Utah’s safety net is entangled with the LDS Church — so some get denied unless they practice Mormonism

This 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.

Near the start of the pandemic, in a gentrifying neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Utah, visitors from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived at Danielle Bellamy’s doorstep. They were there to have her read out loud from the Book of Mormon, watch LDS videos and set a date to get baptized, all of which she says the church was requiring her to do in exchange for giving her food.

Bellamy, desperate for help, had tried applying for cash assistance from the state of Utah. But she’d been denied for not being low-income enough, an outcome that has become increasingly common ever since then-President Bill Clinton signed a law, 25 years ago, that he said would end “welfare as we know it.”

State employees then explicitly recommended to Bellamy that she ask for welfare from the church instead, she and her family members said in interviews.

Bellamy’s family was on the verge of homelessness. The rent on their apartment continued to rise — a result of Utah being the fastest-growing state in the nation, a trend driven in part by young, upper-middle-class people from California and elsewhere flocking to Salt Lake City’s snow-capped slopes to enjoy its outdoor activities, tech jobs and low taxes.

Worse, Bellamy suffers from a severe autoinflammatory disease and, barely able to stand, is regularly hospitalized for days at a time. Her younger daughter, Jaidyn, had to drop out of high school to care for her, helping her get up, lie down, bathe and change out the wound vacuums attached to her body.

Although maintaining a safety net for the poor is the government’s job, welfare in Utah has become so entangled with the state’s dominant religion that the agency in charge of public assistance here counts a percentage of the welfare provided by the LDS Church toward the state’s own welfare spending, according to a memorandum of understanding between the church and the state obtained by ProPublica.

What that means is that over the past decade, the Utah State Legislature has been able to get out of spending at least $75 million on fighting poverty that it otherwise would have had to spend under federal law, a review of budget documents shows.

The church’s extensive, highly regarded welfare program is centered at a place called Welfare Square, ensconced among warehouses on Salt Lake City’s west side. There, poor people — provided they obtain approval of their grocery list from a lay bishop, who oversees a congregation — can get orders of food for free from the Bishops’ Storehouse, as well as buy low-priced clothes and furniture from the church-owned Deseret Industries thrift store. (Bishops can also authorize temporary cash assistance for rent, car payments and the like; recipients often have to volunteer for the church to obtain the aid.)

Welfare Square was built in 1938 amid the Great Depression, an intentional repudiation by church leaders of government welfare as epitomized by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. We “take care of our own,” they famously said.

But Bellamy, a Black single mother, is not one of the church’s own — and, unlike the government, a church is often allowed to discriminate based on religion.

The bishop of her local congregation, called a ward, decided that as a precondition of receiving welfare, she would have to read, understand and embrace LDS scripture, Bellamy told ProPublica. Church representatives came by her apartment to decide what individual food items she did and did not need while pressuring her to attend Sunday services, she said.

A church spokesperson, who was not authorized to speak on the record for this story, said that Bellamy’s is just one experience, and there are likely thousands of people across Utah who would swear by the help they’ve received from the church and the guidance they’ve been given toward a more self-sufficient life. He said that because some bishops are more rigid about providing aid than others, some people may wind up in situations like Bellamy’s, but that most in the church default to compassion.

The spokesperson also said that conversations about welfare are between individuals (like Bellamy and others whose stories also appear in this article) and their bishop, and that the church would not break what it regards as a sacred confidentiality.

Bellamy cooperated at first with what was being asked of her. She felt she’d go along “if that’s what I needed to do for some type of goodness to come to my family,” she said, adding that she knew that many in her community had benefited greatly from church welfare and their LDS faith.

Yet she ultimately balked, especially at the thought of being baptized in front of strangers. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t believe in it. And it’s important what I believe in.”

For her refusal, she says, she and her family were denied welfare by the church, just as they had been by the state.

Utah After Welfare Reform

ProPublica is investigating the state of welfare across the Southwest, where the skyrocketing cost of living has made cash assistance for struggling families — an issue that has been brought to the fore again amid debate over President Joe Biden’s child tax credit — more desperately needed than ever.

What the 1996 welfare reform law did, in essence, was dramatically shrink the safety net for the poorest Americans while leaving what aid remained in the hands of individual states, issuing each a “block grant” of federal welfare funding and significant discretion over how to spend, or not spend, the cash.

Ever since, welfare has taken on each state’s personality.

There’s perhaps no better place to examine the past and future of public assistance than Utah, the only state with a private welfare system to rival the government’s. After all, the welfare program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints served as a model for the welfare reform movement of the 1980s and ’90s, when it was spotlighted by then-President Ronald Reagan during a visit to LDS welfare facilities and in the writings of a young conservative named Tucker Carlson.

The first thing Utah did under the 1996 law was to become increasingly closefisted about helping poor people, creating a labyrinthine system of employment and self-improvement programs that applicants must partake in — including resume-writing seminars, screenings for drug use, counseling sessions and continual paperwork — as well as strict income limits they must not surpass. As of 2019, the state was providing direct assistance to about 3,000 families out of nearly 30,000 living in poverty, a precipitous decline from the mid-’90s, when Utah’s program served roughly 60% of these parents and children. (Utah denied welfare applications, on average, more than 1,300 times every month last year, including during the pandemic.)

A single mother of one here is eligible for $399 a month in state assistance, and only if she has a net income of $456 a month or less.

Utah doesn’t do more for those in need in part because a contingent of its lawmakers, the overwhelming majority of whom are Latter-day Saints themselves, assume the church is handling the poverty issue; they also are loath to raise taxes to do the state’s share, a review of Utah’s legislative history demonstrates.

Thanks to “the LDS Church’s welfare system, literally millions, tens of millions and maybe even hundreds of millions of dollars are saved by the state,” former state Sen. Stuart Reid said in 2011, when the Legislature passed a resolution honoring church welfare on its 75th anniversary.

Indeed, Utah has been counting millions in church welfare work every year as part of the state’s own welfare budget, as a way of meeting the minimum level of effort the state is required to put into addressing poverty so it can collect on federal dollars from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF. According to the memorandum of understanding between the church and the state, Utah takes credit for a percentage of the hours that church volunteers spend producing and packaging food and clothing for the poor at Welfare Square and similar facilities.

It also claims as state welfare a percentage of the church’s efforts to produce and ship out humanitarian aid in the wake of disasters — aid that may not even help Utahns.

Officials at Utah’s public assistance agency, which after welfare reform was named the Department of Workforce Services, said they do not know how long they’ve had this “third-party” understanding with the church. But they emphasized that it’s legal under the 1996 law and subsequent federal regulations, and that other states engage in the same practice. (That law was the first federal legislation to allow and encourage religious groups to be involved in the provision of government-funded social services, a policy championed by then-Sen. John Ashcroft and later by President George W. Bush.)

ProPublica found that the deal with the church was brokered in 2009 during the Great Recession, when Utah hired a for-profit company called Public Consulting Group Inc. to identify private organizations that could help the state spend less on welfare while still receiving full federal funding, according to Utah’s contract with PCG.

When the state denies help to low-income Utahns, state caseworkers sometimes, though not always, suggest that they seek welfare from the church instead, according to interviews with more than three dozen former caseworkers and applicants.

“You would explain to them, ‘Have you talked to an LDS bishop?’” said Robert Martinez, an eligibility worker for the Department of Workforce Services from 2013 to 2019.

Martinez said he always gave applicants other nongovernmental options to consider, and there was no coercion to go the religious route. Still, he emphasized to them, the church has a lot more money to offer than the minimal aid dispensed by the state. (In fact, the church appears to have more money than what is by most accounts the largest philanthropic organization in the world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)

Liz Carver, director of workforce development at the Department of Workforce Services and the lead TANF official at the agency, acknowledged in multiple interviews that caseworkers might in some instances propose church welfare to customers, which is what the department calls citizens who apply for public assistance.

But, she said, welfare caseworkers not just in Utah but nationwide refer applicants to a range of community organizations, faith-based or not, all the time. It’s part of a larger conversation with these individuals about what brought them to ask for help that day, she said, and about which needs the government can assist with under the federal regulations and which it can’t.

Utah, Carver noted, is one of the most charitable states in the nation, characterized by a strong ethic of neighbors helping neighbors, which makes the agency’s public-private offerings stronger.

Regarding the state’s fiscal arrangement with the church, Carver said, “We’d have to ask the state Legislature for more money if we couldn’t count this partnership” toward state welfare.

“I mean, we could be counting millions of hours of [church members’] volunteer time, bishops helping their communities, all that stuff,” she continued, suggesting that the current amount of church assistance that Utah is claiming as the state’s is minimal and necessary.

Christina Davis, communication director for the department, added in an emailed statement that the fact that caseworkers may refer Utahns to the church and other private groups is a separate and unrelated issue from the state’s budgetary agreement with the church welfare program.

She also stressed that tens of thousands of low-income households in Utah receive other forms of help from the state, including food stamps and Medicaid.

Finally, Davis pointed out that the number of poor people who are provided direct assistance has been significantly scaled back not just in Utah but across the country.

The problem with Utah’s dependence on church aid to pick up that slack, civil rights advocates say, is that although the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, once instructed his membership to clothe the naked and feed the hungry whether they arein this church, or in any other, or in no church at all,” the thousands of individual bishops who today run point for LDS welfare services may have different views.

Most are continually generous with aid. But some might feel justified in politely denying assistance to poor people who aren’t Latter-day Saints — or to LGBTQ people — even in some cases turning away struggling church members who haven’t been attending services or paying 10% of their income to the church in tithes.

“There’s this term in the church called ‘bishop roulette,’” said David Smurthwaite, a former bishop in Salt Lake City, referring to the differing choices about welfare that get made by each bishop in congregations across the state.

Smurthwaite said that church leadership did equip him with a slate of questions to ask low-income people who came to his office asking for help. But, he said, bishops are “not professional welfare providers, not professional therapists, yet we get put in the hot seat for these kinds of experiences.”

Bishops are called to their lay role on a temporary basis, typically for around five years. Unlike most clergy in other faiths, they often have day jobs. And like with anyone else, their politics can infuse their religion.

There’s also much less accountability than there would be for a government program. Welfare decisions by bishops are subject mainly to the broad tenets of the church’s “General Handbook,” usually with counsel from other church leaders but without oversight from the public.

“If a state’s premier social safety net is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” said W. Paul Reeve, chair of Mormon studies at the University of Utah, “what does that mean if you’re not one?”

Separation of Church and State

The very first words of the First Amendment are not about freedom of speech or the right to protest, but rather a warning against government establishment of religion.

That is why the state of Utah’s welfare-provision system being intertwined with the LDS Church is “troubling,” said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia and a leading expert on the separation of church and state. “I can’t think of anything at all analogous,” he said, adding that if someone sues, it would be a “novel” case.

Laycock noted, though, that if Utah’s granting and denying of welfare applications isn’t itself religious in nature, it may not matter legally that the state then tells some applicants deemed ineligible about a private source of aid — even one, like the church, that may judge them based on religion.

Nathan S. Chapman, a constitutional law professor at the University of Georgia, said a key question is whether Utah has “partnered” with the LDS Church to enough of an extent that the overall system for providing welfare in the state is “insufficiently religiously neutral” and thus denies vulnerable people “true private choice” as to whether to partake in religion so they can receive assistance.

But he also said the state could argue that it is not constitutionally obligated to provide welfare to citizens, and that there is a marketplace of private aid providers including not just the LDS Church but also others that are less publicized in Utah, like Catholic Community Services.

ProPublica interviewed more than two dozen low-income Salt Lake City-area residents about their experiences with Utah’s safety net. Almost all who weren’t active church members — and even many who were — felt that welfare in Utah is religiously prejudicial, at least in practical terms, because the state has left a vacuum of social services that’s filled by individual bishops and their potential biases.

Candice Simpkins, who grew up in the church, says she struggled to pay her bills and afford groceries after the birth of her daughter but knew from reading a state website that her income was slightly too high for her to qualify for public assistance. When she went to a bishop for help instead, she says, she was told that she wouldn’t be in her situation if she hadn’t had sex out of wedlock, and that she would have to start attending church services. (Feminist Mormons say that women especially are affected by the capriciousness of welfare in Utah. Bishops are all men, and some view both premarital sex and divorce, each of which can lead to precarious financial situations, as the fault of women, critics say.)

A close friend of Simpkins’, whom she called in tears after her interaction with the bishop, corroborated her description of what happened.

In another case, Jo Alexander, who is lesbian, says she was desperate for a hotel room during a period of homelessness. But she knew she couldn’t get public assistance from the state because she had received it around two decades ago as a young woman and therefore had exceeded her lifetime limit under another of the rules implemented under welfare reform. As a result, she went to a bishop.

Despite being raised as a member of the church, she was denied. She says it is known in the community that she is gay and she believes that was the reason for her rejection. (A friend confirmed her account, though there are no public records of these private conversations with bishops.)

And Miranda Twitchell, who is currently homeless, says the rules and procedures for obtaining state aid are so convoluted and seemingly endless that she had nowhere to turn except the church for immediate help when she needed food and a bed — and that’s when she decided to follow a piece of advice shared on the streets: “Get baptized, get help.”

Some low-income people in Salt Lake City say they have gotten baptized just to obtain welfare, even though they don’t believe in the ritual. Most who had done so were afraid to speak on the record for this story, believing the church would learn that their conversion stories were inauthentic and retaliate by not helping them in the future.

The LDS spokesperson defended the church’s approach to welfare in part by emphasizing that the church should not be confused with a government agency or considered a replacement for the government in the provision of public assistance. (Indeed, the LDS “General Handbook” clearly states that church members should turn to the government first for financial help, before going to their bishop.)

The church does look after its own membership, the spokesperson said, given that it is a religious institution. If a nonmember seeks help, there’s less of a preexisting relationship with that person, and a bishop may ask the individual to come to services to see firsthand what his or her needs are. There, relationships are established with church members, who then extend a hand of fellowship.

Finally, he said, one of the church’s larger goals is for people who are struggling financially to learn self-reliance and industriousness, not dependency. This may be one reason that some felt rejected when they asked for ongoing assistance.

Experts on charitable giving note that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members arguably do more than any other religious community to help people in poverty. (In Utah, the churchhasgiven tens of millions to fight homelessness.)

Several active Latter-day Saints in the Salt Lake City area said that when faced with financial hardship, they may actually have a better safety net than anyone in any state, because they can count on the church for help with food, clothes, furniture, rent, utilities, car payments and repairs, tanks of gas, medical bills, moving expenses, job searches and general life problems.

Benjamin Sessions, executive director of Circles Salt Lake, an anti-poverty community organization, said that a struggling family he works with recently called him in the middle of the night while huddling in their car with nowhere to go. Sessions called up a local LDS leader he knows personally, who simply said, “What do you need? Get me a list.”

Help from the church is “dramatic and it’s quick,” Sessions said. “If you ask me to choose between calling up someone at the state versus someone at the church, I would call the church 10 out of 10 times.”

Others say it is a strength of this country that there are so many religious groups, including the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, synagogues and mosques, that provide food and shelter to the poor.

