative. The Sierra Club called on Congress to pass it immediately. Even the West Virginia Environmental Council urged its members to contact Manchin to thank him.

“Senator Manchin needs to know his constituents support his vote!” the council said in an email blast. “Call today to let him know what climate investments for West Virginia means to you!”

But even some residents along the pipeline route who are avidly in favor of action against climate change say they feel like poker chips in a negotiation they weren’t at the table for. And they are anything but happy with Manchin. “He could do so much more for Appalachia, a lot more than he is, but he’s chosen to only listen to industries,” farmer Maury Johnson said.

It’s not clear exactly when the Mountain Valley Pipeline became a focal point of the efforts to win Manchin’s vote on the climate change legislation. Reports circulated in mid-July that the White House was considering giving in to some Manchin demands focused on fossil fuel industries. That prompted some environmental groups to urge Biden to take the opposite route, blocking the pipeline and other pro-industry measures.

Pipeline spokesperson Natalie Cox said in an email that it “is being recognized as a critical infrastructure project” and that developers remain “committed to working diligently with federal and state regulators to secure the necessary permits to finish construction.” Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, the developer, is a joint venture of Equitrans Midstream Corp. and several other energy companies.

The company “has been, and remains, committed to full adherence” with state and federal regulations,” Cox added. “We take our responsibilities very seriously and have agreed to unprecedented levels of scrutiny and oversight.”

The White House and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Mountain Valley Pipeline is one of numerous pipelines proposed across the region, reflecting an effort to exploit advances in natural gas drilling technologies. Many West Virginia business and political leaders, including Manchin, hope that natural gas will create jobs and revenue, offsetting the decline of the coal industry.

To protect the environment, massive pipeline projects must obtain a variety of permits before being built. Developers and regulators are supposed to study alternatives, articulate a clear need for the project and outline steps to minimize damage to the environment.

In Mountain Valley Pipeline’s case, citizen groups have successfully challenged several of these approvals before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In one widely publicized ruling involving a different pipeline, the panel alluded to Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax,” saying that the U.S. Forest Service had failed to “speak for the trees” in approving the project. The decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, but not before the project was canceled.

The 4th Circuit has ruled against the Mountain Valley Pipeline time and again, saying developers and permitting agencies skirted regulations aimed at protecting water quality, public lands and endangered species. In the past four years, the court has found that three federal agencies — the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management — illegally approved various aspects of the project.

While those agencies tweaked the rules, what Manchin’s new deal would do is change the referee. In March, Manchin told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph that the 4th Circuit “has been unmerciful on allowing any progress” by Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Then, in May, lawyers for the pipeline petitioned the 4th Circuit to assign a lawsuit by environmental advocates to a new three-judge panel, instead of having it heard by judges who had previously considered related pipeline cases. Among other things, the attorneys cited a Wall Street Journal editorial, published a week earlier, declaring that the pipeline had “come under a relentless siege by green groups and activists in judicial robes.”

Lawyers for the environmental groups responded in a court filing that Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC was just “dissatisfied that it has not prevailed” more often and was unfairly lobbing a charge that the legal process was rigged. The 4th Circuit rejected the company’s request.

It is unclear whether this pending case, which challenges a water pollution permit issued by West Virginia regulators, would be transferred if the Manchin legislation becomes law.

Congress has intervened in jurisdiction over pipeline cases before. In 2005, it diverted legal challenges to decisions on pipeline permits from federal district courts to the appeals court circuit where the projects are located. The move was part of a plan encouraged by then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s secretive energy task force to speed up project approvals. (Under the Constitution, Congress can determine the jurisdiction of all federal courts except the U.S. Supreme Court.)

Besides the pipeline, Manchin has cited other reasons for his change of heart on the climate change bill. He has emphasized that the bill would reduce inflation and pay down the national debt.

Approval for the pipeline may not be a done deal. Both senators from Virginia, where the pipeline is also a hot political issue, are signaling that they don’t feel bound by Manchin’s agreement with the leadership. Manchin’s own announcement said that Democratic leaders have “committed to advancing” the pipeline legislation — not that the bill would pass. Regional and national environmental groups are walking a fine line. They support the climate change legislation while opposing weakening the permit process.

The pipeline’s neighbors say they’ll keep fighting, but they recognize that the odds are against them. “You just feel like you’re not an equal citizen when you’re dealing with Mountain Valley Pipeline,” Jarrell said.

A right-wing think tank claimed to be a church. Members of Congress want to investigate

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

Forty members of Congress on Monday asked the IRS and the Treasury to investigate what the lawmakers termed an “alarming pattern” of right-wing advocacy groups registering with the tax agency as churches, a move that allows the organizations to shield themselves from some financial reporting requirements and makes it easier to avoid audits.

Reps. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., and Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., raised transparency concerns in a letter to the heads of both agencies following a ProPublica story about the Family Research Council, a right-wing Christian think tank based in Washington, D.C., getting reclassified as a church. Thirty-eight other lawmakers, including Reps. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Jamie Raskin, D-Md., signed onto the letter.

“FRC is one example of an alarming pattern in the last decade — right-wing advocacy groups self-identifying as ‘churches’ and applying for and receiving church status,” the representatives wrote, noting the organization’s policy work supporting the overturning of Roe v. Wade and its advocacy for legislation seeking to ban gender-affirming surgery.

“Tax-exempt organizations should not be exploiting tax laws applicable to churches to avoid public accountability and the IRS’s examination of their activities,” they wrote.

The Family Research Council did not respond to requests for comment. The IRS told ProPublica that it does not comment on congressional correspondence.

The FRC’s website describes the organization as “a nonprofit research and educational organization dedicated to articulating and advancing a family-centered philosophy of public life,” noting that it provides “policy research and analysis for the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the federal government.”

The FRC sought and received reclassification from a standard tax-exempt charity to an “association of churches” in 2020.

In its application for church status, the organization said it met 11 of the 14 characteristics that the IRS uses to determine whether an organization is a church, including an established place of worship — a chapel in the organization’s Washington office building, at which it said it holds services attended by more than 65 people. (Someone who answered the phone at the office said the group doesn’t offer church services.) The organization said its association comprises nearly 40,000 “partner churches” that must affirm a statement of faith to join; it did not offer the names of those partners on its form to the IRS or provide them to ProPublica.

The representatives’ letter asks the IRS to review the FRC’s status change and to examine its review process for organizations similarly seeking to switch their status to become a church or association of churches.

“It’s disturbing that a letter like this is even necessary,” Huffman said. “Unfortunately our IRS has been so worn down and beaten up by the right wing that they have essentially ceased all scrutiny of organizations that self-report as churches.”

The IRS classifies churches and associations of churches as tax-exempt charitable organizations, meaning that they do not have to pay federal taxes and that donors can deduct contributions from their own taxes. However, churches are exempt from submitting Form 990, the annual financial disclosure that nonprofit organizations use to list board members, key staffer salaries, large payments to independent contractors and grants given by the organization.

And unlike for other tax-exempt organizations, a high-level Treasury official must sign off on any audit of a church.

“We understand the importance of religious institutions to their congregants and believe that religious freedom is a cherished American value and constitutional right. We also believe that our tax code must be applied fairly and judiciously,” Huffman and DelBene wrote.

In their letter, the representatives asked for feedback from the IRS on whether it needs additional direction from Congress to enforce rules surrounding tax-exempt organizations and churches. Huffman said that he hopes to pursue legislative action if the IRS isn’t able to address these concerns, but that the letter is a first step.

“You need to start here — give the agency a chance to clean up its mess,” he said.

A government official helped them register to vote. Now they’ve been charged with voter fraud

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

His last night as a prisoner in North Florida, Kelvin Bolton couldn’t sleep. Fifty-five years old, with a wispy goatee the same color as the gray flecks in his hair, he was about to get out after serving a 2 1/2-year sentence for theft and battery. The last time he’d seen his brothers and sisters at a big family gathering, he’d marched onto the dance floor ostentatiously, turned away and wrapped his arms around himself to caress his own back. As he swayed goofily to the music, everybody laughed.

Now Bolton was so close to being free and seeing his family again. The next morning, a bright Wednesday in April, he was already dressed in his street clothes and cleared to go when the woman processing his paperwork stopped him.

“The lady said, ‘Hold on, you can’t go anywhere,’” Bolton remembered in a recent phone call.

Confused, he asked her what was going on, he recalled. There was a warrant out for his arrest for incidents in 2020, she explained gruffly. But that was impossible. He’d been in jail at the time, awaiting his prison stint.

Guards loaded Bolton into a van, then drove an hour and a half south to deposit him in Alachua County Jail.

There, he found out what he’d done wrong.

He’d voted.

In 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment 4, in a historic ballot initiative that restored the right to vote to most state residents with felony convictions. Until then, Florida had been one of only four states — the others were Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia — where people who had committed felonies needed to petition the governor to have their voting rights restored. It was a grim legacy of 19th-century laws passed after the 15th Amendment granted African American men the right to vote.

Supporters applauded the law as restoring voting rights to what experts estimate is over 1 million people in Florida, about 5% of the population of the state.

But the state’s dominant Republican lawmakers quickly installed a financial hurdle to those new rights. The following year, they passed a law to clarify that people convicted of felonies could only vote if they first paid off any money they owed for committing their crimes. The penalty for registering or voting without doing so: a felony charge for voter fraud.

On the surface, the mandate seemed reasonable: Even advocates for Amendment 4 agreed that requiring paying off fines and restitution to victims was just. In Florida, however, that task proved a sometimes insurmountable challenge — one that disproportionately hit Black people. Florida has no centralized database to allow people to figure out what legal financial obligations they owe to the state. Instead, its 67 counties and various state agencies each maintain their own databases. The state also does not track information for federal or out-of-state convictions, which people are also required to pay off before voting.

On top of the fines and restitution, Florida layers on court fees that can run into the hundreds of dollars. Together, a voter’s debt can run into the thousands, a financial hole that some may never climb out of.

“That’s kind of the bottom line of the absurdity of this — it’s Kafkaesque,” said Dan Smith, chair of the political science department at the University of Florida. “It’s very troubling that we would have state attorneys prosecuting individuals who did not know their status, and there was no way for them to determine their status.”

Florida’s voting hurdles are part of a national pattern. For years across the country, Republican state lawmakers have been implementing new restrictive voting laws, including reducing access to vote-by-mail ballots, stricter voter identification rules and limits on early voting. These efforts have accelerated since Donald Trump promoted the false claims that Joe Biden stole the 2020 presidential election. Democrats, meanwhile, have pushed to expand voting access.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis boasted that in 2020, Florida, a swing state with a history of contentious elections, “held the smoothest, most successful election of any state in the country,” while he also signed a flurry of voting law changes that he said would further strengthen the integrity of future votes. And DeSantis has tacitly endorsed prosecuting people convicted of felonies for voter fraud. In April, he signed a bill establishing the Office of Election Crimes and Security, which will investigate alleged election violations.

Despite the increased scrutiny, voting fraud remains so rare in Florida that it hasn’t come close to altering election outcomes. The Florida Department of State in 2020 received 262 election fraud complaints, just 75 of which were referred to law enforcement or prosecuting authorities, according to the agency.

“Florida is an outlier, because the intentional targeting of citizens with felony convictions as a way to undermine democracy has been a throughline in that state,” said Nicole Porter, senior director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project. “And the attempt to address that, by popular vote, has been undermined by the legislature.”

In 2020, a representative of the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections conducted a series of outreach efforts at the local county jail to let inmates know of their new rights and offer to help them add their names to the voter rolls.

During three visits to the jail, the official helped sign up at least 10 inmates, including John Boyd Rivers, Dedrick Baldwin and Bolton.

Rivers, 44, felt a visceral thrill at the prospect. Sitting in his cell in February 2020 facing a battery charge for hitting his wife, he was told by the county representative that he could register to vote. The official, he said, told him that he could disregard the check box on the form that asks whether the applicant has a felony conviction because he didn’t have a disqualifying felony. That seemed odd to Rivers, since he had a previous felony conviction. (He subsequently was sentenced for the battery charge.) No one told him anything about needing to pay off his financial obligations before registering to vote, Rivers said, and the jail didn’t give him an accounting of those debts when he was later released.

Back at home, Rivers was excited when his voter registration card arrived in the mail. He’d lost his right to vote at 18, he said, after voting just once. Now he could vote in a presidential election. He and his wife went to their polling place, and he cast his vote for Donald Trump.

Bolton, too, was excited to sign up. He also said no one told him he’d need to pay off his debts before casting his ballot. Although he registered as a Republican, he said he decided to vote for Biden.

In all, 10 of the men who the official helped register to vote have been charged with voter fraud on the grounds they were ineligible.

Their alleged illegal voting was first spotted by a citizen who analyzed Florida’s voting rolls and then shared the information with the state. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement subsequently launched an eight-month investigation, after which it identified the 10 inmates.

State investigators found that some jail employees remembered the elections official giving clear directions to inmates about having to pay off financial obligations, while others did not. The investigation concluded that the jail visits were “lacking in both quality and longevity” and “showed a haphazard registration of inmates.” But the state prosecutor nevertheless proceeded with charges, although not against county officials.

Officials at the Alachua Supervisor of Elections office declined to comment to ProPublica. But Supervisor of Elections Kim Barton denied any wrongdoing in a statement released in June.

Brian Kramer, the state attorney for the Eighth Judicial Circuit of Florida, defended his office’s prosecutions to ProPublica, saying he believed the 10 men knew they were committing fraud. “I’m not going to say I will prosecute or not prosecute because it’s politically popular or unpopular,” he said.

Four of the 10 have pleaded guilty and have been sentenced to between 364 days and three years in prison. Bolton and three others have vowed to go to trial, while the remaining two await arraignment. They face charges that carry a penalty of up to five years in prison, five years of probation or $5,000 in fines. Eight of the men are Black, and two are white.

Critics say the charges are unjust and, at a bare minimum, excessive. In nearby Lake County, the state prosecutor declined to bring charges against sex offenders who had registered to vote despite the law prohibiting voting rights restoration for those charged with sex offenses or murder. In April, two white men living in The Villages in Sumter County, an overwhelmingly white county in central Florida, pleaded guilty to each casting two ballots for Donald Trump during the 2020 election. Rather than face prosecution, they entered a pretrial intervention program, under which they must serve 50 hours of community service and attend an adult civics class, among other requirements. Because the men in Alachua County have prior felony convictions, they are ineligible for pretrial intervention and face harsher sentences.

“I’m thinking I’m doing something good for the community, so that’s why I chose to try to do it,” Bolton said. “It was not malicious — I was not trying to commit a felony of voting fraud. I never would have voted.”

Baldwin, 47, who is in prison on a manslaughter conviction, was sentenced to an additional 364 days. He felt “set up,” he said, since nobody told him he wasn’t eligible.

“There’s no way Biden was that important to me to vote for him,” he said in an email to ProPublica from prison. “We were flat out tricked into voting.”

The elections official who visited the jail denied telling the men that they could disregard the check box and said he warned them that they’d need to pay off their financial obligations, according to a person familiar with the matter who declined to be named because he feared reprisals. The elections official declined to comment to ProPublica on the record.

The voter fraud charges were especially bitter for Rivers. By the time they were filed, Rivers said, he had already used part of his federal stimulus check to pay off more than $3,000 in costs related to his criminal record so he could reinstate his driver’s license and return to work.

“I should have known there would be some kind of catch,” Rivers said.

Florida’s history of felon disenfranchisement dates back to 1838, when the state’s first constitution prohibited people convicted of bribery or assorted “high crimes and misdemeanors” from voting. After the Civil War, faced with the prospect of formerly enslaved Black men voting, the state expanded the law so that anyone convicted of a felony lost the franchise. But in 2018, 64% of Florida voters approved Amendment 4, allowing people convicted of felonies, except for murder or sexual offense convictions, to vote.

This embrace of new voters became more complicated the following year when the state legislature passed its law. It required that people convicted of felonies must determine their own eligibility before registering to vote. The Florida Department of Corrections and county detention facilities are required to provide notice to inmates at the time of their release of their outstanding financial obligations.

But it is unclear if all of the facilities do so.

Florida charges those convicted of crimes with an array of fines and fees, some of which statutorily cannot be eliminated or reduced. Defendants facing felony charges are assessed $100 to use a public defender, as well as a $100 prosecution fee. At least one person already sentenced in the Alachua County cases has been charged an additional $671 for his voting fraud charges on top of the financial obligations he already owed.

Finding out what someone owes is time-consuming and expensive. An analysis led by Traci Burch, a political science professor at Northwestern University, tried to determine the legal financial obligations owed by a random sample of 153 Florida residents convicted of felonies and found consistent information for only three of them. Counties often keep poor records, have cumbersome websites and employ unhelpful clerks.

What’s more, it can cost money merely to find out how much money you owe. Four in 10 Florida counties charged either a payment or processing fee to look at their databases, and 15% charged a fee to access certain records, according to Burch’s research.

In 2020, Smith, the Florida political scientist, estimated that just over 1 million people would be eligible to vote under Amendment 4. Of that number, about 77% had outstanding legal financial obligations, rendering them ineligible to vote under Florida’s new law until they paid their debts. Four out of five Floridians with felony convictions owed at least $500 in fines and fees, Smith’s analysis found. More than 59% owed more than $1,000.

The state legislature immediately disqualified about 750,000 people from being able to vote when it passed its law requiring people convicted of felonies to pay their debts first, Smith estimated. And the new law’s impact was felt much more harshly by Black people, who faced greater fines and fees: 26% of white Floridians with a felony conviction would be eligible to get their voting rights restored under the new requirement, but only 18% of Black people, according to Smith.

In May 2020, a district court judge ruled that parts of the law were unconstitutional and that the law had established a pay-to-vote system. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling the following September, saying it was in the state’s power to require the payoffs and the law didn’t violate people’s rights. The state Supreme Court has also issued an advisory opinion that deemed the law legitimate.

Unsurprisingly, the number of people with felony convictions who have registered to vote has fallen far short of what supporters hoped. More than 85,000 such people registered in Florida ahead of the 2020 election.

Supporters of the law say that it’s only fair to have people fulfill their full sentences, including paying any crime-related debts. Some state attorneys, including Kramer, the attorney prosecuting the Alachua cases, have also developed processes within their jurisdictions by which people with felony convictions can verify their voting eligibility or request to reduce their fines and fees.

Felons who have not yet registered to vote can also appeal to the state to have certain fees reduced or eliminated, said Republican State Sen. Jeff Brandes, the sponsor of the law demanding the payoffs before voting rights restoration.

“We truly believe there are people who are indigent that will just simply never be able to pay,” he said. “The court only collects a fraction of what is given out anyways. And so there should be a way for the state to grant some grace or for the court to grant some grace and provide people flexibility.”

Kelvin Bolton has been sitting in the Alachua Council Jail since April, waiting for his case to proceed.

He’s been in and out of the system since he was 16, piling up a long record of mostly nonviolent crimes, most recently for stealing a car, groping a woman in a store and taking cigarettes from a Dollar General.

He aims this time to keep a vow he made to his family and himself to stay straight. He said he is frustrated that the prosecutor subsequently created a program for people convicted of felonies to check their voting eligibility while he and the others are still facing charges.

“Why would they want to keep charging us for something that they’re in the wrong for?” he said. “The state is in the wrong for what they did to us.”

Were ten Florida felons unjustly charged with voter fraud?

His last night as a prisoner in North Florida, Kelvin Bolton couldn’t sleep. Fifty-five years old, with a wispy goatee the same color as the gray flecks in his hair, he was about to get out after serving a 2 1/2-year sentence for theft and battery. The last time he’d seen his brothers and sisters at a big family gathering, he’d marched onto the dance floor ostentatiously, turned away and wrapped his arms around himself to caress his own back. As he swayed goofily to the music, everybody laughed.

Now Bolton was so close to being free and seeing his family again. The next morning, a bright Wednesday in April, he was already dressed in his street clothes and cleared to go when the woman processing his paperwork stopped him.

“The lady said, ‘Hold on, you can’t go anywhere,’” Bolton remembered in a recent phone call.

Confused, he asked her what was going on, he recalled. There was a warrant out for his arrest for incidents in 2020, she explained gruffly. But that was impossible. He’d been in jail at the time, awaiting his prison stint.

Guards loaded Bolton into a van, then drove an hour and a half south to deposit him in Alachua County Jail.

There, he found out what he’d done wrong.

He’d voted.

In 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment 4, in a historic ballot initiative that restored the right to vote to most state residents with felony convictions. Until then, Florida had been one of only four states — the others were Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia — where people who had committed felonies needed to petition the governor to have their voting rights restored. It was a grim legacy of 19th-century laws passed after the 15th Amendment granted African American men the right to vote.

Supporters applauded the law as restoring voting rights to what experts estimate is over 1 million people in Florida, about 5% of the population of the state.

But the state’s dominant Republican lawmakers quickly installed a financial hurdle to those new rights. The following year, they passed a law to clarify that people convicted of felonies could only vote if they first paid off any money they owed for committing their crimes. The penalty for registering or voting without doing so: a felony charge for voter fraud.

On the surface, the mandate seemed reasonable: Even advocates for Amendment 4 agreed that requiring paying off fines and restitution to victims was just. In Florida, however, that task proved a sometimes insurmountable challenge — one that disproportionately hit Black people. Florida has no centralized database to allow people to figure out what legal financial obligations they owe to the state. Instead, its 67 counties and various state agencies each maintain their own databases. The state also does not track information for federal or out-of-state convictions, which people are also required to pay off before voting.

On top of the fines and restitution, Florida layers on court fees that can run into the hundreds of dollars. Together, a voter’s debt can run into the thousands, a financial hole that some may never climb out of.

“That’s kind of the bottom line of the absurdity of this — it’s Kafkaesque,” said Dan Smith, chair of the political science department at the University of Florida. “It’s very troubling that we would have state attorneys prosecuting individuals who did not know their status, and there was no way for them to determine their status.”

Florida’s voting hurdles are part of a national pattern. For years across the country, Republican state lawmakers have been implementing new restrictive voting laws, including reducing access to vote-by-mail ballots, stricter voter identification rules and limits on early voting. These efforts have accelerated since Donald Trump promoted the false claims that Joe Biden stole the 2020 presidential election. Democrats, meanwhile, have pushed to expand voting access.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis boasted that in 2020, Florida, a swing state with a history of contentious elections, “held the smoothest, most successful election of any state in the country,” while he also signed a flurry of voting law changes that he said would further strengthen the integrity of future votes. And DeSantis has tacitly endorsed prosecuting people convicted of felonies for voter fraud. In April, he signed a bill establishing the Office of Election Crimes and Security, which will investigate alleged election violations.

Despite the increased scrutiny, voting fraud remains so rare in Florida that it hasn’t come close to altering election outcomes. The Florida Department of State in 2020 received 262 election fraud complaints, just 75 of which were referred to law enforcement or prosecuting authorities, according to the agency.

“Florida is an outlier, because the intentional targeting of citizens with felony convictions as a way to undermine democracy has been a throughline in that state,” said Nicole Porter, senior director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project. “And the attempt to address that, by popular vote, has been undermined by the legislature.”

In 2020, a representative of the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections conducted a series of outreach efforts at the local county jail to let inmates know of their new rights and offer to help them add their names to the voter rolls.

During three visits to the jail, the official helped sign up at least 10 inmates, including John Boyd Rivers, Dedrick Baldwin and Bolton.

Rivers, 44, felt a visceral thrill at the prospect. Sitting in his cell in February 2020 facing a battery charge for hitting his wife, he was told by the county representative that he could register to vote. The official, he said, told him that he could disregard the check box on the form that asks whether the applicant has a felony conviction because he didn’t have a disqualifying felony. That seemed odd to Rivers, since he had a previous felony conviction. (He subsequently was sentenced for the battery charge.) No one told him anything about needing to pay off his financial obligations before registering to vote, Rivers said, and the jail didn’t give him an accounting of those debts when he was later released.

Back at home, Rivers was excited when his voter registration card arrived in the mail. He’d lost his right to vote at 18, he said, after voting just once. Now he could vote in a presidential election. He and his wife went to their polling place, and he cast his vote for Donald Trump.

Bolton, too, was excited to sign up. He also said no one told him he’d need to pay off his debts before casting his ballot. Although he registered as a Republican, he said he decided to vote for Biden.

In all, 10 of the men who the official helped register to vote have been charged with voter fraud on the grounds they were ineligible.

Their alleged illegal voting was first spotted by a citizen who analyzed Florida’s voting rolls and then shared the information with the state. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement subsequently launched an eight-month investigation, after which it identified the 10 inmates.

State investigators found that some jail employees remembered the elections official giving clear directions to inmates about having to pay off financial obligations, while others did not. The investigation concluded that the jail visits were “lacking in both quality and longevity” and “showed a haphazard registration of inmates.” But the state prosecutor nevertheless proceeded with charges, although not against county officials.

Officials at the Alachua Supervisor of Elections office declined to comment to ProPublica. But Supervisor of Elections Kim Barton denied any wrongdoing in a statement released in June.

Brian Kramer, the state attorney for the Eighth Judicial Circuit of Florida, defended his office’s prosecutions to ProPublica, saying he believed the 10 men knew they were committing fraud. “I’m not going to say I will prosecute or not prosecute because it’s politically popular or unpopular,” he said.

Four of the 10 have pleaded guilty and have been sentenced to between 364 days and three years in prison. Bolton and three others have vowed to go to trial, while the remaining two await arraignment. They face charges that carry a penalty of up to five years in prison, five years of probation or $5,000 in fines. Eight of the men are Black, and two are white.

Critics say the charges are unjust and, at a bare minimum, excessive. In nearby Lake County, the state prosecutor declined to bring charges against sex offenders who had registered to vote despite the law prohibiting voting rights restoration for those charged with sex offenses or murder. In April, two white men living in The Villages in Sumter County, an overwhelmingly white county in central Florida, pleaded guilty to each casting two ballots for Donald Trump during the 2020 election. Rather than face prosecution, they entered a pretrial intervention program, under which they must serve 50 hours of community service and attend an adult civics class, among other requirements. Because the men in Alachua County have prior felony convictions, they are ineligible for pretrial intervention and face harsher sentences.

“I’m thinking I’m doing something good for the community, so that’s why I chose to try to do it,” Bolton said. “It was not malicious — I was not trying to commit a felony of voting fraud. I never would have voted.”

Baldwin, 47, who is in prison on a manslaughter conviction, was sentenced to an additional 364 days. He felt “set up,” he said, since nobody told him he wasn’t eligible.

“There’s no way Biden was that important to me to vote for him,” he said in an email to ProPublica from prison. “We were flat out tricked into voting.”

The elections official who visited the jail denied telling the men that they could disregard the check box and said he warned them that they’d need to pay off their financial obligations, according to a person familiar with the matter who declined to be named because he feared reprisals. The elections official declined to comment to ProPublica on the record.

The voter fraud charges were especially bitter for Rivers. By the time they were filed, Rivers said, he had already used part of his federal stimulus check to pay off more than $3,000 in costs related to his criminal record so he could reinstate his driver’s license and return to work.

“I should have known there would be some kind of catch,” Rivers said.

Florida’s history of felon disenfranchisement dates back to 1838, when the state’s first constitution prohibited people convicted of bribery or assorted “high crimes and misdemeanors” from voting. After the Civil War, faced with the prospect of formerly enslaved Black men voting, the state expanded the law so that anyone convicted of a felony lost the franchise. But in 2018, 64% of Florida voters approved Amendment 4, allowing people convicted of felonies, except for murder or sexual offense convictions, to vote.

This embrace of new voters became more complicated the following year when the state legislature passed its law. It required that people convicted of felonies must determine their own eligibility before registering to vote. The Florida Department of Corrections and county detention facilities are required to provide notice to inmates at the time of their release of their outstanding financial obligations.

But it is unclear if all of the facilities do so.

Florida charges those convicted of crimes with an array of fines and fees, some of which statutorily cannot be eliminated or reduced. Defendants facing felony charges are assessed $100 to use a public defender, as well as a $100 prosecution fee. At least one person already sentenced in the Alachua County cases has been charged an additional $671 for his voting fraud charges on top of the financial obligations he already owed.

Finding out what someone owes is time-consuming and expensive. An analysis led by Traci Burch, a political science professor at Northwestern University, tried to determine the legal financial obligations owed by a random sample of 153 Florida residents convicted of felonies and found consistent information for only three of them. Counties often keep poor records, have cumbersome websites and employ unhelpful clerks.