“If someone has to listen to preaching to get free food, is it less than optimal? Sure,” the Cato Institute’s Michael D. Tanner told The Atlantic. “But it’s probably not the thing I’m most worried about.”

Yet most other faith-based organizations do not make religious rites such as worship or baptism a prerequisite of basic survival help, the way that some LDS bishops do, experts on religious charity say.

Even some lifelong church members in the Salt Lake City area told ProPublica that they were denied welfare by the church for religious reasons.

Amberlyn Robinson, who had been such a loyal churchgoer that she says she missed services only twice that she can remember during her entire childhood, fell deep into medical debt as a young woman after having a miscarriage that was nearly as expensive as it was traumatizing. She looked at her family’s finances and decided that the only way to pay the bills would be to be less consistent about tithing 10% of their limited income from her then-husband’s two jobs in retail, even though she worried God would smite her as a consequence.

Her bishop then denied her financial assistance, citing her failure to pay tithes as one reason — which left Robinson baffled as to how an inability to afford tithing could show anything but her need, she says, and made her so resentful that she ultimately left the faith.

Danilyn Levorsen, who was also born and raised in the church, struggles with rent and bills as the cost of living in and around Salt Lake City surges.

Her husband, who has severe disabilities that add to the family’s expenses, is a fan of the supernatural. He volunteers at a haunted house, Halloween is his Christmas, and he has intense tattoos.

When he asked a bishop for help, Levorsen says, the bishop responded by criticizing his alternative lifestyle and dark clothing.

“I hear on the news all the time that the church is shipping food to other countries,” she said, adding that she completely understands and supports those efforts, given the poverty in the world.

“But this is supposed to be their golden city, here,” she said. “And this is how they do us?”

It’s the State’s Responsibility

The onus to provide a safety net for America’s poorest families and children — and equal access to such services under the law irrespective of religion, gender, race or class — ultimately falls on the government, not a church that has a right to choose whom to serve.

Joel Briscoe, a former bishop in Salt Lake City and now a Democratic state legislator, said that as a bishop he always had people coming to him after they had tried and failed to get help from the state, especially food stamps. He could only do his best to make up for public assistance being “ludicrous, the amounts are so small,” he said.

Utah’s stinginess with aid stems in part from its focus on putting welfare applicants to work — no matter how much work a family is already putting into just getting by.

In Bellamy’s case, a state employee told her daughter Jaidyn that the family could get assistance only if she stopped staying at home to care for her mom and instead got a job, the family said. (She now works at a child care center. Bellamy’s older daughter, Imani, works overnight shifts as a home health care aide.)

Bellamy noted that the state has helped her with food stamps; she has also had many neighbors from the LDS church show her great kindness throughout her life, she said.

While denying so many families direct assistance, Utah was, as of a 2012 Government Accountability Office report, leading the nation in aid that its government was supposed to be providing the poor but was instead outsourcing to a third-party nongovernmental organization.

States do not have to report the extent to which they engage in this accounting maneuver, but a 2016 follow-up GAO report found that 15 others do it. By that time, Georgia was the outlier among several states that aggressively count as their own spending the charitable activities of groups such as United Way, the YMCA, food banks and domestic violence shelters.

Scott Dzurka, former president and CEO of the Michigan Association of United Ways, told the publication Bridge Michigan that his organization eventually decided to stop allowing its work to be counted by the state as welfare. “We looked long and hard at that,” he said, “and raised concerns that really our resources may in fact be working against what we were trying to do, which was to supplement state poverty efforts, not replace them.”

The LDS Church declined to comment on this issue.

For a brief period during Barack Obama’s presidency, the administration and Congress were both moving to prevent states from “gaming the system” by counting outside spending as their own. But Rep. Tom Price, who went on to briefly head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Donald Trump, helped kill the legislation that would have ended the practice.

Because states are largely allowed to count welfare dollars how they want, Utah has also been able to spread this money around among its lawmakers’ favored projects, many of which are aimed at preventing low-income people from having sex out of wedlock rather than providing them with direct aid. (This is despite mounting evidence that cash assistance — money — alleviates poverty — a lack of money — much more effectively than less direct interventions like parenting classes.)

Welfare funding in Utah goes to the Utah Marriage Commission, among many other similar initiatives. These include a 4-H program called Teen Spheres of Influence that state budget documents say makes teens “3.4 times more likely to delay sexual intercourse through high school,” as well as a relationship program called “How to Avoid Falling for a Jerk or Jerkette.”

Davis, the Department of Workforce Services spokesperson, reiterated that all uses of TANF funds in Utah are consistent with federal regulations implemented under welfare reform, which explicitly pressed states to reduce pregnancies among the poor unless they are in married, two-parent households.

Still, Utah continues to evolve, diversifying, becoming less of an LDS state centered on traditional family life. One area south of Salt Lake City is now so jammed with tech companies that it has been rechristened the Silicon Slopes. Meanwhile, thousands of the region’s residents have become homeless over the past decade and are being pushed from one up-and-coming neighborhood to the next by the police and the health department.

Farther up the mountainside, past the lovely houses around the state Capitol, you’ll find their latest encampment set against a cliff above the blazing lights of the Marathon Oil refinery to the northwest. Most here say they were denied survival help by the state first and the church second, or vice versa. Many say their rejection by the church was due to their unkempt appearance, their refusal to attend church services they find hypocritical, or an assumption by bishops that they would spend financial assistance not on food, but on drugs.

Michelle Low grew up in the faith but says she had a dysfunctional home life and became addicted to drugs while still a child, and then became homeless. She is now trying not to ask the state for help because of the strict lifetime limit on receiving aid; she wants to be able to apply for it down the road if she needs to. (But she says she could use the aid to buy warm clothes and shoes and to pay her cousin rent so she’d have somewhere to live indoors.)

Instead, Low asked the church for assistance, despite the many moral and intellectual questions she has had since childhood about church doctrine. But a bishop she spoke with said he couldn’t help her unless she made the choice to live together with and marry her child’s father, she says.

The bishop said they could be married right there in his office.

To which Low said, “He isn’t the right guy for me, and also I don’t want to get married in an office.”

“See,” she says, “it’s always ‘We’ll help you if.’”

'If everybody’s white, there can’t be any racial bias': The disappearance of Hispanic drivers from traffic records

by Richard A. Webster

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: Unwatched

A Louisiana Law Department That Polices Itself

When sheriff’s deputies in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, pulled over Octavio Lopez for an expired inspection tag in 2018, they wrote on his traffic ticket that he is white. Lopez, who is from Nicaragua, is Hispanic and speaks only Spanish, said his wife.

In fact, of the 167 tickets issued by deputies to drivers with the last name Lopez over a nearly six-year span, not one of the motorists was labeled as Hispanic, according to records provided by the Jefferson Parish clerk of court. The same was true of the 252 tickets issued to people with the last name of Rodriguez, 234 named Martinez, 223 with the last name Hernandez and 189 with the surname Garcia.

This kind of misidentification is widespread — and not without harm. Across America, law enforcement agencies have been accused of targeting Hispanic drivers, failing to collect data on those traffic stops, and covering up potential officer misconduct and aggressive immigration enforcement by identifying people as white on tickets.

“If everybody’s white, there can’t be any racial bias,” Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina of Chapel Hill, told WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica.

Nationally, states have tried to patch this data loophole and tighten controls against racial profiling. In recent years, legislators have passed widely hailed traffic stop data-collection laws in California, Colorado, Illinois, Oregon, Virginia and Washington, D.C. This April, Alabama became the 22nd state to enact similar legislation.

Though Louisiana has had its own data-collection requirement for two decades, it contains a loophole unlike any other state: It exempts law enforcement agencies from collecting and delivering data to the state if they have an anti-racial-profiling policy in place. This has rendered the law essentially worthless, said Josh Parker, a senior staff attorney at the Policing Project, a public safety research nonprofit at the New York University School of Law.

Louisiana State Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, attempted to remove the exemption two years ago, but law enforcement agencies protested. Instead, he was forced to convene a task force to study the issue, which thus far hasn’t produced any results, he said.

“They don’t want the data because they know what it would reveal,” Duplessis said of law enforcement agencies.

To understand the impact of the state’s unique policy, WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica looked at nearly six years of data on traffic citations issued by the New Orleans Police Department in the state’s largest city, by the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, and by the state police in Jefferson Parish. The parish was chosen because it has the largest Hispanic population in the state, and because the Sheriff’s Office, which is the primary police presence there, has been routinely accused by residents and local activists of harassing and profiling Hispanic people.

The data showed that of the almost 80,000 tickets that the Louisiana State Police handed out in Jefferson Parish over nearly six years, not a single one was issued to a person labeled as Hispanic.

It showed a similar pattern in Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office: Of the more than 73,000 traffic tickets the office issued between 2015 and September 2020, deputies identified only six of the cited people as Hispanic. As of 2020, Hispanics made up 18% of the parish’s population of more than 440,000.

By contrast, the New Orleans Police Department issued about 7,000 tickets to Hispanic people during the same period when the Sheriff’s Office claimed it issued only six. That represented 4% of all tickets in New Orleans, where the overall percentage of Hispanic people was 8% in 2020.

Baumgartner said that in many law enforcement agencies, there is “no real rhyme or reason or logic” to how officers classify race. “The white/black distinction is generally well recorded, but the Hispanic one is not. Many Hispanics are wrongly classified as white.” The data bears out Baumgartner’s point in an alarming way: Unlike Hispanic drivers, Black drivers in Jefferson Parish were cited at a rate 1.5 times what would be expected based on their share of the population.

State Police spokesperson Lt. Melissa Matey, as an explanation for not counting Hispanics, cited the current National Crime Information Center standards, which don’t include Hispanic as a race. The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office did not respond to emails and phone calls requesting comment.

While Hispanic is an ethnicity, more than 80% of law enforcement agencies use it as a race when collecting information from drivers during traffic stops, according to a sample of 69 departments studied by one expert on racial profiling.

Traffic stops are the most common interaction between citizens and police, and often lead to finding people who have outstanding warrants or who are in the country illegally. As a result, they present the most opportunities for abuse and misconduct, said Jeffrey Fagan, a professor at Columbia Law School.

Failure to track and analyze traffic stop data has the potential to mask racial profiling, he cautioned, especially for the Jefferson Parish sheriff’s department, which has long been plagued by charges of racism. A previous investigation by WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica found that more than 70% of the people Jefferson Parish deputies shot at during the past eight years were Black, more than double the parish’s Black population. And 12 of the 16 people who died after being shot or restrained by deputies during that time were Black men.

By failing to scrutinize the actions of its deputies during traffic stops, the Sheriff’s Office is “willfully blinding” itself to the fact that it could be engaging in racially biased enforcement of the law, Fagan said. “And they’re blinding themselves to the fact that the inaccuracy rises to the level of a potential constitutional violation,” he added.

Based in part on the findings of the news organizations’ investigation, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana sent a letter last week to the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana requesting a “pattern-or-practice” investigation into the Sheriff’s Office, a type of inquiry that typically focuses on departments accused of systemic and institutional misconduct, abuses and corruption.

“For decades, JPSO, under color of law, has systematically violated the rights of Black and Brown people in Jefferson Parish,” wrote Alanah Odoms, executive director. “Rather than institute reforms in response to public outrage, the Sheriff’s Office prefers to blame the victims and their families. A federal investigation is necessary and appropriate to address this pattern and practice of abuse.”

“How Do They Know That They’re Doing an Effective Job?”

For years, many in Jefferson Parish’s Hispanic community have accused the Sheriff’s Office of targeting them for stops with the intention of investigating their immigration status. In one high-profile case from 2017, Atdner Casco, a Honduran native, claimed he was beaten and robbed of more than $2,000 by deputies working on a task force dedicated to identifying and deporting undocumented people.

Casco filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office, which settled last year for $50,000. One detective was fired.

Casco’s attorneys, Casey Denson and Kenneth Bordes, said the stop and detention of their client — who is now eligible for a U visa, which grants permanent residency to crime victims — was a clear case of racial profiling conducted on behalf of immigration services. They pointed to a statement provided by the supervising detective on the scene that day who said, based on his eight years of experience working narcotics, “Hispanic males” are “usually involved in some type of illegal activity.”

Over the last decade, similar allegations of discriminatory practices against Hispanic communities have prompted the Department of Justice to investigate law enforcement agencies in states including North Carolina, Connecticut, Arizona, Louisiana and New York.

In a 2011 report on New Orleans, DOJ investigators noted that “Latinos in New Orleans, especially young Latino males, reported that NOPD officers stop them for unknown reasons or for minor offenses that would not ordinarily merit police attention, and then question them regarding immigration status.” (Under a subsequent federal consent decree, the police department implemented a policy against inquiring about immigration status, and it now stops Hispanic people at a rate roughly commensurate with their share of the population.)

Police departments that allegedly engage in racial profiling typically share a common trait: a failure to collect and analyze traffic stop data, said Cheryl Phillips, co-founder of Stanford University’s Open Policing Project, which has studied traffic stop data from more than 33 state law enforcement agencies and 57 of the largest city police departments in each state.

Connecticut’s East Haven Police Department, for example, was criticized by DOJ investigators for unfairly targeting Latinos in traffic enforcement, but also for “woefully failing to design and implement internal systems of control that would identify, track, and prevent such misconduct.”

“How do they know that they’re doing an effective job of not racially profiling if they don’t actually look at their stops? If they don’t actually evaluate their performance?” Phillips said.

According to the Policing Project at NYU, only 22 states and Washington, D.C., require the collection of data on traffic stops. And in those, “many agencies store data in ways that make it difficult — if not impossible — to standardize and analyze, which in turn makes it difficult to identify patterns of behavior and inform changes to policy or practice,” the authors wrote in a 2020 report.

This is the case in Louisiana, where efforts to rein in racial profiling have been halting at best. In 2001, the state legislature passed a statute that was supposed to improve data collection in traffic stops to combat biased policing. The statute requires officers to record the race, gender and age of drivers during all traffic stops. The race of the driver is to be based on the “observation and perception of the law enforcement officer,” according to the statute. It “shall not be required to be provided by the person stopped.”

The data is sent to the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, which is then supposed to send an annual report on to the governor and legislature.

But because of the law’s provision that departments that have an anti-racial-profiling policy in place don’t have to collect and deliver data, many don’t. A report from the Southern Poverty Law Center found that in 2018, about two-thirds of the state’s 331 law enforcement agencies had an anti-racial-profiling policy in place, exempting them from reporting data to the state. Of the 109 agencies that had no policy, only two had submitted data over the previous 18 years, according to the report, despite the law.

The statute’s original sponsor, then-Rep. Cedric Richmond, who is now a White House senior adviser, originally hoped to create a million-dollar data collection system; when the legislature allocated no money to the effort, the exemption was added. In a 2001 Times-Picayune story, Richmond later said that the goal of the law had never been data collection, but ensuring that law enforcement agencies were discouraging racial profiling through policy.