What’s more, it can cost money merely to find out how much money you owe. Four in 10 Florida counties charged either a payment or processing fee to look at their databases, and 15% charged a fee to access certain records, according to Burch’s research.

In 2020, Smith, the Florida political scientist, estimated that just over 1 million people would be eligible to vote under Amendment 4. Of that number, about 77% had outstanding legal financial obligations, rendering them ineligible to vote under Florida’s new law until they paid their debts. Four out of five Floridians with felony convictions owed at least $500 in fines and fees, Smith’s analysis found. More than 59% owed more than $1,000.

The state legislature immediately disqualified about 750,000 people from being able to vote when it passed its law requiring people convicted of felonies to pay their debts first, Smith estimated. And the new law’s impact was felt much more harshly by Black people, who faced greater fines and fees: 26% of white Floridians with a felony conviction would be eligible to get their voting rights restored under the new requirement, but only 18% of Black people, according to Smith.

In May 2020, a district court judge ruled that parts of the law were unconstitutional and that the law had established a pay-to-vote system. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling the following September, saying it was in the state’s power to require the payoffs and the law didn’t violate people’s rights. The state Supreme Court has also issued an advisory opinion that deemed the law legitimate.

Unsurprisingly, the number of people with felony convictions who have registered to vote has fallen far short of what supporters hoped. More than 85,000 such people registered in Florida ahead of the 2020 election.

Supporters of the law say that it’s only fair to have people fulfill their full sentences, including paying any crime-related debts. Some state attorneys, including Kramer, the attorney prosecuting the Alachua cases, have also developed processes within their jurisdictions by which people with felony convictions can verify their voting eligibility or request to reduce their fines and fees.

Felons who have not yet registered to vote can also appeal to the state to have certain fees reduced or eliminated, said Republican State Sen. Jeff Brandes, the sponsor of the law demanding the payoffs before voting rights restoration.

“We truly believe there are people who are indigent that will just simply never be able to pay,” he said. “The court only collects a fraction of what is given out anyways. And so there should be a way for the state to grant some grace or for the court to grant some grace and provide people flexibility.”

Kelvin Bolton has been sitting in the Alachua Council Jail since April, waiting for his case to proceed.

He’s been in and out of the system since he was 16, piling up a long record of mostly nonviolent crimes, most recently for stealing a car, groping a woman in a store and taking cigarettes from a Dollar General.

He aims this time to keep a vow he made to his family and himself to stay straight. He said he is frustrated that the prosecutor subsequently created a program for people convicted of felonies to check their voting eligibility while he and the others are still facing charges.

“Why would they want to keep charging us for something that they’re in the wrong for?” he said. “The state is in the wrong for what they did to us.”

This billionaire spent $54 million fighting a tax Increase for the rich. Secret IRS data shows it paid off

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: The Secret IRS Files

Inside the Tax Records of the .001%

For billionaire Ken Griffin, it was well worth spending $54 million to ensure he and other rich Illinoisans wouldn’t have to pay more tax.

By the time Illinois voters streamed into voting booths on Election Day in 2020, Griffin, then Illinois’ wealthiest resident, had made sure they’d heard plenty about why they should not vote to raise taxes on him and the state’s other rich people. His tens of millions paid for an unrelenting stream of ads and flyers against an initiative on that year’s ballot, which would have allowed Illinois lawmakers to join 32 other states in setting higher tax rates for the wealthy than for everyone else.

In the end, Griffin spent about $18 for every one of the 3.1 million votes against the initiative. After initial optimism about its prospects, the measure came up hundreds of thousands of votes short and went down to defeat.

Rarely does the public get a clear view of the payoff for wealthy Americans who put their money down to achieve a political outcome. But in this case, ProPublica’s trove of IRS data can provide crucial context for the ballot fight. For Griffin and many of his fellow ultrawealthy Illinoisans, spending even such a vast amount was well worth it when compared with what a tax hike might have cost them.

According to the data, Griffin averaged an annual income of $1.7 billion from 2013 to 2018. That was the fourth-highest in the country, behind only the likes of Bill Gates.

Using that average income as a guideline, the new state tax increase, which aimed to raise the rate from 5% to 8% on the highest incomes, would have cost Griffin around $51 million every year in extra tax. In especially good years — in 2018, Griffin reported income of almost $2.9 billion — he might have been forced to pay more than $80 million more.

A Citadel spokesperson responding on Griffin’s behalf pointed out that, according to ProPublica’s previously published data, Griffin paid the second-highest amount of taxes of any American from 2013 to 2018. “Over the past decade,” he said in a statement, “it is almost a certainty that Ken has been the largest individual taxpayer in the State of Illinois — a state notorious for profligate spending and rampant corruption.” Griffin has said he’s not against raising taxes; he opposed the measure, he added in his statement, because “Illinois needs to put its fiscal house in order before burdening hard-working families with yet more taxes.”

The state’s current flat tax rate of 5% is far below the top rates in other large states run by Democrats like California and New York and comparable to those in some Republican-led states like Utah. Advocates for raising the rates on the wealthy in Illinois say the state needs additional revenue, pointing to its regular budget deficits and deep pension debts.

Not all Griffin’s political bets pay off. A candidate for Illinois governor he supported with tens of millions of dollars went down to defeat in June’s Republican primary. Meanwhile, even though the income tax initiative was defeated, Griffin announced last month that he was moving Citadel’s headquarters to Miami and relocating there himself.

Though no other donor to the anti-tax fight came close to matching the tens of millions that Griffin gave, others made contributions that were more than what most Illinois households earn in a year. ProPublica analyzed the tax data of nine other ultrawealthy supporters of Griffin’s anti-tax campaign. According to our estimate, this group of heirs and business owners, which includes some of the wealthiest people in Illinois, can expect to see a healthy return on their contributions and save millions in taxes over the coming years.

The math behind our estimate is simple: Wealthy Illinoisans will save about 3% of their income, because that was the size of the proposed tax increase on the wealthy. That’s essentially how Illinois’ state income taxes work for Illinois residents. With some adjustments, a state tax rate is applied to the income listed on their federal returns. ProPublica contacted all 10 of the anti-tax donors mentioned in this article and the accompanying chart. None challenged the methodology used to estimate their tax savings.

Richard Uihlein, who along with Griffin has emerged as a conservative megadonor on the national stage, pitched in $100,000 to the anti-tax campaign — for him a modest amount given his average annual income of $492 million in recent years. Through his family foundation, Uihlein has also given millions of dollars to the Illinois Policy Institute, a small-government group that fought the graduated tax plan. Uihlein’s average income would lead to about $15 million of annual tax savings from the defeat of the ballot initiative.

Sam Zell, the real estate mogul known in Chicago for putting together a leveraged buyout of the Tribune Company that preceded its bankruptcy, gave $1.1 million. Based on his recent income, he would save $1.6 million in taxes each year. A spokesperson for Zell declined to comment.

Patrick Ryan made his billions in insurance, and Northwestern University’s football stadium and basketball arena bear his family’s name, thanks to the hundreds of millions he’s given the school. He gave $1 million. His recent income suggests $2.1 million in annual tax savings.

Richard Colburn, whose billionaire family owns the electrical parts maker CED, gave $500,000 to the anti-tax campaign, which would help save him $5.5 million each year in taxes, according to our estimates. In an email message to ProPublica, Colburn said his reasons for opposing the graduated tax were simple: It would have “eaten substantially” into his investment earnings, some of which he passes on to a nonprofit foundation he manages. Like Griffin, he contended the state would not have used the money well.

“Though I enjoy living in the Chicago area, I could save immensely by moving to a lower-tax state, and therefore I ‘invested’ to limit the temptation on me to relocate,” Colburn wrote. “Another element of my ‘investment’ stems from my desire to limit the mis-spending by the State of Illinois that occurs every time Springfield has extra money.” (His full statement is here.)

Donald Wilson, founder of the trading firm DRW, gave $250,000 to the anti-tax campaign. That donation in particular looks modest when weighed against his potential tax savings: Based on Wilson’s average annual income of $114 million, the proposed tax increase would have cost him $3.5 million more every year.

Some of the contributions to the anti-tax campaign came from trusts, special legal entities often used by the wealthy to hide or protect assets, as well as to avoid the estate tax. Richard Stephenson, founder of a chain of for-profit hospitals called Cancer Treatment Centers of America, contributed $300,000 through his Celebrate Life Trust. Stephenson is a longtime Republican donor and such an enthusiast of Ayn Rand’s message of uncompromising self-interest that he was an executive producer on two movies based on the novel “Atlas Shrugged.”

Uihlein, Ryan, Wilson and Stephenson also did not respond to requests for comment.

One $25,000 contribution came from the Philip M. Friedmann Family Charitable Trust. Friedmann made his fortune by selling the greeting card company he co-founded to a private equity firm.

Friedmann’s trust, unlike Stephenson’s, is a personal foundation. That means Friedmann likely received a tax deduction for donating to his own organization, which then used some of the funds to fight an increase in his taxes.

The contribution to the anti-tax campaign by Friedmann’s foundation appears to have violated federal tax law, three nonprofit tax law experts told ProPublica. Personal foundations are prohibited from spending to try to influence legislation, a category that includes contributions to a ballot initiative committee, said Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a law professor at Notre Dame. Organizations that break that law are required to pay a penalty of up to 25% of the expenditure in addition to attempting to retrieve the money.

Although this prohibition is spelled out on the IRS’ online guide for private foundations, “smaller family foundations don’t always know the applicable rules,” said Ellen Aprill, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University.

Friedmann did not respond to requests for comment.

Illinois didn’t have an income tax of any kind until 1969, when a deal between GOP Gov. Richard Ogilvie and Democratic Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley resulted in a flat statewide tax of 2.5% on individuals and 4% on corporations. Some Democrats said the tax disproportionately punished low-income families, and pushed for higher rates on the wealthy. But Republicans and other critics argued for expiration dates or rate limits, warning that otherwise lawmakers would simply keep hiking and expanding income taxes. The following year, a compromise was encoded in the state’s updated constitution. It clarified that the General Assembly had the power to impose an income tax but only “at a non-graduated rate.”

As the state’s fiscal problems grew in the following decades, governors and legislators repeatedly raised the flat tax rate until it was up to 5% on individuals. In 2014, multimillionaire private equity investor Bruce Rauner, a Republican backed by Griffin, was elected governor after promising to slash taxes, and the rate was lowered to 3.75%. But as Rauner fell into a bitter standoff with the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, the state went without a budget for more than two years, leaving it in an even deeper financial hole.

The General Assembly, including some Republicans, voted in 2017 to raise the income tax again, to 4.95% on individuals.

Democrat JB Pritzker, a billionaire investor whose family founded the Hyatt hotel chain, launched his campaign for governor by casting himself as a wealthy man who would fight for the middle class — and for a graduated tax that was less burdensome for low-income families than the flat-rate system. Rauner vowed to stop him. Their 2018 campaigns spent more than $250 million combined, including $22.5 million that Griffin gave to Rauner, before Pritzker won that November.

With the support of a committed and rich governor, a graduated income tax suddenly seemed possible in Illinois.

“That created a bunch of new momentum,” said Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a think tank that argued in favor of a graduated income tax. “That was enough political support to really get the grassroots groups working on it.”

Outside of a special convention, both the Illinois House and Senate must sign off on a state constitutional amendment by three-fifths majorities. Voters then need to approve it, either by a clear majority of all voters casting ballots in a general election or a three-fifths majority of those voting on the measure itself.

In 2019 the Senate and then the House each met that threshold, passing a measure that would eliminate the graduated income tax ban if voters approved an amendment. Companion legislation laid out what the new tax schedule would be: Rates would either drop or remain at 4.95% for people reporting income up to $250,000; they would climb from there, to a rate of 7.99% on individuals earning above $750,000 and couples above $1 million. The top rate was within the range of those in other Midwest states with graduated systems — higher than Missouri’s but lower than Iowa’s.

Supporters and opponents then had more than a year to make their cases.

Illinois election laws set some limits on campaign donations and spending. But the rules are riddled with loopholes, and they impose no limits on political committees formed to advocate for or against ballot initiatives like the income tax proposal.

Opponents of the graduated income tax formed at least five different campaign committees that raised nearly $63 million altogether. The best funded, by far, was the Coalition to Stop the Proposed Tax Hike Amendment, which collected almost $60 million, including the $54 million from Griffin. The coalition received most of its remaining money from other billionaires and millionaires, according to state campaign donation records.

On the other side, Pritzker created the Vote Yes for Fairness committee, plowing $58 million of his own fortune to support the “fair tax” campaign. Apart from Pritzker’s donations, the committee received just one $250 contribution, records show.

Griffin also launched other offensives. In October 2020, the Chicago Tribune reported that Griffin had lambasted Pritzker as “a shameless master of personal tax avoidance” in an email to Citadel’s Chicago staff.

The bulk of Pritzker’s wealth ($3.6 billion, according to Forbes) is in trusts, some domestic and some located offshore. Pritzker has said some were set up by his grandfather. As ProPublica reported last year, it was common for 20th century patriarchs to set up trusts that passed fortunes down through the generations free of estate taxes.

Pritzker has released his personal tax returns, but has not provided detailed information about the trusts. For 2020, Pritzker’s office released returns showing $5.1 million in personal income for the governor and his wife, MK. The domestic trusts benefiting the governor also paid $16.3 million in Illinois taxes and $69.6 million in federal taxes in 2020, according to Pritzker spokesperson Natalie Edelstein.

ProPublica’s IRS data does not shed light on those trusts. When ProPublica requested further detail, Edelstein said the governor is not releasing documents concerning the trusts because he “is not the only beneficiary, so he does not have authority to release all of the information.” She said that the governor had not personally accepted any disbursements from the offshore trusts, instead giving them to charity. She did not address whether the trusts had been set up to avoid estate taxes, only saying they were “established generations ago.”

At the height of the graduated income tax campaign, advertisements for and against the initiative seemed to be everywhere in Illinois — in mailboxes, online, all over the airwaves.

“You couldn’t even watch TV — it was just one ad after another,” recalled David Merriman, a public administration professor at the University of Illinois Chicago.

Merriman’s research had found that Illinois received less revenue from income taxes and placed a higher tax burden on low-income taxpayers than neighboring states with graduated systems, including states led by Republicans. But, perhaps predictably, the ads largely avoided policy discussions in favor of political appeals.

“At the worst possible time, Springfield politicians are pushing a constitutional amendment that would give them new powers to make it easier to raise taxes on all Illinois taxpayers,” a narrator in one anti-tax ad declared. “And if there’s one thing we know about Springfield politicians, it’s that you can’t trust them.”

The fair-tax campaign accused the rich of trying to fool middle-class families and claimed, based on the state Senate bill that had already passed, that as many as 97% of taxpayers would pay the same or less under the governor’s plan.

But voters weren’t convinced. Federal investigations of several Chicago and state politicians were making headlines, and Merriman said the graduated tax advocates failed to persuade voters that they would benefit from the amendment. The initiative failed by a vote of 53% to 47%.

“It showed just how distrustful everyone is of the government,” he said.

The big money battle has continued in the Illinois governor’s race this year. This January, Pritzker deposited $90 million into his own reelection fund — the largest single political contribution in Illinois in decades and probably ever. Under state election law, candidates can lift donation limits in a race by funding their own campaigns.

Several of the anti-tax funders contributed large sums to Republicans aiming to unseat Pritzker this fall. Once again, Griffin led the way, spending $50 million, but his handpicked candidate lost the GOP primary last week to Darren Bailey, a right-wing state senator propelled by more than $17 million Uihlein gave to his campaign and an aligned super PAC. Pritzker and the Democratic Governors Association also went head-to-head with Griffin, paying for ads attacking his candidate, Richard Irvin.

Bailey received an endorsement from Donald Trump the weekend before the election and finished with about 58% of the vote. Irvin faded to third place with 15%. In his election night victory speech, Bailey ripped Pritzker as an “out-of-touch, elitist billionaire.”

“Do you feel overtaxed?” Bailey called out to his supporters. Their response: “Yeah!”

By then, Griffin had made a big announcement that meant his state tax bill would plummet.

In a letter to Citadel employees, Griffin announced that he was moving the company’s headquarters to Miami and that he himself had already moved his family to the area.

Florida does not have a personal income tax. Experts told ProPublica Griffin will still pay some personal income tax in New York and Illinois since Citadel has offices there. But his bill is sure to shrink dramatically, likely saving him tens of millions a year.

In response to ProPublica’s questions, Citadel did not address whether taxes motivated his move. Instead, in its statement the spokesperson cited crime concerns as the prime motivator: “Ken left Illinois for a simple reason: the state is devolving into anarchy. Senseless violence is now part of daily life in Chicago.”

Griffin’s letter to Citadel staff also made no mention of taxes as being a reason for the move. Instead, it rhapsodized about how Miami “embodies the American Dream — embracing the possibilities of what can be achieved by a community working to build a future together.”

Here are 10 ways billionaires avoid taxes on an epic scale

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: The Secret IRS Files

Inside the Tax Records of the .001%

Last June, drawing on the largest trove of confidential American tax data that’s ever been obtained, ProPublica launched a series of stories documenting the key ways the ultrawealthy avoid taxes, strategies that are largely unavailable to most taxpayers. To mark the first anniversary of the launch, we decided to assemble a quick summary of the techniques — all of which can generate tax savings on a massive scale — revealed in the series.

1. The Ultra Wealth Effect

Our first story unraveled how billionaires like Elon Musk, Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos were able to amass some of the largest fortunes in history while paying remarkably little tax relative to their immense wealth. They did it in part by avoiding selling off their vast holdings of stock. The U.S. system taxes income. Selling stock generates income, so they avoid income as the system defines it. Meanwhile, billionaires can tap into their wealth by borrowing against it. And borrowing isn’t taxable. (Buffett said he followed the law and preferred that his wealth go to charity; the others didn’t comment beyond a “?” from Musk.)

2. The $5 Billion IRA

Other billionaires used less conventional ways to avoid income, we found. Tech mogul Peter Thiel amassed a $5 billion Roth IRA, a type of account that shields income from taxes and is intended to help low- and middle-class savers prepare for retirement. Back in 1999, Thiel stuffed low-valued shares of the company that would become PayPal into the account, a maneuver tax lawyers said risked running afoul of IRS rules. (It’s not clear if the government ever challenged the move.) He set himself up to reap billions in untaxed gains. (Thiel did not respond to questions for the original article.)

3. The $1 Billion Parlor Trick: Turning High-Tax-Rate Trading into Low-Tax-Rate Income

Even when tech billionaires do show income on their tax return, they tend to pay relatively low income tax rates. That’s because of the type of income they have: Gains from long-term investments, such as from stock sales, are taxed at a lower rate. But what do you do if you’re making over $1 billion every year, and it’s largely from short-term trading? Do you just accept that you’ll pay the higher rate on all that income? As we reported this week, Jeff Yass, head of one of the most profitable firms on Wall Street, did not meekly accept this fate. Instead, his firm, Susquehanna International Group, found creative ways to transform the wrong sort of income into the right kind, generating tax savings that exceeded $1 billion over just six years. (Susquehanna declined to comment but in a court case that centered on similar allegations, it maintained that it complies with the law.)

4: The Magic of Sports Ownership: Make Money While (Legally) Reporting Losses

The tax code offers business owners a slew of methods to erase income through deductions, none more awesome than buying a sports team, as former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer did with the Los Angeles Clippers. It doesn’t matter whether the team is actually profitable and growing in value. It can still be a write-off. (In some cases, we found, owners could effectively deduct a given player’s contract not once, but twice. They’re allowed to take deductions comparable to those for factory equipment that loses value as it ages, even as teams almost inevitably gain in value.) That’s one reason owners tend to pay far lower tax rates than the athletes they employ, or even the people serving beer in the team’s stadium. In our story, we found a Clippers arena worker who made $45,000 a year and paid a higher tax rate than the billionaire Ballmer. (Ballmer said he pays the taxes he owes.)

5. Build, Drill and Save: The Real Estate and Oil Businesses Can Both Be Tax Havens

In certain industries, like real estate or oil and gas, the tax breaks are so plentiful that billionaires can erase their income entirely even as they grow richer. That’s how real estate developer Stephen Ross (who also happens to own the Miami Dolphins) went 10 years without paying any income tax. Ross said that he followed the law. Another mogul, this one in the oil business, managed to tap a near bottomless well of write-offs via one of the biggest oil spills in history. (The mogul’s representatives did not respond to requests for comment.)

6. Even a Billionaire’s Hobbies Can Pay Off at Tax Time

Deductions from hobbies and side projects, which the ultrawealthy can structure as businesses, are another fun option. For some billionaires, it’s race horses: We found that six owners of thoroughbreds at the 2021 Kentucky Derby had taken a combined $600 million in tax write-offs on their horse racing operations. For others, like Beanie Babies founder Ty Warner, it’s luxury hotels. The billionaire splurged on a couple of landmark Four Seasons locations and then went 12 years without paying any income tax. (Representatives for Warner did not respond to requests for comment.)

7. Think Your Taxes are Too High? Change the Tax Laws

Sometimes, it pays to fight for a new tax break. For the billionaires who contributed millions to Republican politicians, the payoff came in the form of Trump’s “big, beautiful tax cut” for passthrough businesses. We found the change sent $1 billion in tax savings in a single year to just 82 ultrawealthy households. Some business owners also boosted their savings with a trick: They slashed their own salaries and categorized the money instead as passthrough income.

8. Why Tech Billionaires Pay Less Than Hedge-Fund Managers

With so many options to reduce taxes, the richest Americans often manage low income tax rates. We analyzed the incomes and taxes of the country’s top 400 earners, those averaging over $110 million in income per year. Overall, the group paid relatively low rates, but certain segments (tech billionaires, heirs, private equity executives) stood out even within this elite population because they were able to draw on the sorts of techniques detailed above. (Also drawing on these techniques were wealthy politicians, like the governors of Colorado and West Virginia.)

9. Brother, Can You Spare a Stimulus Check?

But the real standouts were the billionaires who reported such low incomes that they qualified for government assistance. At least 18 billionaires received stimulus checks in 2020, because their tax returns placed them below the income cutoff ($150,000 for a married couple).

10. Trust This: How Wealthy Families Pass Billions to Heirs While Avoiding Taxes

The holes in the estate tax, we found, are even more remarkable. There are well-worn ways to make sure Uncle Sam doesn’t get his cut of a fortune being passed on to heirs, and the most common is through a trust. How common no one can say, but we found evidence that at least half of the nation’s 100 richest individuals had used estate-tax-dodging trusts. In another story,we followed three century-old dynasties down through the generations, showing how they used trusts to avoid taxes, so that a fortune could pass all the way from the original early 20th century tycoon to, for example, the great-great-granddaughter who recently collected $210 million before her 19th birthday.

Meet the billionaire and rising GOP mega-donor who’s gaming the tax system

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: The Secret IRS Files

Inside the Tax Records of the .001%

One day in July 1985, three young men from Philadelphia, their lawyer and a burly Pinkerton guard arrived at a horse track outside Chicago carrying a briefcase with $250,000 in cash.

Running the numbers on a Compaq computer the size of a small refrigerator, Jeffrey Yass and his friends had found a way to outwit the track’s bookies, according to interviews, records and news accounts. A few months earlier, they’d wagered $160,000, gambling that, with tens of thousands of bets, they could nail the exact order of seven horses in three different races. It was a sophisticated theory of the racing odds, honed with help from a Ph.D. statistician who’d worked for NASA on the moon landing, and it proved right. They bagged $760,000, then the richest payoff in American racing history.

But that summer day, when they presented their strikingly long list of bets at the track window, they were turned away. Their appeal to the track owner got them ejected. Yass, just 27, then sued for the right to place the bets. The track’s lawyer fumed to a federal judge that the men were trying to corner the betting market “through the use of their statistics and numbers.”

Yass lost, but that year he and his friends repeated variations of the strategy at horse and greyhound tracks around the country. Then they decided to turn their focus from a world of hundreds of thousands of dollars to a world of billions: Wall Street.

Four decades later, the firm he and his friends founded, Susquehanna International Group, is a sprawling global company that makes billions of dollars. Yass and his team used their numerical expertise to make rapid-fire computer-driven trades in options and other securities, eventually becoming a giant middleman in the markets for stocks and other securities. If you have bought stock or options on an app like Robinhood or E-Trade, there’s a good chance you traded with Susquehanna without knowing it. Today, Yass, 63, is one of the richest and most powerful financiers in the country.

But one crucial aspect of his ascent to stratospheric wealth has transpired out of public view. Using the same prowess that he’s applied to race tracks and options markets, Yass has taken aim at another target: his tax bill.

There, too, the winnings have been immense: at least $1 billion in tax savings over six recent years, according to ProPublica’s analysis of a trove of IRS data. During that time, Yass paid an average federal income tax rate of just 19%, far below that of comparable Wall Street traders.

Yass has devised trading strategies that reduce his tax burden but push legal boundaries. He has repeatedly drawn IRS audits, yet has continued to test the limits. Susquehanna has often gone to court to fight the government, with one multiyear audit battle ending in a costly defeat. The firm has maintained in court filings that it complied with the law.

Yass’ low rate is particularly notable because Susquehanna, by its own description, specializes in short-term trading. Money made from such rapid trades is typically taxed at rates around 40%.

In recent years, however, Yass’ annual income has, with uncanny consistency, been made up almost entirely of income taxed at the roughly 20% rate reserved for longer-term investments.

Congress long ago tried to stamp out widely used techniques that seek to transform profits taxed at the high rate into profits taxed at the low rate. But Yass and his colleagues have managed to avoid higher taxes anyway.

The tax savings have contributed to an explosion in wealth for Yass, who has increasingly poured that fortune into candidates and causes on the political right. He has spent more than $100 million on election campaigns in recent years. The money has gone to everything from anti-tax advocacy and charter schools to campaigns against so-called critical race theory and for candidates who falsely say the 2020 election was stolen and seek to ban abortion.

ProPublica has pieced together the details of Yass’ tax avoidance using tax returns, securities filings and court records, as well as by talking to former traders and executives. (The former employees spoke on condition of anonymity, with many citing a desire to avoid angering Yass.)

Through a spokesperson, Yass declined to be interviewed for this article. The spokesperson declined to comment in response to a long list of questions for Susquehanna and the firm’s founding partners.

Gregg Polsky, a University of Georgia law professor and former corporate tax lawyer who was retained by ProPublica to review Susquehanna’s tax records, said the tax agency may have more to scrutinize. The strategies revealed in Yass’ records, he said, were “very suspicious and suggestive of potential abuse that should be examined by the IRS.”

More than 35 years after he was booted from the racetrack outside Chicago, Yass still lives to gamble. Not just on horses, but on poker and on the market. He sheepishly admitted, in a podcast discussion, that he has even placed wagers on his children’s sports games.

Asked to describe his approach to trading at Susquehanna, Yass once reached for a poker analogy. “If you’re the sixth-best poker player in the world and you play with the five best players, you’re going to lose,” he said. “If your skills are only average, but you play against weak opponents, you’re going to win.”

That philosophy along with, Yass freely admits, a lot of luck, has made him a billionaire many times over.

Compared to many of his fellow billionaires — he’s richer than Hollywood mogul David Geffen, retail brokerage king Charles Schwab and “Star Wars” creator George Lucas — Yass doesn't seem particularly interested in the trappings of extreme wealth.

Yass and his wife, Janine, raised four children in the leafy college town of Haverford, on the Main Line outside of Philadelphia. Their large but unremarkable house could easily be the home of a successful doctor rather than one of the richest men in the country. In his quarter-zip pullover sweater, Nikes and no-nonsense rimless glasses, he’d be impossible to pick out of a crowd at the suburban country club where he plays golf.

If Yass collects expensive art or maintains a megayacht, he has managed to do so in complete secrecy. What comes closest to an identifiable trophy asset is a house in the ultra-exclusive Georgica Association beach neighborhood of East Hampton on New York’s Long Island. Even that property, purchased for $12.5 million in 2005 and held through an LLC, is in an area known as “bucolic and understated.”

Those who have worked with Yass say he lives less for spending money than for the competition of the market and the thrill of taking calculated risk. Yass softens any impression of ruthlessness by deploying a practiced humility and comedic timing. “Some people like art history,” he once explained, “I like probabilistic analysis.”

Yet when it comes to his philosophical outlook, he eschews the jokes. He speaks of capitalism in religious terms. Making new markets, he likes to say, is a “mission from God.”

Like many religious stories, his begins with a conversion experience. Born in 1958 to two Queens CPAs, Yass said reading the economist Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom” as a young man delivered him from an early flirtation with socialism.