That same story detailed how law enforcement agencies were scrambling to enact policies specifically to avoid a data collection process they described as “overbearing.”

“It’s so hard. It’s too much paperwork,” then-Covington Police Chief Jerry DiFranco said of the data collection requirements.

Parker with the NYU Policing Project described Louisiana’s carve-out as “very unusual and unacceptable.” Any law enforcement agency can write a policy against racial profiling, he said, but they must be able prove officers are adhering to the policy and that the policy itself is effective in eliminating racial disparities. And that’s what the collection and analysis of data accomplishes.

Failure to do so is the “antithesis of democratic policing,” Parker said.

A Policy on Paper

On paper, Jefferson Parish’s policy against racial profiling is clear: “racial, ethnic, religious affiliation and gender-based profiling … are totally unacceptable.” Motorists are only to be stopped “upon reasonable suspicion that they have committed, are committing or are about to commit an infraction.”

The policy specifically addresses the misidentification of race. It states that “the deliberate recording of any misleading information related to the actual or perceived race, ethnicity, gender, religious affiliation or sexual orientation of a person stopped … is prohibited and a cause for disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.”

But in practice, that policy does not appear to be enforced. The six stops identified as Hispanic represent .008% of all 73,000 stops made in a place where roughly 18% of the population is Hispanic. (The findings for white drivers is more complicated: The data shows white people were stopped at rates roughly equivalent to their share of the population, but that includes what appear to be thousands of Hispanic people wrongly categorized as white.)

The records indicated that Jefferson Parish deputies tend to classify Hispanic drivers as white: Five of the top 10 most common last names of people cited as “white” on tickets were Rodriguez, Martinez, Hernandez, Garcia and Lopez. That’s basically impossible: the U.S. Census Bureau says more than 90% of people with those five last names are Hispanic.

Seven experts on racial profiling who reviewed the Jefferson Parish data obtained by WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica said the level of misidentification is nearly unparalleled around the country. Three who have done in-depth studies of traffic stop data collection could name only one other law enforcement agency — the Texas Department of Public Safety — that engaged in the same practice to a similar extent.

To try to assess the actual numbers, the news organizations looked at the traffic stops by last name.

We looked at the top 10 names of white people cited in the list, which represented about 1,800 stops. Six of the top seven names were reported in the U.S. Census Bureau surname tables as more than 90% likely to belong to people who do not identify as white. We could not look at all names in our data set because among the less common last names, there were many for which we could not reliably assign a race.

According to an attorney for the Jefferson Parish clerk of court, where the data is held, the misidentification is happening at the time of the stop. Traffic citations used by the Sheriff’s Office are handwritten and include a blank space for race and sex. It is up to the deputy to determine the person’s race or ethnicity, which they typically do by hand-writing single letters on the ticket: W for white, B for Black, A for Asian and H for Hispanic, for example.

The Sheriff’s Office did not respond when asked whether their deputies are trained to exclude the category of Hispanic when determining someone’s race.

The Sheriff’s Office sends information from those forms to the traffic court, which uploads the data into its system, said Carey Daste, in-house counsel for the clerk of court. Daste and Donald Finger, judicial administrator for 1st Parish Court, said any errors occurring in the identification of someone’s race or ethnicity are not happening on their end, as they are simply the recipients of the data and do not input any information themselves.

The Stanford project has evaluated more than 100 million records from law enforcement agencies across the country, and of those, only the Texas Department of Public Safety appears to have misidentified Hispanic people as consistently as the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, Phillips said.

A Texas state law requires officers to record the race of every driver during traffic stops to combat racial profiling. But an investigation by TV station KXAN in Austin found that between 2010 and 2015, troopers with the Texas Department of Public Safety misidentified “more than 1.9 million drivers with traditionally Hispanic names” as white. And just like in Jefferson Parish, the “most common last names of drivers stopped and recorded as white by troopers [were]: Smith, followed by Garcia, Martinez, Hernandez, Gonzalez and Rodriguez,” according to the report.

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw said at the time the problem could be attributed to errors made by the troopers or flaws with the department’s computer system, saying he would work to address both. A year after the 2015 investigation, the number of Hispanic people misidentified as white had dropped by more than 75% due to an increased focus on improving the accuracy of data collection.

Critics, however, assert that misidentification by officers may be done on purpose, to conceal racial profiling. Alex del Carmen, an associate dean and professor at Tarleton State University’s School of Criminology, Criminal Justice and Strategic Studies, said it is difficult to prove intent. At the same time, he added that it is “inconceivable” for a deputy to look at a person who speaks only Spanish, who is listening to Spanish music in his car, and who has the skin tone of someone of Hispanic descent, and to mark them as white without there being some intention behind the action.

“You could say the person was lazy,” del Carmen said. “You could also say, well, maybe the officer intentionally did that to be able to lower the number of individual Hispanics that he or she stopped, because they were being scrutinized.”

A Fear of Driving

Local activists and some Hispanic residents of Jefferson Parish do not believe that the misidentification of their ethnicity by deputies is a series of innocent errors, given the history of the Sheriff’s Office.

Since 2000, the Hispanic population in Jefferson Parish has more than doubled, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, growth driven in part by Central American immigrants arriving in search of work during the rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina. Many of these immigrants settled in Jefferson Parish due to affordable rents and landlords willing to accommodate undocumented people.

Tensions escalated during the Trump administration, when anti-immigrant rhetoric was at its height. While New Orleans refused to work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and was at one time labeled a sanctuary city by state Attorney General Jeff Landry, the federal government found a willing partner in the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office.

“The Trump policy on immigration is the first one in a long time that has made any sense to me,” then-Sheriff Newell Normand said in 2017. A year later, his successor, current Sheriff Joe Lopinto, told a group of Hispanic activists that he would continue the policies of his predecessor, “even though it may lead to the deportation of undocumented immigrants,” according to The Times-Picayune and The New Orleans Advocate.

The Department of Homeland Security has awarded the Sheriff’s Office multiple grants since 2017 to assist in the identification and deportation of undocumented people. One of the key tactics in doing so is traffic stops, which has left many Hispanic people in Jefferson Parish afraid to drive.

“I think we just leave our houses kind of terrified,” said a local activist who asked to remain anonymous due to his immigration status. “I’m white-knuckled on the steering wheel, just making sure I’m always going the speed limit and that everything on my car is perfect. Because for any tiny thing, you just don’t know how the police might react and what could happen.”

Without the data collection to depend on, determining whether Hispanic drivers have been stopped disproportionately often is difficult. The news organizations tried. To show there had been disproportionate ticketing of Hispanic motorists in Jefferson Parish, we would have needed a way to reliably reassign races to everyone in the data set, but there were many names that we could not reliably assign a race to. An analysis based on where drivers live was not possible given limited address information on the citations.

Nonetheless, Rachel Taber, a local immigration activist, said she has witnessed sheriff’s deputies cruising predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods, stopping people randomly, and then arresting them in coordination with ICE agents.

“People have learned through lived experience that the police are not someone you can go to for protection, but are dangerous to communities of color,” Taber said.

Constantino Rodriguez was cited for driving without a license in 2019 and misidentified as white. He owns a concrete company, and he said sheriff’s deputies routinely pull over his employees, who are mostly Hispanic and work in the construction industry, which is known to employ undocumented people.

“I was on vacation and my guys called me and said they got pulled over one block from the job because they didn’t have seat belts on,” he said. “They asked for their IDs, asked where they were from and if they spoke English.”

Rodriguez said this happens several times a week. The records showing that only six Hispanic people were cited over a six-year period, he said, are “complete and utter lies.”

How to protect yourself from salmonella this Thanksgiving

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.

Thanksgiving is just a few days away, and I regret to inform you that there's a multidrug-resistant salmonella outbreak running rampant in the nation's poultry industry.

I know that's daunting, but something to be thankful for this year is the ProPublica reporters who spent the past several months uncovering that the outbreak never abated and looking into how fragmented food safety rules left the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration ill-equipped to stop it. I know I am.

I don't bring up salmonella to scare you (most of the ProPublica reporters who ate poultry before working on this story still eat poultry) but to prepare you. While the food regulatory system has failed to stop the rise of infantis, a salmonella strain that doctors find difficult to treat, there are a lot of steps you can take to protect yourself.

For what it's worth, salmonella tends to be found way more frequently in chicken than whole turkey, and the tips below apply to both birds (as well as just about any other) you wish to eat.

Check Your Turkey Using ProPublica's Chicken Checker.

Your turkey's packaging should come with a P-number. Usually, it's found on the USDA's mark of inspection or printed near a use-by date, inspection stamp or price tag. ProPublica created a searchable database that shows the salmonella records of the nation's poultry plants. Enter in the P-number on your package, and you can see the salmonella rate where the poultry came from.

If you find your bird came from a place with instances of high-risk salmonella, that doesn't mean you ought to throw it away. It just means you should be extra careful when you prepare it.

As a side note, we are not finished reporting on salmonella in poultry. If you'd like to help, please fill out the form below the Chicken Checker to share your bird's P-number and where you bought it. That'll help our reporting on the poultry supply chain.

Do Not Rinse Your Turkey.

We see this all the time. You unwrap your turkey and put the whole thing under water. I get it. Poultry is slimy, and your elders taught you to do this. But if there's salmonella on your turkey, rinsing is a great way to splash the bacteria onto other surfaces in your kitchen, where you'll least expect it, the USDA says. That's called cross-contamination. Eliminating it, you'll find, is a theme here.

Britanny Saunier, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education, told me that rinsing poultry is a habit that has been passed down from a time when the birds came from your own yard or a local farm and cleaning literal dirt off them was in order. There's no need to rinse a processed bird, though.

Wash Your Hands Again and Again and Again (With Soap)!

Remember how in March 2020 everyone was relearning how to wash their hands for the full CDC-recommended 20 seconds and nervously joking about how touching your face will kill you? Now carry that spirit into the holiday. Before you start cooking, wash your hands. Then wash them again, maybe after every step. Most importantly, you should always wash your hands in between touching raw meat and anything else in your kitchen.

Some people prefer to get gloves. I find that to be annoying because you have to keep taking them on and off to prevent cross-contamination. But whatever keeps you most vigilant and your kitchen cleanest is the way to go.

Actually, Just Wash Everything (With Soap)!!

Salmonella bacteria are resilient little germs. They can survive hours to days on surfaces and cannot be killed by drying or freezing, according to the FDA. If you touch raw turkey, wash your hands immediately after. But let's say you forget and go get something out of your fridge. It's probably worth disinfecting the fridge handle now. And the faucet you used to wash your hands. Did you prep your turkey on the counter? Clean that. Use a cutting board? Clean that, too. Check a recipe on your phone? You get the idea.

Keep Your Raw Turkey Separate From Everything Else.

Don't use the same cutting boards for preparing raw turkey and vegetables without a thorough cleaning in between. As much as possible, minimize the surfaces and other food that raw poultry comes into contact with. Don't, for example, put cooked meats on the same plate they sat on raw.

Get a Meat Thermometer (or Several).

Salmonella — even the most dangerous strains — perishes at 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and a meat thermometer is the only surefire way to tell if your poultry has reached that temperature. The USDA recommends putting the device in the deepest part of the breast, the innermost part of the thigh and the innermost part of the wing. White meat cooks faster than dark, so those three parts will all hit 165 degrees at different times during the cooking process, but they all do need to reach 165 before you should eat your bird.

Some people like their turkeys cooked hotter than 165 (especially the breasts, which are tougher). That's a personal call. ProPublica doesn't care how hot your bird is, as long as every millimeter of it is hotter than 165.

(ProPublica data reporter Irena Hwang also really wants me to remind you about the amazing power of letting your meat rest after you've finished cooking it. Just not for too long.)

There's really no good way to eyeball whether your turkey is cooked well enough to have killed the salmonella. Just get the thermometer; you can even bring one as a gift for whoever's hosting you.

Be Very Careful With Stuffing and Marinades.

Stuffing can have its own salmonella from ingredients like raw eggs, and it can get contaminated from the bird itself if you stuff it. It also can cause your turkey to cook unevenly. It's safer and easier to cook your stuffing separately. If you insist on having your stuffing cook inside your bird, make sure to use your meat thermometer to check its temperature, too — again, 165 is the salmonella-killing temperature — and follow the USDA's advice on preparing it.

Marinating, brining and basting your bird are all great strategies for getting the most flavor out of your poultry. The USDA says that a turkey can marinate for up to two days in the fridge before becoming unsafe to eat. Please do not reuse your marinade for anything unless you boil it first. It's been hanging out with raw turkey for hours.

Making sure there's no cross-contamination in your kitchen and cooking your turkey through to at least 165 degrees is a good way to avoid any Thanksgiving salmonella mishaps, so you can focus on the important things like whether the turkey tastes good, fighting with your family (if that's your thing), parades and football.

Texts reveal Kimberly Guilfoyle bragging directing millions to the rally that fueled the Capitol riot

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.

Kimberly Guilfoyle, a top fundraiser for former President Donald Trump and the girlfriend of his son Donald Trump Jr., boasted to a GOP operative that she had raised $3 million for the rally that helped fuel the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

In a series of text messages sent on Jan. 4 to Katrina Pierson, the White House liaison to the event, Guilfoyle detailed her fundraising efforts and supported a push to get far-right speakers on the stage alongside Trump for the rally, which sought to overturn the election of President Joe Biden.

Guilfoyle's texts, reviewed by ProPublica, represent the strongest indication yet that members of the Trump family circle were directly involved in the financing and organization of the rally. The attack on the Capitol that followed it left five dead and scores injured.

A House select committee investigating the events of Jan. 6 has subpoenaed more than 30 Trump allies for testimony and documents, including Pierson and Caroline Wren, a former deputy to Guilfoyle. But Guilfoyle herself has so far not received any official scrutiny from Congress.

Guilfoyle's attorney, Joe Tacopina, denied that Guilfoyle had anything to do with fundraising or approving speakers. He said the text from Guilfoyle “did not relate to the Save America rally" on Jan. 6 and the “content of the message itself" was “inaccurate" and “taken out of context." He did not respond to additional questions asking about the accuracy and context of the message.

Reached by phone, Pierson declined to comment.

The text messages show that Guilfoyle expressed specific concerns that she might not be allowed to speak on stage at the Jan. 6 rally. Pierson responded that Trump himself set the speaking lineup and that it was limited to people he selected, including some of his children and Amy Kremer, a grassroots activist who organized the event.

Guilfoyle replied that she only wanted to introduce Trump Jr. and had "raised so much money for this."

"Literally one of my donors Julie at 3 million," she added.

Guilfoyle was referring to Julie Jenkins Fancelli, a Publix supermarket heir who Guilfoyle had developed a professional relationship with during the campaign.

Until now, Wren has been the only person identified as having worked with Fancelli. As ProPublica reported last month, Wren also boasted in private conversations with colleagues of raising $3 million for the events of Jan. 6.

It remains unclear whether that amount was really raised and, if so, how the majority of it was spent. Some of the money raised from Fancelli flowed to dark money groups that supported the rally, according to wire transfers described to ProPublica, planning documents and interviews with insiders.