By the time Yass graduated from the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1979, he was already captivated by trading. (His father had also helped nurture Yass’ love of horse racing by taking him to local tracks to see harness racing, according to Forbes.) Yass’ college thesis weighed whether the budding market in stock options could be justified as socially useful. “I concluded that it should exist,” Yass later cracked. “I got a B.”

After college, he moved to Las Vegas for a year and a half to play poker professionally. Then he returned to the East Coast and settled in Philadelphia, where he began trading options. The previous decade had seen a burst of academic interest in the financial instruments, including a pioneering model of how to more accurately price them. Yass later called the model, and its broader implications for how to make mathematically sound decisions, “the most revolutionary idea in a long, long time.”

A share of stock is a relatively simple concept: It’s a small ownership stake in a company. An option, by contrast, is a contract that confers the right to buy or sell a given stock at a particular price and time in the future.

Options attract mathematically minded traders since a complex set of variables, including the underlying stock price, volatility, time and interest rates, determine how much one of the contracts is worth.

Options are a versatile tool. They can appeal to the risk-averse: Traders can use them as insurance to guarantee they will be paid at least today’s price when they sell in the future. They are also useful to the risk-embracing — gamblers who want to place outsized bets on how a stock will perform. (Here’s how a speculator would use an option: In early June, shares of Netflix were trading at below $200. If the speculator thinks the company’s fortunes will improve dramatically this summer, they could pay just $4.50 each for options to buy the stock at $250 in mid-August. If the stock soars over that figure, they could make a mint.)

In options Yass found more than a financial instrument. He found a way to view the world. Everything — each decision, each interaction — can be judged based on how much it will cost in money, time or negative consequences and compared with the reward. Then action is taken or avoided accordingly. To Yass’ way of thinking, it’s always worth paying $19 for a 20% chance to win $100 but it’s never worth $21.

Along with his college friends, Yass founded Susquehanna, named after the river that connects Binghamton to Pennsylvania, in 1987. The firm benefited from explosive growth in options markets. Yass later played it down to the Philadelphia Inquirer: “We got lucky being in the right place at the right time.”

One of Susquehanna’s landmark moments — involving perhaps both skill and luck — occurred soon after the firm launched: the Black Monday stock market crash on Oct. 19, 1987. Thanks to an option bet that would pay out if stocks went down, Susquehanna was one of the few firms that made money on one of the worst days in stock market history.

From early on, Yass cultivated Susquehanna’s brand as a home for the biggest brains in finance, hiring Ph.D.s and top students. But the firm wasn’t just looking for raw IQ points. It also wanted instinct. It held poker tournaments to teach traders the idea that taking the measure of your opponents is as important as understanding the odds.

The Binghamton buddies ran a freewheeling office full of arguments and gamesmanship. The office had Super Bowl pools and an officewide lottery. Everyone bet on everything. One time, as recounted in Philadelphia magazine, traders bet on whether Yass could name the last Plantagenet king of England. They called Yass. He spat out “Richard III” and then, according to a witness, yelled, “Get back to work!” But he liked the hijinks.

Still, the firm had an inside vs. outside mentality. If you weren’t with the firm, you were the enemy. When traders left to join a competitor, Susquehanna often sued them for allegedly violating non-compete clauses. Susquehanna stood out for its aggressiveness in trading even by the standards of Wall Street. “If he thinks you’re dumb, he’s betting against you,” one former Susquehanna trader said of Yass. “That’s what makes his blood flow.”

Susquehanna developed a specialty in arbitrage, or finding low-risk profit opportunities in mismatched prices of securities, like stocks or bonds. An early adopter of computers to measure risk and test trading strategies, the firm flourished.

In addition to making his own bets, Yass built his firm into one that stands at the very center of the market and takes bets from other traders. On Wall Street, this job is known as market making.

At its simplest, making a market means offering to buy or sell a thing. The jewelry shop on the corner that will sell you a gold ring and has a “We Buy Gold” sign in the window is making a market in gold. If the store buys a gold coin from a customer for $300, then sells it for $320 to the next person who walks in, the store has made a quick $20.

Susquehanna does the same thing, but with securities. Running a market making firm isn’t always as easy as quickly matching a buyer and a seller. A market maker is expected to post its prices and buy and sell to all comers. If a particular stock has more sellers than buyers, the firm might find itself holding too much, exposing the market maker to losses if the stock price drops. It’s a business that thrives when there’s lots of trading volume but can be dangerous if markets crash.

The market making business in stock options, Susquehanna’s specialty, requires juggling a huge number of trades while constantly keeping an eye on all the various bets to make sure that the firm is protected from unexpected market moves.

In 1996, the year Yass turned 38, he made $71 million, tax records show. By then, the firm was employing hundreds of people. Not long before, Susquehanna staff had gathered in Las Vegas for an annual company celebration. Traders brought their families. The firm’s employees watched the Kentucky Derby together. A Marilyn Monroe impersonator interviewed Yass’ father with some tame double-entendres. The highlight was a skit with a junior trader performing as “Jeff Yass Gump,” after Forrest Gump. “Momma always said I was like the other kids,” the trader said. “But the other kids, they went to Harvard and Yale and the University of Pennsylvania and I said: ‘Momma, why am I at the SUNY Binghamton?’ She said it was because I was special.” The crowd roared, Yass the loudest of all.

Despite losing some star traders in the late 1990s, Susquehanna continued to produce massive profits. Yass and the other co-founders managed to keep their enormous wealth a secret. Even by 2005, when Yass had collected at least $1 billion of lifetime income, he was nowhere to be found in the Forbes list of the richest Americans.

That’s in part because Susquehanna is privately held and trades only its own money, meaning it doesn’t have to publicly disclose much about its business. Like many financial firms, Susquehanna itself is not a single company but a complex and shifting web of legal entities whose profits flow to Yass and a small set of partners.

It has been a remarkably consistent profit machine for the partners, except in 2008, the year of the global financial crisis. Yass alone lost $470 million that year, tax records show. Former Susquehanna traders believe the firm risked going out of business. The danger the firm faced “sent chills through everyone,” said one. Like other big trading complexes that did huge business with investment banks, Susquehanna benefited from the massive federal bailout of Wall Street, which propped up the giant firms that were among its biggest trading partners.

Yass, the free market true believer, now owed the survival of much of his fortune to the U.S. government. On a personal level, Yass also received an extra bonus from the government: a $2,000 child tax credit because he reported losing money that year.

Susquehanna quickly bounced back to profitability. In recent years it has supplanted major banks as one of the firms that sits in the middle of massive daily financial flows in stock and other markets. A Bloomberg profile in 2018 reported that Susquehanna trades 100 million exchange-traded fund shares daily. The firm is a prominent player in cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and, in a throwback to Yass’ origins, the exploding business of sports betting. Susquehanna has also branched out into venture capital. One of those investments came through spectacularly: a large stake in ByteDance, the Chinese company behind the social media app TikTok.

By the 2010s, Yass had become one of the richest Americans. But his ultralow profile meant that almost nobody knew that. At least two of Susquehanna’s other co-founders, Arthur Dantchik and Joel Greenberg, have each made billions of dollars themselves, according to ProPublica's analysis.

Yass hit a new milestone in 2012, pulling in more than $1 billion in a single year, according to tax records; by 2018, his income was $2 billion. In the six years ending in 2018, Yass had the sixth-highest average income in the entire country, according to IRS data.

Court filings and ProPublica’s analysis of tax records suggest that, as of 2018, Yass owned around 75% of Susquehanna, with co-founders Dantchik owning around 19% and Greenberg around 3%. (Greenberg retired in 2016.)

Yass was finally added to the Forbes list last year. The magazine put his worth at $12 billion, which would make him the 58th-richest American. ProPublica estimates his true wealth is likely at least $30 billion — based solely on his income over the decades and stake in ByteDance — which would place him in the top 25.

On a Friday afternoon in April 2010, a Susquehanna trader in Pennsylvania emailed his counterparts at Credit Suisse to make a big bet in the stock market. The email instructed the Swiss bank to buy about $70 million worth of shares in some of Switzerland’s biggest companies on Susquehanna’s behalf.

Three minutes later, the trader sent out a second email, this time to Morgan Stanley. He placed a second bet, now wagering against the exact same stocks in the exact same amounts he’d just ordered from Credit Suisse.

The payoff from such a trade might seem to be nothing at all. But there was a winner and a loser. The winner was Susquehanna. The loser was the U.S. government: Susquehanna had managed to slash its tax bill through the trade. The emails come from an ongoing U.S. Tax Court case filed in 2020. There are rules designed to block clever traders from using offsetting bets to conjure tax savings, and the IRS argues Susquehanna broke them. (More on that case later.)

The firm’s willingness to push the boundaries of tax law is not surprising to people who know Yass and his partners. One former Susquehanna executive recalled Yass acknowledging using a trading strategy in which a main goal was not to make profitable trades, but to avoid taxes. Taxes, according to Yass’ former colleagues, are an obsession for the billionaire. As one former employee put it, “They hate fucking taxes.”

It doesn’t matter how seemingly trivial it is. Susquehanna once petitioned the state of Pennsylvania to demand “a refund of taxes paid on repairs to ice machines.” The petition was denied.

Indeed, the firm has a habit of shaping deals that slash its tax bill and then daring the IRS to intercede. Sometimes, the agency successfully challenges them, as when Yass and his two main partners were hit with a total of $121 million in back taxes in 2019. That was the single biggest such payout in ProPublica’s database of IRS records, which includes thousands of audits of the wealthiest people in the country. Susquehanna paid only after losing a long-running battle with the agency, one the firm appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.

Despite periodically tripping IRS wires, the firm’s aggressiveness seems to have paid off. Susquehanna’s tax avoidance has gone on for years, resulting in a strikingly low tax rate for Yass and his partners, according to ProPublica’s analysis.

The strategy behind that trade back in 2010 is key to understanding how they’ve done it. Similarly to how Susquehanna has taken advantage of small differences in prices of options or stocks, it has found ways to exploit a gap in tax rates to save hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes every year.

For someone like Yass, the U.S. system offers an almost irresistible proposition. If you earn the wrong sort of income — the kind that comes from a short-term trade — you’ll pay a relatively high tax rate. But if you earn the right kind — gains on long-held investments — you’ll pay half as much in taxes.

But what is considered “long-term” involves a bright, arbitrary line. Hold a security for less than 366 days, and you are on the wrong side of that line.

The result is that by the arithmetic of the U.S. tax code, $100 made from a sale on the 365th day is worth around $60 after taxes. And $100 made on the 366th is worth around $80.

Short-term, high-frequency traders like Susquehanna often hold securities for less than 365 seconds. As the company itself put it in one recent court filing, the firm “trades securities, commodities, and derivatives, seeking to earn returns from short-term appreciation and arbitrage profits.” This has been the firm’s consistent self-description. Back in 2004, a staffer was more frank in testimony: “We are not, by our nature, into holding stocks.”

With such an approach, long-term gains should be forever out of reach.

And yet, Yass and his partners have managed, year after year, to report that the vast majority of their net income came in the form of long-term capital gains. In several recent years, 100% of their income was taxed at the lower rate.

How do they do it?

One strategy, in simplified form, works like this: Make two bets that should move in opposite directions. Think of, say, both betting on and against Coca-Cola’s stock. Towards the end of the year, one bet will be up, and one will be down. At 365 days, the last day a trade is considered short-term, sell the one that’s down. A day later, sell the one that’s up.

Of course, if you consider the trade as a whole, it makes no money. But that isn’t the point. You’ve found a risk-free way to generate two valuable commodities: short-term losses and long-term gains.

On their own, these losses and gains aren’t of much use. But to someone like Yass, who separately generates an enormous pile of short-term gains each year, they work a kind of magic.

That’s because of how taxes are calculated. Short-term and long-term results are accounted for in separate buckets: Short-term losses are applied first to short-term gains. So the losses from the Coke trade reduce the existing pile of short-term gains. The money made from the Coke trade, meanwhile, goes in the long-term bucket.

In the end, the trader has essentially transformed short-term gains into long-term gains, the type taxed at the special lower rate. From 2003 through 2018, the difference between the two rates ranged from 17 to 20 percentage points. So, for every $100 run through this process, the trader would net from $17 to $20 in tax savings.

So why isn’t everyone using this strategy?

Because as laid out here, it would be illegal.

For decades, traders have devised strategies that looked something like the Coke trade, known as a “straddle” because the trader is taking both sides. Over the years, Congress passed laws and the IRS imposed intricate rules to stop them, taking away the tax benefit of simultaneously betting for and against the same stock.

And yet, Yass and his partners built a machine that produced much the same result.

Since 2011, IRS records show, a partnership called Susquehanna Fundamental Investments has been the source of the majority of long-term gains for Yass and his partners. Every year, it channeled hundreds of millions in long-term gains to them, while also providing hundreds of millions in short-term losses.

Year after year, the gains and losses rose and fell roughly in tandem, as if one were a near reflection of the other. In 2015, for example, Susquehanna Fundamental produced $774 million in long-term gains and $787 million in short-term losses for Yass. In 2017 it was $940 million in long-term gains and $902 million in short-term losses.

Regulatory filings give a glimpse of the fund’s trading.

Susquehanna Fundamental has to disclose a snapshot of certain holdings with the Securities and Exchange Commission a few times each year, though many types of trades are exempt from disclosure.

Over several years, the fund’s disclosed positions resembled a complex version of the Coke trade. Instead of betting for and against a single stock, the firm bet for and against the entire market.

Susquehanna Fundamental held billions of dollars of individual stocks such as Google, Wells Fargo and, as it happens, Coca-Cola. These stocks were among the largest companies in the S&P 500 index.

Meanwhile, the fund also held a large bet against the S&P 500. In essence, it held a bet against many of those exact same stocks.

On its face, the fund actually lost money for Yass: Over eight years, it registered $5.4 billion in losses against $5 billion in gains — a net loss before taxes. But by transforming the tax rate on so much income, it delivered $1.1 billion in tax savings, and Yass came out way ahead.

It’s not clear whether the IRS has ever challenged the firm’s trading inside Susquehanna Fundamental Investments.

But the trading pattern has similarities to the 2010 Swiss stock trades, which involved betting for and against the exact same stocks. The IRS deems those to have been illegal under tax law.

Those trades were part of a larger deal worked out by Susquehanna and Morgan Stanley that called for the Philadelphia firm to buy $1.4 billion of the stocks and simultaneously bet against them, court records show. (Morgan Stanley declined to comment.) Over the next three years, the deal kicked out at least $365 million in low-rate income to the firm, while generating massive losses that could be used to wipe out other high-rate income, according to the IRS.

When IRS auditors scrutinized the deal, they found that Susquehanna had violated rules against betting for and against the exact same stocks. The agency demanded the firm pay tens of millions of dollars in back taxes.

Yass and his partners refused, arguing that the firm had broken no rules, and sued the IRS in U.S. Tax Court in 2020. They asserted that the deal was supposed to be profitable and wasn’t primarily intended to avoid taxes. But the firm also acknowledged the deal was tailored with an eye to “tax efficiency.” The case is still pending, with Susquehanna currently resisting requests to turn over more documents.

Susquehanna’s ability to manufacture the right kind of income has helped Yass and his partners minimize their taxes for decades. Since 2001, Yass hasn’t paid over 20% in a single year. In 2005, a year when he made what was for him the modest sum of $66 million, he paid $0 in federal income tax.

For Yass’ primary competitors, the story is far different. Citadel and Two Sigma are both huge firms that, like Susquehanna, do a mix of lightning-fast trading and market making. The heads of these firms, like Yass, reported incomes larger than almost anyone else in the country from 2013 to 2018.

But the tax returns of these Wall Street titans — Ken Griffin from Citadel, and John Overdeck and David Siegel from Two Sigma — have no mystifying source of low-rate income.

They also differ from Susquehanna in another telling respect. These firms voluntarily classify their trading activity as ordinary income, according to ProPublica’s analysis of tax records. Doing this makes sense for a firm that specializes in short-term trading and doesn’t expect to generate many long-term gains. That’s why many high-frequency firms make this “Section 475 election,” as it’s called in the tax jargon. If Susquehanna elected to treat its trading this way, its ability to generate long-term gains would be constrained.

Susquehanna also stands apart in how its taxes are prepared, ProPublica’s records show. Unlike his billionaire peers, Yass does not have his tax returns prepared by outside accountants. Instead, they’re prepared in-house at Susquehanna. Avoiding an outside accountant can offer more leeway in filing returns that test the boundaries of the law and might be challenged by the IRS later on, experts say. Several former employees told ProPublica that details of the firm’s tax strategy are closely guarded, even inside the company.

From 2013 to 2018, Griffin, Overdeck and Siegel paid average income tax rates ranging from 29% to 34%. (Representatives for the three men declined to comment.) Yass averaged 19%. ProPublica estimates that if Yass’ tax returns had resembled those of his competitors, he would have paid $1 billion more in federal income taxes during this period alone.

Yass does have one peer who achieved even lower tax rates and did so for years. Billionaire Jim Simons is one of the founders of Renaissance Technologies, one of the premier hedge funds known for high-frequency trading. His rates were often in the single digits between 2009 and 2018, never exceeding 14%. One reason Simons paid so little are deductions from charitable donations, averaging hundreds of millions of dollars each year; Yass doesn’t give nearly as much to charity. But another reason was Renaissance’s ability to create long-term gains over a decade.

That, however, didn’t last. A 2014 congressional investigation and IRS audit concluded the Renaissance scheme to generate such gains was illegal. Simons himself ultimately paid the IRS at least $670 million to resolve the case. Collectively, fund executives and investors paid an undisclosed amount, reportedly in the billions, in back taxes and penalties. A spokesperson for Simons declined to comment.

Having slashed his income tax bills, Yass has already taken steps to protect his fortune from the government for years to come.

He created special trusts designed to sidestep the estate tax when passing money to heirs at death, court records show. In using these grantor retained annuity trusts, or GRATs, Yass joins dozens of other billionaires, as ProPublica has reported.

That suggests that Yass’ adult children, two of whom work at Susquehanna, stand to someday inherit multibillion-dollar fortunes — tax-free.

Over decades of TV appearances and speeches promoting his libertarian gospel, Milton Friedman often liked to say he was “in favor of cutting taxes under any circumstances and for any excuse, for any reason, whenever it’s possible.” Friedman died in 2006. Today, Yass, who reveres the economist, is trying to bring Friedman’s ideas to fruition.

Yass has not only worked assiduously to lower his own taxes but has poured millions into political efforts to eliminate them for his class. In recent years he has given $32 million to the anti-tax stalwart Club for Growth. This money paid for TV ads attacking candidates who were seen as wobbly on Friedman’s tax-cuts-anytime-anywhere philosophy.

In Pennsylvania, where Yass is the richest person in the state and a kingmaker in local politics, his favored candidates have shaped tax policy. He is a longtime financial patron of a Democratic state senator, Anthony Williams, one of the creators of a pair of tax credits that allow companies to slash their state tax bills if they give money to private and charter schools. Susquehanna is, in turn, a major user of the tax credits. (Williams did not respond to requests for comment.)

The programs limited the state tax credits a single company could receive, but Yass and the others found a way to sidestep the limits. Yass, Dantchik and Greenberg simply applied for the tax credits through individual companies each had formed, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 2015. In all, the credits have saved Yass and the others at least $53 million in state taxes, records show.

Yass’ views on taxes, along with another stance inspired by Friedman, school privatization, seem to have informed his shifting opinion of Donald Trump.

Yass had opposed Trump during the 2016 Republican presidential primary, instead donating large sums to Rand Paul of Kentucky, the de facto leader of the party’s libertarian wing, and to Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson.

A week after Trump won the presidency that November, Yass took the stage at a theater in Philadelphia. Even though Trump had not been his candidate, Yass seemed to relish the long-odds election win, joking that those who “didn’t like Tuesday’s results” could move to Canada.

He used the rest of his remarks at the event, part of a local TED Talk-style series, to promote his passion for charter and private schools and attack Philadelphia teachers. “All we ever hear about is how underpaid they are and how abused they are,” Yass said. “Well, the shocking fact is that the average school teacher in Philadelphia with benefits makes $117,000 a year.” Yass acknowledged that a large chunk of that figure was from pension and health care costs. (That year, Yass made $1.26 billion, before benefits.)

Over the next four years, Trump delivered both a historic tax cut for the rich and an education secretary who was a champion of charter schools.

Yass has since backed a range of pro-Trump candidates. In Pennsylvania, he has poured money into this year’s Republican effort to take the open gubernatorial seat, which many expect, if successful, will lead to an abortion ban in the state. The Club for Growth also backed a losing candidate for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat, Kathy Barnette, whose campaign centered on her hard-line opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape. Yass is the second biggest donor to the Club (which did not return ProPublica’s requests for comment).

He is also the largest donor to the Rand Paul-affiliated Protect Freedom PAC, giving $2.5 million of his more than $12 million in recent donations just days after the 2020 election. The group’s website says of Democrats: “Of course, they stole the election.”

Yass is looking to harness discontent with public schools during the pandemic to push privatization of the system. He has given $15 million as the sole funder of a political action committee, the School Freedom Fund, that says “school closures, mask mandates, critical race theory, and more” have created “a unique opportunity to promote School Choice as the structural solution to dramatically improve education in America.”

If Yass came to politics motivated by his libertarian ideology, he now has an acute material reason — beyond taxes — to have a voice in Washington.

Late in the Trump administration, Susquehanna’s prize investment came under threat. President Trump announced on July 31, 2020, that he was considering banning TikTok in the United States. (Backers of the ban cited national security concerns over Americans’ private data being controlled by the Chinese firm behind the app, ByteDance.) Susquehanna's multibillion-dollar stake in ByteDance accounts for a major part of Yass’ fortune.

There’s no record of Yass having given to Trump before. But on Aug. 4, 2020, just a few days after the president’s TikTok announcement, Yass gave $5 million to the Club for Growth. Two days later, the group deviated from its normal practice of funding congressional races and announced an ad campaign in the presidential race: $5 million against Joe Biden. The group didn’t mention Yass, but the ads attacked Biden on Yass’ pet issue, charter schools. Later that month, Yass gave the group another $5 million, and more ads ran against Biden.

At the same time, Trump and other administration officials were personally involved in trying to broker a deal to avoid finalizing the TikTok ban. At one point in September, Trump publicly announced his support for a deal in which U.S. companies would buy stakes in ByteDance and a new board would be formed. Among the proposed members of the board: Dantchik, Yass’ partner at Susquehanna.

It’s not clear if Yass or Dantchik talked to the White House about the deal, which ultimately fell through. Courts later blocked the proposal to ban the app.

Yass hasn’t spoken much publicly about how he thinks about his engagement in politics. A rare glimpse came after the Jan. 6 riot, when a Philadelphia political activist named Laura Goldman emailed Yass to question his donations to the Club for Growth. One of the candidates the group backed, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., had objected to certifying the presidential election results just days earlier.

“To be clear — I don’t think the election was stolen,” Yass responded in a Jan. 15, 2021, email, first reported by the Guardian. “I gave the club money a year ago. Do you think anyone knew Hawley was going to do that? Sometimes politicians deceive their donors.”

Yass appears to have overcome any doubts about the Club for Growth, which has continued to back candidates who say the election was stolen.

Since he sent that email, he has given the group another $5.5 million.

Trump supporters are taking the 'Big Lie' into their own hands with a rise in vigilantism and Big Tech is failing to respond

The dummied-up flyer bore the hallmarks of a real WANTED poster. A grainy photo of a woman outside an election office in the suburbs of Atlanta stamped with the word “WANTED.” An image of a sheriff’s badge and the phone number for the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office. The implication was clear: The woman was being sought by the local sheriff for voter fraud.

The flyer was fake, and though the sheriff’s office eventually called it out, the false poster went viral, amassing tens of thousands of shares, views and threatening comments on Facebook, Twitter and TikTok and raising fears that harm could come to the unidentified woman.

Stolen-election activists and supporters of former President Donald Trump have embraced a new tactic in their ongoing campaign to unearth supposed proof of fraud in the 2020 presidential race: chasing down a fictional breed of fraudster known as a “ballot mule” and using social media to do it.

Inspired by a conservative documentary film that has won praise from Trump and his allies — and debunking from critics including former Attorney General William Barr — self-styled citizen sleuths are posting and sharing photos of unnamed individuals and accusing them of election crimes. They are calling on their followers to help identify these “ballot mules,” who are accused of having violated laws against dropping off multiple absentee ballots during the 2020 election. A state lawmaker in Arizona has even encouraged people to act as “vigilantes” and catch future “mules.”

Promoting such false information violates the policies of Facebook, Twitter and TikTok. Facebook’s “Community Standards” says its policy is to remove content that incites harassment or violence or impersonates government officials. Twitter and TikTok have similar rules and guidelines for what can and can’t appear on their platforms.

ProPublica identified at least a dozen additional posts on Twitter, Facebook and TikTok that accuse unnamed individuals of being “ballot mules” and engaging in allegedly illegal activity. Some of these posts echo the “WANTED”-style language seen in the Gwinnett County meme, while others include similar calls to action to identify the individuals.

None of the posts reviewed by ProPublica include evidence that any of the people depicted in the posters engaged in illegal activity. Yet the social media companies have reacted slowly or not at all to such posts, some of which clearly violate their policies, experts say.

Disinformation researchers from the nonpartisan clean-government nonprofit Common Cause alerted Facebook and Twitter that the platforms were allowing users to post such incendiary claims in May. Not only did the claims lack evidence that crimes had been committed, but experts worry that poll workers, volunteers and regular voters could face unwarranted harassment or physical harm if they are wrongfully accused of illegal election activity.

So far, there is no sign that any of the people depicted have been identified or suffered any threats.

Emma Steiner, a disinformation analyst with Common Cause who sent warnings to the social-media companies, says the lack of action suggests that tech companies relaxed their efforts to police election-related threats ahead of the 2022 midterms.

“This is the new playbook, and I’m worried that platforms are not prepared to deal with this tactic that encourages dangerous behavior,” Steiner said.

Spokespeople for Facebook and TikTok said they would remove posts flagged by ProPublica for violating their respective community standards policies. A Twitter spokesperson did not comment.

Thirty-one states allow a third party to collect and return an absentee or mail-in ballot on behalf of another voter. These laws help voters who are disabled or infirm, live in spread-out rural areas or reside on tribal lands with limited access to polling places or ballot drop boxes. In states with a history of absentee voting, both Democratic and Republican operatives have engaged in organized ballot-collection drives.

Critics, labeling the practice “ballot harvesting,” have sought to restrict its use, warning about the potential for fraud. However, incidents of proven fraud related to ballot collection are extremely rare. A database maintained by the conservative Heritage Foundation identifies just 238 cases of “fraudulent use of absentee ballots” since 1988. One high-profile case of fraud involving absentee ballots occurred in a 2018 North Carolina congressional race. A Republican operative engaged in a ballot-tampering scheme involving hundreds of ballots. The state election board later threw out the election result and ordered a redo. It was likely the first federal election overturned due to fraud, according to historians and election-law experts.

The phrases “ballot mules” and “ballot trafficking” — with their intentional echoes of the language of drugs and cartels — started to gain traction online in 2021, according to Mike Caulfield, a misinformation researcher at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public. An analysis by Caulfield and his colleagues found that prominent Republicans including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel invoked “ballot trafficking” last spring.

But it wasn’t until conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza and a discredited conservative group called True the Vote last fall began to tease findings that would later appear in D’Souza’s movie “2000 Mules” that uses of “ballot trafficking” and “ballot mules” shot up, according to Caulfield’s research.

The “2000 Mules” film claims that a network of thousands of people illegally stuffed ballot boxes in swing states to steal the presidency for Joe Biden. It draws heavily on the work of True the Vote, which purported to use surveillance footage and geolocation data to make its claims of illegal ballot activity.

Numerous fact-checks of the film have cast serious doubt over its central premise. In a deposition with the Jan. 6 select committee, Barr said he found the conclusions of “2000 Mules” far from convincing. “My opinion then and my opinion now,” he said, “is that the election was not stolen by fraud, and I haven’t seen anything since the election that changes my mind on that, including the ‘2000 Mules’ movie.”

D’Souza and True the Vote did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite its flimsy conclusions, “2000 Mules” found an enthusiastic audience in Trump and his supporters. In early May, Trump screened the film at his Mar-a-Lago private club. The film has since earned nearly $1.5 million at the box office, according to Box Office Mojo. In a recent 12-page letter responding to the public hearings organized by the Jan. 6 select committee, Trump cited “2000 Mules” nearly 20 times.