In a statement from her attorney, Wren acknowledged helping to produce the rally but did not provide further details about her role in fundraising.

“To Ms. Wren's knowledge, Kimberly Guilfoyle had no involvement in raising funds for any events on January 6th," the statement said. “They were both present at a peaceful rally with hundreds of thousands of Americans who were in DC to lawfully exercise their first amendment rights, a primary pillar of American democracy."

The texts between Guilfoyle and Pierson and interviews with Trump officials also suggest that Guilfoyle attempted to influence the lineup of speakers scheduled to appear at the event.

On the night of Jan. 5, Trump Jr., Guilfoyle and Wren attended an event at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, where Trump donors mingled with prominent figures in the movement to overturn the election, according to interviews and social media posts from attendees.

Around the time of that event, Wren called rally staff and urged them to allow speaking roles for Ali Alexander, a far-right provocateur and leader of the Stop the Steal movement; Roger Stone, a former Trump advisor; and conspiracy theorist and InfoWars leader Alex Jones, according to a former campaign official who was told details of the call by people who listened to it.

Trump aides had already deemed the men too radical to go on stage, worrying they might embarrass the president.

During the call, Guilfoyle voiced her support for the controversial speakers, the former campaign official was told. She also specifically demanded that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who had sued to challenge election results in four other states, address the crowd. Alexander later said on a newscast that he also received a call from Guilfoyle that same evening.

Tacopina, Guilfoyle's lawyer, said she did not urge staffers to change the speakers. "Your contention that Ms. Guilfoyle approved a speaking list for January 6th is patently false," he wrote. He threatened to “aggressively pursue all legal remedies available" against ProPublica.

But the texts show Guilfoyle and Pierson talking about a “leaked" speaking list — an apparent reference to an article about the Jan. 6 rally published by the conservative news website Breitbart the day before.

That list included Alexander, Stone and Paxton, among others.

“All I know is that someone leaked a list of 'speakers' that the WH had not seen or approved," Pierson wrote. “I've never had so much interference."

Guilfoyle responded: “Yea and this the list we approved."

Tacopina did not answer further questions about what Guilfoyle meant in the text where she said "we" had approved a speaking list.

Untangling the relationship between Guilfoyle, Wren and Fancelli is key to understanding the financing of the events of Jan. 6.

In January 2020, Guilfoyle was appointed national chair of the Trump Victory finance committee, a leading fundraising vehicle for Trump's reelection campaign. She brought Wren on as her deputy.

Guilfoyle, through her relationship with Trump Jr., had access to the family and a certain star power that appealed to donors. Wren, by all accounts a relentless, high-energy worker, brought fundraising expertise and a Rolodex of wealthy Republicans willing to invest handsomely to keep Trump in office. The duo ultimately brought in tens of millions of dollars toward Trump's reelection.

The pair focused primarily on ramping up the campaign's “bundling" program, a method of fundraising that relies on volunteers collecting money from their personal networks.

Fancelli, a reclusive member of one of the country's richest families, was one of those volunteers, according to interviews and internal Trump Victory records. Splitting her time between Florida and Italy, Fancelli raised at least $72,000 from her friends and family.

She stood out to Wren and Guilfoyle, who in 2020 considered her for a role as Florida state co-chair for the bundling program, according to an internal Trump Victory planning document reviewed by ProPublica. The document highlighted Fancelli as a person Guilfoyle should contact personally.

Tacopina said Guilfoyle had never seen any such document "nor is aware of its supposed existence."

On or just before July 14, 2020, Guilfoyle called Fancelli directly, according to a different set of text messages reviewed by ProPublica. The next day, Fancelli made her largest federal political contribution to date, according to campaign finance records: $250,000 to Trump Victory.

By election night, she had chipped in $565,000 more, records show.

Tacopina did not address the July 2020 phone call in his statement and did not respond to questions about Guilfoyle's relationship with Fancelli. Fancelli did not respond to requests for comment.

After the election, Wren became the main fundraising consultant for a newly formed super PAC run by two of Trump Jr.'s closest aides. The super PAC, called “Save the US Senate PAC," placed ads starring Trump Jr. in which he encouraged Georgians to vote Republican in the bitterly contested runoff elections that would result in Democratic control of the Senate.

That PAC was primarily funded by LJ Management Services Inc., a company closely linked to Fancelli's family foundation. It gave $800,000 to the PAC in several installments, records show.

In late December, Wren became involved in the rally preparations for Jan. 6.

Wren told multiple organizers interviewed by ProPublica that she was carrying out the wishes of the Trump family. Some believed her and feared that defying her would upset the Trumps. Others suspected she was exaggerating.

“Caroline kept talking about her connections to Don Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle," said Cindy Chafian, a rally organizer who told ProPublica she was put in touch with Wren and Fancelli by Alex Jones. “I thought she was full of crap."

As ProPublica previously reported, Wren told Dustin Stockton, another rally organizer, that she had raised $3 million for Jan. 6 and “parked" funds with three Republican dark money groups supporting the rally.

In one case, Wren routed roughly $150,000 from Fancelli to the Republican Attorneys General Association's Rule of Law Defense Fund, which then purchased a robocall instructing Trump supporters to come to Washington and march on the Capitol after the president's speech. The robocall was purchased in order to satisfy the conditions of the donation, a person familiar with the transaction told ProPublica.

ProPublica also reported that Wren had pressured rally organizers to allow Jones and other far-right leaders to speak on stage before the president. The effort grew so intense and volatile that on the morning of Jan. 6, a senior White House official suggested rally organizers call the U.S. Park Police on Wren to have her escorted off the Ellipse. Officers arrived but took no action. Wren has previously declined to comment on the incident.

Around the same time, Guilfoyle sat with Trump and other members of his inner circle in the Oval Office and discussed the growing throngs outside, according to The Washington Post. “They're just reflecting the will of the people," she reportedly told the president. “This is the will of the people."

On stage later that morning, Guilfoyle gave a rousing speech introducing Trump Jr. “We will not allow the liberals and the Democrats to steal our dream or steal our elections," Guilfoyle told the crowd.

Trump Jr. then exhorted the crowd to send a message to the Republican members of Congress who “did nothing to stop the steal."

Trump Jr. did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Jones and Alexander left the rally early. Wren escorted the men away from the White House as they prepared to lead the march on the Capitol.

As the Capitol plunged into chaos later that day — police officers outnumbered and overrun, lawmakers huddled behind makeshift bunkers, tear gas enshrouding the building — Guilfoyle boarded a private jet.

She was off to Florida with at least two major Trump donors, Nebraska gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster and California entrepreneur Richard Kofoed, who had chartered the jet. The plane left Dulles International Airport at 3:47 p.m., according to aviation records. It dropped Herbster off on Florida's Amelia Island before heading for West Palm Beach. Wren listed both Kofoed and Herbster as her VIPs for the rally in planning documents. Planning documents show Cassidy Kofoed, Richard Kofoed's 23-year-old daughter, also worked with Wren on preparations for Jan. 6.

Herbster confirmed that he was on board the plane with Guilfoyle. Richard and Cassidy Kofoed did not respond to requests for comment.

In response to questions about the flight, Tacopina said that Guilfoyle lived with Kofoed and his wife at a rented property in Mar-a-Lago from approximately December 2020 through July 2021.

Guilfoyle has continued her role as a major Trump fundraiser. In October, she was put at the helm of Trump's super PAC, called Make America Great Again, Again!

Senators call for a federal investigation into Liberty University's handling of sexual assaults

This 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.

Citing possible violations of federal law, three senators, including the two from Virginia, are pressing the U.S. Department of Education to investigate Liberty University's handling of sexual assault claims.

Liberty's board also voted Friday to open an “independent and comprehensive review" of the school office tasked with handling discrimination and abuse.

The review and congressional calls for a federal investigation come in the wake of ProPublica's article last month detailing how Liberty has discouraged and dismissed students who filed reports of sexual assault. Women who went to school officials to report being raped recalled being threatened with punishment for breaking Liberty's strict code of conduct. Others said that even Liberty University police officers discouraged them from pursuing sexual assault charges.

Like all universities that receive federal funds, the Virginia-based Liberty has to properly handle claims of sexual assault and violations of Title IX, the law banning colleges from discriminating on the basis of gender. Liberty students receive almost $800 million a year in federal aid.

Liberty University has not responded to requests for comment about its conduct or the senators' call for an investigation.

“Any campus policy that deters or discourages a survivor of sexual assault from speaking out and seeking justice is wrong," said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., in a statement to ProPublica. “Students who bravely speak out deserve to be heard and to have their claims taken seriously. My office is urging the Department of Education to investigate these claims against Liberty and take appropriate action."

Kaine introduced legislation two years ago that would require colleges to have an independent advocate available to support survivors of sexual assault.

Virginia's other senator, Mark Warner, also a Democrat, likewise called on the school to “act immediately to remedy the issues alleged" and asked the Department of Education to “look into Liberty's procedures."

Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., also admonished the university for falling short of ensuring students' rights to a safe campus environment.

A spokesperson for Casey said, “Our staff has been in touch with the Education Department," after ProPublica's investigation. “The revelations out of Liberty University are disturbing and must be investigated."

Liberty's announcement of an independent investigation follows a rally on the school's Lynchburg campus last week that called for a comprehensive audit of the school's culture and its structures around reporting sexual assault.

Advocate Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast whose testimony helped lead to the conviction of former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, spoke at the rally alongside 200 Liberty students and alumni. The rally coincided with an event for Liberty's board of trustees.

Students and alumni say they are not satisfied with the school's promise of a review of the office tasked with handling discrimination and abuse, arguing that the review is limited in scope and doesn't assure transparency throughout the process.

“We requested a culture, structure and policy audit, not just a review of the office," Dan Harris, an activist and current Liberty student, told ProPublica.

Liberty's press release following the board meeting noted that school President Jerry Prevo also discussed efforts to increase campus security, including the installation of up to 1,000 security cameras and blue-light emergency boxes across campus.

Meanwhile, Liberty University filed a temporary restraining order against its former chief of communications, Scott Lamb, alleging he violated school confidentiality agreements by releasing internal emails to the media.

The school is suing Lamb for the misuse of “trade secrets."

Lamb told ProPublica he was fired for raising concerns about the school's handling of sexual assaults. Lamb, who filed a lawsuit against the school last month, said Liberty has engaged in a “conspiracy of silence."

Here's why rapid COVID tests are so expensive and hard to find

This 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 few weeks ago, a ProPublica reporter decided to test his kids for COVID-19. They had the sniffles, and with a grandparent set to visit he wanted to minimize the risk that they were infectious.

This was the problem that quick, cheap COVID-19 tests were supposed to help fix. No need to go to a clinic or wait days for results. Just pick up a pack of tests at a local pharmacy whenever you want, swab your nose and learn within 15 minutes if you're likely to pass the virus along.

So the ProPublican went to his neighborhood CVS, hoping to buy the required pack of two for $23.99. They were out of stock. Then he went to Rite Aid. They didn't have the tests either. Then Walgreens, then another CVS. All out of stock. The only supplier with a few tests to offer was his sister, who happened to have a few tucked away.

It's a familiar experience for many Americans. But not for people in Britain, who get free rapid tests delivered to their homes on demand. Or France, Germany or Belgium, where at-home tests are ubiquitous and as cheap as a decent cappuccino.

So why are at-home tests still so pricey and hard to find in the United States?

The answer appears to be a confounding combination of overzealous regulation and anemic government support — issues that have characterized America's testing response from the beginning of the pandemic.

Companies trying to get the Food and Drug Administration's approval for rapid COVID-19 tests describe an arbitrary, opaque process that meanders on, sometimes long after their products have been approved in other countries that prioritize accessibility and affordability over perfect accuracy.

After the FDA put out a call for more rapid tests in the summer of 2020, Los Angeles-based biotech company WHPM, Inc. began working on one. They did a peer-reviewed trial following the agency's directions, then submitted the results this past March.

In late May, WHPM head of international sales Chris Patterson said, the company got a confusing email from its FDA reviewer asking for information that had in fact already been provided. WHPM responded within two days. Months passed. In September, after a bit more back and forth, the FDA wrote to say it had identified other deficiencies, and wouldn't review the rest of the application. Even if WHPM fixed the issues, the application would be “deprioritized," or moved to the back of the line.

“We spent our own million dollars developing this thing, at their encouragement, and then they just treat you like a criminal," said Patterson. Meanwhile, the WHPM rapid test has been approved in Mexico and the European Union, where the company has received large orders.

An FDA scientist who vetted COVID-19 test applications told ProPublica he became so frustrated by delays that he quit the agency earlier this year. “They're neither denying the bad ones or approving the good ones," he said, asking to remain anonymous because his current work requires dealing with the agency.

FDA officials said they simply want to ensure that rapid tests detect even low levels of the virus, since false negative test results could cause people to unwittingly spread the disease. They blame the test shortages on an absence of the kind of sustained public funding that European governments have provided. Without it, manufacturers have lacked confidence that going through the FDA's process would be financially worth the trouble.

“Where we have seen tests truly coming to the marketplace, the big difference has been government investment," said Dr. Jeff Shuren, head of the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, which authorizes tests. “Folks will come and do larger volumes because you're supporting production, which can also help drive down prices."

Both the Trump and Biden administrations banked on vaccines putting a swift end to the pandemic, holding off on large-scale purchases of COVID-19 tests that Americans could keep in their medicine cabinets.

As a result, one of the few companies that has successfully gotten tests authorized and onto shelves — Abbott Laboratories — has dominated the market. Its BinaxNOW tests account for around 75% of U.S. retail sales, according to data from NielsenIQ, even though they're sold here for several times the price of the same Abbott tests in Europe.

In the past two months, the Biden administration has takensteps to make home tests more widely available. As more tests are authorized and more purchase orders are signed, pharmacy shelves are starting to fill up.

But that still may not be enough, as manufacturers scramble to build supply chains capable of delivering the tens of millions of tests per week that public health experts estimate will be necessary to keep schools and workplaces open and safe. Employers charged with testing their entire workforces have found themselves in bidding wars in order to secure adequate supply.

As with the slow ramp-up of lab testing at the beginning of the pandemic, the delays have come with a cost.

“It feels like in one place we're in a rocket ship and in another place we're on training wheels," said Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Wash., contrasting vaccines and testing. Schrier, a former pediatrician who has been pushing the agency to authorize more rapid tests, said, “You can't count on the free market during a pandemic."

The U.S. testing response has been troubled from the beginning of the pandemic, seesawing between caution and overcorrection.

In February 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took weeks to develop its own test, which later turned out to have falsely flagged other viruses, allowing the one that causes COVID-19 to gain a foothold in the U.S.

Then the FDA became more permissive, allowing privately developed tests that detected antibodies from previous infections to enter the market after only cursory review. When dozens of the tests turned out to be inaccurate, the FDA prohibited their use.

Meanwhile, the FDA grappled with thousands of applications for “emergency use authorizations," or EUAs. The process for EUAs is less involved than for full approval but still requires extensive clinical and real-world evaluation. Most EUAs issued have been for PCR tests, which are highly sensitive — meaning they can detect even low levels of the virus — but typically take days to return results.

Another form of diagnostics, antigen tests, can return results quickly and cheaply, similar to a pregnancy test. They're less sensitive, but usually good enough to determine whether someone is infectious.

Recognizing the potential market for antigen tests, companies began submitting more EUA applications in late 2020. But the FDA was wary about this type of test, mostly warning of the danger of false negatives in the earliest stages of infection.

FDA officials were particularly concerned about allowing tests to be administered outside the purview of a trained health care provider. “To mitigate the impact of false results, all Covid-19 tests authorized to date have been made available only by prescription, so that clinicians can interpret results for patients," wrote Shuren and his deputy Dr. Tim Stenzel in an October 2020 column in The New England Journal of Medicine.

That cautious approach persisted all through the winter and early spring, despite rising agitation from the White House and Congress around the availability of tests.

“I actually have been saying that for months and months and months, we should be literally flooding the system with easily accessible, cheap, not needing a prescription, point of care, highly sensitive and highly specific" tests, White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said under questioning from Schrier in a hearing on March 17.

Stenzel, a microbiology Ph.D. who in 2018 became director of the office that authorizes diagnostic tests, holds the most day-to-day power over whether a test gets approved. He worked at biotech companies for most of his career before coming to the FDA, leading some to wonder if those prior relationships played a role in determining which testmakers became the most important players in the market.

Among Stenzel's former employers were Abbott and the San Diego-based Quidel Corporation, the first two companies to sell self-administered, prescription-free COVID tests in large volumes.

Quidel CEO Doug Bryant said in a promotional video that in early 2020, the company wasn't planning on designing a COVID-19 test until he got a call from a trusted contact at the FDA. That contact was Stenzel, the agency confirmed.

Quidel and Abbott had their at-home tests approved about a year later. On an earnings call, Quidel's Bryant said it was “the most significant inflection point for our company." In the third quarter of 2021, Quidel made $406 million from its various COVID-19 tests, blowing past Wall Street's expectations. “There is no denying Quidel has put itself in position to win big in COVID-19 testing," wrote an analyst with the firm William Blair. Abbott made $1.9 billion globally on its COVID-19 tests.

Ethics disclosures show that Stenzel holds no Abbott or Quidel stock, and it's been several years since he worked at either company. But Stenzel's ties to the two major test manufacturers and the slow pace of authorizations for other companies' at-home tests drew a letter from an anti-monopoly think tank, the American Economic Liberties Project, calling for an investigation.

Stenzel denied any improper conduct, and pointed out that his office issued recalls to both Abbott and Quidel for problems with other COVID-19 tests. He also noted that the office designed relatively easy-to-follow templates for new types of COVID-19 tests to help companies that hadn't dealt with the FDA before.

“We understood that there were a bunch of companies that were new to the FDA, and we provided them an immense amount of support, saying, 'This is how you do it,'" Stenzel said.

The FDA has said it “engaged with more than 100 test developers" about making diagnostics. The agency declined to provide the names, citing confidentiality concerns.

Quidel acknowledged the administration had reached out, but didn't comment on its discussions with Stenzel, while Abbott said it had spoken to “many people across multiple areas of government" early in the pandemic.

Most companies don't have the same familiarity with the people adjudicating their applications.

Nanōmix, a diagnostics designer based in Emeryville, California, developed a rapid test with the help of a federal grant and submitted it to the FDA in February. In early June, an FDA reviewer sent back a list of questions, giving Nanōmix a deadline of 48 hours to respond. The company couldn't provide answers that quickly, so it was sent to the back of the line.

“We start development on a set of guidance," said Nanōmix CEO David Ludvigson. “Then they change the guidance after we're done, and expect us to have conformed to their revised guidance."

The FDA has been particularly circumspect with more novel approaches to testing, such as an olfactory test that detects the common COVID-19 symptom of loss of smell. The agency's reviewers deprioritized an application for the scratch-and-sniff card even though it had been proven to stem transmission, said inventor Derek Toomre, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine.

Other companies, big and small, have been tripped up by FDA demands that seem minor in view of the urgency of the situation.

For example, the biopharmaceutical giant Roche told ProPublica that it submitted a home test in early 2021, but it was rejected by the FDA because the trials had been done partly in Europe. The test had comparedfavorably with Abbott's rapid test, and received European Union approval in June. The company plans to resubmit an application by the end of the year.

A smaller company, which didn't want to be named because it has other contracts with the U.S. government, withdrew its pre-application for a rapid antigen test with integrated smartphone-based reporting because it heard its trial data from India — collected as the delta variant was surging there — wouldn't be accepted. Doing the trials in the U.S. would have cost millions.

The FDA reviewer who quit this May described what the delays looked like from the inside. With a background in virology, he could evaluate the hundreds of pages in an application within a few days. But then, something strange happened: The applications would go nowhere for months as higher-up officials seemed paralyzed by indecision.

“I could easily process dozens of them, but I ended up with one or two in my queue constantly. They would stay there forever," he said. “I had a lot of free time."

His experience is reflected in an outside review of the EUA process conducted by the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, which found that the median number of days it took the FDA to issue a decision on original applications rose to 99 in November 2020 from 29 the previous April, with denials taking substantially longer than authorizations. The assessment also found “limited understanding in the test developer community on how to appropriately validate a diagnostic test."

Stenzel said that any delays were a consequence of careful review, and that the office received many applications that were incomplete or had shoddy data.

“If we have questions or concerns about a test, they will not be prioritized the same way a test will be that we have fewer questions about," Stenzel said. “Those will be cycled to the front, and it makes good public health sense to move forward those tests that are most likely to pass muster and get authorized. ... There are always good reasons for why something is delayed."

European countries generally maintain similar guidelines for the accuracy of tests, but are less particular about how trials must be conducted. For example, test developers are allowed to limit their samples to subjects with high viral loads, for whom antigen tests perform better.

The FDA, however, remains concerned that the typical method for measuring viral load isn't consistent, leading to the risk of overestimating the accuracy of the test. Advocates of the European approach point out that being able to identify an infection in its earliest stages won't help much if a PCR result doesn't come back for days, so even a less sensitive at-home antigen test is valuable — especially since people are much more likely to be able to access them in the first place than PCR tests.

Europe's differing approach has resulted in 39 rapid self-administered antigen tests being authorized by the European Union, according to a database maintained by Arizona State University. The U.S. has authorized 12, nine of which are available without a prescription.

A consultant who works with smaller companies trying to get products through the FDA — and who asked for anonymity in order to protect his clients who have business before the agency — said he understands the argument that more robust applications from companies with larger manufacturing capacity should go first.

The problem with this logic, he said, is that it's now fall and the pandemic is ongoing, with the possibility of new variants still unknown. “And it's not like you can flip a switch with the Defense Production Act and you're going to get magically much more capacity," he said. “We needed a 'thousand flowers bloom' approach. We needed everyone and their brother pitching in with these tests."

The federal government could also have buttressed the supply of rapid COVID-19 tests by purchasing large quantities from companies able to manufacture them in bulk, and then providing them to consumers at low or no cost.

Shuren and Stenzel recommended as much a year ago in their New England Journal of Medicine column. They wrote that the U.S. government should have authorized a handful of tests and had the CDC contract with those manufacturers, rather than trying to vet thousands of diagnostics, which they called “an inefficient use of resources."

European countries essentially did both, authorizing dozens of rapid antigen tests to be sold while contracting with a few companies to provide millions of them free of charge to individuals. The U.K., for example, allocated $50 billion over two years to set up a national test and trace program that delivers rapid tests to anyone upon request. It hasn't worked perfectly or averted lockdowns, but advocates argue it's better than the U.S. alternative of rapid tests being nearly impossible to find.

For Germany's free testing program, which ran from March through October, the government initially bought 800 million rapid tests and 200 million home tests from a shorter list of manufacturers that had undergone additional vetting. The country also required the unvaccinated to present fresh test results for most activities that involve congregating with other people.

Although the U.S. government has spent billions of dollars on testing — estimates of the total vary, given the number of funding streams — self-administered tests are usually not covered by insurance, and there is no centralized system for distributing them.

In the late winter and early spring of 2020-21, the federal government spent hundreds of millions of dollars to buy point-of-care tests, but they were mostly reserved for use in facilities like nursing homes and military bases. The economic stimulus bill that passed in March allocated $10 billion for screening in schools, which don't usually rely on home tests. Then, the focus shifted to vaccines.

In May, the CDC leaned hard into the message that vaccines were almost completely protective, mitigating the need for frequent testing. Manufacturers took that as a bad sign for testing volume. Abbott ramped down manufacturing of its popular home test.

At that time, Stenzel seemed satisfied with the availability of tests. “We believe we're doing a great job at meeting the public health need at this point," he said in June on his weekly town hall call with test developers.

With no long-term government purchasing programs in place, companies had less interest in getting new tests through the pipeline, making it difficult for even promising concepts to get commercial pickup. With the help of a federal grant meant to accelerate COVID-related technologies, Iowa State University professor Nigel Reuel developed a mailable paper test in April, but he said he's not sure it'll be worth it to take the step of clinical trials.

It's really hard, Reuel said, for a company to “say we're going to invest tons in this when we don't know what the long-term market for it is."

All this meant that when the delta variant hit in July, not only were PCR appointments suddenly hard to get, but home tests became vanishingly rare and reliant on a single manufacturer: Abbott, whose BinaxNOW test peaked during late summer at 90% of the market in retail over-the-counter sales. That dipped somewhat in September, when a few additional companies were able to get on shelves.

On an earnings call in October, Abbott CEO Robert Ford said the company anticipated dropping its price to maintain its market share, but wouldn't if competition didn't make it necessary.

Asked why its rapid tests are abundant and cheap in Europe and scarce in the U.S., Abbott spokesperson John Koval chalked it up to Europe's public support, both in its regulatory system and through government funding.

“It has taken more than a year for the American public, scientific experts and academia to accept the important role of rapid testing in the U.S.," Koval said. “Overseas, that was not the case, because the value of rapid testing was better understood prior to the pandemic."

Sentiment in Washington has been changing. In late October, Sen. Dick Durbinsent a letter urging “appropriate flexibility in regulatory standards" for at-home tests. And over the past month, the White House has thrown more weight behind rapid testing, announcing $1 billion in purchase commitments for home tests. Recognizing the difficulty of quickly securing the necessary volume of raw materials for tests, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded another $560 million to 13 companies for test components like swabs, pipette tips, packaging and other production capabilities.

Still, some of the government's efforts haven't added up to much.

In September, the White House announced that Walmart, Amazon and Kroger would sell COVID-19 tests at cost for the following three months. But no subsidy was involved, and for most of the first two months, the retailers were often out of stock. Tests available online are often sold by third-party distributors, and Amazon and Walmart said they don't control those prices, so they remain high.

At CVS, which didn't participate in the agreement with the White House, a Quidel kit — which costs $12 wholesale — still sells for $23.99.

Same with Rite Aid, but when one of us visited a store in Brooklyn this Wednesday, employees said they hadn't received a shipment of BinaxNOW kits in a month, until they got seven the day before. “They immediately sold out. And that was limiting it to one per person," said Roxanne, a pharmacy technician who declined to give her last name.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is moving to take on more responsibility over the validation of tests. Last week, the National Institutes of Health announced a new program to do much of the work for test developers, mitigating the back and forth around what's good enough. That resembles the process run by some European governments, although Shuren said the U.S. will still maintain tougher standards.

All of those steps would have been more helpful when experts began calling for them a year ago.

“We need to have a rethinking, during and after this pandemic, to talk about the role of testing," said Mara Aspinall, who co-founded the Biomedical Diagnostics program at Arizona State University's College of Health Solutions. “It's a fundamental piece of our fight. And that was realized too late."

Do you have information about COVID-19 testing that we should know? Email or message her on Signal at 202-913-3717. Email or message him on Signal at 917-687-8406.

How these ultrawealthy politicians slash their taxes using strategies unavailable to most of constituents

by Ellis Simani, Robert Faturechi and Ken Ward Jr.

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%

As a member of Congress, Jared Polis was one of the loudest Democrats demanding President Donald Trump release his tax returns.

At a rally in Denver in 2017, he warned the crowd that Trump “might have something to hide." That same year, on the floor of the House, he introduced a resolution to force the president to release the records, calling them an “important baseline disclosure."

But during Polis' successful run for governor of Colorado in 2018, his calls for transparency faded. The dot-com tycoon turned investor broke with recent precedent and refused to disclose his returns, blaming his Republican opponent, who wasn't disclosing his.

Polis may have had other reasons for denying requests to release the records.

Despite a net worth estimated to be in the hundreds of millions, Polis paid nothing in federal income taxes in 2013, 2014 and 2015. From 2010 to 2018, his overall rate was just 8.2% — less than half of the 19% paid by a worker making $45,000 in 2018.

The revelations about Polis are contained in a trove of tax information obtained by ProPublica covering thousands of the nation's wealthiest people. The Colorado governor is one of several ultrarich politicians who, the data shows, have paid little or no federal income taxes in multiple years, exploited loopholes to dodge estate taxes or used their public offices to fight reforms that would increase their tax bills.

The records show that rich Democrats and Republicans alike have slashed their taxes using strategies unavailable to most of their constituents. Among them are governors, members of Congress and a cabinet secretary.

Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration, said the tax avoidance of these top politicians is “very, very worrisome" since both parties “spend like crazy" and depend on taxes to fund their priorities, from the military to Medicare to Social Security.

“They have the power to decide how much the rest of us pay and the power to spend the money, and then they're not paying their fair share?" Painter said. “That should be troubling to voters, both conservative and liberal. It should be troubling for everyone."

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, for example, is a Republican coal magnate who has made the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans. Yet he's paid very little or no federal income taxes for almost every year since 2000.

California Rep. Darrell Issa, one of the richest people in Congress, was one of the few Republicans to break with his party during the 2017 tax overhaul to fight for a deduction that — unbeknownst to the public — helped him avoid millions in taxes.

And the tax records of Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida and Trump's education secretary, Betsy DeVos, showed that both employed a loophole, which was accidentally created by Congress, to escape estate and gift taxes.

As ProPublica has revealed in a series of articles this year, these tactics, if sometimes aggressive, are completely legal. And they're not universal among wealthy politicians. ProPublica reviewed tax data for a couple dozen wealthy current and former government officials. Their data shows that many of them paid relatively high tax rates while employing more modest use of the fairly standard deductions of the rich.

The politicians who paid little or exploited loopholes either defended their practices as completely proper or declined to comment.

“The Governor has paid every cent of taxes he owes, he has championed tax reform and tax fairness to fix this broken system for everybody, to report otherwise would be inaccurate," Polis' spokesperson wrote in an email.

During the late 1990s dot-com era, Polis earned a reputation as a boy wonder. He turned his parents' small greeting card company into a website,, which was among the first to enable users to send free virtual cards. He and his family sold the site in 1999 for $780 million.