As the film’s dubious claims have spread online, stolen-election activists are creating and sharing online content purporting to reveal more “mules” and accusing those individuals of illegal behavior without actual evidence of wrongdoing.

The most striking example is the meme that depicts an older white woman leaving a ballot drop box in Georgia’s suburban Gwinnett County. The word “WANTED” appears above her head as does the image of a sheriff’s badge labeled “Gwinnett County” and the sheriff office’s phone number.

“Ballot mule,” the meme says. “If you can ID her, call Gwinnett Co. sheriff’s office.”

A spokeswoman for the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office says the meme is fake. The sheriff’s office hasn’t received calls purporting to identify the woman. The spokeswoman said that the office was investigating who created the meme.

ProPublica was unable to identify the woman in the “WANTED” meme. A spokesman for the Gwinnett County elections office confirmed that the name tag worn by the woman in the meme matched those worn by county election workers in 2020. He also verified that the drop box in the video was located outside of the county’s election headquarters.

The origins of the woman’s photo in the “WANTED” meme appear to point back to a Georgia businessman and self-described election-fraud investigator named David Cross.

For months Cross has posted short clips of surveillance footage showing people depositing ballots at drop boxes in Gwinnett County. Cross sometimes narrates these videos and makes unverified accusations of illegal ballot harvesting. In a clip that Cross posted online on May 3, an older white woman — the same woman in the “WANTED” meme — deposits multiple ballots into the drop box outside the headquarters for Gwinnett County’s elections office. In his narration, Cross accuses the woman of depositing as many as 35 ballots, though it’s not at all clear from the video exactly how many ballots the woman deposited. “Totally illegal,” he says in the video. (Cross did not respond to requests for comment.)

Georgia law prohibits many third parties from submitting a ballot that’s not their own. However, the law makes exceptions for caregivers for the elderly and the disabled, immediate family members, members of the same household, in-laws, nieces, nephews, grandchildren and more.

Cross, the Georgia activist, has filed complaints with the State Election Board and secretary of state’s office alleging illegal ballot deliveries and citing his surveillance footage clips. Last month, the State Election Board dismissed three complaints alleging “ballot harvesting” after an investigation by the secretary of state’s office found that the alleged “mules” were voters dropping off ballots for themselves and family members.

A spokesman for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told ProPublica that the office has a pending investigation into the woman in the “WANTED” meme. The spokesman, Walter Jones, stressed that no one should assume that an individual shown in a video delivering multiple ballots is automatically guilty of a crime, nor would the ballots in question be invalidated even if someone had violated the state’s ballot-collection law.

The video published by Cross of the woman at the Gwinnett County drop box spread rapidly online. Twitter users accused the woman of being one of the “2000 mules” and urged their followers to “MAKE HER FAMOUS!” — in other words, reveal her identity and share it widely.

One Twitter user shared the woman’s image with the “WANTED” text and the fake Gwinnett County sheriff’s badge. “Once we find out who paid these people the whole story will become clear,” the account wrote. That tweet amassed more than 9,000 retweets and more than 14,000 likes before Twitter removed it.

The “WANTED” post spread across Twitter, Facebook and TikTok. A Facebook group called “Celebrities for Trump” shared it. “We need more if [sic] these,” the post said, referring to the WANTED sign. “Keep your eyes open. Report them all it is a crime.”

Several days after the “WANTED” flyer surfaced and reached a large audience, the Gwinnett County sheriff stated that the post was “false.” Yet despite the post impersonating a law-enforcement agency, social-media companies have been slow to remove it.

While Twitter removed dozens of posts with the “WANTED” sign, ProPublica was able to find instances of it still on the platform.

Disinformation researchers tell ProPublica that they also identified posts accusing people of being ballot mules in other states with laws that restrict third parties from submitting people’s ballots. “Mule right here in PA,” one TikTok post read. “Make this Upper Dublin resident famous #2000Mules #2000MulesDocumentary #2000MulesTheMovie.”

In Arizona, a Republican state senator named Kelly Townsend has encouraged people to camp out at ballot drop boxes and write down license plate numbers of people deemed to be suspicious. “I have been so pleased to hear of all you vigilantes that want to camp out at these drop boxes,” Townsend recently said. “So, do it. Do it.”

Even if “2000 Mules” were accurate — which experts stress it almost certainly is not — the ballot-trafficking theory put forward by the film would not change the result of any election. Rick Hasen, a professor and election-law expert at the University of California, Irvine, says he believes the rigged-election message in “2000 Mules” is just the latest attempt to more broadly lay the groundwork for challenging and overturning the outcome of a future election.

“If you believe the last election was stolen, you’re going to be more likely to take steps to steal the next one back,” Hasen said. “It’s pretty obvious that what’s going on here is using false claims of fraud as a potential pretext to engage in election subversion in 2024 or another future election. That’s very dangerous for American democracy.”

Why 18-year olds in Texas can buy AR-15s — but not handguns

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The fact that the gunman responsible for this week’s massacre in Uvalde, Texas, was able to buy two AR-15s days after his 18th birthday highlights how much easier it is for Americans to purchase rifles than handguns.

Under federal law, Americans buying handguns from licensed dealers must be at least 21, which would have precluded Salvador Ramos from buying that type of weapon. That trumps Texas law, which only requires buyers of any type of firearm to be 18 or older.

Following Tuesday’s massacre at Robb Elementary School, which killed 19 children and two adults, a growing number of lawmakers in Texas and beyond are calling for the minimum age to purchase assault rifles to be raised to 21 from 18. Doing so would require undoing nearly two centuries of more permissive regulations on so-called long guns.

“It’s something that could happen at either the state or federal level, but I don’t see movement on either front,” said Sandra Guerra Thompson, a criminal law professor at the University of Houston Law Center.

Only six states — Florida, Washington, Vermont, California, Illinois and Hawaii — have increased the minimum purchase age for long guns to 21, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The majority did so following the 2018 massacre in Parkland, Florida, where a then-19-year-old assailant killed 17 people at a high school.

Several states have since faced legal challenges.

The National Rifle Association sought to repeal the Florida law.

“The ban infringes the right of all 18-to-20-year-olds to purchase firearms for the exercise of their Second Amendment rights, even for self-defense in the home,” the NRA argued in a court filing, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “The ban does not just limit the right, it obliterates it.”

Government attorneys, however, argued that because “18-to-20-year-olds are uniquely likely to engage in impulsive, emotional, and risky behaviors that offer immediate or short-term rewards, drawing the line for legal purchase of firearms at 21 is a reasonable method of addressing the Legislature’s public safety concerns.”

A federal judge upheld the law last year; the NRA is appealing.

A U.S. Court of Appeals recently ruled that California’s version of the law was unconstitutional, though it did uphold a provision that requires adults under 21 to obtain a hunting license before buying a rifle or shotgun.

After the shooting in Uvalde this week, lawmakers in New York and Utah also called on their states to raise the age limit for long gun purchases to 21. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced federal legislation earlier this month — less than a week before the Uvalde shooting — that would raise the minimum age to purchase assault weapons to 21 from 18; the California Democrat said in a statement that it was in response to a shooting that killed 10 people at a Buffalo supermarket. That gunman also was 18 years old.

“It makes no sense that it’s illegal for someone under 21 to buy a handgun or even a beer, yet can legally buy an assault weapon,” she said.

Lindsay Nichols, federal policy director at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said that increasing the age requirement at the federal level may be more effective because federal authorities can inspect and discipline licensed firearm sellers.

“State authorities often don’t have a system in place for enforcing the laws governing” licensed dealers, Nichols said.

In the hours after the shooting in Uvalde, there was some confusion about what types of firearms Ramos had used. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott initially said that Ramos had a handgun and possibly a rifle. That prompted some to speculate that Ramos had been able to get hold of the weapons more easily because of recent changes to the gun laws in Texas, including a bill passed last year that allows Texans to carry handguns without a permit or training. But those early reports turned out to be inaccurate.

After it became clear that the weapon used was a rifle, Texas Democrats questioned why Ramos was able to purchase one at the age of 18.

“Why do we accept a government that allows an 18 year old to buy an assault rifle, but not tobacco products?” state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat who chairs the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said in a statement. “The hypocrisy of government is deafening. We can develop gun policy that does not infringe upon one’s constitutional right, while preserving and protecting life; that’s called multitasking and we can do that.”

State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, a Houston Democrat, called on Abbott to convene a special session of the Legislature so lawmakers could “pass real gun reforms,” including raising the minimum age to purchase long guns.

“Enough is enough,” he said.

Such a move would reverse a decades-old Texas system that treats handguns differently from long guns, which have long been exempted from state rules on open carry.

The disparate rules date back to the post-Civil War era, when the state — counter to its modern-day reputation — adopted some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation.

“Despite its stereotype of being a state where cowboys promiscuously tote six-shooters, Texas is one of the few states that absolutely prohibits the bearing of pistols by private individuals,” wrote firearms attorney Stephen Halbrook in a 1989 Baylor Law Review article, six years before former Texas Gov. George W. Bush relaxed rules on handguns considerably.

Following spasms of violence that were then plaguing the young state in the 19th century, lawmakers “started specifically targeting weapons that they equated with crime,” said Texas historian Brennan Rivas, who is writing a book about the state’s early gun laws. “They equated bowie knives, daggers and pistols with interpersonal violence and crime.”

Muskets, rifles and shotguns, by comparison, were excluded because they were used for hunting or participating in a militia.

“They didn’t consider long guns to be deadly weapons,” Rivas said. “Those had valuable uses. Whereas these other weapons were kind of like a plague on polite society.”

Lawmakers of that time could not have envisioned that long guns would evolve from lumbering hunting rifles into AR-15s capable of firing dozens of rounds per minute, Rivas added.

But any tighter requirements appear unlikely to pass in Texas.

Just last year, following high-profile massacres in El Paso and in Midland and Odessa in 2019, lawmakers approved a variety of measures that loosened gun regulations. In addition to authorizing the carrying of handguns in public without a permit or training, the laws ban the governor from limiting gun sales during an emergency and allow gun owners to bring their weapons into hotel rooms.

During a Wednesday press conference at Uvalde High School, Abbott repeated a claim he and other Republican state leaders have often made, that mental health issues are to blame for the streak of mass shootings, not lax gun regulations. Officials conceded that they were not aware that the gunman had any criminal or mental health issues.

“The ability of an 18-year-old to buy a long gun has been in place in the state of Texas for more than 60 years,” Abbott said. “And why is it that for the majority of those 60 years we did not have school shootings? And why is it that we do now?”

This Republican tried to introduce a commonsense gun law. Then the gun lobby got involved

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Cole Wist was a Republican state House member in Colorado with an A grade from the NRA. Then, in 2018, he supported a red flag law, sponsoring a bill to allow guns to be taken away — temporarily — from people who pose an immediate threat to themselves or others.

Wist lost his seat in the legislature that year in the face of an intense backlash from Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a gun rights organization in Colorado that boasts it accepts “no compromise” as it battles “the gun grabbers.” The group campaigned against him, distributing flyers and referring to him on social media as “Cole the Mole.”

Wist, an attorney, doesn’t regret trying to enact what he considered a measured response to an epidemic of gun violence in the United States. He acted after a mentally ill man in his Denver suburb killed a sheriff’s deputy. The bill didn’t pass until after Wist was out of office and his successor, Tom Sullivan, shepherded it through. Sullivan is a Democrat who lost his son in the Aurora theater massacre.

Wist left the Republican Party this year, citing the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection as the reason, and is now unaffiliated with any political party. Days after the slaughter of 19 children and 2 adults in an elementary school in Texas, ProPublica talked to Wist about the challenges ahead as proponents once again work to enact gun reforms.

Colorado is one of 19 states, including Illinois, Florida and Indiana, that have red flag laws, sometimes called extreme risk protection orders. Texas does not. After the Robb Elementary School murders on Tuesday, a bipartisan coalition in the U.S. Senate agreed to negotiate over possible anti-violence measures, including expanding red flag laws.

In Colorado, a spokesperson for the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners called Wist “a sellout” on Friday and said the organization had no choice but to work against him. “At the end of the day, my goal is to hold politicians accountable regardless of whether they’re a Republican or a Democrat,” said RMGO’s Executive Director Taylor Rhodes.

Rhodes called the assault on the elementary school a “massive terrorist attack” but said gun control is not the answer.

“We protect everything in our nation that’s valuable with guns. We protect our banks with guns, courthouses … our homes. We protect them with guns.” The group’s logo includes an image of a firearm that resembles an assault rifle.

This interview with Wist has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about why you introduced the legislation in Colorado.

Every time we have an incident like this, people tend to go into their camps. We’ve got some folks who say we should ban certain kinds of guns or expand universal background checks or any other number of policy proposals to try to eliminate guns from society. On the other hand, you have folks who say no, these are mental health issues, this is an indication of a larger mental health crisis in the country. But you know, I don’t really hear a whole lot of policy solutions from those folks. So in an effort to try to pair concerns about mental health and the combination of mental health crisis with access to firearms and weapons, I started investigating extreme risk protection orders and how they’ve been passed in other states. And one of the first states in the country to do this was Indiana. And I don’t think you’d really think that Indiana is a hard left state, by any means. … And ultimately, I decided to sponsor legislation relating to extreme risk protection orders.

When you served in the state legislature, the Republicans controlled the state Senate and Democrats had the House. What was the makeup of your district?

I represented a district that at that time was predominantly Republican. It had historically elected Republican legislators, but it was a suburban district becoming more purple. And, you know, look, when you’re elected to represent a district in the legislature, you’re not just elected by the people that voted for you, you’re elected to represent everyone in the district, and that includes unaffiliated and Democratic voters.

Who opposed you when you ran for reelection in 2018?

So there’s a group called the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a very active gun rights organization. They targeted me or targeted my race for campaign activity and actively worked against me. … They put flyers on people’s doors, including my own door, and used their resources to campaign against me.

Are the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners similar to the National Rifle Association?

I think they characterize themselves as being the no-compromise gun rights organization. So I would characterize them as certainly more aggressive on gun rights issues than the NRA, and the NRA is the more well-known organization, the one with more resources. But in Colorado, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners is the gun rights group that seems to have the most sway. They’ve been successful in recalling a couple of legislators here.

Did it seem like they sacrificed your seat to send a message to other lawmakers to stay in line?

I guess that’s a fair interpretation, that you either stay in line and vote the party line on this issue, or they will remove you. And that’s what they did. I mean, there were other factors in play in 2018. That was also the midterm election of Donald Trump’s first term in office or his only term in office. … So there were more issues in play than gun policy. But it was certainly a group that worked against my reelection and didn’t help. … It might have been enough to suppress turnout on the Republican side for me.

What was the reaction from the GOP leadership to your sponsorship of the red flag bill?

I was the assistant minority leader in the state House at that point. There was an effort to strip me of that leadership post. That effort failed. I think there’s some reluctance in Republican circles here to take on groups like the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners for fear of getting primaried, for fear of having them work against you. And I suppose people may look at my experience as being something that deters them from even having conversations. I introduced a bill that was very controversial. In those circles, even being open to conversations about gun policy or gun safety legislation creates risk for folks in Republican circles here. So, if your objective is to stay in office for a long time and continue to get reelected … you don’t cross that line.

In the aftermath of Uvalde, what does your experience suggest about the likelihood of our politicians enacting some measures to prevent future atrocities?

I see some of the same signs happening again, in the aftermath of this event, where everyone sort of retreats to the corners. And some people are calling for banning certain kinds of guns and changing the purchase age for certain kinds of guns. If you try to ban AR-15s, I think that’s a policy solution that some people think is something we should do. I don’t agree with that. We’ve got millions of guns already in the possession of gun owners across the country. How much of an impact are you going to have if you ban certain kinds of guns at this point? I think a better discussion is to talk about why people commit these kinds of violent acts with guns and other weapons. … And so I think red flag laws and legislation that focuses on trying to reduce risk and talking about why these kinds of events happen is the most productive conversation for us to have. Let’s give law enforcement and families tools that they can use.

But one of the things that’s lost in this conversation is that — I’ll talk specifically about Colorado — we have one of the highest suicide rates in the country. We also have one of the highest percentages of gun ownership in the country, and the highest percentage of suicides here are committed by guns. So when folks are going through a severe mental crisis, yes, there’s a risk that they might go commit a homicide, but there’s probably a greater risk that they’re going to hurt themselves. So I think there’s this way of characterizing red flag laws as confiscating guns and trying to hurt someone’s constitutional rights. But instead, I think it’s something that’s being used to help protect that person, to prevent them from harming themselves and prevent them from harming family members.

Can you describe the toll this experience took on you and your family?

I received threats as a result of going through that process. And that was very stressful for my family. I don’t miss that part of public life. And, you know, social media and other things have made being in office very difficult. And folks can say just about anything and do say just about anything. So I can choose to do a couple of things. As a private citizen, I can kind of retreat from this and not talk about it, or try to do what I can to raise awareness and just try to encourage folks to come together. I don’t know that you’re ever going to change everyone’s minds. But we don’t solve problems unless we talk to each other and not talk past each other. And every time we have an incident like what happened in Texas this week, there’s sort of the initial, let’s talk, let’s come together, let’s talk about this. But I’m just amazed at how quickly everyone just sort of retreats to the same old political position. I hope this time is different.

This hypnotherapist and failed politician helped fuel the never-ending hunt for election fraud in Wisconsin

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Jay Stone grew up in the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago ward politics, the son of a longtime city alderman. But his own forays into politics left him distrustful of Chicago Democrats.

When he ran for alderman in 2003, he was crushed at the polls after party leaders sent city workers out to campaign against him. Even his own father didn’t endorse him.

Then when Stone sought the mayor’s office in 2010, he only mustered a few hundred of the 12,500 signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. He filed a federal lawsuit over the requirement and lost.

His father, Bernard Stone, who held office for 38 years, once told the Chicago Tribune: “My son is very good at what he’s trained to do. And that’s not politics.”

Jay Stone’s training was in hypnotherapy, and he eventually walked away from Chicago politics, carving out a living using hypnosis to help people with anxiety, weight gain, nicotine addiction and other issues. Only in retirement, and after a move to Wisconsin, did he finally find his political niche.

In 2020, Stone played a crucial, if little-known, role in making Wisconsin a hotbed of conspiracy theories that Democrats stole the state’s 10 electoral votes from then-President Donald Trump. The outcry emanating from Wisconsin has cast Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as a force of untoward political influence and helped create a backlash against using private grants, including large donations from Zuckerberg, to assist election officials across the country.

In Wisconsin, Stone has finally been embraced politically, by activists and politicians who, like him, didn’t approve of the so-called “Zuckerbucks” or of big-city Democratic mayors. They, too, are unhappy with the way the 2020 presidential election was run in Wisconsin and how it turned out. And they, too, show no inclination of giving up, even when their claims have been rejected and other Republicans have told them it’s time to move on.

“The best part of getting involved in politics in Wisconsin is the wonderful people I’ve been meeting,” Stone said in an interview. “They’re just a great group of men and women that I admire and respect.”

The questioning of the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s 20,000-vote victory in Wisconsin continues thanks to Stone and others who have emerged to take on outsize roles after the election. Among them: a retired travel industry executive who has alleged voter fraud at nursing homes. Ten alternate GOP electors who signed documents to try to subvert the certification of Biden’s election. And some state legislators who are still looking for ways to hand the state to Trump, a year and a half after the election.

Stone hasn’t garnered much public attention, but records indicate that in the summer of 2020 he was the first person to complain to state authorities about grant money accepted by local election officials. The funds were earmarked for face masks, shields and other safety supplies, as well as hazard pay, larger voting facilities, vote-by-mail processing, drop boxes and educational outreach about absentee voting.

Stone, however, saw the election funding, which came from a Chicago nonprofit, as a way to sway the election for Biden by helping bring more Democratic-leaning voters to the polls in Wisconsin’s five largest cities.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission rejected Stone’s claim last year, on the grounds that he didn’t live in any of the cities he mentioned and that the complaint did not allege any violations that the commission had the authority to investigate. A separate complaint Stone filed with the Federal Election Commission, in which he objects to the Zuckerberg money, has not been resolved.

Nonetheless, the idea that the election was somehow rigged lives on.

Chief among the election deniers is Michael Gableman, who served on the state Supreme Court for a decade. A Trump ally, Gableman was named as special counsel by the GOP-controlled State Assembly to investigate the legitimacy of Biden’s victory in Wisconsin. Not only did Gableman give Stone’s accusations a platform, he took them even further. In his review for the Assembly, Gableman labeled the grants a form of bribery.

Gableman expressed his admiration for Stone during a March interview on the “Tucker Carlson Today” show, which streams online.

It’s “a private citizen, a guy named Jay Stone, who really deserves a lot of credit,” Gableman said, referring to questions about the election grants.

“He saw all of this coming,” Gableman said. “And he’s not a lawyer. I don’t know what his particular training is — he’s trained in the medical field. He filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Elections Commission back in August of 2020, well before the election. And he foresaw all of this, he foresaw the partisan nature of all of the Zuckerberg money and all of the Zuckerberg people coming in to influence the election.”

Gableman, who has not responded to requests for an interview, had hired Stone as a paid consultant for his review by the time he appeared on Carlson’s show.

But that’s not the only thing keeping Stone from a quiet retirement in Pleasant Prairie, not far from the Illinois border, where he grows his own fruits and vegetables and heats his home only with firewood. Once again, he’s got his eyes on political office. This time he’s running for the Wisconsin State Senate.

The Chicago Connection

In the summer of 2020, cities across the U.S. were canceling Fourth of July firework celebrations. Public health departments were scrambling to put contact tracing measures in place to track the spread of COVID-19. Movie theaters remained shuttered. Vaccines were still undergoing testing.

Against this backdrop, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit based in Chicago, decided to get involved. Its stated mission is to ensure that elections across the country are “more professional, inclusive and secure.”

The group approached the mayors of Wisconsin’s five largest cities — Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine — and encouraged them to draw up a “Safe Voting Plan” outlining how they would spend more than $6 million in grant money to make it easier for people to vote while also limiting their exposure to the highly contagious coronavirus.

Wisconsin’s April elections, including the presidential primary, had been a near-disaster. The state’s Democratic governor and GOP-controlled legislature bickered over whether to postpone the balloting. Election offices were deluged with requests for absentee ballots. National Guard troops stepped in to replace poll workers too scared to volunteer. Polling places closed or relocated. Some voters waited in long lines for hours.

The Safe Voting Plan envisioned a smoother election that November. The goals were to keep voters safe and educate them about how to cast a ballot properly, whether in person or by mail. The plan also expressed the desire to ensure the right to vote “in our dense and diverse communities.”

Green Bay, for example, proposed using $15,000 to partner with “churches, educational institutions, and organizations serving African immigrants, LatinX residents, and African Americans” to help new voters obtain documents needed to get a valid state ID that they could show at the polls or to get an absentee ballot.

The Center for Tech and Civic Life awarded the $6.3 million to Wisconsin’s five largest cities in early July 2020. That’s when a friend of Stone’s sent him a link to a newspaper article about the grants.

“Within 10 minutes, I knew this was a scam, because they were targeting the Democratic strongholds in the state of Wisconsin,” said Stone.

Stone recognized that the organization’s address on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile was in the same building that had once housed Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters, which he felt confirmed his instincts.

He took exception to the proposed outreach to communities that traditionally vote Democratic, saying such efforts are the responsibility of candidates and parties, not municipal election workers. On Aug. 28, 2020, he fired off a 27-page complaint to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which included 167 exhibits.

The Center for Tech and Civic Life “exploited COVID-19” to help Democrats, Stone wrote. “All of CTCL’s $6.3 million expenditures will increase voter turnout in Wisconsin cities that are heavily Democratic and increase the likelihood that Democrat Joe Biden will win Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes.”

Less than a week later, CTCL made a major announcement: It had received a $250 million donation from Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The couple later added an additional $100 million. CTCL’s previous funding had come from a variety of foundations.

Ultimately, CTCL awarded grants to more than 2,500 elections offices across 49 states, including rural parts of Wisconsin. The sums included $5,000 to small communities such as Ralls County, Missouri, and $10 million each for the city of Philadelphia and for Fulton County, Georgia, which encompasses most of Atlanta.

In an interview, Stone said he wouldn’t have objected if the grants had been awarded to each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties — with every county getting an equal amount per registered voter.

According to a ProPublica analysis, the biggest municipalities in Wisconsin received the most money and had higher per capita grants than smaller places like Waukesha, Brookfield and Fond Du Lac, which all had a history of voting for Trump. For instance, the per capita figure for Milwaukee was more than 10 times that of nearby Waukesha.

An analysis by Ballotpedia, a nonprofit focusing on elections, found that Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Michigan — swing states that ended up in the Biden column — received some of the highest per capita grants from CTCL. However, it’s nearly impossible to discern what may have turned the tide in those states and whether turnout was affected by the grant money, a motivation to vote against Trump, or other factors.

CTCL was formed in 2014. One of its founders, Tiana Epps-Johnson, was named an Obama Foundation fellow in 2018, providing her with leadership training and other resources to help her in her work. She has described CTCL as nonpartisan, but Stone said the Obama Foundation connection suggests otherwise.

Epps-Johnson, who is CTCL’s executive director, did not respond to a voice message left on her direct line, but the group replied with a statement saying the grant money was available to all parts of the country. “Every eligible local election office that applied was awarded funds,” CTCL stated.

The center also defended its actions in a lawsuit the Trump campaign filed against the Wisconsin Elections Commission; the suit alleged, in part, that the state election commission had improperly supported the five cities’ plan to promote expanded mail-in voting.

In an amicus brief in that case, CTCL wrote: “Most of those funds were used to purchase personal protective equipment for voters and election workers, to recruit and train additional staff, to provide improved security, to establish in-person polling places, to process mail-in ballots, and to ensure emergency preparedness. CTCL’s program thus helped officials throughout the nation to run secure, lawful, and efficient elections for all Americans.”

A federal judge appointed by Trump found no merit in the former president’s case and dismissed it.

Zuckerberg also denies having hidden motives in funding nonprofits that targeted voting issues. His spokesperson Brian Baker said in an email to ProPublica that Zuckerberg and his wife stepped in when “our nation’s election infrastructure faced unprecedented challenges” and the federal government “failed to provide adequate funds.” The goal, Baker said, was to “ensure that residents could vote regardless of their party or preference.”

When Wisconsinites went to the polls in November 2020, there were far fewer issues with people having trouble casting a ballot or having to wait in long lines than there had been in the spring election.

Jay Stone’s Grievances

Stone’s skepticism was deeply rooted. His own family and his political failures were shaped by Chicago politics, giving him a close-up view of the unseemly tactics of loyalists associated with Democratic rule under Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and then, to a lesser extent, his son Richard M. Daley.

Running for 32nd Ward alderman on Chicago’s North Side in 2003, Stone preached good government, transparency and election reform. He lost. Testimony in a 2006 federal corruption trial involving top Daley administration officials described how party bosses ordered city workers to campaign for Stone’s opponent, the sitting alderman.

“They wanted a puppet they could control,” Stone said.

After his election defeat, Stone filed a claim against the Daley administration as part of a class-action suit seeking compensation for damages related to political patronage. A federal monitor awarded him $75,000 based on Stone’s claims about city workers forced to campaign against him. His efforts taking on the Daley machine earned him a description as a “passionate independent” from a reporter for the Chicago Reader, an alternative weekly.

Reflecting on the experience, Stone said that even his father was unwilling to endorse him for fear of political retribution. (Stone’s father died in 2014. Jay Stone said that despite their political differences, they remained close.)

Undeterred, in 2010 Stone made a bid for mayor, hoping to take on Richard M. Daley, but Daley announced he would not run for a record seventh term.

Stone didn’t obtain enough signatures to qualify for the ballot and sued the city’s Board of Election Commissioners, claiming the requirement was onerous and unconstitutional, designed to keep the machine in power. The courts disagreed, and the case failed.

Stone never won an election in Chicago, but he was able to build a professional life there as a hypnotherapist in private practice. Stone decided to enter the field after earning first an undergraduate philosophy degree and then an MBA. He received a doctorate in clinical hypnotherapy through remote learning from a now-shuttered California institute.

Hypnotherapists are not licensed in Illinois. But the treatment has gained acceptance. According to the National Institutes of Health, hypnosis has been shown to help people manage some painful conditions and deal with anxiety.