With the windfall from the sale, Polis continued to start new ventures and invest, but he also began laying the groundwork for a career in politics. He landed in the governor's office in 2019 when he was just 43.

One of his tools for raising his profile was philanthropy. His generous donations to charity became a theme of both his 2008 run for Congress and his 2018 run for Colorado's highest office.

Philanthropy also helped keep his tax rate enviably low. In many years, the deductions he claimed for his charitable giving were large enough to wipe out half the income he would have owed taxes on. His giving allowed him, in essence, to take some of the money he would have paid into the public coffers and donate it instead to causes of his choosing.

But an examination of Polis' philanthropy shows that while he has given to a wide variety of causes, some of his donations served to promote him, blurring the lines between charity and campaigning.

According to the tax filings of his charity, the Jared Polis Foundation, the organization spent more than $2 million from 2001 to 2008 on a semiannual mailer sent to “hundreds of thousands of households throughout Colorado" that was intended to build “on a foundation of familiarity with Jared Polis' name and his support of public education." It was one of the charity's largest expenditures.

A 2005 edition of the mailer reviewed by ProPublica had the feel of a campaign ad. It was emblazoned with the title “Jared Polis Education Report," included his name six times on the cover and featured photos of Polis, a former state board of education member, surrounded by smiling school children.

The newsletters were discontinued just as he was elected. Because the mailers did not explicitly advocate for his election, they would have been legally allowed as a charitable expenditure.

A decade later, when he ran for governor in a race that he personally poured more than $20 million into, Polis featured his philanthropy in his campaign. In one ad, he used testimonials from an employee and a graduate of a business training charity he founded for military veterans.

Polis' spokesperson, Victoria Graham, defended the mailers, saying they were intended “to promote innovations and successful models in public education and to raise awareness for the challenges facing public education." She also pointed to a range of other philanthropy Polis was involved in, from founding charter schools, which she noted were not named after him, to distributing computers to organizations in need.

“His philanthropy is not and has never been motivated by receiving a tax write-off, and to state otherwise is not only inaccurate but fabricating motives and intent and cynical in its view of charity," Graham said.

While Polis' charitable giving has helped keep the percentage of his income he pays in taxes low, he has also been able to keep his total taxable income relatively small by using another strategy common among the wealthy: investing in businesses that grow in value but produce minimal income.

It sounds counterintuitive, but it's a basic principle of the U.S. tax system — one that typically benefits wealthy people who can afford not to take income. Investments only trigger income taxes when they produce “realized" gains, such as dividends from a stock holding, the sale of an asset or profits from a company. But an investment's growth in value, while it makes its owner richer, is not taxable.

Polis acknowledged his use of the strategy in 2008 after he released tax information during his first run for Congress and faced criticism for paying so little in taxes. “I founded several high-growth companies, and we would manage those for growth rather than for profit," he said. “When I make money, I pay taxes. When I don't make money, I don't."

In one of the recent years Polis paid no income taxes, his losses were larger than his income. In two of the years, it was about a million dollars. From 2010 to 2018, when he paid an overall rate of just 8.2%, including payroll taxes, his income averaged $1.5 million.

During that period of low taxes and relatively low income, Polis' estimated net worth rose sharply. Members of Congress only have to report the value of each of their assets in ranges, so assigning a precise number is impossible. But the nonprofit data site OpenSecrets, which makes estimates by taking the midpoint of the ranges, shows Polis' wealth growing from $143 million in 2010 to $306 million in 2017, making him the third richest-member of the House at the time. (Graham said congressional disclosure forms are confusingly formatted, potentially causing certain assets to be counted more than once, “so these numbers are likely wildly off." She did not provide alternative net worth figures.)

One of Polis' primary vehicles for building his fortune, while avoiding taxable income, appears to have been a family office, Jovian Holdings. The board of directors included his father, sister and a rather surprising outsider: Arthur Laffer. The famed conservative economist's Laffer Curve provided the Reagan administration with the intellectual basis for arguing that cutting taxes would increase tax revenue. (Polis' sister is a ProPublica donor.)

The term family office has a mom-and-pop feel, but it is actually part of the infrastructure of protecting the fortunes of the ultrawealthy, from crafting investment and tax strategy to succession and estate planning to concierge services. Depending on how they're organized, for instance as a business, their costs — the salaries of the staff, rent — can be deductible.

One of the executives at Polis' family office, according to her LinkedIn profile, is a seasoned tax expert who specializes in “maximizing cost savings both operationally and with all taxing authorities." She removed that detail around the time ProPublica approached Polis about his taxes.

Unlike ordinary investors, Polis was able to claim millions in deductions for some of the costs of his money management, specifically his family office, which contributed to lowering his tax burden. Ironically, the investment apparatus that helped Polis avoid taxable income became a tax break.

ProPublica discussed the scenario, without naming Polis, with Bob Lord, tax counsel for the advocacy group Americans for Tax Fairness. He said the public appears to be essentially subsidizing Polis' investing while getting little in return. With a typical business, he said, you get the tax break but also relatively quickly make taxable income.

The costs of a family office are “being taken even though the income may be way out in the future. It's just a giveaway," Lord said. “What is the public getting from it? This really, really rich politician gets to shelter his income while his investments grow and doesn't pay tax on it until he sells."

Deferring paying taxes is a valuable perk. But the strategy, Lord said, may allow Polis an even more lucrative outcome. Now that Polis has made his fortune, he may be able to largely dodge the tax system forever. Should he die before selling his investments, his heirs would never owe income taxes on the growth.

Graham acknowledged that the tax system unfairly benefits the wealthy but said Polis is not purposely avoiding income that would result in taxes.

“The Governor has long championed tax reforms precisely because the income tax is inadequate and a mismatched way to tax most wealthy people who do not have a regular income but who make money in other ways and should be taxed," she said. “Since 2006, Governor Polis has paid over $20 million in taxes on the money he earned on his gains and he has championed tax reforms that would lower the tax burden on middle-income earners and eliminate loopholes to ensure higher earners pay their share."

ProPublica's data shows that at least two federal officials have already taken steps to preserve their family fortunes for their heirs, exploiting loopholes that divert revenue from the federal government.

Scott, the Florida senator who ran one of the world's largest health care companies, and DeVos, Trump's education secretary and believed to be the richest member of his cabinet, have both stored assets in grantor retained annuity trusts — a form of trust used to avoid gift and estate taxes.

GRATs, as they're commonly known, were accidentally created by Congress in 1990. Lawmakers were trying to close another estate tax loophole and in doing so unintentionally paved the way for another one. The lawyer who pioneered the trusts estimated in 2013 that they had cost the federal government about $100 billion over the prior 13 years.

To use this tax-avoidance technique, you put an asset, like stocks or real estate, into a trust assigned to your heirs. The trust pays you back the starting value of the asset (plus some interest). If the original asset rises in value, the gains can go to your heirs tax-free.

GRATs have become widely used among the superrich. A ProPublica investigation found that more than half of the nation's richest individuals have employed them and other trusts to avoid estate taxes.

It's unclear from ProPublica's data how much DeVos, 63, and Scott, 68, were able to transfer tax-free.

DeVos and her husband employed a GRAT from at least 2000 to 2003. DeVos' father was a wealthy industrialist. Her husband was the president of Amway, a multilevel marketing company that focuses on health, beauty and home products. Her family is believed to be worth billions.

Her causes both before and during her time in government depended on tax dollars. As a donor and fundraiser for Republican causes, she pushed for charter schools and government subsidies to allow parents to send their kids to private schools. As education secretary, she pushed to send millions of federal dollars intended for public schools to private and religious schools instead.

Scott, one of the wealthiest senators, with a net worth likely in the hundreds of millions, used a GRAT for much longer, from at least 2001 through 2009. His tax data shows the assets in the trust — stakes of a private investment fund and family partnership he and his wife created — receiving millions in income.

When he was in the private sector, Scott benefited from federal programs like Medicare, which are funded by taxes. He built and ran Columbia/HCA, a massive chain of for-profit hospitals. After a fraud investigation became public, he resigned and the company paid $1.7 billion to settle allegations it overbilled government health programs. Scott has previously emphasized that he was never charged, though he acknowledged the company made mistakes.

Scott declined to comment. Nick Wasmiller, a spokesman for DeVos, said she “pays her taxes in full as required by law. Your 'reporting' is not only factually wrong but also doubles-down on the criminal actions that underpin ProPublica's political campaign to prop up the Biden Administration's failing agenda."

California Congressman Darrell Issa was one of a handful of Republicans who bucked his party in 2017 and voted against Trump's tax overhaul.

Issa said he opposed the legislation because it all but eliminated the deduction taxpayers could take on their federal returns for state and local taxes. That provision was particularly contentious in high tax blue states like California, but most Republicans from his state still fell in line. The other GOP congressman in the San Diego area, for example, voted yes.

Limiting the write-off, known as the SALT deduction, was one of the few progressive changes in the Trump tax law. The deduction had long disproportionately benefited the wealthiest because they pay the most in state and local taxes. According to one projection, if the cap were removed from the deduction, households with income in the top 1% would reap the most benefit, paying $31,000 less a year on average — amounting to more than half of the total taxes avoided through the write-off. The top 25% of households would average less than $3,000 in savings a year, and the savings drop precipitously from there, with most households deriving no benefit.

In interviews and public statements, Issa said in fighting to preserve the deduction, he was defending the interests of middle-class taxpayers. “I didn't come to Washington to raise taxes on my constituents," he said at the time, “and I do not plan to start today."

It's true that more than 40% of taxpayers in Issa's former district, a relatively affluent swath of Southern California, were able to make at least some use of the deduction.

But the 68-year-old congressman, who made a fortune in the car alarm business, was in the top echelon of its beneficiaries. Between 2003 and 2017, his tax data shows, Issa generally paid a relatively high tax rate but was able to claim more than $51 million in write-offs thanks to the SALT deduction, an average of more than $3 million a year.

By contrast, households in his district that made between $100,000 and $200,000 and took the SALT deduction claimed an average of $14,843 in 2017.

Issa's spokesman, Jonathan Wilcox, declined to say if the SALT deduction's impact on the congressman's taxes factored into his decision to advocate for it.

“So much stupid," Wilcox said. “Be sure to write back if you ever do better than trolling for garbage."

Gov. Jim Justice is believed to be the richest person in West Virginia, controlling vast reserves of valuable steelmaking coal and owning The Greenbrier luxury resort. He made an appearance in 2014 on the Forbes list of 400 wealthiest Americans. Estimates of his net worth have ranged from the hundreds of millions to well over a billion.

Nonetheless, he's paid little or no federal income taxes for almost every year between 2000 and 2018, ProPublica's trove of tax records shows. In 12 of those years he paid nothing, and in all but two of those years, his rate didn't exceed 4%.

His largest tax payment came in 2009, when his family sold off much of its mining holdings to a Russian company for more than half a billion dollars. That year, after deductions, his tax rate rose to a modest 13.4%.

In more recent years, Justice, 70, has reported tens of millions in losses each year. That not only helped him to minimize his federal income taxes, it also allowed him to apply those losses to his profits from previous years — and get refunds for the taxes he initially paid in those years.

Justice's income was low enough in 2018 for his family to qualify for and receive a $2,400 coronavirus stimulus check, aid meant for low- and middle-income Americans.

The recent years of large losses reported on Justice's tax returns have coincided with real signs of financial problems. The coal industry's fortunes have rapidly declined. He's been hounded for unpaid bills and loans. The Russian company that bought much of his coal empire sued him and got him to buy back the assets — at a much discounted price but attached to significant debt. Forbes knocked him off its wealth ranking, citing escalating battles with two major lenders over unpaid debt. Justice's representatives have said he pays what he owes, and his business empire is in good shape.

But even before his empire began showing significant cracks, Justice was reporting losses or little income for a man so wealthy. From 1996 to 2008, Justice, who received a coal and farming fortune from his father, who died in 1993, either reported losses to the IRS or just a few hundred thousand dollars in income.

The disconnect could be explained by the generous deductions afforded to coal business owners.

For example, owners are allowed a depletion deduction, which allows them to take 10% of the revenue from coal they extract and write it off against their profit. This spin on depreciation can have outsized benefits because unlike normal depreciation — in which the write-offs are based on how much you paid for an asset — the write-off amount here faces no such limit, and can therefore exceed the initial investment. The deduction has been criticized by environmentalists and congressional Democrats as an overly generous giveaway.

Another benefit coal owners get is the ability to immediately expense much of their mine development costs on their taxes instead of being forced to stretch such deductions over a longer period of time. Justice has said that in the 15 years after his father's death, he oversaw “a massive expansion of multiple businesses which included significant coal reserve expansion" — development that could have provided him with a significant stockpile of such write-offs. (ProPublica has previously reported on other generous write-offs. Sports team owners, for example, are allowed to deduct the value of their intangible assets — such as media deals and franchise rights — as wasting assets, even as they rise in value.)

Experts said this could explain how Justice could have reported negative income of $15 million in 2008, a year in which Mechel, the Russian company that subsequently bought much of his family's coal empire, said that business alone produced about $94 million in EBITDA — a common measure of a business' profitability before taxes and some other expenses.

Justice declined to answer a list of specific questions about his taxes. In a statement, his lawyer, Steve Ruby, said Justice “has paid millions upon millions of dollars in state and federal income taxes and has always followed the law. In many years, his businesses have suffered losses as the result of weak coal prices combined with substantial outlays to save jobs at local businesses that other companies were abandoning.

“When many other coal producers were filing for bankruptcy, the Justice companies persevered and refused to take the easy way out through a bankruptcy proceeding, a decision that contributed to those losses. Like any other taxpayer, Gov. Justice does not owe income taxes in years in which his income is negative," the statement read.

Ruby confirmed that Justice received coronavirus stimulus checks but said he did not cash them.

Like Scott and DeVos, Justice has used GRATs to sidestep estate and gift taxes, his returns and court records suggest.

In 2008, the year before he sold much of his coal empire to the Russian company, two GRATs appeared on his returns for the first time. And when the Russian company sued Justice, it also sued him in his capacity as the trustee for those GRATs. Justice had placed at least some of the coal assets into the trusts before the sale, according to the lawsuit.

Ruby's statement did not address Justice's use of GRATs.

Burr’s brother-in-law called stock broker — one minute after getting off phone with senator

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

After Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina dumped more than $1.6 million in stocks in February 2020 a week before the coronavirus market crash, he called his brother-in-law, according to a new Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

They talked for 50 seconds.

Burr, according to the SEC, had material nonpublic information regarding the incoming economic impact of coronavirus.

The very next minute, Burr's brother-in-law, Gerald Fauth, called his broker.

ProPublica previously reported that Fauth, a member of the National Mediation Board, had dumped stock the same day Burr did. But it was previously unknown that Burr and Fauth spoke that day, and that their contact came just before Fauth began the process of dumping stock himself.

The revelations come as part of an effort by the SEC to force Fauth to comply with a subpoena that the agency said he has stonewalled for more than a year, and which was filed not long after ProPublica's story.

In the filings, the SEC also revealed that there is an ongoing insider trading investigation into both Burr and Fauth's trades.

It had previously been reported that federal prosecutors had decided not to charge Burr.

Burr's spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions. Fauth's lawyer and the SEC did not respond to questions. Fauth hung up on a ProPublica reporter.

According to the SEC, Fauth has cited a medical condition for why he cannot comply with the subpoena, even as he has been healthy enough to continue his duties at the National Mediation Board. In its filings, the SEC accuses Fauth of engaging in “a relentless battle" to dodge the subpoena.

In 2017, President Donald Trump appointed Fauth to the three-person board, a federal agency that facilitates labor-management relations within the nation's railroad and airline industries. President Joe Biden reappointed him to the board.

On the day he received the call from Burr, Fauth sold between $97,000 and $280,000 worth of shares in six companies — including several that were hit particularly hard in the market swoon and economic downturn. According to the SEC, the first broker he called after hearing from Burr was out of the office, so he immediately called another broker to execute the trades.

In its filings, the SEC also alleges, for the first time, that Burr had material nonpublic information about the economic impact of the coming coronavirus crisis, based on his role at the time as chairman of the intelligence committee, as a member of the health committee and through former staffers who were directing key aspects of the government response to the virus.

The week after the trades, the market began its crash, falling by more than 30% in the subsequent month.

Burr came under scrutiny after ProPublica reported that he sold off a significant percentage of his stocks shortly before the market tanked, unloading between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his holdings on Feb. 13 in 33 separate transactions. The precise amount of his stock sales, more than $1.6 million, is also a new detail from this week's SEC filings. In his roles on the intelligence and health committees, Burr had access to the government's most highly classified information about threats to America's security and public health concerns.

Before his sell-off, Burr had assured the public that the federal government was well prepared to handle the virus. In a Feb. 7 op-ed that he co-authored with another senator, he said “the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus."

That month, however, according to a recording obtained by NPR, Burr had given a VIP group at an exclusive social club a much more dire preview of the economic impact of the coronavirus, warning it could curtail business travel, cause schools to be closed and result in the military mobilizing to compensate for overwhelmed hospitals.

Burr defended his actions, saying he relied solely on public information, including CNBC reports, to inform his trades and did not rely on information he obtained as a senator.

Alice Fisher, Burr's attorney, told ProPublica at the time that “Sen. Burr participated in the stock market based on public information and he did not coordinate his decision to trade on Feb. 13 with Mr. Fauth."

Babies are dying of syphilis in the US — even though it’s 100% preventable

This story first appeared at ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

When Mai Yang is looking for a patient, she travels light. She dresses deliberately — not too formal, so she won't be mistaken for a police officer; not too casual, so people will look past her tiny 4-foot-10 stature and youthful face and trust her with sensitive health information. Always, she wears closed-toed shoes, “just in case I need to run."

Yang carries a stack of cards issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that show what happens when the Treponema pallidum bacteria invades a patient's body. There's a photo of an angry red sore on a penis. There's one of a tongue, marred by mucus-lined lesions. And there's one of a newborn baby, its belly, torso and thighs dotted in a rash, its mouth open, as if caught midcry.

It was because of the prospect of one such baby that Yang found herself walking through a homeless encampment on a blazing July day in Huron, California, an hour's drive southwest of her office at the Fresno County Department of Public Health. She was looking for a pregnant woman named Angelica, whose visit to a community clinic had triggered a report to the health department's sexually transmitted disease program. Angelica had tested positive for syphilis. If she was not treated, her baby could end up like the one in the picture or worse — there was a 40% chance the baby would die.

Yang knew, though, that if she helped Angelica get treated with three weekly shots of penicillin at least 30 days before she gave birth, it was likely that the infection would be wiped out and her baby would be born without any symptoms at all. Every case of congenital syphilis, when a baby is born with the disease, is avoidable. Each is considered a “sentinel event," a warning that the public health system is failing.

The alarms are now clamoring. In the United States, more than 129,800 syphilis cases were recorded in 2019, double the case count of five years prior. In the same time period, cases of congenital syphilis quadrupled: 1,870 babies were born with the disease; 128 died. Case counts from 2020 are still being finalized, but the CDC has said that reported cases of congenital syphilis have already exceeded the prior year. Black, Hispanic and Native American babies are disproportionately at risk.

There was a time, not too long ago, when CDC officials thought they could eliminate the centuries-old scourge from the United States, for adults and babies. But the effort lost steam and cases soon crept up again. Syphilis is not an outlier. The United States goes through what former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden calls “a deadly cycle of panic and neglect" in which emergencies propel officials to scramble and throw money at a problem — whether that's Ebola, Zika or COVID-19. Then, as fear ebbs, so does the attention and motivation to finish the task.

The last fraction of cases can be the hardest to solve, whether that's eradicating a bug or getting vaccines into arms, yet too often, that's exactly when political attention gets diverted to the next alarm. The result: The hardest to reach and most vulnerable populations are the ones left suffering, after everyone else looks away.

Yang first received Angelica's lab report on June 17. The address listed was a P.O. box, and the phone number belonged to her sister, who said Angelica was living in Huron. That was a piece of luck: Huron is tiny; the city spans just 1.6 square miles. On her first visit, a worker at the Alamo Motel said she knew Angelica and directed Yang to a nearby homeless encampment. Angelica wasn't there, so Yang returned a second time, bringing one of the health department nurses who could serve as an interpreter.

They made their way to the barren patch of land behind Huron Valley Foods, the local grocery store, where people took shelter in makeshift lean-tos composed of cardboard boxes, scrap wood and scavenged furniture, draped with sheets that served as ceilings and curtains. Yang stopped outside one of the structures, calling a greeting.

“Hi, I'm from the health department, I'm looking for Angelica."

The nurse echoed her in Spanish.

Angelica emerged, squinting in the sunlight. Yang couldn't tell if she was visibly pregnant yet, as her body was obscured by an oversized shirt. The two women were about the same age: Yang 26 and Angelica 27. Yang led her away from the tent, so they could speak privately. Angelica seemed reticent, surprised by the sudden appearance of the two health officers. “You're not in trouble," Yang said, before revealing the results of her blood test.

Angelica had never heard of syphilis.

“Have you been to prenatal care?"

Angelica shook her head. The local clinic had referred her to an obstetrician in Hanford, a 30-minute drive away. She had no car. She also mentioned that she didn't intend to raise her baby; her two oldest children lived with her mother, and this one likely would, too.

Yang pulled out the CDC cards, showing them to Angelica and asking if she had experienced any of the symptoms illustrated. No, Angelica said, her lips pursed with disgust.

“Right now you still feel healthy, but this bacteria is still in your body," Yang pressed. “You need to get the infection treated to prevent further health complications to yourself and your baby."

The community clinic was just across the street. “Can we walk you over to the clinic and make sure you get seen so we can get this taken care of?"

Angelica demurred. She said she hadn't showered for a week and wanted to wash up first. She said she'd go later.

Yang tried once more to extract a promise: “What time do you think you'll go?"

“Today, for sure."

Syphilis is called The Great Imitator: It can look like any number of diseases. In its first stage, the only evidence of infection is a painless sore at the bacteria's point of entry. Weeks later, as the bacteria multiplies, skin rashes bloom on the palms of the hands and bottoms of the feet. Other traits of this stage include fever, headaches, muscle aches, sore throat and fatigue. These symptoms eventually disappear and the patient progresses into the latent phase, which betrays no external signs. But if left untreated, after a decade or more, syphilis will reemerge in up to 30% of patients, capable of wreaking horror on a wide range of organ systems. Dr. Marion Sims, president of the American Medical Association in 1876, called it a “terrible scourge, which begins with lamb-like mildness and ends with lion-like rage that ruthlessly destroys everything in its way."

The corkscrew-shaped bacteria can infiltrate the nervous system at any stage of the infection. Yang is haunted by her memory of interviewing a young man whose dementia was so severe that he didn't know why he was in the hospital or how old he was. And regardless of symptoms or stage, the bacteria can penetrate the placenta to infect a fetus. Even in these cases the infection is unpredictable: Many babies are born with normal physical features, but others can have deformed bones or damaged brains, and they can struggle to hear, see or breathe.

From its earliest days, syphilis has been shrouded in stigma. The first recorded outbreak was in the late 15th century, when Charles VIII led the French army to invade Naples. Italian physicians described French soldiers covered with pustules, dying from a sexually transmitted disease. As the affliction spread, Italians called it the French Disease. The French blamed the Neopolitans. It was also called the German, Polish or Spanish disease, depending on which neighbor one wanted to blame. Even its name bears the taint of divine judgement: It comes from a 16th-century poem that tells of a shepherd, Syphilus, who offended the god Apollo and was punished with a hideous disease.

By 1937 in America, when former Surgeon General Thomas Parran wrote the book “Shadow on the Land," he estimated some 680,000 people were under treatment for syphilis; about 60,000 babies were being born annually with congenital syphilis. There was no cure, and the stigma was so strong that public health officials feared even properly documenting cases.

Thanks to Parran's ardent advocacy, Congress in 1938 passed the National Venereal Disease Control Act, which created grants for states to set up clinics and support testing and treatment. Other than a short-lived funding effort during World War I, this was the first coordinated federal push to respond to the disease.

Around the same time, the Public Health Service launched an effort to record the natural history of syphilis. Situated in Tuskegee, Alabama, the infamous study recruited 600 black men. By the early 1940s, penicillin became widely available and was found to be a reliable cure, but the treatment was withheld from the study participants. Outrage over the ethical violations would cast a stain across syphilis research for decades to come and fuel generations of mistrust in the medical system among Black Americans that continues to this day.

With the introduction of penicillin, cases began to plummet. Twice, the CDC has announced efforts to wipe out the disease — once in the 1960s and again in 1999.

In the latest effort, the CDC announced that the United States had “a unique opportunity to eliminate syphilis within its borders," thanks to historically low rates, with 80% of counties reporting zero cases. The concentration of cases in the South “identifies communities in which there is a fundamental failure of public health capacity," the agency noted, adding that elimination — which it defined as fewer than 1,000 cases a year — would “decrease one of our most glaring racial disparities in health."

Two years after the campaign began, cases started climbing, first among gay men and later, heterosexuals. Cases in women started accelerating in 2013, followed shortly by increasing numbers of babies born with syphilis.The reasons for failure are complex; people relaxed safer sex practices after the advent of potent HIV combination therapies, increased methamphetamine use drove riskier behavior and an explosion of online dating made it hard to track and test sexual partners, according to Dr. Ina Park, medical director of the California Prevention Training Center at the University of California San Francisco.

But federal and state public health efforts were hamstrung from the get-go. In 1999, the CDC said it would need about $35 million to $39 million in new federal funds annually for at least five years to eliminate syphilis. The agency got less than half of what it asked for, according to Jo Valentine, former program coordinator of the CDC's Syphilis Elimination Effort. As cases rose, the CDC modified its goals in 2006 from 0.4 primary and secondary syphilis cases per 100,000 in population to 2.2 cases per 100,000. By 2013, as elimination seemed less and less viable, the CDC changed its focus to ending congenital syphilis only.

Since then, funding has remained anemic. From 2015 to 2020, the CDC's budget for preventing sexually transmitted infections grew by 2.2%. Taking inflation into account, that's a 7.4% reduction in purchasing power. In the same period, cases of syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia — the three STDs that have federally funded control programs — increased by nearly 30%.

“We have a long history of nearly eradicating something, then changing our attention, and seeing a resurgence in numbers," said David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors. “We have more congenital syphilis cases today in America than we ever had pediatric AIDS at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It's heartbreaking."

Adriane Casalotti, chief of government and public affairs at the National Association of County and City Health Officials, warns that the U.S. should not be surprised to see case counts continue to climb. “The bugs don't go away," she said. “They're just waiting for the next opportunity, when you're not paying attention."

Yang waited until the end of the day, then called the clinic to see if Angelica had gone for her shot. She had not. Yang would have to block off another half day to visit Huron again, but she had three dozen other cases to deal with.

States in the South and West have seen the highest syphilis rates in recent years. In 2017, 64 babies in Fresno County were born with syphilis at a rate of 440 babies per 100,000 live births — about 19 times the national rate. While the county had managed to lower case counts in the two years that followed, the pandemic threatened to unravel that progress, forcing STD staffers to do COVID-19 contact tracing, pausing field visits to find infected people and scaring patients from seeking care. Yang's colleague handled three cases of stillbirth in 2020; in each, the woman was never diagnosed with syphilis because she feared catching the coronavirus and skipped prenatal care.

Yang, whose caseload peaked at 70 during a COVID-19 surge, knew she would not be able handle them all as thoroughly as she'd like to. “When I was being mentored by another investigator, he said: 'You're not a superhero. You can't save everybody,'" she said. She prioritizes men who have sex with men, because there's a higher prevalence of syphilis in that population, and pregnant people, because of the horrific consequences for babies.

The job of a disease intervention specialist isn't for everyone: It means meeting patients whenever and wherever they are available — in the mop closet of a bus station, in a quiet parking lot — to inform them about the disease, to extract names of sex partners and to encourage treatment. Patients are often reluctant to talk. They can get belligerent, upset that “the government" has their personal information or shattered at the thought that a partner is likely cheating on them. Salaries typically start in the low $40,000s.

Jena Adams, Yang's supervisor, has eight investigators working on HIV and syphilis. In the middle of 2020, she lost two and replaced them only recently. “It's been exhausting," Adams said. She has only one specialist who is trained to take blood samples in the field, crucial for guaranteeing that the partners of those who test positive for syphilis also get tested. Adams wants to get phlebotomy training for the rest of her staff, but it's $2,000 per person. The department also doesn't have anyone who can administer penicillin injections in the field; that would have been key when Yang met Angelica. For a while, a nurse who worked in the tuberculosis program would ride along to give penicillin shots on a volunteer basis. Then he, too, left the health department.

Much of the resources in public health trickle down from the CDC, which distributes money to states, which then parcel it out to counties. The CDC gets its budget from Congress, which tells the agency, by line item, exactly how much money it can spend to fight a disease or virus, in an uncommonly specific manner not seen in many other agencies. The decisions are often politically driven and can be detached from actual health needs.

When the House and Senate appropriations committees meet to decide how much the CDC will get for each line item, they are barraged by lobbyists for individual disease interests. Stephanie Arnold Pang, senior director of policy and government relations at the National Coalition of STD Directors, can pick out the groups by sight: breast cancer wears pink, Alzheimer's goes in purple, multiple sclerosis comes in orange, HIV in red. STD prevention advocates, like herself, don a green ribbon, but they're far outnumbered.

And unlike diseases that might already be familiar to lawmakers, or have patient and family spokespeople who can tell their own powerful stories, syphilis doesn't have many willing poster children. “Congressmen don't wake up one day and say, 'Oh hey, there's congenital syphilis in my jurisdiction.' You have to raise awareness," Arnold Pang said. It can be hard jockeying for a meeting. “Some offices might say, 'I don't have time for you because we've just seen HIV.' ... Sometimes, it feels like you're talking into a void."