Stone sought to help clients visualize a better future, a goal he said he wanted to achieve in politics, too. In hypnosis, Stone said, some of his patients experienced flashbacks to past lives that helped them find peace and change their behavior for the better. He wrote a paper, posted on his website, on the potential to use DNA to prove the existence of past lives.

Science, he noted, always starts with a theory. “And then you have to be able to prove it,” he said.

His theories about elections tend to lump all Chicago Democrats together, so that Michelle and Barack Obama are considered just as capable of unsavory political tactics as the two Daleys who governed Chicago for decades.

Stone maintains that the Obamas have unduly influenced elections through a network of former White House staffers associated with nonprofits Stone believes are inappropriately registering and influencing voters. (He said he soured on Barack Obama long ago because he believed that Obama had failed to confront the Chicago Democratic machine as a U.S. senator.)

He is particularly opposed to the star-studded nonprofit When We All Vote, set up by Michelle Obama to register voters and help “close the race and age gap.” By the 2020 election, more than 500,000 people had started or completed their voter registration process through When We All Vote, according to the group.

“I believe Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote is the most powerful political organization or political machine in the country,” Stone said in a video he posted on Rumble, a video platform that’s popular among some conservatives. “When We All Vote is more powerful than the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee combined.”

When We All Vote told ProPublica in an email that it is nonpartisan and works with schools and educators to increase civic engagement and voter participation, saying its “initiatives comply with the letter and spirit of the law.”

Stone filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Elections Commission against the former first lady, alleging criminal violations for offering financial prizes to schools that registered the most voters and for enticing people to early voting sites with food and music. The commission, in a 5-1 vote in April, dismissed the matter “due to a lack of reasonable suspicion” and fined him $500 for filing a “frivolous” complaint. (Stone on Friday appealed that decision in Kenosha County Circuit Court.)

Stone saw the supposed Obama network’s fingerprints on the 2020 election grants offered by the Center for Tech and Civic Life.

And while he measures his words more carefully than Gableman and others who see the 2020 Wisconsin election results as tainted, he clearly is in that camp.

“There was so much, I don’t want to say ‘fraud,’ but there was so much deviation from the election laws and the election norms, it raises serious questions,” he said of Trump’s loss in Wisconsin.

“I don’t think the election was fair and just.”

Allies in Wisconsin

The CTCL money has become a central theme in complaints about Biden’s victory in Wisconsin — and in the review by Gableman. Under pressure from Trump, GOP Assembly Speaker Robin

Vos appointed Gableman to review whether the election was administered fairly and lawfully.

Gableman has fallen short of proving fraud, but did use an interim report and an appearance before the legislative oversight committee on March 1 to highlight the Zuckerberg money and call for disbanding the Wisconsin Elections Commission. He said the legislature should look into decertifying the 2020 election results, but even Republican officials balked at that.

Republican Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke tweeted that “handing authority to partisan politicians to determine if election fraud exists would be the end of our republic as we know it.”

Jay Stone sat in the front row behind Gableman during the meeting, where Gableman released a report of his findings thus far. It spanned 136 pages, half of which dealt with the CTCL grants, which he characterized as “election bribery.”

Stone helped in the review but won’t talk about what exactly he did in the ongoing investigation, which was budgeted by Vos to cost taxpayers $676,000. “I’m on a confidentiality agreement,” Stone said.

Stone billed Gableman $3,250 for 128 hours of work between Feb. 16 and March 1, according to an invoice obtained by the nonprofit group American Oversight, which has sued to get access to Gableman’s records.

Asked about Gableman’s bribery terminology, Stone sighed. “It’s not a typical case where somebody gives a politician money for, let’s say, a zoning change,” he said. “So, it’s not your typical bribery case, but certainly it’s worth looking into.”

Lawsuits in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota about the CTCL grants have failed, as did Stone’s complaint to the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

Just last week in Madison, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Ehlke called the election bribery allegation “ridiculous,” saying he saw no evidence that CTCL offered anything to change anyone’s vote. “I mean, what proof is there in the record anywhere of an inducement of bribery? That whole thing just falls away. There’s nothing in the record. Is there?”

Minnesota lawyer Erick G. Kaardal, who continues to challenge the grants, replied that he reads state law to mean: “We don’t want Wisconsin public officials taking money to get people to go to the polls.”

The county case is an appeal of the elections commission’s rejection of a similar complaint Kaardal filed there about the grants. Ehlke has yet to rule.

Gableman’s work, meanwhile, has been widely discredited, cast by politicians, including some Republicans, and legal analysts as unprofessional and amateurish. Wisconsin’s Democratic governor called the investigation a “ colossal waste of taxpayer dollars.”

“This effort has spread disinformation about our election processes, it has attacked the integrity of our clerks, election administrators, and poll workers, and it has emboldened individuals to harass and demean dedicated public servants,” Gov. Tony Evers said in a prepared statement.

The issue of using private grants in administering elections, however, remains alive.

Zuckerberg will not be making future donations to election offices, his spokesperson told ProPublica earlier this month, calling it “a one-time donation given the unprecedented nature of the crisis.”

More than a dozen states, meanwhile, have banned or restricted the use of private funds for election offices. The Wisconsin legislature passed a bill in 2021 prohibiting counties or municipalities from applying for or accepting any private donations for elections, but left room for the Wisconsin Elections Commission to take outside grants so long as the money is distributed statewide on a per capita basis. Evers vetoed it.

In southeastern Wisconsin, however, the Walworth County Board of Supervisors passed its own ban last month, prohibiting the county from accepting donations or grants for election administration from individuals or nongovernmental entities.

Now that he’s left a mark as a political activist in Wisconsin, Stone is back on the campaign trail.

At an event hall near Kenosha this month, Stone addressed about 100 people gathered at a regular meeting of the H.O.T. Government group, a right-leaning Wisconsin grassroots organization that adopted an acronym for the words “honest, open and transparent.” (Stone is the group’s vice president.) A stuffed effigy of a torso with a white foam head hung from the rafters, wearing a shirt labeled “Corrupt Officials.”

Standing before a large American flag, he politely asked people to sign his nominating forms. Republican State Rep. Janel Brandtjen, who chairs the elections committee overseeing Gableman’s investigation and supports the effort to overturn Biden’s Wisconsin victory, jumped up from her seat to lead the crowd in a chant: “Jay Stone! Jay Stone!”

“Jay is the one who filed the complaint in the very beginning,” she told the audience. “Jay is a real hero in what he’s done for Wisconsin.”

Problems remain for We Build The Wall group after founder’s guilty plea

Brian Kolfage arrived in Texas three years ago pledging to help fulfill President Donald Trump’s promise of a “big, beautiful” wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. After pleading guilty to federal fraud charges last month, Kolfage leaves behind two small stretches of fencing that are mired in legal, environmental and permitting fights.

Kolfage, a 40-year-old Air Force veteran, faces more than five years in prison after pleading guilty to defrauding donors of hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to the wall effort. Despite the resolution of the criminal case, Kolfage and his We Build the Wall group still face a defamation suit brought by the National Butterfly Center, a nonprofit nature preserve in the Rio Grande Valley that he accused of promoting sex and human trafficking without evidence. In addition, the federal government has filed suit regarding one of his wall projects, alleging it was built in potential violation of an international treaty between the U.S. and Mexico.

ProPublica and The Texas Tribune reported in 2020 on severe erosion at the base of the 3-mile fence outside of Mission — the subject of a federal lawsuit — that experts said could result in the structure toppling into the Rio Grande if not fixed. The outlets also reported on Kolfage’s long history of online harassment and intimidation, which escalated with his border wall projects.

Controversy continues to surround the two physical legacies of Kolfage’s We Build the Wall effort: the bollard fence on the shore of the Rio Grande and a half-mile stretch of fence outside of El Paso.

The federal government has confirmed in court filings that the Rio Grande barrier remains at risk of falling and that it could potentially shift the international boundary. Government lawyers are negotiating a settlement in a lawsuit filed against the project. Based on court hearings, it could require wall builders to modify the barriers, such as adding gates to help prevent flooding, but appears unlikely to result in the removal of the fence that opponents seek.

An attorney for the construction company, Fisher Industries, denied the government’s allegations in his response to the complaint, according to court documents, and did not respond to a request for comment.

Separately, three years after construction of the fence outside of El Paso, Kolfage’s group has failed to fulfill federal requirements, including providing an operation and maintenance plan and evidence of financial responsibility for damage or injuries that can be caused by the structure.

According to the indictment in the fraud case, Kolfage repeatedly claimed that he would “not take a penny in salary or compensation” and that 100% of the funds raised would be used to execute the group’s mission. That’s not what happened, federal prosecutors alleged. The government accused Kolfage of using fake invoices and sham vendor arrangements to siphon more than $350,000 for personal expenses, including home renovations, a boat and a luxury SUV.

In addition to pleading guilty to one count of wire fraud conspiracy, Kolfage also pleaded guilty to tax crimes for failing to report that income. “I knew what I was doing was wrong and a crime,” Kolfage told the judge, according to news accounts of the hearing. He is due to be sentenced in September.

We Build the Wall board member and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon was accused of receiving more than $1 million through the scheme, according to the indictment. Trump pardoned Bannon during his final hours at the White House, meaning the federal criminal case against him could not proceed.

As part of his plea, Kolfage agreed to forfeit $17 million from the nonprofit. We Build the Wall is also required to give up more than $1 million in donations in a bank account, according to the plea agreement. Kolfage’s attorney in the federal fraud case, César de Castro, declined to comment. An attorney listed for We Build the Wall did not respond to a request for comment.

In a 2020 interview with ProPublica and the Tribune, Kolfage denied the possibility of wrongdoing. “How is there corruption?” Kolfage said. “It’s privatized. It’s not federal money.”

We Build the Wall was an influential conservative nonprofit that grew out of a GoFundMe campaign started by Kolfage in 2018. The group pivoted to soliciting donations to build private barriers after learning it couldn’t donate directly to the federal government to help Trump build a wall along the southern border. By mid-2020, it had raised more than $25 million.

According to court filings, Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state and general counsel for We Build the Wall, said in 2019 that the group was only a “passive” investor in the Mission fence, having provided about 5% of the total cost, and wasn’t involved in the planning or design. It was dropped from the lawsuit. Still, We Build the Wall continued to promote the project on its website as one of two completed projects supporters could even tour, at least as of Dec. 31, 2021.

“This project goes to show you how We Build The Wall’s movement to unite Americans who share a common belief in border security has grown into a larger movement of privatized wall builders,” it posted on its website next to pictures and a description of the project.

After ProPublica and the Tribune exposed erosion issues at the site, Trump tried to distance himself from the private effort, speculating on Twitter that it was built to make him look bad. Yet just a few months earlier his son Donald Trump Jr. had endorsed We Build the Wall, calling it “private enterprise at its finest.” Kolfage himself had bragged of having a direct connection to the White House through Bannon and Kobach.

Born in Michigan and raised in Hawaii, Kolfage joined the Air Force. In 2004, two weeks into his second deployment to Iraq, a rocket exploded a few feet from him, severing both of his legs and his right hand.

The Purple Heart recipient recovered after undergoing 16 surgeries in six months, and he often spoke publicly about his experience, becoming the face of resilience and perseverance.

He soon began running a number of right-wing websites and Facebook pages that he claimed earned him as much as $200,000 per month, according to text messages reviewed by ProPublica and the Tribune. The sites included sensationalized, photoshopped and in some cases fabricated content, and several were shut down by Facebook for “inauthentic activity” in 2018. Kolfage was accused of online bullying and personal attacks, and he formally apologized to a perceived online critic as part of a court settlement.

Upon his arrival in Texas, he targeted local opponents in the Rio Grande Valley, including a prominent Catholic priest and the National Butterfly Center. Both had previously opposed the federal government’s plan to build fencing through their property. On social media, Kolfage declared that the center “openly supports illegal immigration and sex trafficking of women and children.” Social media messages calling staffers “pigs,” “pathetic filth” and “traitors” poured in. “You will be made to pay,” one Facebook follower declared in a message.

The butterfly center filed a defamation lawsuit against Kolfage and We Build the Wall in 2019, as well as Fisher Industries and the property owner who provided land for the fence, claiming that their supporters had “begun to engage in targeted harassment.”

Kolfage, who has not been served with the suit, has not responded to the allegations. An attorney for Fisher Industries has denied the allegations in court filings.

Kolfage’s arrest in 2020 did little to quell the harassment, said the butterfly center’s executive director, Marianna Treviño-Wright, as the site became a rallying point for border wall supporters, including out-of-state political candidates.

In late January, a right-wing congressional candidate from Virginia, Kimberly Lowe, visited the nature preserve. Treviño-Wright said Lowe demanded the center give her and another woman access to the river “to see all the illegals crossing on the raft.” Treviño-Wright said Lowe or her companion tackled her when she asked Lowe to leave the premises, a physical altercation captured on audio. Treviño-Wright said she filed a complaint against Lowe with the Mission Police Department, which did not return calls for comment.

Lowe accused Treviño-Wright of filing a false police report and pushing a “false news story” and claimed she, not Treviño-Wright, was the one assaulted during the altercation in a statement to ProPublica and the Tribune.

Citing safety concerns, the center shuttered its doors for three months. It reopened last week after spending nearly $30,000 in security upgrades.

“I think we will all be on guard for a long time,” Treviño-Wright said. “I don’t know that it’s possible to experience what we have and not, you know, be changed by that.”

Kolfage’s guilty plea did not end his defiant social media posture on the right-wing microblogging site Gettr, where he has a verified account after having been banned from Facebook and deactivating his Twitter account. On the day after he entered his plea, he posted a screenshot of a Gateway Pundit story crediting him with building more border wall than Presidents Barack Obama or Joe Biden. His pinned post reads “They Michael Flynn’d me,” an apparent reference to the former Trump national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI over contacts with Russian officials. Flynn was subsequently pardoned by Trump.

In the comments section, supporters told Kolfage he deserved a “medal” and thanked him for “everything you’ve done.”

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/02/texas-border-wall-kolfage-plea/.

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Liberty University’s handling of sexual assaults under investigation by Department of Education

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

The federal Department of Education has begun investigating Liberty University’s handling of student reports of sexual assault. In a statement to ProPublica, the school pledged its “full cooperation” with the investigation.

Last October, ProPublica revealed how the school, which was founded by evangelist Jerry Falwell, had discouraged students who tried to report being sexually assaulted. Some students who came forward were encouraged to sign forms acknowledging they might have broken Liberty’s moral code of conduct, “The Liberty Way.” Others described being encouraged to pray instead of reporting their cases.

Federal law requires that universities receiving federal funds properly handle claims of sexual assault. Liberty students receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid. Following our story, senators urged the U.S. Department of Education to investigate.

Liberty students told ProPublica that federal agents have been at the school’s campus in Lynchburg, Virginia, this week. In an email viewed by ProPublica, a Department of Education official reached out to student advocates to arrange meeting times. An agency spokesperson declined to comment, citing a policy not to discuss ongoing investigations.

“Liberty University welcomes the U.S. Department of Education’s review of our Clery Act compliance program,” the university said in its statement to ProPublica. The federal Clery Act requires schools to inform students who report sexual assaults about the option of going to law enforcement and to assist in that reporting if necessary.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., one of the senators who had called for the investigation, praised the government’s move. “I’m glad the Department of Education is investigating Liberty’s handling of sexual assault,” he said in a statement to ProPublica. “I hope the Department looks into it thoroughly.”

In another development, an unnamed former Liberty University student filed a federal lawsuit against the school on Wednesday, claiming the university failed to properly investigate after she reported a rape to school authorities a year ago. The plaintiff also alleged that when she reported being sexually assaulted, she was penalized by the school for violating The Liberty Way, because she had been at a party where alcohol was consumed.

A spokesperson for Liberty declined to comment on the suit.

In November, two weeks after ProPublica’s investigation, Liberty pledged to launch an “independent and comprehensive review” of the school office tasked with handling discrimination and abuse. The school has not responded to ProPublica’s request for an update on the status of that review.

Inside the creation of Trump’s stolen election myth

By Doug Bock Clark, Alexandra Berzon and Kirsten Berg

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

By the time Leamsy Salazar sat down in front of a video recorder in a lawyer’s office in Dallas, he had grown accustomed to divulging state secrets. After swearing to tell nothing but the truth so help him God, he recounted that he was born in Venezuela in 1974, enlisted in the army and rose through its special operations ranks. He described how in 2007 he became the chief of security for Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan leader whose electoral victories had been challenged by outside observers and opposition parties. After Chávez died in 2013, Salazar said he provided intelligence on top Venezuelan officials involved in drug trafficking to American law enforcement agencies, which had helped him defect.

After about 45 minutes of Salazar telling his life story, the lawyer questioning him, Lewis Sessions, abruptly changed the course of the conversation. “I want to take a moment to get off the track,” said Sessions, the brother of Republican Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas. “Why are you here? What has motivated you to come forward?”

“I feel that the world should know — they should know the truth,” Salazar answered. “The truth about the corruption. About the manipulation. About the lies.”

“The truth about what?” Sessions asked.

“In this case, it’s the manipulation of votes,” Salazar said. “And the lies being told to a country.”

That morning of Nov. 13, 2020, Salazar had a new sort of intelligence to share. He claimed to know that the 2020 U.S. presidential election had been rigged — and how.

Speaking through an interpreter, Salazar said that when he worked for Chávez, he had attended meetings in which the administration discussed how to develop specialized software to steal elections with representatives from Smartmatic, a voting technology company whose founders had ties to Venezuela. He recalled that during the 2013 presidential election, in a secret counting center in Caracas, the capital, he saw officials use software to change votes in favor of Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, after the polls closed. Watching the 2020 American election, he said, he noticed votes for Joe Biden jumping in a pattern that he thought was similar.

When Sessions asked if Salazar could draw a connection between the events in Venezuela and the recent American election, Salazar replied, “I can show the similarity.” In the 2020 election, Smartmatic machines were only used in Los Angeles, but Salazar explained away this discrepancy. He claimed that the company’s software had been “purchased” by Dominion Voting Systems, whose machines were used in such battleground states as Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — all of which had gone to Biden, sealing his victory over Donald Trump.

Salazar said in a subsequent court filing that he had taken his concerns about the election to “a number of reliable and intelligent ex-co-workers of mine that are still informants and work with the intelligence community.” (He did not specify whether he meant the U.S. or Venezuelan intelligence community.) From there, sources told ProPublica, his concerns reached a former intelligence officer active in Republican politics and then the conservative lawyer Sidney Powell.

Powell was on the hunt for just such information.

By the second week of November, it had become known in right-wing circles that she was working behind the scenes with the president’s legal team to challenge the results of the election. In an email to ProPublica, Sessions wrote that he “conducted the interview at the request of a person working with Sidney Powell’s legal team.” The day after the interview, Trump made Powell’s position official with an announcement on Twitter.

The following morning, Powell traveled to South Carolina, where a loose coalition of lawyers, cybersecurity experts and former military intelligence officers were gathering on a plantation owned by the defamation lawyer Lin Wood to search for evidence of election fraud. One person present at the plantation said that Wood and Powell treated the Salazar video “like the holy grail of evidence.” (In an email to ProPublica, Wood wrote that he was not part of any coalition and that he had only seen “a few minutes” of the video, in which he had “no interest beyond general curiosity.” Powell did not respond to requests for comment.)

There was just one problem. Salazar’s claims were easily disprovable. Hours after the video was recorded, Trump campaign staffers reviewed some allegations about Dominion that were almost identical, and it took them less than a day to discover they were baseless. The staffers prepared an internal memo with section headings that read: “Dominion Has No Company Ties To Venezuela,” “Dominion And Smartmatic Terminated Their Contract In 2012” and “There Is No Evidence That Dominion Used Smartmatic’s Software In The 2020 Election Cycle.” Independent fact-checkers came to the same conclusions. Dominion later released a statement calling a version of these allegations that Powell pushed in a lawsuit, “baseless, senseless, physically impossible, and unsupported by any evidence whatsoever.” A lawyer for Smartmatic wrote to ProPublica: “There are no ties between Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic — plain and simple.” He added that “Salazar’s testimony is full of inaccuracies,” strongly denied that Smartmatic’s technology was designed to steal Venezuelan elections, and said the company, which operates worldwide, has “registered and counted over 5 billion votes without a single security breach.” (Salazar did not respond to requests for comment.)

Salazar’s story was just one of many pieces of so-called evidence that members of the coalition have offered as proof that the 2020 election was rigged. That unfounded belief has emerged as one of the most potent forces in American politics. Numerous polls show that over two-thirds of Republicans doubt the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Millions of those Republicans believe foreign governments reprogrammed American voting machines.

ProPublica has obtained a trove of internal emails and other documentation that, taken together, tell the inside story of a group of people who propagated a number of the most pervasive theories about how the election was stolen, especially that voting machines were to blame, and helped move them from the far-right fringe to the center of the Republican Party.

Those records, as well as interviews with key participants, show for the first time the extent to which leading advocates of the stolen-election theory touted evidence that they knew to be disproven or that had been credibly disputed or dismissed as dubious by operatives within their own camp. Some members of the coalition presented this mix of unreliable witnesses, unconfirmed rumor and suspect analyses as fact in published reports, talking points and court documents. In several cases, their assertions became the basis for Trump’s claims that the election had been rigged.

Our examination of their actions from the 2020 election to the present day reveals a pattern. Many members of the coalition would advance a theory based on evidence that was never vetted or that they’d been told was flawed; then, when the theory was debunked, they’d move on to the next alternative and then the next.

The coalition includes several figures who have attracted national attention. Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who served briefly as national security adviser to Trump before pleading guilty to lying to law enforcement about his contacts with Russian officials, is the most well known. Patrick Byrne, the former CEO of Overstock.com who left his position after his romantic relationship with the convicted Russian agent Maria Butina became public, is the coalition’s chief financier and a frequent intermediary with the press. Powell, who represented Flynn in his attempt to reverse his guilty plea, spearheaded efforts in the courts.

Before Powell arrived at the plantation, Wood had filed a lawsuit in federal court in Atlanta against Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger that sought to stop him from certifying Biden’s victory. Soon after Powell showed up, Wood submitted an anonymized declaration from Salazar as evidence of how the election was corrupted. He then filed an emergency motion that sought access to Dominion machines in Georgia to “conduct a forensic inspection of this equipment and the data therein.” The case was eventually dismissed, but it would serve as a template for the series of high-profile lawsuits that Powell would file in Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia.

Salazar’s declaration was central to the four lawsuits, and it went further than the assertions he had made in the video. His claim that he could show “the similarity” between anomalies in Venezuelan and American elections expanded to become an allegation that “the DNA of every vote tabulating company’s software and system” in the United States was potentially compromised.

Wood told ProPublica, “I was not involved in the vetting, drafting or filing any of the lawsuits filed by Sidney Powell,” though his name appears as “of counsel” in all four. A judge sanctioned him in the Michigan case, writing that “while Wood now seeks to distance himself from this litigation to avoid sanctions, the Court concludes that he was aware of this lawsuit when it was filed, was aware that he was identified as co-counsel for Plaintiffs, and as a result, shares the responsibility with the other lawyers for any sanctionable conduct.”

All the lawsuits would fail, with judges excoriating the quality of their evidence. It wasn’t just the evidence in the lawsuits that was flawed. In fact, much of the evidence that members of the coalition contributed to the stolen election myth outside the courts was also weak. Yet the coalition’s failure to prove its theories has not hindered its ability to spread them.

This is the story of how little untruths added up to the “big lie.”

When Powell and Rudy Giuliani, who was leading the Trump campaign’s legal team in challenging the vote, began investigating election fraud in November 2020, they quickly were inundated with tips. This flood increased once Wood and others began soliciting evidence on far-right message boards and mainstream social media platforms.

Some of the participants at the plantation described the inundation of claims, which overwhelmed their inboxes, as a type of evidence in itself: There must be something to allegations of election fraud if so many people were making them. ProPublica spoke to eight sources with firsthand knowledge of the coalition’s efforts on the plantation, many of whom said they worked relentlessly in a chaotic environment. Tips that easily could have been dismissed as dubious instead were treated as credible.

In examining hundreds of emails sent to the plantation, ProPublica found that some were hearsay or anecdotes seemingly misinterpreting everyday events; others were internet rumors; and many were recycled narratives that some members of the coalition had pushed on social media. None of the tips that ProPublica examined provided concrete proof of election fraud or manipulation.

One of the first tips Powell and Giuliani promoted came from Joe Oltmann, a Denver-based conservative podcast host who said he had infiltrated an antifa conference call and had heard a high-level Dominion employee named Eric Coomer declare that he would make sure that Trump lost the election. Powell and Giuliani highlighted Oltmann’s claim at a press conference on Nov. 19, 2020, at the Republican National Committee headquarters.

By that time, Powell was paying for an investigator to travel to Denver, according to a person familiar with the events. The investigator, the source said, interviewed Oltmann at a brewery in Castle Rock, Colorado, and spent several days checking out his story. Not long after the press conference, according to the source, the investigator emailed Powell his assessment that Oltmann was at the very least embellishing, but she did not respond. Powell soon referred to Oltmann’s allegations in court filings in Georgia and Michigan; roughly a week later, she submitted an affidavit from Oltmann in the Arizona and Wisconsin lawsuits. Coomer has denied being on the call and has brought a defamation suit against Oltmann, Powell, Giuliani, the Trump campaign and others. Oltmann has never presented proof of Coomer being on the call, and in March 2022, the judge overseeing the defamation case sanctioned Oltmann, fining him almost $33,000 for failing to appear for a deposition. When Powell was asked in a July 2021 deposition if she had anyone look into Oltmann and “his background,” she said she did not recall. (Oltmann did not provide responses to questions about the investigator’s assessment.)

Within days of the investigator’s Oltmann probe, Powell turned to another dubious witness: Terpsehore Maras, a QAnon-promoting social media influencer and podcaster who goes by the online handle Tore Says.

In September 2020, in a civil consumer-fraud judgment in North Dakota, Maras had been found to have made false online charitable fundraising solicitations and to have created “an entirely fake online persona.” (Maras has claimed that the allegations against her remain “unproven” despite the legal finding and that “false identities were imperative for me to execute my duties,” which include being a “former private intelligence contractor, whistleblower, and investigative journalist.”)

Powell filed a declaration in early December 2020 from an anonymous individual in the Arizona and Wisconsin lawsuits. The individual claimed that there was “unambiguous evidence” that “foreign interference is present in the 2020 election” and pointed to a vast and unproven conspiracy that involved Dominion, George Soros, a company with an office in China, and the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations. The Washington Post later identified the declaration’s author to be Maras.

In the weeks after the election, Maras presented herself to Byrne as knowledgeable about election fraud. But he discovered that she was unreliable after he had a team of investigators debrief her. Byrne and Maras said the debriefing occurred after Powell filed the declaration.

In an email to another witness he had debriefed, Byrne described the investigators’ assessment: “Tore was taken out and interviewed by some people I know from the intelligence community who are absolutely on our side. They came back telling me: ‘She knows some things and has been behind the curtain, but she also lies, exaggerates, deflects, changes subject rapidly trying to throw people off, and we cannot rely on her for anything factual because we caught her in too many lies and exaggerations over three hours.’” (“I tried my best to deceive” the debriefers, Maras wrote on her blog in response to questions from ProPublica. “I was scared.”)

Byrne has since repeatedly promoted Maras’ right-wing activism, as he does in this September 2021 video, some of which revolves around questioning the legitimacy of the election. (“She’s a friend and an ally, and I know that she’s a little goofy,” Byrne told ProPublica in an interview, explaining that he had recently been impressed by work she had done on their shared causes. “I think she has relevant knowledge.”)

Byrne, Powell and other coalition members weren’t just relying on witness statements in their effort to prove the election was rigged. Some of them also pointed to multiple mathematical analyses. One that Powell and Byrne advanced came from a man named Edward Solomon. In the weeks after Nov. 3, 2020, Solomon produced a series of online videos purporting to demonstrate how algorithms adjusted the vote total in Biden’s favor.

Before Byrne and Powell highlighted Solomon’s voting analysis, he came to public attention briefly in 2016, after authorities seized 240 bags of heroin, 25 grams of cocaine and weapons from his home; he later pleaded guilty to selling drugs. (Solomon did not respond to requests for comment.)

One person who coalition members entrusted to vet Solomon’s analysis was Seth Keshel, a former Army intelligence officer who was brought into the group by Flynn and who acknowledged to ProPublica that his mathematical expertise drew from “a long track record of baseball statistics.” In the end, his level of expertise didn’t matter; because of a server error, the emailed request to vet Solomon never reached Keshel, who said he had no memory of checking Solomon’s claims.

Byrne used Solomon’s analysis in his book, “The Deep Rig,” to make the case that the election was fraudulent. In February 2021, a month after the book was published, the University of Pennsylvania’s FactCheck.org reported that officials at the college Solomon had attended said that, though he had been a math major, he had never received a degree. The article quoted experts who pointed to flaws in Solomon’s analysis, especially that the “vote shares” he suggested were suspicious were “not at all surprising,” and a Georgia elections official who said that Solomon “shows a basic misunderstanding of how vote counts work.”

A paper posted that month by University of Chicago and Stanford researchers found that the numbers Solomon had said were suspicious were normal for a fraud-free election and that by not considering this, his analysis was a classic example of how “fishing for a finding” can “lead an argument astray.”

Byrne kept promoting Solomon’s work until at least July 2021, when he described him in a blog post as a “Renowned Mathematician.”

Five months after the FactCheck.org story and the research paper, Powell was asked in a sworn deposition which mathematicians or statisticians she relied on to support her belief that the election was fraudulent. She cited among others a “Mr. Solomon.”

In addition to relying on the flawed claims of Salazar, Oltmann, Maras and Solomon, Powell also promoted the assertions of an Arizona woman named Staci Burk, who had contributed to two fraud rumors after the election. In the first, Burk claimed that she’d spoken with a worker at a FedEx operations center in Seattle who had observed suspicious canvas bags marked as “election mail ballots” passing through the facility. The second involved a South Korean airplane flying fake ballots for Biden into Phoenix a few days after the election; Burk said that she had recorded a man who had confessed to the scheme.

A lawsuit that Powell filed in Arizona on Dec. 2, 2020, later included a “Jane Doe” witness who would “testify about illegal ballots being shipped around the United States including to Arizona.” Burk told ProPublica that she was the “Jane Doe.” The same day that Powell filed the Arizona lawsuit, she claimed at a rally outside of Atlanta to have evidence of “a plane full of ballots that came in,” and she continued pushing the idea, declaring in a Dec. 5 interview with the host of a YouTube channel, “We have evidence of a significant plane-load of ballots coming in.” The judge tossed the case before Burk could testify.

Burk’s theories proved false, and at least three coalition members were informed of this. Byrne said that he passed Burk’s claims to a contact at the Department of Homeland Security, who told him about a week later that it “had been looked into and there was nothing there.” This was in November 2020, before Powell filed her lawsuit. Byrne said that he let some of his associates know that Homeland Security had dismissed the claim but was unsure if he informed Powell. (He also said that later his contact showed renewed interest in the idea.)

In late December, James Penrose, a former senior official for the National Security Agency who had been at the plantation and described himself as working for Wood and Powell, called Burk and explained that he had spent $75,000 on a team of former FBI analysts turned private investigators to check out the theories. On the call, which she recorded, Penrose said that the investigators had tracked the claims about the South Korean airplane to the person who first made them. “When he was pressed, that guy admitted that he made it up because he hated the MAGA people that he worked with. And he was purposely trying to troll them by saying he saw ballots on the plane,” Penrose told Burk. “That created the rumor.” The man whom Burk recorded confessing to his involvement in the ballot scheme told Penrose’s investigators that in trying to impress Burk “he fabricated everything.”

“I mean, are you saying that it — that none of it’s true?” Burk asked. Penrose replied: “Yes. I’m saying that the entire thing was fabricated. It’s all bullshit.”

Penrose’s team had also checked out the Seattle FedEx incident, and he told Burk, “We’re not able to confirm anything that looked like conspiracy along those lines.”

Neither Penrose nor anyone associated with the coalition ever publicly released the findings of the investigation. (Penrose did not respond to requests for comment.)

Burk has since renounced her belief in the rumors she had once backed. “I obviously made a mistake believing lies,” Burk wrote to ProPublica. She said she had come to believe that some members of the coalition had manipulated her and her stories to further their ends. “As things unfolded over time, it became apparent I [was] used as a theatre set piece.”

Burk’s stories would shape the audit of the election results that Arizona legislators would later authorize — and which Byrne, Flynn, Powell, Wood and other associates helped fund, contributing about $5.7 million. The 2021 audit was criticized by elections experts and uncovered no proof of fraud.

“You have no idea how widespread the belief is in Arizona to this day that there’s 300,000 ballots that were brought in via an airplane,” said Doug Logan, a coalition member who worked with Penrose on the plantation and whose company Cyber Ninjas would run the audit. Logan said that Penrose told him that the woman’s theories were false. Still, Logan said, he had auditors examine ballots to check a range of theories, including whether bamboo fibers were mixed into the paper, which auditors believed could show that they were imported from Asia. “Our goal in the audit was to figure out what’s really true and deal with it,” Logan told ProPublica. “That’s why we did paper examination.”

No fibers were found.

Few pieces of evidence were more consequential to the stolen-election theory than a report that claimed to have found evidence of intentional election fraud in Dominion voting machines in Antrim County, Michigan. It was heralded as technical proof that votes were stolen for Biden. It was repeatedly promoted by the president. And Byrne and other proponents of the stolen election myth continued to refer to it when speaking to ProPublica reporters.

However, one of the authors of the report recently told ProPublica that the original version never found definitive evidence of election fraud in the Antrim voting machines.

“There was no proof at that specific moment,” the author, Conan James Hayes, said. He described finding what he considered a surprising number of errors in the data logs that he thought “could lead to” election fraud. “But there was no, like, ‘There was election fraud,’” he said, “at least at that time in my mind.”

Antrim had been the subject of national attention when, on election night, returns showed that Biden had unexpectedly won the Republican stronghold. The next day, the county clerk, a Republican who supported Trump, explained that officials had discovered that a clerical error had switched roughly 3,000 votes from the president to Biden. After the clerk’s office made corrections, Trump, as expected, had won the county with more than 60% of the vote.

Internal documents reviewed by ProPublica reveal that some members of the coalition almost immediately suspected that the mistake in Antrim was not human error. Rather, it was an incident in which the voting machine software hadn’t been surreptitious enough in stealing votes and unintentionally revealed itself. Their logic was simple: If they could do a forensic audit of the Antrim machines, they could finally establish how the election was stolen. The challenge was how to access the machines.

The day after Thanksgiving 2020, Byrne paid for a private plane to fly two cybersecurity specialists working with the coalition to Antrim: Hayes, a former professional surfer who had taught himself about computers, and Todd Sanders, a Texas businessman with a cybersecurity consulting business. Hayes and Sanders were turned away from the first two offices they tried, but at a third, a county worker agreed to unroll voting tabulation scrolls, which they photographed.

Highlighting discrepancies in the vote tally produced by the error, a Michigan lawyer won a court order to allow the machines to be formally accessed. On Dec. 6, Hayes, Sanders, a deputy for Giuliani and data forensic specialists engaged by Wood flew to Antrim, again on a private plane paid for by Byrne, and imaged the hard drives of a computer that was the county’s election management server.

Hayes and Sanders returned to Washington, where they examined the data and, in less than a week, assembled a report. Hayes and another individual familiar with the original version described it as a straightforward technical document, which noted aspects about the data that seemed suspicious but was cautious about claiming election fraud. Then the report was turned over to Russell J. Ramsland, the head of Allied Security Operations Group, a small security contracting company connected to Texas conservative circles.

When the report was released after a court hearing on Dec. 14, it was a very different document, according to Hayes and the other person familiar with the original version. It had “REVISED PRELIMINARY SUMMARY, v2” and Ramsland’s name at the top and his signature at the bottom, and it made an outright accusation. “The Dominion Voting System is intentionally and purposefully designed with inherent errors to create systemic fraud and influence election results,” it claimed. “This leads to voter or election fraud.” Allied Security, it said, had discovered enough proof of election fraud to decertify the results in Antrim.

Hayes’ and Sanders’ names were nowhere on the report. Hayes told ProPublica that the new “information must have been written by” Allied Security. (Sanders did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

It wasn’t just people associated with the original report who believed Ramsland’s version was flawed. An analysis commissioned by the Michigan secretary of state found that the report contained an “extraordinary number of false, inaccurate, or unsubstantiated statements,” including that “the errors in the log file do not mean what Mr. Ramsland purports them to” and were instead “benign” lines of code generated by processes that did not affect the vote outcome. A bipartisan investigation led by Republican legislators in Michigan declared that the Antrim theories are “a complete waste of time to consider.” (Ramsland did not respond to ProPublica’s questions about revising the report. But he did tell The Washington Post that the Michigan analysis only addressed 12 of Allied Security’s 29 “core observations.”)

Trump supporters immediately seized on the report as definitive proof that the election was rigged. Flynn tweeted, “MI forensics report shows a massive breakdown in national security & must be dealt w/ immediately. @realDonaldTrump must appoint a special counsel now.” Byrne and Flynn lobbied for Powell to become the special counsel.

In a statement, Giuliani said: “This new revelation makes it clear that the vote count being presented now by the democrats in Michigan constitutes an intentionally false and misleading representation of the final vote tally. The Electors simply cannot be certified based on these demonstrably false vote counts.” (Giuliani did not respond to requests for comment.)

Byrne described the report as a “BOMBSHELL,” posting it on his blog under the claim: “You wanted the evidence. Here is the evidence.”

Trump tweeted: “WOW. This report shows massive fraud. Election changing result!” Over the next three days, on social media, he promoted the Antrim report and suspicions about Dominion voting machines 11 times.

Late on the afternoon of Dec. 14, Trump’s personal secretary sent an email to the deputy attorney general with the subject line “From POTUS.” The Antrim report was attached to the email. An additional document included talking points (“This is a Cover-up of voting crimes”) and conclusions (“these election results cannot be certified in Antrim County”). That email launched Trump’s attempt to persuade the Department of Justice to assist in overturning the election results, according to a 2021 report by Senate Democrats. In the end, the deputy attorney general rebuffed the president, and officials in the department threatened to resign en masse if he was replaced.

When Trump demanded that Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger “find 11,780 votes,” enough for him to win the state, in a recorded phone call on Jan. 2, the president mentioned the Dominion conspiracy 10 times.

At the Jan. 6 “Save America” rally on the Ellipse, directly before Trump spoke, Giuliani took the stage and suggested that halting the certification of Biden’s victory was justified because of “these crooked Dominion machines.”

Trump’s speech emphasized the “highly troubling matter of Dominion Voting Systems” and the events in Antrim to explain that the election had been stolen.

Not long after, while Trump supporters made their initial assault on police barricades, Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona was on the House floor objecting to the certification of his state’s electoral votes — the beginning of the effort to block the certification of Biden’s victory by Congress. He cited as evidence “the Dominion voting machines with a documented history of enabling fraud.” About a minute later, Gosar’s speech was interrupted and then cut off. The crowd was storming the Capitol. One person in the throng raised a sign that read, “No Machines Dominion STEALS.”

In the aftermath of the attack on the Capitol, many of the same people who had pushed the claims about Dominion repackaged their theory of how the election was stolen. It relied on the same data and the same arguments, except now it had a new name.

This transformation happened after Dominion’s parent company filed a lawsuit against Powell for defamation in a Washington court on Jan. 8. She and others began talking less about Dominion and more about voting machines in general. Dominion would go on to sue Byrne, Giuliani and others for billions of dollars in collective damages, contending that they promoted and in some cases manufactured false claims. The defendants have each denied responsibility or wrongdoing. (Smartmatic USA Corp. also brought defamation suits against Powell, Giuliani and others, all of whom have denied wrongdoing.)

By the summer of 2021, Hayes and Sanders, the two cybersecurity specialists who had performed the Antrim operation, had become involved in an effort to prove a theory called Hammer and Scorecard. The theory had been making the rounds in conservative circles for more than five years, and Powell had promoted it before the 2020 election. It posited that a supercomputer called Hammer had been developed by the CIA and then commandeered by the Obama administration to spy on Americans, including Trump, Flynn and Powell. Around the time of the election, the theory expanded to suggest that Hammer was using a software called Scorecard to alter results in voting machines and that foreign governments had possibly gotten ahold of it.

Part of the usefulness of Hammer and Scorecard is that built into the theory is an explanation for why it can’t be disproven: It is so top secret that the person who could expose the conspiracy can’t. That person is a former Department of Defense contractor named Dennis Montgomery. The people promoting the theory claim he can’t reveal the evidence because he’s under a gag order imposed by the U.S. government.

Phil Waldron, a former Army colonel, a spokesperson for Allied Security and a member of the coalition who worked remotely with those on the plantation, said in an online interview that if the gag order against Montgomery were lifted, “Specifically what that would reveal is the level of foreign interference in the election.”

Montgomery has been accused of fraud by former associates, though no criminal charges have resulted from those accusations. In the aftermath of 9/11, he allegedly duped the Department of Defense and other federal agencies out of more than $20 million in part by selling them software that he claimed could unearth messages to terrorist sleeper cells hidden in Al-Jazeera broadcasts. (It does not appear that the government ever attempted to get the money back.) Once those claims collapsed, allies of Montgomery began spreading the idea of Hammer. In 2018, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed a suit Montgomery had filed against FBI Director James B. Comey, which attempted to expose an alleged government spy program, calling it “a veritable anthology of conspiracy theorists’ complaints.” (Montgomery did not reply to repeated requests for comment, but in the past he has denied the fraud accusations.)

The person behind the 2021 campaign pushing Hammer and Scorecard was Mike Lindell, the My Pillow magnate who has claimed to have poured about $35 million into efforts to prove the 2020 election was fraudulent. In July 2021, Lindell announced that he had gotten hold of a mysterious set of data that would prove the election was stolen. According to sources and messages reviewed by ProPublica, the data related to Hammer and Scorecard, though Lindell didn’t publicly name the theory or refer to Montgomery.

Lindell said he would reveal the data at a three-day “cyber symposium” he was hosting in August 2021 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Reporters, cybersecurity experts and elected officials — as well as anyone tuning in online — would finally see the proof that the election was fraudulent. Lindell said that independent cybersecurity experts would vet 37 terabytes of data at the symposium and posted an online offer of a $5 million reward to any attendee who could prove that “this cyber data is not valid data from the November 2020 election.” The event, he suggested, would result in Trump being returned to the presidency.

In the run-up to the symposium, before the independent experts did their analysis, the data was given to a group that included Waldron, Hayes, Sanders and Joshua Merritt, a self-described “white hat” hacker — all of whom had been associated with Allied Security at one time or another. (They called themselves the “Red Team” but coordinated on a group chat named “Purple Unicorns.”) Also on the team was Ronald Watkins, who has been identified by two independent forensic linguistic analyses as “Q,” the anonymous figure behind the QAnon conspiracy theory. (Watkins has denied on numerous occasions that he is Q; he did not respond to requests for comment.) Private communications reviewed by ProPublica show that he was in contact with people at the plantation in November 2020, advising them on how to set up secure systems to transfer information and helping with research into the Dominion theory.

Soon after arriving at Sioux Falls, it became evident to the Red Team that the data Lindell had provided wasn’t what was promised. “I have checked them all and they are NOT PROOF,” Watkins wrote in a text message to the rest of the team. “So there are a few files that could potentially be from hammer/scorecard in there, but that is only because it didn’t include a source. Since there is no source, it could be from anywhere — or even fake.”

“At the 11th hour, why do we still have zero proof,” another person on the chat wrote, frustrated that Montgomery hadn’t delivered on his guarantees. “If this software does exist, and the developer” — Montgomery — “is working with us, it shouldn’t take him 10 months to figure out how to extract data” that would prove his assertions.

According to Merritt, when the Red Team tried to inform Lindell two nights before the symposium was to start that the data contained no proof, the CEO yelled at them that they were wrong.

For months leading up to the event, conservatives who believed that the 2020 election was stolen had warned Lindell or an attorney working with him that promoting Hammer and Scorecard risked discrediting other efforts to prove the election was rigged. Two people, including election fraud activist Catherine Engelbrecht, the executive director of True the Vote, cautioned that they had had negative experiences with Montgomery and his representatives and that Hammer and Scorecard wasn’t credible, according to documents viewed by ProPublica and interviews with people familiar with the matter.

On the eve of the symposium, the Red Team learned that Montgomery would not be attending; he said he had suffered a stroke. The final proof of election fraud, which he was supposed to deliver last minute, was no longer going to arrive.

The event drew hundreds of thousands of viewers online, with more than 40 state legislators and others gathering in person. Onstage with Lindell, Waldron explained that the Red Team had looked at the data and “we’ve seen plausibility” and that a separate group of independent analysts would now comb through it.

By the end of the third day, the independent analysts — longtime election security and computer experts, some skeptical of Lindell’s claims and others sympathetic — appeared to have reached a consensus: None of the data contained the proof that Lindell had promised, according to accounts from five of them. In fact, much of the data turned out to be from the Antrim voting machines or harvested from other elections offices and was just a recycling of evidence that had already been discredited.

The data “was some gobbledygook,” said Bill Alderson, a cybersecurity specialist from Texas who had voted for Trump. Merritt told ProPublica that he feared that the hollowness of the data undermined other, more legitimate efforts to prove the election was stolen. Partway through the symposium, The Washington Times quoted him saying that “we were handed a turd.”

Waldron and Lindell, however, did not inform the crowd and those online what the analysts had found. On the last day of the conference, Waldron claimed to have “credible information on a threat in the data streams,” implying the evidence could have been sabotaged.

The day after the symposium ended — the day he had suggested that Trump would be returned to office — Lindell dined with the former president at Mar-a-Lago, a photo of which was leaked to Salon. At a rally, not long after, Trump called the symposium “really amazing,” and he has continued to praise Lindell’s efforts on his behalf. Lindell did not respond to a list of questions from ProPublica and instead wrote, “The election crime movement started November 3rd when the CCP” — the Chinese Communist Party — “and many others did a cyber attack on our election!”

In March 2022, ProPublica sent dozens of letters to the individuals named in this article and others that asked about factual problems with the evidence many had put forth as proof that the election was rigged.

Some of the responses were dismissive. “Stupid article,” wrote Michael T. Flynn’s spokesperson and brother, Joseph J. Flynn. “No one we care about will read it.”

Others contested the article’s findings. Russell J. Ramsland wrote, “So much of this narrative is false or highly misleading that I am not willing to respond point-by-point.”

Despite repeated requests, others did not respond. They include Sidney Powell, James Penrose, Phil Waldron and Todd Sanders.

Some, like Doug Logan, disputed that they had worked as part of a coalition. Others, however, felt it was an accurate description. “I was a member of said coalition,” wrote Seth Keshel.

“‘Coalition’ may not be the right word,” wrote Patrick Byrne, who said that he has spent $12 million on “election integrity” efforts through early 2022, often working in close coordination with Flynn. “We think of it as a network of fellow-travelers who were all volunteering to work to expose what we believed was a rigging of the election on November 3. But I can live with ‘coalition.’” Messages and documents reviewed by ProPublica reveal that the named individuals were in closer contact than has been publicly known, especially in the weeks immediately following the election.

On the whole, coalition members who responded to ProPublica doubled down on their belief in the stolen election myth. “I’ve not wavered on this,” Keshel emailed ProPublica. “I can spend hours with you showing you point after point after point to demand full investigation of this.” The single exception was Conan James Hayes, who wrote to ProPublica: “I don’t believe anything until I have all of the information to analyze, which to this point I do not have. So I can’t say either way.”

Over the course of months, Byrne acted as a champion of sorts for the coalition’s ideas, making himself available for numerous interviews and message exchanges. He also sent a 16,000-word letter in response to more than 80 fact-checking questions.

When presented with evidence that some of his past claims had proven incorrect, he acknowledged that there were instances when he and his allies had been wrong, especially when they were trying to interpret shifting information in the weeks after the election. He downplayed the weight they had put on claims about Dominion voting machines being exploited by foreign governments, though their own court filings and public statements from the time show this was their major claim. “I think that it’s picking at nits to look back at some of the stuff,” he said. He defended the coalition, saying, “I think they got the gestalt of it correct.”

Don’t pay attention, Byrne argued, to the many parts of the Antrim report that a technical expert commissioned by the Michigan secretary of state had debunked. (These errors included Allied Security’s central contention that Dominion machines were “purposefully designed” to create “systemic fraud” through a process known as “adjudication.” The machines in question did not have the “adjudication” software installed, according to the Michigan analysis.) Instead, Byrne stressed that what was now important was the claim that the voting machines’ security logs only went back to the day after the election, making it impossible to rely on any data on them. (The Michigan secretary of state expert found that logs were automatically overwritten to free up memory and that “the timing appears to be a coincidence,” though it said that having a limited amount of memory “is contrary to best practice.”)

Dominion voting machines, South Korean jets and Dennis Montgomery, Byrne suggested, weren’t central to the case. He repeatedly turned the conversation toward newer arguments for election fraud. He highlighted a March 2021 interim election audit report from a special counsel hired by Republican legislators in Wisconsin. The report’s primary claim was that a nonprofit had engaged in “election bribery” by providing funds to boost voter turnout in five urban areas, where voters are disproportionately Democratic. The special counsel raised the possibility that the report’s findings were serious enough that Biden’s victory in the state could be decertified. (A federal judge in October 2020 rejected the argument that the nonprofit’s work was illegal, and courts have repeatedly come to the same conclusion.)

Byrne continued to bring up new, supposedly bombshell claims. In his letter to ProPublica, he promoted a forthcoming documentary called “2000 Mules” by conservative activist Dinesh D’Souza that alleged that thousands of shadowy operatives filled drop boxes across the nation with ballots marked for Biden. “Videotapes of drop boxes, cell phone tower pings, and the testimony of a whistleblower,” Byrne wrote, “all point to about one million votes being stuffed” in Georgia.

There was always another report. Another debunking of the debunking.

Byrne acknowledged that no single piece of smoking gun evidence of election fraud had emerged, but he argued that the breadth of evidence that he and those with similar views had assembled made it inconceivable that elections weren’t corrupted.

What he was doing was necessary to save American democracy, Byrne had concluded. He was sure of it. “I’ve got my cards. You got your cards,” he said. “I’ll go all in.”

ProPublica analysis examines the distinction between the rich and wage workers

Nikki Spretnak loved being an IRS agent. Being able to examine the books of different businesses gave her an intimate view of the economy. But over the years, she became more and more conscious of a chasm between the business owners she was auditing and herself. It wasn't so much that they were rich and she, a revenue agent in the IRS office in Columbus, Ohio, was not. It was that, when it came to taxes, they lived a privileged existence, one that she, a mere W-2 recipient, did not share.

Over the past year, along with a team of my colleagues at ProPublica, I’ve spent countless hours scrutinizing the tax information of thousands of the wealthiest Americans. Like Spretnak, I’ve seen behind the veil and witnessed the same chasm. Doing my own taxes in the past was never a thrill, but only this spring did I fully realize what a colorless and confined tax world I inhabit.

For me, and for most people, filing taxes is little more than data entry. I hold in my hand my W-2 form from my employer and dutifully peck in my wages. Next come the 1099 forms that list my earnings from dividends or interest, and again my finger gets to work. The IRS has a copy of these forms, too, of course, making this drudgery somewhat pointless. By the end of it, there, in black and white, is my income.

The financial reality of the ultrawealthy is not so easily defined. For one, wages make up only a small part of their earnings. And they have broad latitude in how they account for their businesses and investments. Their incomes aren’t defined by a tax form. Instead, they represent the triumph of careful planning by skilled professionals who strive to deliver the most-advantageous-yet-still-plausible answers to their clients. For them, a tax return is an opening bid to the IRS. It’s a kind of theory.

In that tax world, nearly anything is possible. Stephen Ross is one of the world’s most successful real estate developers, a billionaire many times over, the owner of the Miami Dolphins. Ross, a former tax lawyer, once praised tax law as a particularly “creative” endeavor, and he is a master of the craft. His tax returns showed a total of $1.5 billion in earnings from 2008 to 2017, but he didn’t pay a dime in federal income taxes during that time. How? By mining a mountain of losses he claimed for tax purposes, as ProPublica reported. Look at Ross’s “income” for any of those years, and you’ll see numbers as low as negative $447 million. (He told ProPublica he abides by the tax laws.)

Texas billionaire Kelcy Warren owns a massively profitable natural gas pipeline company. But in an orgy of cake eating and having, he’s able to receive hundreds of millions of dollars from his company tax-free while reporting vast losses to the IRS thanks to energy-industry and other tax breaks, his records showed. (Warren did not respond to our questions.)

Based on those reported “incomes,” both Ross and Warren received COVID stimulus checks in 2020. We counted at least 16 other billionaires (along with hundreds of other ultrawealthy people, including hedge fund managers and former CEOs) among the stimulus check recipients. This is just how our system works. It’s why, in 2011, Jeff Bezos, then worth $18 billion, qualified for $4,000 in refundable child tax credits. (Bezos didn’t respond to our questions.)

A recent study by the Brookings Institution set out with a simple aim: to compare what owners of privately held businesses say they earn with the income that appears on the owners’ tax returns. The findings were stark: “More than half of economic income generated by closely held businesses does not appear on tax returns and that ratio has declined significantly over the past 25 years.”

That doesn’t mean business owners are illegally hiding income from the IRS, though it’s certainly a possible contributor. There are plenty of ways to make income vanish legally. Tax perks like depreciation allow owners to create tax losses even as they expand their businesses, and real estate developers like Ross can claim losses even on appreciating properties. “Losses” from one business can also be used to wipe out income from another. Sometimes spilling red ink can be lots of fun: For billionaires, owning sports teams and thoroughbred racehorses are exciting loss-makers.

Congress larded the tax code with these sorts of provisions on the logic that what’s good for businesses is good for the economy. Often, the evidence for this broader effect is thin or nonexistent, but you can be sure all this is great for business owners. The Brookings study found that households worth $10 million or more benefited the most from being able to make income disappear.

This isn’t just about a divide between rich and poor. Take two people, each earning $1 million, one through salary, the other through their business. Though they may live in the same neighborhood and send their kids to the same private school, they do not share the same tax world.

Under the current system, said John Sabelhaus, a former Federal Reserve economist and one of the study’s authors, “if you’re getting a W-2, you’re a sucker.”

This basic divide is also apparent in how tax laws are enforced. To the IRS, the average worker is an open book, since all their income is disclosed on those W-2s and 1099s. Should they enter an errant number on their tax return, a computer at the agency can easily catch it.

But that’s generally not true for private businesses. Such companies are often tangles of interrelated partnerships that, like densely grown forest, can be hard to penetrate. Auditing businesses like these “certainly is a test of endurance,” said Spretnak, the former IRS agent.

If she managed to solve the puzzle of how income flowed from one entity to another, she moved on to a stiffer challenge. It didn’t matter if what she saw made her jaw drop. She had to prove that the business’s tax geniuses had exceeded even what the generous tax laws allowed them to do. Often, she found, they had. Making her findings stick against a determined and well-funded opponent was her final hurdle.

By the time Spretnak retired in 2018, the IRS had gone from merely budget-constrained to budget-starved. Thousands of skilled auditors like her have left, not to be replaced. Audits of the wealthy have plummeted. Business owners have still more reason to be bold.

On the other side of the chasm from the W-2er, there’s still another tax world, one that’s even more foreign than that of business income. It’s the paradise of unrealized gains, a place particularly enjoyed by the major shareholders of public companies.

If your company’s stock shoots up and you grow $1 billion richer, that increase in wealth is real. Banks will gladly lend to you with such ample collateral, and magazines will put you on their covers. But if you simply avoid selling your appreciated assets (that is, realizing your gains), you haven’t generated income and therefore owe no tax.

Economists have long argued that to exclude such unrealized gains from the definition of income is to draw an arbitrary line. The Supreme Court, as far back as 1940, agreed, calling the general rule of not taxing unrealized gains an “administrative convenience.”

From 2014 to 2018, the 25 wealthiest Americans grew about $400 billion richer, according to Forbes. To an economist, this was income, but under tax law, it was mere vapor, irrelevant. And so this group, including the likes of Bezos, Elon Musk and Warren Buffett, paid federal income taxes of about 3.4% on the $400 billion, ProPublica reported. We called this the group’s “True Tax Rate.”

Recently, the Biden administration took a major step toward the “True Tax Rate” way of seeing things. It proposed a Billionaire Minimum Income Tax for the ultrawealthy that would treat unrealized gains as income and tax them at 20%.

To say that the idea’s fate in the Senate is uncertain would probably be overstating its chances. It is nevertheless a landmark proposal. Instead of the usual talk of raising income tax rates on the rich, the Biden proposal advocates a fundamental rethinking.