The consequences of the political nature of public health funding have become more obvious during the coronavirus pandemic. The 2014 Ebola epidemic was seen as a “global wakeup call" that the world wasn't prepared for a major pandemic, yet in 2018, the CDC scaled back its epidemic prevention work as money ran out. “If you've got to choose between Alzheimer's research and stopping an outbreak that may not happen? Stopping an outbreak that might not happen doesn't do well," said Frieden, the former CDC director. “The CDC needs to have more money and more flexible money. Otherwise, we're going to be in this situation long term."

In May 2021, President Joe Biden's administration announced it would set aside $7.4 billion over the next five years to hire and train public health workers, including $1.1 billion for more disease intervention specialists like Yang. Public health officials are thrilled to have the chance to expand their workforce, but some worry the time horizon may be too short. “We've seen this movie before, right?" Frieden said. “Everyone gets concerned when there's an outbreak, and when that outbreak stops, the headlines stop, and an economic downturn happens, the budget gets cut."

Fresno's STD clinic was shuttered in 2010 amid the Great Recession. Many others have vanished since the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Health leaders thought “by magically beefing up the primary care system, that we would do a better job of catching STIs and treating them," said Harvey, the executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors. That hasn't worked out; people want access to anonymous services, and primary care doctors often don't have STDs top of mind. The coalition is lobbying Congress for funding to support STD clinical services, proposing a three-year demonstration project funded at $600 million.

It's one of Adams' dreams to see Fresno's STD clinic restored as it was. “You could come in for an HIV test and get other STDs checked," she said. “And if a patient is positive, you can give a first injection on the spot."

On Aug. 12, Yang set out for Huron again, speeding past groves of almond trees and fields of grapes in the department's white Chevy Cruze. She brought along a colleague, Jorge Sevilla, who had recently transferred to the STD program from COVID-19 contact tracing. Yang was anxious to find Angelica again. “She's probably in her second trimester now," she said.

They found her outside of a pale yellow house a few blocks from the homeless encampment; the owner was letting her stay in a shed tucked in the corner of the dirt yard. This time, it was evident that she was pregnant. Yang noted that Angelica was wearing a wig; hair loss is a symptom of syphilis.

“Do you remember me?" Yang asked.

Angelica nodded. She didn't seem surprised to see Yang again. (I came along, and Sevilla explained who I was and that I was writing about syphilis and the people affected by it. Angelica signed a release for me to report about her case, and she said she had no problem with me writing about her or even using her full name. ProPublica chose to only print her first name.)

“How are you doing? How's the baby?"


“So the last time we talked, we were going to have you go to United Healthcare Center to get treatment. Have you gone since?"

Angelica shook her head.

“We brought some gift cards..." Sevilla started in Spanish. The department uses them as incentives for completing injections. But Angelica was already shaking her head. The nearest Walmart was the next town over.

Yang turned to her partner. “Tell her: So the reason why we're coming out here again is because we really need her to go in for treatment. ... We really are concerned for the baby's health especially since she's had the infection for quite a while."

Angelica listened while Sevilla interpreted, her eyes on the ground. Then she looked up. “Orita?" she asked. Right now?

“I'll walk with you," Yang offered. Angelica shook her head. “She said she wants to shower first before she goes over there," Sevilla said.

Yang made a face. “She said that to me last time." Yang offered to wait, but Angelica didn't want the health officers to linger by the house. She said she would meet them by the clinic in 15 minutes.

Yang was reluctant to let her go but again had no other option. She and Sevilla drove to the clinic, then stood on the corner of the parking lot, staring down the road.

Talk to the pediatricians, obstetricians and families on the front lines of the congenital syphilis surge and it becomes clear why Yang and others are trying so desperately to prevent cases. Dr. J. B. Cantey, associate professor in pediatrics at UT Health San Antonio, remembers a baby girl born at 25 weeks gestation who weighed a pound and a half. Syphilis had spread through her bones and lungs. She spent five months in the neonatal intensive care unit, breathing through a ventilator, and was still eating through a tube when she was discharged.

Then, there are the miscarriages, the stillbirths and the inconsolable parents. Dr. Irene Stafford, an associate professor and maternal-fetal medicine specialist at UT Health in Houston, cannot forget a patient who came in at 36 weeks for a routine checkup, pregnant with her first child. Stafford realized that there was no heartbeat. “She could see on my face that something was really wrong," Stafford recalled. She had to let the patient know that syphilis had killed her baby. “She was hysterical, just bawling," Stafford said. “I've seen people's families ripped apart and I've seen beautiful babies die." Fewer than 10% of patients who experience a stillbirth are tested for syphilis, suggesting that cases are underdiagnosed.

A Texas grandmother named Solidad Odunuga offers a glimpse into what the future could hold for Angelica's mother, who may wind up raising her baby.

In February of last year, Odunuga got a call from the Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital in Houston. A nurse told her that her daughter was about to give birth and that child protective services had been called. Odunuga had lost contact with her daughter, who struggled with homelessness and substance abuse. She arrived in time to see her grandson delivered, premature at 30 weeks old, weighing 2.7 pounds. He tested positive for syphilis.

When a child protective worker asked Odunuga to take custody of the infant, she felt a wave of dread. “I was in denial," she recalled. “I did not plan to be a mom again." The baby's medical problems were daunting: “Global developmental delays ... concerns for visual impairments ... high risk of cerebral palsy," read a note from the doctor at the time.

Still, Odunuga visited her grandson every day for three months, driving to the NICU from her job at the University of Houston. “I'd put him in my shirt to keep him warm and hold him there." She fell in love. She named him Emmanuel.

Once Emmanuel was discharged, Odunuga realized she had no choice but to quit her job. While Medicaid covered the costs of Emmanuel's treatment, it was on her to care for him. From infancy, Emmanuel's life has been a whirlwind of constant therapy. Today, at 20 months old, Odunuga brings him to physical, occupational, speech and developmental therapy, each a different appointment on a different day of the week.

Emmanuel has thrived beyond what his doctors predicted, toddling so fast that Odunuga can't look away for a minute and beaming as he waves his favorite toy phone. Yet he still suffers from gagging issues, which means Odunuga can't feed him any solid foods. Liquid gets into his lungs when he aspirates; it has led to pneumonia three times. Emmanuel has a special stroller that helps keep his head in a position that won't aggravate his persistent reflux, but Odunuga said she still has to pull over on the side of the road sometimes when she hears him projectile vomiting from the backseat.

The days are endless. Once she puts Emmanuel to bed, Odunuga starts planning the next day's appointments. “I've had to cry alone, scream out alone," she said. “Sometimes I wake up and think, Is this real? And then I hear him in the next room."

Putting aside the challenge of eliminating syphilis entirely, everyone agrees it's both doable and necessary to prevent newborn cases. “There was a crisis in perinatal HIV almost 30 years ago and people stood up and said this is not OK — it's not acceptable for babies to be born in that condition. ... [We] brought it down from 1,700 babies born each year with perinatal HIV to less than 40 per year today," said Virginia Bowen, an epidemiologist at the CDC. “Now here we are with a slightly different condition. We can also stand up and say, 'This is not acceptable.'" Belarus, Bermuda, Cuba, Malaysia, Thailand and Sri Lanka are among countries recognized by the World Health Organization for eliminating congenital syphilis.

Success starts with filling gaps across the health care system.

For almost a century, public health experts have advocated for testing pregnant patients more than once for syphilis in order to catch the infection. But policies nationwide still don't reflect this best practice. Six states have no prenatal screening requirement at all. Even in states that require three tests, public health officials say that many physicians aren't aware of the requirements. Stafford, the maternal-fetal medicine specialist in Houston, says she's tired of hearing her own peers in medicine tell her, “Oh, syphilis is a problem?"

It costs public health departments less than 25 cents a dose to buy penicillin, but for a private practice, it's more than $1,000, according to Park of the University of California San Francisco. “There's no incentive for a private physician to stock a dose that could expire before it's used, so they often don't have it. So a woman comes in, they say, 'We'll send you to the emergency department or health department to get it,' then [the patients] don't show up."

A vaccine would be invaluable for preventing spread among people at high risk for reinfection. But there is none. Scientists only recently figured out how to grow the bacteria in the lab, prompting grants from the National Institutes of Health to fund research into a vaccine. Dr. Justin Radolf, a researcher at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, said he hopes his team will have a vaccine candidate by the end of its five-year grant. But it'll likely take years more to find a manufacturer and run human trials.

Public health agencies also need to recognize that many of the hurdles to getting pregnant people treated involve access to care, economic stability, safe housing and transportation. In Fresno, Adams has been working on ways her department can collaborate with mental health services. Recently, one of her disease intervention specialists managed to get a pregnant woman treated with penicillin shots and, at the patient's request, connected her with an addiction treatment center.

Gaining a patient's cooperation means seeing them as complex humans instead of just a case to solve. “There may be past traumas with the health care system," said Cynthia Deverson, project manager of the Houston Fetal Infant Morbidity Review. “There's the fear of being discovered if she's doing something illegal to survive. ... She may need to be in a certain place at a certain time so she can get something to eat, or maybe it's the only time of the day that's safe for her to sleep. They're not going to tell you that. Yes, they understand there's a problem, but it's not an immediate threat, maybe they don't feel bad yet, so obviously this is not urgent. ...

“What helps to gain trust is consistency," she said. “Literally, it's seeing that [disease specialist] constantly, daily. ... The woman can see that you're not going to harm her, you're saying, 'I'm here at this time if you need me.'"

Yang stood outside the clinic, waiting for Angelica to show up, baking in the 90-degree heat. Her feelings ranged from irritation — Why didn't she just go? I'd have more energy for other cases — to an appreciation for the parts of Angelica's story that she didn't know — She's in survival mode. I need to be more patient.

Fifteen minutes ticked by, then 20.

“OK," Yang announced. “We're going back."

She asked Sevilla if he would be OK if they drove Angelica to the clinic; they technically weren't supposed to because of coronavirus precautions, but Yang wasn't sure she could convince Angelica to walk. Sevilla gave her the thumbs up.

When they pulled up, they saw Angelica sitting in the backyard, chatting with a friend. She now wore a fresh T-shirt and had shoes on her feet. Angelica sat silently in the back seat as Yang drove to the clinic. A few minutes later, they pulled up to the parking lot.

Finally, Yang thought. We got her here.

The clinic was packed with people waiting for COVID-19 tests and vaccinations. A worker there had previously told Yang that a walk-in would be fine, but a receptionist now said they were too busy to treat Angelica. She would have to return.

Yang felt a surge of frustration, sensing that her hard-fought opportunity was slipping away. She tried to talk to the nurse supervisor, but he wasn't available. She tried to leave the gift cards at the office to reward Angelica if she came, but the receptionist said she couldn't hold them. While Yang negotiated, Sevilla sat with Angelica in the car, waiting.

Finally, Yang accepted this was yet another thing she couldn't control.

She drove Angelica back to the yellow house. As they arrived, she tried once more to impress on her just how important it was to get treated, asking Sevilla to interpret. “We don't want it to get any more serious, because she can go blind, she could go deaf, she could lose her baby."

Angelica already had the door halfway open.

“So on a scale from one to 10, how important is this to get treated?" Yang asked.

“Ten," Angelica said. Yang reminded her of the appointment that afternoon. Then Angelica stepped out and returned to the dusty yard.

Yang lingered for a moment, watching Angelica go. Then she turned the car back onto the highway and set off toward Fresno, knowing, already, that she'd be back.

Postscript: A reporter visited Huron twice more in the months that followed, including once independently to try to interview Angelica, but she wasn't in town. Yang has visited Huron twice more as well — six times in total thus far. In October, a couple of men at the yellow house said Angelica was still in town, still pregnant. Yang and Sevilla spent an hour driving around, talking to residents, hoping to catch Angelica. But she was nowhere to be found.

New filing shows bombshell records tied to a GOP senator's suspicious stock dumps

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.

After Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina dumped more than $1.6 million in stocks in February 2020 a week before the coronavirus market crash, he called his brother-in-law, according to a new Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

They talked for 50 seconds.

Burr, according to the SEC, had material nonpublic information regarding the incoming economic impact of coronavirus.

The very next minute, Burr's brother-in-law, Gerald Fauth, called his broker.

ProPublica previously reported that Fauth, a member of the National Mediation Board, had dumped stock the same day Burr did. But it was previously unknown that Burr and Fauth spoke that day, and that their contact came just before Fauth began the process of dumping stock himself.

The revelations come as part of an effort by the SEC to force Fauth to comply with a subpoena that the agency said he has stonewalled for more than a year, and which was filed not long after ProPublica's story.

In the filings, the SEC also revealed that there is an ongoing insider trading investigation into both Burr and Fauth's trades.

It had previously been reported that federal prosecutors had decided not to charge Burr.

Burr's spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions. Fauth's lawyer and the SEC did not respond to questions. Fauth hung up on a ProPublica reporter.

According to the SEC, Fauth has cited a medical condition for why he cannot comply with the subpoena, even as he has been healthy enough to continue his duties at the National Mediation Board. In its filings, the SEC accuses Fauth of engaging in “a relentless battle" to dodge the subpoena.

In 2017, President Donald Trump appointed Fauth to the three-person board, a federal agency that facilitates labor-management relations within the nation's railroad and airline industries. President Joe Biden reappointed him to the board.

On the day he received the call from Burr, Fauth sold between $97,000 and $280,000 worth of shares in six companies — including several that were hit particularly hard in the market swoon and economic downturn. According to the SEC, the first broker he called after hearing from Burr was out of the office, so he immediately called another broker to execute the trades.

In its filings, the SEC also alleges, for the first time, that Burr had material nonpublic information about the economic impact of the coming coronavirus crisis, based on his role at the time as chairman of the intelligence committee, as a member of the health committee and through former staffers who were directing key aspects of the government response to the virus.

The week after the trades, the market began its crash, falling by more than 30% in the subsequent month.

Burr came under scrutiny after ProPublica reported that he sold off a significant percentage of his stocks shortly before the market tanked, unloading between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his holdings on Feb. 13 in 33 separate transactions. The precise amount of his stock sales, more than $1.6 million, is also a new detail from this week's SEC filings. In his roles on the intelligence and health committees, Burr had access to the government's most highly classified information about threats to America's security and public health concerns.

Before his sell-off, Burr had assured the public that the federal government was well prepared to handle the virus. In a Feb. 7 op-ed that he co-authored with another senator, he said “the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus."

That month, however, according to a recording obtained by NPR, Burr had given a VIP group at an exclusive social club a much more dire preview of the economic impact of the coronavirus, warning it could curtail business travel, cause schools to be closed and result in the military mobilizing to compensate for overwhelmed hospitals.

Burr defended his actions, saying he relied solely on public information, including CNBC reports, to inform his trades and did not rely on information he obtained as a senator.

Alice Fisher, Burr's attorney, told ProPublica at the time that “Sen. Burr participated in the stock market based on public information and he did not coordinate his decision to trade on Feb. 13 with Mr. Fauth."


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