In the tax system we have, billionaires who’d really rather not pay income taxes can usually find a way not to. They can bank their accumulating gains tax-free and deploy tax losses to wipe out whatever taxable income they might have. They can even look forward to a few thousand dollars here and there from the government to help them raise their kids or get through a national emergency.

You can think of efforts to change this system as a battle between the rich and everybody else. And sure, it is. But it’s also an effort to pull those other tax worlds down to the terra firma of the wage earner, to make it so a W-2 isn’t the mark of a sucker.

ProPublica: 'nobody actually knows' how much money the ultra-rich make

This story was originally published by ProPublica.

Series: The Secret IRS Files

Inside the Tax Records of the .001%

Periodically, we get a glimpse into the financial lives of the ultrarich. A pro athlete signs a huge contract, a tech CEO sells a boatload of shares in their company, or a billionaire heir unloads a Manhattan penthouse. Based on these nuggets of information, the media speculates as to how much income the rich might bring in every year. But nobody actually knows.

Thanks to an analysis of its unprecedented trove of IRS data, ProPublica is revealing the 15 people who reported the most U.S. income on their taxes from 2013 to 2018, along with data for the rest of the top 400.

The analysis also shows how much they paid in federal income taxes — and it demonstrates how the American tax system, which theoretically makes the highest earners pay the highest income tax rates, fails to do so for the people at the very top of the income pyramid. The top 400 earners pay noticeably lower tax rates than the merely rich; and, if you include payroll taxes, a married couple making $200,000 a year could end up paying higher tax rates than a person making $200 million a year. (The full analysis is here; it includes selected names beyond the top 15.)

Names That Won’t Surprise You

Scan the names on the list of the top 15 income earners and you’re certain to recognize several names — or at least the names of the companies they founded. Bill Gates hasn’t been involved in the day-to-day operations of Microsoft for over a decade, yet he still earned the most during the years we studied, reporting an average yearly income of $2.85 billion — and an effective federal income tax rate of 18.4%. Steve Ballmer, his former colleague, is also a well-known public figure, both for his time as Microsoft CEO and his current ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers NBA team. Ballmer’s average annual reported income of $1.05 billion landed him in the 10th spot on the list, and his effective federal income tax rate was 14.1%. The other side of the PC/Mac wars is represented here by Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs. Her average reported income of $1.57 billion ranked fifth-highest; she paid an effective tax rate of 14.8%. (ProPublica sought comment from everyone mentioned in this article. Nobody disputed the numbers cited here. Unless otherwise noted, representatives for people named in this article either declined to comment, declined to comment on the record or did not respond to requests for comment.)

Another well-known billionaire sits just below Gates on the list: Media and tech mogul and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, with an average reported income of just over $2 billion, paid an effective income tax rate of 4.1%, by far the lowest rate among the top 15. (A spokesperson told ProPublica for an earlier article that Bloomberg “pays the maximum tax rate on all federal, state, local and international taxable income as prescribed by law,” and cited Bloomberg’s philanthropic giving.)

The presence of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — either the first- or second-wealthiest person in America, depending on the day — won’t shock most people, but Bezos’s annual reported income during these years of $832 million put him only at number 15. He paid an effective tax rate of 23.2%; as we’ve previously reported, Bezos had so little income in a couple of recent years that he was able to pay $0 in federal income taxes in those periods.

Who Are These Others and Why Are They Paying Higher Tax Rates?

Tech billionaires dominate the top 15, but hedge fund managers account for a full third of the names on this list, and some of their incomes were just as huge. Most of them paid relatively high effective tax rates, especially compared to most of the tech sector representatives. Hedge fund managers often make their money through short-term trades, which are taxed at a much higher rate than when tech titans cash in on long-term investments.

The highest-earning hedge funder is Ken Griffin, founder of the Chicago-based firm Citadel. From 2013 to 2018, he reported an average income of nearly $1.7 billion, putting him fourth on the list. Griffin paid a tax rate of 29.2% during these years. (A spokesperson for Griffin said the tax rates in the IRS data “significantly understate” what Griffin pays, because they were lowered by charitable contributions and do not reflect local and state taxes. He also said Griffin pays foreign taxes, which aren’t included in IRS calculations of effective tax rate.)

Israel Englander, co-founder of Millennium Management, paid at a 30.8% rate, while the co-founders of Two Sigma Investments, David Siegel and John Overdeck, paid tax rates of 31.6% and 34.2%, respectively.

Some of this variation in rates reflects how people structure their businesses under tax law. Income earned by publicly traded corporations is taxed at the company level. When it’s passed on to big shareholders, such as tech billionaires, it can come in the form of dividends, which are taxed at lower rates than ordinary income. By contrast, the income from some manufacturing companies and hedge funds flows directly to company owners, who pay taxes on it, resulting in higher effective tax rates on average.

Where Are the Heirs?

Lists of the world’s wealthiest individuals are always heavily populated by heirs, ranging from descendents of old money to scions of more recently minted fortunes. Dozens of heirs made ProPublica’s list of 400 biggest income earners. Descendents and relatives of Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, claim 11 spots.

The DeVos family, heirs to the Amway fortune, also have multiple members in the top 400. Perhaps the best known is Betsy DeVos, who served as U.S. secretary of education during the Donald Trump administration. With a reported annual income of $112 million, she was the 389th-highest earner in this period.

Much like the tech titans who top the list, most of these heirs get their income from dividends or long-term investments, which are taxed at a lower rate. Their effective tax rates ranged from as low as 10.6% for Betsy DeVos to a high of 23% paid by Walmart heirTom Walton.

Don’t Forget the Deductions

Another key way that some top earners reduced their tax liability was to claim significant deductions, often in the form of large charitable contributions. This is particularly true for wealthy investors who are able to make their donations with shares of stock. Thanks to a generous provision of the tax code, they can then deduct the full value of the stock at its current price — without having to first sell it and pay capital gains tax.

Michael Bloomberg achieved a tax rate of 4.1% from 2013 to 2018 by taking annual deductions of more than $1 billion, mostly through charitable contributions. From 2013 to 2017, he also wrote off an average of $400 million each year from what he’d paid in state and local taxes. The 2018 tax overhaul limited that deduction to $10,000 — but also introduced a huge new deduction for pass-through companies that Bloomberg benefited from.

Wait — What About the Celebrities?

The earnings of actors, musicians and sports stars are a subject of nonstop scrutiny in the media, yet few celebrities cracked the list of the top 400 earners, which would have required them to report annual incomes of at least $110 million.

ProPublica’s trove has data on many celebrities. One who came close to the top 400 is basketball superstar LeBron James, who averaged $96 million a year in reported income. Grammy-winning singer Taylor Swift also came within reach of the top 400, averaging $82 million in reported income during these years. Actor George Clooney would have had to double his average income of $55 million to crack the top 400.

THE TOP 15

Here are the details on the top 15 income earners. Read the full analysis of the top 400 here.

For the full list of America’s top 400 income earners and their tax rates, along with our methodology, click here.

The 'precinct strategy': Trump just endorsed an Oath Keeper’s plan to seize control of the Republican Party

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

Former President Donald Trump has officially endorsed a plan, created by a man who has self-identified with the Oath Keeper militia, that aims to have Trump supporters consolidate control of the Republican Party.

The plan, known as the “precinct strategy,” has been repeatedly promoted on Steve Bannon’s popular podcast. As ProPublica detailed last year, it has already inspired thousands of people to fill positions at the lowest rung of the party ladder. Though these positions are low-profile and often vacant, they hold critical powers: They help elect higher-ranking party officers, influence which candidates appear on the ballot, turn out voters on Election Day and even staff the polling precincts where people vote and the election boards that certify the results.

“Just heard about an incredible effort underway that will strengthen the Republican Party,” Trump said Sunday in a statement emailed to his supporters. “If members of our Great movement start getting involved (that means YOU becoming a precinct committeeman for your voting precinct), we can take back our great Country from the ground up.”

Trump’s email named Dan Schultz, an Arizona lawyer and local party official who first developed the precinct strategy more than a decade ago. Schultz spent years trying to promote his plan and recruit precinct officers. In 2014, he posted a callout to an internal forum for the Oath Keepers militia group, according to hacked records obtained by ProPublica.

“Why don’t you all join me and the other Oath Keepers who are ‘inside’ the Party already,” Schultz wrote under a screen name. “If we conservatives were to do that, we’d OWN the Party.”

Federal prosecutors in January charged the leader of the Oath Keepers and 10 of its other members with seditious conspiracy in last year’s attack on the U.S. Capitol. One of them pleaded guilty, as have several members of the group in related cases who are cooperating with the investigation. The group’s leader, Stewart Rhodes, pleaded not guilty.

There is no indication that Schultz had any involvement in the Capitol riot.

Schultz told ProPublica he never became a formal member of the Oath Keepers organization. “I have taken oaths to support and defend the Constitution as a West Point cadet, as a commissioned U.S. Army officer and as a practicing attorney,” Schultz said in a text message. “Those oaths do not have expiration dates, by my way of thinking, and I have kept my oaths. In that sense, I am an ‘oath keeper.’”

According to experts on extremist groups, the Oath Keepers recruit military and law enforcement veterans using the idea that their oath to defend the Constitution never expired. The group then urges people to resist what they say are impending orders to take away Americans’ guns or create concentration camps.

“I don’t ever want to be pulling the trigger on an AR-15 in my neighborhood,” Schultz said in a 2015 conference call with fellow organizers, referring to the semi-automatic rifle. “Oath Keepers, I love them for instilling the oath. But what they need to do also, I think, is spread the message that hey, we can do stuff politically so we never get to the cartridge box.”

In more recent interviews on right-wing podcasts and internet talk shows, Schultz has repeatedly described his precinct strategy as a last alternative to violence.

“It’s not going to be peaceful the next go-round, perhaps,” Schultz said in a June interview with the pro-Trump personality David Clements. “But it ought to be, and the way to ensure that it will be is we’ve got to get enough of these good decent Americans to take over one of the two major political parties.”

It was not clear whether Trump or his aides were aware that Schultz has self-identified with the Oath Keepers. Trump’s spokesperson, Liz Harrington, did not respond to requests for comment.

Schultz has spent months trying to get his idea in front of Trump. Steve Stern, a fellow movement organizer, told ProPublica that he met a former Trump administration official for lunch at Mar-a-Lago, the ex-president’s private club in Palm Beach, in December. While there, Stern said, he got a chance to briefly mention the project to Trump.

Then, last month, Schultz and Stern landed an interview on a talk show hosted by Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO who promotes conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. Lindell said he would discuss the plan with Trump personally. Schultz and Stern followed up with a conference call with Harrington and Bannon, according to Stern. Harrington previously worked at Bannon’s “War Room” website.

“I know the president’s very jacked up about it,” Bannon said on his podcast, speaking with Schultz after Trump released the endorsement. “Help MAGA, help the America First movement, right? Help the deplorables, help President Trump, help yourself, your country, community, your kids, grandkids, all of it. Put your shoulder to the wheel.”

Bannon, who led Trump’s 2016 campaign, originally lifted the precinct strategy to prominence in a podcast interview with Schultz last year. After the episode aired, thousands of people answered Bannon’s call to become precinct officers in pivotal swing states, according to data compiled by ProPublica from county records and interviews with local party officials.

As of last August, GOP leaders in 41 counties reported an unusual increase in sign-ups since Bannon’s first interview with Schultz, adding a total of more than 8,500 new precinct officers. The trend appears to have continued since then. New precinct officers started using their powers to remove or censure Republican leaders who contradicted Trump’s election lies and to recruit people who believe the election was stolen into positions as poll watchers and poll workers.

Bannon received a last-minute pardon from Trump after the former adviser was charged with financial fraud. He has pleaded not guilty to contempt of Congress for defying a subpoena from the committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack. Bannon’s spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

In addition to Bannon and Lindell, the precinct strategy has won support from pro-Trump figures such as former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who urged Trump to impose martial law, and lawyers Sidney Powell and Lin Wood, who led some of the lawsuits seeking to overturn the election results. Right-wing groups such as Turning Point Action, which organized buses to transport rallygoers on Jan. 6, also joined the effort to recruit precinct officers.

While Stern said he’s thrilled about Trump’s written statement endorsing the precinct strategy, he said he hopes to hear it from Trump’s own lips at an upcoming rally. Stern said he plans to be there with tables to sign more people up.

Suicide bomber who killed US Troops and Afghans 'likely' used unguarded route to Kabul airport gate

by Brian J. Conley, Mohammad J. Alizada, Samira Nuhzat, Abdul Ahad Poya and Mirzahussain Sadid, Alive in Afghanistan, Joshua Kaplan and Joaquin Sapien, ProPublica, and Lynzy Billing for ProPublica

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

Days before the final withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, thousands of desperate Americans and Afghan allies seeking to flee the country were using unguarded routes across open fields and through narrow alleys to reach one of the only gates providing access to the Kabul airfield.

Despite intelligence warning of terrorist attacks, U.S. military commanders encouraged use of the routes. Some U.S. officials even provided maps to evacuees trying to bypass Taliban fighters stationed at a checkpoint outside the airport.

It was a decision born of necessity, senior military officials told Alive in Afghanistan and ProPublica. The U.S. had publicly committed to helping the tens of thousands of Afghans who had worked on its behalf to safety. The choice was stark. The government’s hold on Afghanistan was collapsing far sooner than intelligence agencies had expected, and the U.S. was forced to improvise a way to evacuate more than 120,000 people in a chaotic environment barely controlled by its remaining forces.

The Taliban controlled the outer checkpoints and were preventing Americans and Afghan civilians from getting to the airport entrance known as Abbey Gate, according to military officials. Commanders on the ground had to weigh the safety of American forces posted at the gate against concerns about leaving behind U.S. citizens and Afghan allies.

On Aug. 26, U.S. intelligence issued warnings of an imminent threat at the airport. That evening, a man loaded with explosives “likely” used one of the unguarded routes to gain access to Abbey Gate, according to a military investigation reviewed by the news organizations. He detonated his suicide device, killing 13 American servicemembers and an estimated more than 160 Afghan civilians.

“This was not the original way it was intended to work,” a senior military official familiar with the investigation told the news organizations, suggesting the compressed timeframe of the evacuation led to the decision to leave the routes unimpeded.

Alive in Afghanistan and ProPublica recently interviewed several Kabul-based doctors who believed they saw gunshot wounds in civilians coming from Abbey Gate. In response to questions, senior military officials provided a preview of their inquiry into the attack, which found there was no evidence civilians had been shot. The officials allowed the news organizations to interview officers familiar with the investigation and view previously unreleased video and drone footage.

At a press briefing Friday, Pentagon officials said that three commanders huddled near the gate roughly 30 minutes before the bombing. The commanders discussed the deteriorating situation on the ground and the possibility of closing the gate. Brig. Gen. Lance Curtis, who led the investigation, declined to elaborate on what decisions, if any, were made.

Taken together, the new information provides the most detailed look yet at the Pentagon’s evolving story of what happened at Abbey Gate that day. Young Marines and Afghan families were exposed to extraordinary danger as a result of a hastily executed evacuation that left ground commanders with hard decisions and limited options.

Ultimately, investigators determined that the attack was “not preventable” without undermining the evacuation mission.

The investigation also provides insight into how the military made a striking reversal of its assessment of the damage done by gunfire that followed the blast. Initially, top officials told the public that Islamic State fighters opened fire on the Marines. Now, the Pentagon has concluded that there was no enemy gunfire. American and British troops fired their weapons, but they didn’t hit any of the thousands of Afghans crushed against the gate seeking refuge, officials said.

The investigation and its conclusions are likely to raise new questions about the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan as the Taliban rapidly retook the country. The suicide bombing at the gates of the airport was one of the deadliest attacks on American forces in the 20-year history of the war. In addition to those who lost their lives, 45 U.S. service members and an estimated 200 or more Afghans were wounded.

With the date of the final withdrawal approaching, tens of thousands of Americans, green card holders and other Afghans flooded toward the Kabul airport, which was surrounded by high walls with entrances at locations around the perimeter.

The crowd pressed against the gates, some attempting to jump the fences while others passed children over the walls to Marines and members of NATO forces inside the airfield. As the situation grew ever more desperate, commanders leading the evacuation decided to shut down all of the main airport entrances on Aug. 25 except Abbey Gate.

Each gate had to close due to its own unique vulnerability, the officials explained. At the northern entrance, three roads converged to provide “high-speed approaches” susceptible to a car bomb. The eastern gate sometimes required an entire squad to evacuate a single civilian because the Marines decided they could only safely bring in one person at a time.

“The reality is that Abbey Gate was the least risky of all the gates,” one official said.

Alongside dozens of U.S. Marines positioned at the gate, U.S. Army soldiers looked on from a tower inside the airport walls. British troops staffed checkpoints and watchtowers to the southwest. And, in an uneasy alliance, Taliban militants worked with allied troops, guarding the perimeter and controlling the access of civilians into the airport.

The Marines positioned a cluster of shipping containers at the end of an entry road to the gate to form what became a Taliban-controlled checkpoint. Past the checkpoint, the area around the gate had natural advantages. The long, narrow path to it was divided in the middle by a sewage ditch, which provided some measure of crowd control. Several surrounding towers offered key vantage points for American and British troops.

But the protections only held up for so long. As the numbers of people grew, more Marines were needed to form a human barrier to hold back the crowd. They were forced into a tight clump, increasing their vulnerability to attack. At the same time, they had to act as de facto immigration officers, examining documents to determine who to allow to pass through the gate into the airport. Soon, the sewage ditch was filled with desperate Afghans, holding up paperwork and pleading with the junior Marines who lined the canal wall.

A video obtained by the military showed the moment of the attack: At 5:36 p.m., a figure dressed in black took a single step out of the crowd and disappeared in a plume of smoke. A Marine in the frame was staggered by the blast wave, which traveled as far as about 50 meters, the senior military officials said.

In the moments after, investigators determined, American and British troops then fired from four positions surrounding Abbey Gate.

Two British troops fired roughly 30 warning shots into the air, the investigation found. One Marine fired four warning shots over the head of what investigators called a “suspicious individual” and said he saw him run away unharmed. Another Marine fired fewer than 30 rounds at an adult male allegedly holding an AK-47, who was positioned on a rooftop to the east.

“What they don’t see is a hostile act,” said a senior official familiar with the investigation. “They don’t see him firing.” Investigators were unable to determine who the man was or what happened to him. The investigation said it was unlikely he shot at Marines, and that if he did, he was most likely a “rogue Taliban member.”

After the gunfire ceased, Marines began to rush casualties — injured and dying Marines and civilians — into the airport for treatment. In the hurried operations that followed, military doctors assessed that many of the injured and dead had been shot. The doctors treated U.S. service members and dozens of Afghan civilians.

After consulting military medical examiners, the investigators determined the doctors were mistaken in their assessment of what they thought were gunshot wounds. None of the doctors recovered bullets from any patients. What the doctors thought were bullet holes were actually caused by ball bearings exploding from the suicide bomber’s device, the investigation concluded. Blast experts interviewed by ProPublica and Alive in Afghanistan said that these metal balls can produce wounds that look extremely similar to those caused by bullets.

ProPublica and Alive in Afghanistan spoke to six doctors from three different Kabul hospitals about their experience treating civilians in the aftermath of the attack. The doctors remained convinced that they saw wounds from bullets, not only ball bearings. All said they had the experience necessary to make the distinction, having responded to numerous terrorist attacks and firefights in their medical careers.

Their accounts suggest a potential gap in the Pentagon’s inquiry. The investigation concluded there was no evidence that civilians had been shot by anyone. But the investigators never spoke to any of the local, Kabul-based physicians who treated the majority of civilians.

Doctors with Emergency Surgical Centre, a well-regarded, Italian-run facility in Kabul that specializes in the treatment of war victims, said they received 10 people with fatal injuries from gunfire.

Eight were shot in the head or neck, they said. The others were shot in the chest. The doctors said they also treated patients with gunshot wounds.

“It was really a disaster situation,” said Dr. Mir Abdul Azim, a senior surgeon on duty that night who has worked at Emergency for 15 years. Azim did not find any bullets in his patients or the dead. But he said he could tell that the wounds were caused by bullets and not ball bearings from the shape and size of the entry and exit wounds, along with other factors such as the tissue damage he saw.

Dr. Hares Aref, a senior surgeon at Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital, one of Kabul’s largest public hospitals, said he personally operated on three patients with bullet wounds in their legs. “We had patients with bullet injury in this attack, it’s clear,” he said. Aref said that the distinction between ball bearing and bullet wounds is clear to him after witnessing multiple similar mass casualty events in Kabul. “My proof is my experience.”

Dr. Rafi Amiri, a surgeon in charge of the same hospital’s emergency department that night, described a visual inspection of dozens of dead Afghans at the hospital morgue. For many of them, he wrapped their heads in cloth, following an Afghan tradition of preparing bodies for burial. A number of them had what appeared to be gunshot wounds. “Their bodies were intact,” he said. “They only had a bullet wound to the head or the chest.”

In the interview, Amiri repeatedly cautioned that he did not conduct a forensic examination and said he was not interested at the time in determining a cause of death.

Pentagon officials dismissed doctors’ external assessments of wounds as scientifically inconclusive. Only an autopsy “could produce definitive results,” said Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesperson for U.S. Central Command.

Urban also said the ball bearings used in the bombing were almost the same size as bullets used by American troops, adding to the potential for confusion.

Dr. David King, a trauma and combat surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Trauma Center, treated victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, in which terrorists used improvised explosive devices loaded with ball bearings and nails. In an interview, he told Alive in Afghanistan and ProPublica that it was very difficult to distinguish wounds from gunshots versus ball bearings.

“As a generalization, I would say that with a high degree of confidence, looking at the hole alone, you largely, generally cannot tell the difference,” he said.

Michael Cardash, a former deputy head of the Israeli National Police Bomb Disposal Division, has examined bomb attacks for more than 30 years. In an interview, he said that some experienced war zone doctors can distinguish such wounds on sight.

“If he’s a doctor in Kabul, he has probably seen gunshot wounds before,” he said. “I would say, if he is an experienced doctor, he probably knows what he is talking about.”

The military has collected additional evidence that it says disproves allegations of a mass shooting.

The Pentagon investigators conducted interviews with 139 American and British personnel about the incident, according to Urban. “Not a single individual described wanton or reckless shooting post attack,” he said.

While there were “a small number of inconsistencies in the sworn testimony of some of the witnesses interviewed,” Urban said, investigators attributed them to the inexperience of some Marines and the effects of the blast, which left nearby troops disoriented or concussed.

Military officials showed drone footage of the blast site to ProPublica and Alive in Afghanistan reporters. Asked why there was no overhead video of the gate at the time of the blast, the officials said it was because drones were monitoring the airstrip and other “classified threats.” They declined to elaborate. The footage starts three minutes later. The camera bounces between Abbey Gate and other locations around the airport. When it focuses on the gate, no gunfire is clearly visible.

“While this video is not definitive proof that no one was shot during periods of time when the scene was not observed by overhead cameras, they did conclusively demonstrate that the scene of the explosion was not the site of a mass shooting,” Urban said. “Such an incident would have caused panicked fleeing that continued long after the shooting ended and the likes of which were never observed by any video.”

The investigators’ findings are substantially different from the Pentagon’s initial version of events. The day of the bombing, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the leader of Central Command, said that Islamic State gunmen fired at Marines and the crowd. Three weeks later, Maj. Ben Sutphen, operations officer for the battalion at the gate, appeared on CBS News with his own firsthand account.

“He’s blown off his feet,” Sutphen said of a corporal under his command who was knocked over by the blast. “Shot through the shoulder, immediately recovers his weapon and puts the opposing gunman down.”

Urban said Sutphen’s account was “based upon the events as they were shared with him as opposed to his recollection of the events” and that he later told investigators “he may not have been remembering the event correctly.” Urban also said that people close to a bombing can suffer concussions that impair their recall, and thus can “unconsciously” use secondhand information “to fill in the gaps of their memory.”

Reno seeks to purchase motels as affordable housing instead of letting developers demolish them

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

For more than five years, the mayor of Reno, Nevada, has supported the demolition of dozens of dilapidated motels that provided shelter for thousands of residents squeezed by the city’s housing crisis, rather than rehabilitate the buildings to provide affordable housing. Now she’s changing course.

Mayor Hillary Schieve is proposing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire and rehabilitate motels in downtown through the Reno Housing Authority. In fact, the agency has already moved quietly to buy two shuttered buildings. Last week, the agency submitted an offer to buy the Bonanza Inn, a closed 58-unit motel with a history of code violations that is now part of an estate sale. It also submitted a letter of intent to make an offer on a much larger property — the 19-story former Sundowner casino-hotel.

Details of the offers — the prices, contingencies and financing — are not public. The RHA’s board of commissioners discussed the offers last month in a series of closed-door meetings allowed under an exemption in the state’s open meeting law. An RHA spokesperson said the agency has enough funds to purchase the Bonanza Inn but would need to secure financing for the Sundowner purchase. An early estimate by the RHA indicated it would cost $22 million to buy both properties and up to $50 million to rehab the buildings.

The purchases would be the beginning of a broader effort to increase affordable housing in the region, Schieve said. She supports using part of the city’s share of federal stimulus money from the American Rescue Plan Act and would like to see the state, the county and the neighboring city of Sparks chip in money, as they do for other regional projects such as Reno’s homeless shelter. Schieve also wants to explore whether the housing authority can use its existing housing stock as collateral for bonds to help finance more affordable housing. She’d like to borrow at least $200 million. She didn’t provide details on her plans for the additional funding.

“We have a real opportunity when it comes to workforce and affordable housing,” Schieve said.

The city’s about-face follows a ProPublica investigation that found Reno did little to deter the demolition of similar motels that housed some of the city’s most vulnerable residents. Nor did the city provide any incentives for landowners to replace that housing. One developer, casino-owner Jeff Jacobs, has been responsible for most of the motel demolitions, razing nearly 600 housing units since 2017. Schieve and other council members posed for photos during some of those demolitions, celebrating the elimination of what they said were blighted properties to make way for a proposed entertainment district.

After widespread criticism of the demolitions, Jacobs recently announced he would be willing to donate up to $15 million in land for an affordable housing and public parking project. The donation would be contingent on the housing authority financing the project and the city acquiring additional land, he said.

Jacobs has been assembling more than 100 parcels in downtown Reno for what he describes as a $1.8 billion entertainment district that would include hotels, restaurants and an amphitheater. He said the motels he demolished were slums that couldn’t be remodeled and said he provided relocation assistance to most of the people who lived in them.

The property sought by the Reno Housing Authority sits within Jacobs’ proposed district, directly across from his signature casino, the Sands Regency. In fact, the agency’s letter of intent on the Sundowner includes a vacant parcel on a block primarily owned by Jacobs.

The Sundowner has been vacant since 2003. The Bonanza Inn, however, was only recently listed for sale following the death of its owner. Her son told the Reno Gazette Journal that the estate was forced to sell the motel, which had been vacant for more than a year, following aggressive code enforcement efforts by the city. His family couldn’t afford to make the required repairs, he told the newspaper. The property had been cited multiple times for code violations since 2012, according to public records.

In an interview with ProPublica, Schieve reiterated that she doesn’t think “slumlords should be landlords,” but also said she doesn’t favor wholesale demolition of the hotels.

“If you can rehab something, then that’s great, obviously, and if it makes sense to,” Schieve said. “I honestly believe in saving everything you can.”

She added, “I’m not like, ‘Let’s demolish everything.’ That’s not who I am.” Rather, she said, she doesn’t believe people should be forced to live in terrible conditions.

This is the city’s first attempt, however, at preserving such buildings. In addition to supporting Jacobs’ razing of mostly squalid motels, the city used its blight fund in 2016 to finance the demolition of two vacant motels despite pleas from the community to preserve them as housing.

Schieve said the city hasn’t had the financial resources to buy and rehab motels for housing. Federal stimulus money has now made it possible to pursue such acquisitions, she said.

“It’s tough to build it. It’s expensive,” she said. “With the ARPA funds, it really gives us a foot in the door.”

College threatens legal action against former Michigan teacher who spoke with reporters

Baker College, one of the largest private schools in Michigan, is threatening legal action against a former faculty member who spoke to ProPublica and the Detroit Free Press for an investigation published this month.

Jacqueline Tessmer, who taught digital media for 14 years at Baker’s campus in Auburn Hills, told the news organizations that students often came to the nonprofit college unprepared to succeed and exited without degrees or good jobs but with heavy debt from loans. “Baker College has ruined a lot of people’s lives,” she said in the story.

A Jan. 19 letter to Tessmer — sent by the law firm Plunkett Cooney on behalf of Baker — demanded she retract her statements, which it described as “false and defamatory.” It did not specify what, if anything, was false. Arguing that Tessmer was in violation of a nondisparagement clause in a settlement she reached with Baker in an employment dispute, attorney Courtney L. Nichols also demanded that she “agree voluntarily to remit payment to Baker College for the damages it has suffered as a result of your violation(s), including attorney fees.” The letter did not include a dollar amount.

Since publication, Baker has not contacted either news organization to contest the validity of her statements. Before publication, the Free Press and ProPublica informed Baker that Tessmer would be quoted and shared her comments. Baker did not specifically address those quotes or Tessmer’s time at the college.

Baker’s letter to her after publication gave her seven days to respond. Tessmer said in an interview this week she stands by her comments and will not meet the college’s demands.

She said she didn’t see how it would be possible to make a retraction even if she wanted to, given that she expressed her opinion “based on what I did in service to the college” and her comments were only “a couple of sentences in a giant article.”

“I could be quiet, but is it really going to matter at this point?” she added.

The story on Baker examined the college’s low graduation rates, its aggressive marketing and the oversight of a Board of Trustees that has included former presidents of the school.

In addition to the letter to Tessmer, Baker responded to the article by emailing students, writing a letter to the editor in the Free Press, and placing a statement on its website that disparaged the story and touted the school’s achievements. Officials have defended the 111-year-old college as an affordable open enrollment school whose practices are reviewed by regulators and accreditors.

Neither Baker nor its lawyer has responded to a request for comment on the legal threat.

Tessmer’s relationship with Baker ended in a lawsuit she filed for breach of contract and retaliation. The school disputed her claims in a countersuit, and the case ended in a settlement in 2014. The letter from Baker’s lawyer also suggested that if Tessmer had spoken about the settlement, she would be in violation of it.

“This is what they do,” said Tessmer, now self-employed. “They scare. They huff and they puff, and it works a lot of the time. I mean, it’s worked on me.”

The letter to Tessmer said that if she did not comply, “Baker College will consider its available recourse.”

As of Thursday evening, Tessmer had not heard again from the law firm.

New filing unveils startling details of possible fraud by the Trump Organization

This story was first published by ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

A new legal filing by New York’s attorney general this week accused former President Donald Trump’s company of misleading lenders about the financial health of its landmark downtown Manhattan skyscraper, 40 Wall Street, while seeking to renew the building’s mortgage.

Though the Trump Organization called 40 Wall Street “one of the great success stories post 2008,” lender Capital One found the company’s estimates of the building’s worth so unbelievable that the bank declined to refinance the tower’s loan in 2015, the filing alleges.

“Capital One harbored great skepticism regarding the Trump Organization’s valuations,” says the filing, which was submitted by Attorney General Letitia James in response to Trump’s efforts to block her from questioning him and his children as part of an ongoing investigation by her office.

The new accusations offer startling details about possible financial fraud involving 40 Wall Street — one of the subjects of a 2019 ProPublica story that highlighted conflicting financial documents the Trump Organization had filed for the building.

ProPublica’s story documented how income, expense and occupancy numbers cited in the eventual refinance for 40 Wall Street and another Manhattan building sometimes didn’t match those the company had filed with city tax authorities. A lower valuation for the city would produce a lower tax bill, while a higher valuation for lenders would make it easier to get a new mortgage.

One expert said it appeared like the Trump Organization was keeping “two sets of books.”

“It feels like a set of books for the tax guy and a set for the lender,” said Kevin Riordan, a financing expert and real estate professor at Montclair State University, at the time.

In her filing, James asserts that Trump Organization employees, including Trump’s children, took part in a pattern of deception in which they misled lenders, insurers and the Internal Revenue Service by vastly overstating values for 40 Wall Street and a host of other Trump properties, including golf courses in Scotland, Los Angeles and Westchester and his buildings on Fifth and Park avenues.

The Trump Organization on Thursday lashed out at James, a Democrat, via a statement emailed by a spokesperson, saying, “The only one misleading the public is Letitia James.

“She defrauded New Yorkers by basing her entire candidacy on a promise to get Trump at all costs without having seen a shred of evidence and in violation of every conceivable ethical rule,” the organization’s statement said. It asserted that James “has no case” and that the “allegations are baseless and will be vigorously defended.”

Alan Futerfas, a lawyer for Trump’s children Donald Jr. and Ivanka Trump, also criticized James, accusing her of making “repeated threats to target the Trump family” and ignoring legal protections for “the very people she is investigating.”

James is seeking to compel testimony and obtain documents from Trump, Donald Jr. and Ivanka, who she said have not cooperated with her investigation.

The filing says that property valuations formed the heart of statements of financial condition that the Trump Organization used to demonstrate its net worth. The statements, which James said contained inaccuracies, were compiled by an outside accounting agency from a data spreadsheet and backup material provided by the Trump Organization.

Trump’s personal guarantees to some banks and insurers required him to certify that his financial statements were correct, according to James’ filing. The documents say her office has evidence Trump was “personally involved in reviewing and approving” the statements.

If the company or its employees are found to have deliberately provided misleading valuations, they could face civil or criminal penalties. The company is under investigation by both James and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

With its classic Gothic Revival style and signature green spire, 40 Wall Street gave Trump a presence in the most famous financial district in the world. His company doesn’t own it, but rather purchased in 1995 the right to act as the landlord for its office and retail space. Finding tenants for that space, however, particularly in the building’s narrow tower, proved a challenge, especially after 9/11, when occupancy sagged and the entire financial district struggled, the ProPublica investigation found.

James’ filing says that as early as 2009, Capital One, which held the mortgage on the property, “raised substantial concerns about cash flow” at 40 Wall Street, prompting in-person meetings with Trump, longtime Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg and others. Donald Trump Jr. was also involved in the discussions, the filing says.

The conversations led to a loan modification in 2010, with bank personnel harboring doubts about the Trump Organization’s representations of the building’s financial standing. During those discussions, the Trump Organization provided the bank with profit numbers for 2010 of $12.3 million, which bank personnel described as “very optimistic.”

More startling were the differences between valuations that appeared on Trump’s statements of financial condition and those prepared by appraisers for Capital One. The Trump Organization set the value of the building at $601.8 million in 2010, while the appraisals for Capital One done by Cushman & Wakefield set it at just less than one-third of that, $200 million.

Weisselberg shared one of the company’s higher valuations for the building with the bank in early 2015, boasting of “considerable capital investment” and “a much improved cash flow.” He wanted Capital One to restructure its loan and waive a principal payment of $5 million due in November.

But Capital One declined to refinance the mortgage, referencing its own internal estimate that the building was only worth $257 million in the fall of 2014.

That year, 40 Wall Street’s $160 million mortgage was a thorn in Trump’s side, representing his then-largest single debt as he launched his campaign for the presidency.

After Capital One’s rejection, the Trump Organization turned to Ladder Capital Finance, where Weisselberg’s son Jack was a director. Ladder commissioned its own appraisal. Though Ladder used the same Cushman & Wakefield team that had estimated the building was worth $220 million in 2012, the team this time more than doubled the value to $540 million, legal filings said. Ladder approved the refinance.

James’ filing said that evidence her office obtained suggests the 2015 Cushman valuation “appears to have used demonstrably incorrect facts and aggressive assumptions” to arrive at the higher estimate, which the document said “did not reflect a good faith assessment of value.”

On Thursday, Cushman & Wakefield defended its practices, saying it took “great issue with mischaracterizations concerning the work performed and believe they are not supported by the evidence.

“The referenced Cushman & Wakefield appraisals were undertaken and completed in good faith based upon the material information made available,” the company said in a statement emailed by a spokesperson. “We stand behind the appraisers and the referenced appraisals which reflect fair valuations based upon the underlying facts and market dynamics.”

In 2015, the Trump Organization’s statement of financial condition listed the value of the building as $735.4 million.

Ladder Capital and Capital One did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday. Allen Weisselberg and Jack Weisselberg could not immediately be reached.

ProPublica’s 2019 story found several instances of the Trump Organization reporting much lower expenses to its lender, Ladder Capital, than to city tax authorities — including 40 Wall Street’s insurance costs and ground lease. Jack Weisselberg declined to comment at the time on Ladder’s loans or his relationship with the Trump Organization. Executives with Ladder also declined to be quoted for the story then.

In 2019, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen testified before Congress that the Trump Organization inflated valuations at times to appear more profitable and deflated them to achieve a lower real estate tax bill.

Facebook hosted surge of misinformation and insurrection threats in months leading up to Jan. 6 attack: records

Facebook Hosted Surge of Misinformation and Insurrection Threats in Months Leading Up to Jan. 6 Attack, Records Show

by Craig Silverman, ProPublica, Craig Timberg, The Washington Post, Jeff Kao, ProPublica, and Jeremy B. Merrill, The Washington Post

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: The Insurrection

The Effort to Overturn the Election

Facebook groups swelled with at least 650,000 posts attacking the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory between Election Day and the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol, with many calling for executions or other political violence, an investigation by ProPublica and The Washington Post has found.

The barrage — averaging at least 10,000 posts a day, a scale not reported previously — turned the groups into incubators for the baseless claims supporters of then-President Donald Trump voiced as they stormed the Capitol, demanding he get a second term. Many posts portrayed Biden’s election as the result of widespread fraud that required extraordinary action — including the use of force — to prevent the nation from falling into the hands of traitors.

“LOOKS LIKE CIVIL WAR is BECOMING INEVITABLE !!!” read a post a month before the Capitol assault. “WE CANNOT ALLOW FRAUDULENT ELECTIONS TO STAND ! SILENT NO MORE MAJORITY MUST RISE UP NOW AND DEMAND BATTLEGROUND STATES NOT TO CERTIFY FRAUDULENT ELECTIONS NOW !”

Another post, made 10 days after the election, bore the avatar of a smiling woman with her arms raised in apparent triumph and read, “WE ARE AMERICANS!!! WE FOUGHT AND DIED TO START OUR COUNTRY! WE ARE GOING TO FIGHT...FIGHT LIKE HELL. WE WILL SAVE HER❤ THEN WERE GOING TO SHOOT THE TRAITORS!!!!!!!!!!!”

One post showed a Civil War-era picture of a gallows with more than two dozen nooses and hooded figures waiting to be hanged. Other posts called for arrests and executions of specific public figures — both Democrats and Republicans — depicted as betraying the nation by denying Trump a second term.

“BILL BARR WE WILL BE COMING FOR YOU,” wrote a group member after Barr announced the Justice Department had found little evidence to support Trump’s claims of widespread vote rigging. “WE WILL HAVE CIVIL WAR IN THE STREETS BEFORE BIDEN WILL BE PRES.”

Facebook executives have downplayed the company’s role in the Jan. 6 attack and have resisted calls, including from its own Oversight Board, for a comprehensive internal investigation. The company also has yet to turn over all the information requested by the congressional committee studying the Jan. 6 attack. Facebook said it is continuing to negotiate with the committee.

The ProPublica/Post investigation, which analyzed millions of posts between Election Day and Jan. 6 and drew on internal company documents and interviews with former employees, provides the clearest evidence yet that Facebook played a critical role in the spread of false narratives that fomented the violence of Jan. 6.

Its efforts to police such content, the investigation also found, were ineffective and started too late to quell the surge of angry, hateful misinformation coursing through Facebook groups — some of it explicitly calling for violent confrontation with government officials, a theme that foreshadowed the storming of the Capitol that day amid clashes that left five people dead.

Drew Pusateri, a spokesperson for Meta, Facebook’s newly renamed parent company, said that it was not responsible for the violence on Jan. 6. He pointed instead to Trump and others who voiced the lies that sparked the siege on the Capitol.

“The notion that the January 6 insurrection would not have happened but for Facebook is absurd,” Pusateri said. “The former President of the United States pushed a narrative that the election was stolen, including in-person a short distance from the Capitol building that day. The responsibility for the violence that occurred on January 6 lies with those who attacked our Capitol and those who encouraged them.”

To determine the extent of posts attacking Biden’s victory, The Post and ProPublica obtained a unique dataset of 100,000 groups and their posts, along with metadata and images, compiled by CounterAction, a firm that studies online disinformation. The Post and ProPublica used machine learning to narrow that list to 27,000 public groups that showed clear markers of focusing on U.S. politics. Out of the more than 18 million posts in those groups between Election Day and Jan. 6, the analysis searched for words and phrases to identify attacks on the election’s integrity.

The more than 650,000 posts attacking the election — and the 10,000-per-day average — is almost certainly an undercount. The ProPublica/Washington Post analysis only examined posts in a portion of all public groups, and did not include comments, posts in private groups or posts on individuals’ profiles. Only Facebook has access to all the data to calculate the true total — and it hasn’t done so publicly.

Facebook has heavily promoted groups since CEO Mark Zuckerberg made them a strategic priority in 2017. But the ones focused on U.S. politics have become so toxic, say former Facebook employees, that the company established a task force, whose existence has not been previously reported, specifically to police them ahead of Election Day 2020.

The task force removed hundreds of groups with violent or hateful content in the months before Nov. 3, according to the ProPublica/Post investigation.

Yet shortly after the vote, Facebook dissolved the task force and rolled back other intensive enforcement measures. The results of that decision were clear in the data ProPublica and The Post examined: During the nine increasingly tense weeks that led up to Jan. 6, the groups were inundated with posts attacking the legitimacy of Biden’s election while the pace of removals noticeably slowed. Removals did not pick up again until the week of Jan. 6, but even then many of the groups and their posts remained on the site for months after, as Trump supporters continued to falsely claim election fraud and press for states to conduct audits of the vote or to impose new voting restrictions.

“Facebook took its eye off the ball in the interim time between Election Day and Jan. 6,” said a former integrity team employee who worked on the groups task force and, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters. “There was a lot of violating content that did appear on the platform that wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Pusateri denied that the company had pulled back on efforts to combat violent and false postings about the election after the vote. He did not comment on the quantitative findings of the ProPublica/Post investigation.

“The idea that we deprioritized our Civic Integrity work in any way is simply not true,” he said. “We integrated it into a larger Central Integrity team to allow us to apply the work that this team pioneered for elections to other challenges like health-related issues for example. Their work continues to this day.”

The investigation also reveals a problem with the way Facebook polices its groups. Former employees say groups are essential to the company’s ability to keep a stagnant American user base as engaged as possible and boost its revenue, which reached nearly $86 billion in 2020.

But they say as groups have grown more central to Meta’s bottom line, the company’s enforcement efforts have been weak, inconsistent and heavily reliant on the work of unpaid group administrators to do the labor-intensive work of reviewing posts and removing the ones that violate company policies. Many groups have hundreds of thousands or even millions of members, dramatically escalating the challenges of policing posts.

With the administrators themselves steeped in conspiracy theories about the election or, for example, the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, reliable enforcement rarely takes place, say former employees. They say automated tools — which search for particular terms indicating policy violations — are ineffective and easily evaded by users simply misspelling key words.

“Groups are a disaster,” said Frances Haugen, a former member of Facebook’s Civic Integrity team who filed a whistleblower complaint against the company and testified before Congress warning about the damaging effects of the company on democracy worldwide, as well as other problems.

Many of the group posts identified in the analysis fell into what a March internal Facebook report, first published by Politico, defined as “harmful non-violating narratives.” This refers to content that does not break Facebook’s rules, but whose prevalence can cause people to “act in ways which are harmful to themselves, others, or society at large.”

The report warned that such harmful narratives could have had “substantial negative impacts including contributing materially to the Capitol riot and potentially reducing collective civic engagement and social cohesion in the years to come.”

Pusateri declined to comment on specific posts but said the company does not have a policy forbidding posts or comments that attack the legitimacy of the election. He said the company has a dedicated groups integrity team and an ongoing initiative to protect people who use groups from harm.

Facebook officials have noted that more extreme content flowed through smaller social media platforms in the buildup to the Capitol attack, including detailed planning on bringing guns or building gallows that day. But Trump also used Facebook as a key platform for his lies about the election right up until he was banned on Jan. 6. And Facebook’s reliance on groups to drive engagement gave those lies unequaled reach. This combined with the sag in post-election enforcement to make Facebook a key vector for pushing the ideas that fueled violence on Jan. 6.

Critics and former employees say this also underscores a recurring issue with the platform since its founding in Zuckerberg’s Harvard University dorm room in 2004: The company recognizes the need for enforcement only after a problem has caused serious damage, often in the form of real-world mayhem and violence.

Facebook didn’t discover the campaign by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency to spread hyperpartisan content and disinformation during the 2016 presidential election until months after Americans had voted. The company’s actions were late as well when Myanmar’s military leaders used Facebook to foment rapes, murders and forced migrations of minority Rohingya people. Facebook has apologized for failings in both cases.

The response to attacks on the legitimacy of the 2020 U.S. presidential election was similarly slow, as company officials debated among themselves whether and how to block the rapidly metastasizing lies about the election. The data shows they acted aggressively and comprehensively only after Trump supporters had battered their way into the Capitol, sending lawmakers fleeing for their lives.

The ProPublica/Post investigation “is a new and very important illustration of the company's unfortunate tendency to deal with safety problems on its platform in a reactive way,” said Paul Barrett, the deputy director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University's Stern School of Business. “And that almost by definition means that the company will be less effective, because it will not be looking out into the future and preventing problems before they happen.”

The Trouble With Policing Groups

Facebook’s newly vigorous enforcement actions the week of Jan. 6 — which resulted in Trump himself being banned from the platform — marked such a stark contrast from the company’s previous approach that some Trump supporters took to Facebook to complain about the reversal.

“Facebook is Getting Real Brave and Vicious Now,” Jerry Smith, a retired police officer from Missouri who created and ran a group called United Conservatives for America, wrote the day after the Capitol attack. “They Are Removing Tons of Posts From My Groups!”

In a recent interview at his home, Smith said he could not remember writing that message or which deletions prompted his response. He said he opposed political violence and posts that called for it. But he acknowledged it was difficult for him to remove such content as United Conservatives for America’s membership swelled to more than 11,000, with the number of posts surpassing what one person could monitor. The typical group in the ProPublica/Post analysis had more than 1,000 members.

Smith, who showed a reporter that his Facebook account had received 116 violations for breaking company rules, said he found some of Facebook’s policies reasonable but disagreed on how they should be enforced. He posted in United Conservatives for America and other groups at a frenetic pace long before Election Day. As early as the summer of 2020, he warned about alleged Democratic party plans to steal the election and also shared false information about the pandemic, including a video from a conspiracy theorist about the origins of the virus.

“And DEMS Are Pushing For Vote By Mail. Another Way For Them To Steal The Election,” he wrote in August 2020.

In the interview, Smith said he believes that American elections often are rigged and worries that COVID-19 vaccines may be tainted. He has used Facebook groups to share these beliefs with tens of thousands of people — and thinks Facebook’s enforcement of its policies is overly aggressive and a result of political bias against conservatives.

“Are you going to do away with their free speech?” said Smith. “If someone thinks it’s not a fair election … why can’t they have their opinion on whether it’s a fair election or not?”

Facebook Cracked Down Before the Election

Facebook’s problems with groups had long been obvious to company employees, who gathered on a remote video conference in early September 2020 to figure out how to stop groups from spreading hate, violent threats and misinformation as Election Day approached, according to former employees.

Known as the Group Task Force, the new unit they formed consisted of members of Facebook’s Civic Integrity team, the specialized unit charged with protecting elections on the platform, as well as employees from engineering and operations teams who help oversee the contract moderators who review posts flagged by users or by automated systems, former employees said. The goal of the task force was to identify political groups with large numbers of posts and comments that violated the social giant’s rules against hate speech and calls for violence. Former employees involved in the effort said they wanted to apply the platform’s rules while respecting political debate and dialogue.

At the same time, Facebook’s Dangerous Individuals and Organizations team was identifying and removing QAnon groups ahead of the election. The results of the two teams’ actions were striking. All of the more than 300 QAnon groups identified by ProPublica and The Post had been removed by October 2020, when Facebook announced a total ban on the movement, the analysis found.

In the end, the Group Task Force removed nearly 400 groups whose posts had been seen nearly 1 billion times before Election Day, according to a post on Workplace, Facebook’s internal discussion tool. The document later was included in the Facebook Papers disclosed by Haugen to Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Still, members of the task force told ProPublica and The Post that the existence of such a team was an indictment of Facebook’s failure to police groups as part of its normal operations.

“The whole thing of the civic team needing to come in and do the takedowns was not a good state of affairs,” said one employee involved in the task force. “You could make a good argument that this should have already been done.”

On Nov. 5, Facebook banned “Stop the Steal,” a hugely viral group created on Election Day itself that quickly attracted over 300,000 members around a message rooted in attacking the legitimacy of the election. The company cited the prevalence of posts calling for violence and using hate speech in banning the group and all other groups using a similar name.

The next day, Nov. 6, the Group Task Force gathered virtually to celebrate its efforts, former employees said. Days later, a task force member published a Workplace post titled “Some Reflections on US2020” to bring attention to its work.

“Along with heroic efforts from other teams across the company, I truly believe the Group Task Force made the election safer and prevented possible instances of real world violence,” said the post.

But the focus on U.S. political groups and content undermining the election wouldn't last.

A Noticeable Drop in Enforcement

On Dec. 2, Facebook executives disbanded the Civic Integrity team and scattered its members to other parts of Facebook’s overall integrity team, reducing their influence. That resulted in the demise of the Group Task Force. The company also rolled back several emergency measures that had been put in place leading up to Election Day to control misbehavior in Facebook groups.

The Post/ProPublica investigation reveals the result: During the lull in enforcement, hundreds of thousands of posts questioned the legitimacy of Biden’s victory, spread lies about voter fraud and at times called for violence. Meanwhile, the company’s pace of group removals slowed to a crawl, the data analysis shows.

Among the content spreading in groups were videos in which former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn spread false claims of electoral fraud and called for martial law. (Through a spokesperson, Flynn declined to comment.) Another frequent post was a cartoon showing Trump chasing a masked Biden, who carried a bag labeled “election theft” with swing states depicted inside. It was posted more than 350 times in the political groups analyzed by ProPublica and the Post, attracting over 2,500 total likes.

One meme featured a photo of former Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who rose to fame in right-wing circles by leading a congressional committee’s investigation into the deadly 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, accompanied by the text “If you are ok with rigging an election to win, I am ok with martial law to stop you…” That was posted in groups at least 97 times, garnering over 3,500 total likes. Gowdy has denied saying the phrase.

Another meme showed a photo of Trump winking, with the text “Not Only Can Martial Law Guarantee a Trump Victory, It Also Allows Trump To Arrest Anyone He Wants!” It was posted at least 70 times, generating more than 2,400 total likes. The images and their spread in groups was identified using a CounterAction image analysis tool.

“Everyone needs to make a show of FORCE in DC on the 6th and any congress who doesnt follow the constitution or who doesnt stand up for our president (Pence included) needs to be ’corrected’ by WE the PEOPLE - on the front steps of the state house - for all the world to see!!! THIS IS HOW THE US DEALS WITH HER TRAITORS!!!” read one post from Dec. 27, 2020.

Ten days later, as rioters stormed the Capitol, the ProPublica/Post analysis shows, Facebook began taking down groups at a rate not seen since before the election. An internal Facebook spreadsheet from Jan. 6, which was included in Haugen’s disclosures, contains a section called “Action Items.” The top bullet point was a direction to conduct a “Sweep of Groups with V&I risk” — a term referring to violence and incitement. It had been 35 days since the Civic Integrity team, and with it the Group Task Force, had been disbanded.

Groups Still Active Long After Jan. 6

Months after the Capitol was breached, Facebook still was working to remove hundreds of political groups that violated company policies.

One of those was Smith’s United Conservatives for America, which continued to carry posts attacking the legitimacy of Biden’s election until Facebook removed it in May.

When Smith met with a reporter in his home in early December, he’d just finished a 30-day posting ban on Facebook. In spite of his account’s history of violations, he was still managing at least one Facebook group — also called United Conservatives for America.

Like its predecessor, the new United Conservatives for America group was racking up strikes for violations of Facebook’s rules, according to a post Smith made to the group in September.

That post included a screenshot of an automated message from Facebook informing him that eight recent posts in the new United Conservatives for America group had been flagged by fact-checkers. As a result, the distribution of his group’s posts was being limited.

Smith remained defiant.

“I'm Not Blaming Our Members,” Smith wrote. “I’m Blaming FakeBook!”

In late December, after being asked about Smith’s account and group, Facebook said it banned his profile and removed United Conservatives for America, citing unspecified violations of its community standards.

Methodology

Data analyzed for this article included posts and other public activity collected from over 100,000 public Facebook groups tracked between January 2020 and June 2021 by CounterAction, a firm that studies online disinformation. The data was obtained by ProPublica and The Washington Post.

CounterAction marked Facebook groups for tracking if group members had posted links to U.S. political websites. Additional Facebook groups were then marked for monitoring if they had any members in common with groups already under observation. This process was repeated over the tracking period to identify newly created groups and add them to the dataset.

Many of these groups disappeared from public view during the period of our analysis. To determine when groups focused on U.S. politics within our dataset went offline, we analyzed the more than 5,000 groups that had meaningful activity (more than 10 posts tracked) but that were no longer online as of Aug. 30, 2021. We hand labeled each group as political if its name and description showed that it was created to represent or support a U.S. political interest or group, to be a forum for U.S. political speech, or to represent or discuss a social or cultural movement with a strong connection to U.S. politics (whether national or local). We ultimately found more than 2,500 such groups, including those for and against various parties, candidates and issues across the political spectrum, groups for various kinds of political memes and discussions, and groups for movements such as the QAnon conspiracy theory, militia groups and Stop the Steal.

We then estimated the time of disappearance for each of these 2,500+ offline U.S. political groups using the latest date seen on their posts and other group activity. Based on our reporting and the timing of spikes in group disappearances, which often coincided with Facebook’s announcements of group suspensions, we believe the majority of them were removed by Facebook. However, some may have been deleted or removed from public view by their own administrators. We shared the list of more than 2,500 groups with Facebook and asked them to clarify whether they were removed by the company or taken offline by their own administrators. Facebook did not respond to our questions about these groups or any other of our quantitative findings.

We used these labeled offline groups to predict which of the still-online groups within our sample were also U.S. political groups. We used posts from the offline groups to train a text classification model to predict whether a post was from a U.S. political group and ran it against all the posts from each group in our dataset. We labeled a group as a likely U.S. political Facebook group when the mean prediction for its posts was over 0.5 (1.0 indicates that the model predicts with maximum probability that the post is from a U.S. political group). We used this labeling method to identify over 27,000 likely U.S. political groups with posts between Election Day and Jan. 6. We hand checked a sample of the groups to calculate an estimated proportion of groups that were actually U.S. political groups, and got a precision rate of about 79%.

To count the number of posts that specifically sought to delegitimize the election results, we examined 18.7 million posts from Election Day through Jan. 6 within the likely U.S. political Facebook groups. We separated out posts from groups with “Stop the Steal” in their name and calculated which keywords and phrases were disproportionately common in posts from those groups using a text-analysis technique called TF-IDF. Then, we handpicked the terms and keywords that were meaningfully linked to election delegitimization theories (e.g., “stop the steal,” “steal the election,” “every legal vote”). We had about 60 terms that indicated delegitimization on their own, plus 86 more in two buckets that, if terms from both buckets were present, indicated delegitimization (e.g., a reference to absentee ballots on its own did not indicate delegitimization, but a reference to “absentee ballots” and “fraud” did). We identified around 1.03 million posts that likely referenced delegitimization. Finally, we hand-checked a sample of these posts to estimate the proportion that actually sought to delegitimize the election, and got a precision rate of about 64%. (False positives included mainstream news articles, debunks of fraud claims and references to other countries’ elections.) We arrived at our final estimate of delegitimizing posts by multiplying the two together, to get an estimate of a bit more than 655,000.

Due to CounterAction’s sampling method, the groups we analyzed likely contain a greater proportion of right-wing groups than the platform as a whole. The activity of the right-wing groups we analyzed matches with the findings of our reporting, and group activity in our sample coincided with Facebook’s public announcements about group removals. However, we would need additional outside data to analyze whether groups in our sample are representative of the broader platform. We sampled and checked precision rates in our analysis based on a 5% margin of error and 95% confidence level.

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