Sunday, September 23, 2018

Justice Department Inspector General to Investigate DEA Program Linked to Massacres in Mexico

The inquiry stems from stories by ProPublica that showed the DEA’s vetted unit in the country has had a history of leaking sensitive information to drug traffickers.

by Ginger Thompson, ProPublica
The Justice Department’s inspector general announced on Tuesday that his office would investigate a Drug Enforcement Administration program linked to violent drug cartel attacks in Mexico that have left dozens, possibly hundreds, of people dead or missing.

In a letter to senior congressional Democrats, Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz said that an internal review had flagged the DEA’s Sensitive Investigative Units program as “an area of high risk.” His office, he wrote, would examine the drug agency’s management of the program and whether internal controls are in place to ensure that “DEA operations, information and personnel are protected from compromise.”

Under the program, the DEA vets and trains teams of Mexican federal police officers, known as SIUs, that conduct DEA-led operations in Mexico. Last year, ProPublica and National Geographic reported that at least two such operations were compromised and triggered deadly spasms of violence, including one that occurred less than an hour’s drive away from the Mexican border with Texas. A June 2017 story revealed that an attack on the small ranching town of Allende in the Mexican state of Coahuila in 2011 was unleashed after sensitive information obtained during a DEA operation wound up in the hands of cartel leaders, who ordered a wave of retaliation against suspected traitors.

A second story in December investigated a 2010 cartel attack on a Holiday Inn in Monterrey, Mexico, and found that it, too, was linked to a DEA surveillance operation. Four hotel guests and a hotel clerk, none of whom were involved with the drug trade, were kidnapped and never seen again.
Both operations involved the DEA’s Mexican SIU. ProPublica’s reporting detailed that the Mexican SIU had a yearslong, documented record of leaking information to violent and powerful drug traffickers. Since 2000, at least two supervisors have been assassinated after their identities and locations were leaked to drug traffickers by SIU members, according to allegations by current and former DEA agents who worked in Mexico.

Last year, another SIU supervisor, Iván Reyes Arzate, flew to Chicago and surrendered to U.S. authorities, who charged him with collaborating with drug traffickers. Arzate pleaded no contest to the charges in May and faces 25 years in prison. He is scheduled for sentencing this year.
The DEA, ProPublica found, had long been aware of this corruption and failed to address it, even when innocent lives were lost. In an email, a DEA spokeswoman, Katherine M. Pfaff, said the agency declined to comment on the inspector general’s investigation. The DEA considers the SIU program an “effective international program,” she wrote.

The agency has similar units in at least 12 other countries.

The Justice Department’s decision to investigate the SIUs marks the culmination of a campaign started by several leading Democrats in Congress after the publication of ProPublica’s stories. In a series of letters, the ranking members of three powerful committees — judiciary, appropriations and foreign affairs — began pushing for the Justice Department and the DEA to investigate. “These operations raise serious questions about the practices of DEA-trained and funded SIUs,” the legislators wrote in February, “and point to the need for greater accountability for these vetted units.”
That letter was signed by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who has long pursued accountability for the DEA’s operations abroad, as well as Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of the country’s leading authorities on national security matters, Rep. Eliot L. Engel, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the leading Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. The two representatives are from New York, and their committees oversee the State and Justice departments.

“In light of these incidents,” the legislators wrote, referring to Allende and Monterrey, “we believe that a thorough investigation into the practices of the DEA’s vetted units is essential.”
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Sunday, September 2, 2018

A Splendid Little Dictatorship

Tarrant County District Attorney who pushed for harsh sentencing in Rosa Ortega illegal voting case may have some election irregularities of her own to explain.

Rosa Ortega was brought to the United States from Mexico as an infant and had lived and worked in the United States all of her adult life after being granted permanent residency and a green card. Although Ms. Ortega's status as a permanent resident entitles her to work, go to school, and even own property in the Unites States, and although America is the only home that she has ever known and she has paid taxes to the U.S treasury for all of her adult life, she had to find out the hard way that there is a fine line between "citizenship" and "permanent residency."

Unlike at least fifty percent of U.S. citizens, Ms. Ortega took enough interest in the future of our nation to get up off her couch and actually register to vote.  She voted for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012 and also for Republican Texas attorney general Ken Paxton in 2012. After moving from Dallas to Tarrant County in 2015, she updated her voter registration information and that is when her troubles began.

                                                     <<Read More>>

Saturday, September 1, 2018

How the Trump Administration Went Easy on Small-Town Police Abuses

by Ian MacDougall, ProPublica

On a chilly morning in December 2016, 12-year-old Bobby Lewis found himself sitting in a little room at the police station in Ville Platte, a town of 7,300 in southern Louisiana. He wasn’t sure exactly how long it had been, but the detective grilling him had been at it for some time. Bobby was a middle school student — a skinny kid with a polite demeanor — and though he got in trouble at school from time to time, he wasn’t used to getting treated like this. He was alone, facing the detective without a parent or a lawyer.

A blank piece of paper sat on the table in front of Bobby. He and his friends were thieves, the detective insisted. They sold drugs. They trafficked guns. The detective brushed off Bobby’s denials. She knew what he was up to, and if he didn’t write it all down — inform on his friends and confess to his crimes — she’d charge him. She’d confiscate his dog, Cinnamon, she told him. She’d throw his mother in jail. Bobby was nothing but a “B” and an “MF,” as he later relayed the detective’s words to me, sheepish about repeating them. When his mother finally turned up at the station house, it seemed only to enrage the detective further. “Wipe that fucking smile off your face, and sit up in that fucking chair,” Bobby and his mother recall the detective barking at him.

Earlier that day, Bobby told me, he had been walking home from a friend’s house when a police cruiser pulled up alongside him. He recognized one of the officers. Her name was Jessica LaBorde, but like most people in Ville Platte, Bobby knew her only as Scrappy. The sobriquet was too fitting not to stick. Profanity prone in the extreme, LaBorde was known for her tinderbox temper and hostile disposition. She styled herself like a Marine drill sergeant — fastidiously pressed police blues, jet-black hair pulled back tight — and she would become Bobby’s interrogator. (LaBorde did not respond to calls or a detailed list of questions about the incident.)

Somebody had put a rock through a window in one of the abandoned houses that litter Ville Platte, and a neighbor had seen three boys taking shelter from the rain under a carport nearby. But, the neighbor later told Bobby’s mother, Charlotte Lewis, he didn’t know which of the boys had thrown the rock. Bobby admitted he had been there but insisted he wasn’t the culprit.

Police need probable cause — evidence sufficient to show there’s a fair likelihood that a person committed a crime — to take someone into custody. Generally, an officer can’t detain somebody just because that person was near the scene of a crime. “Mere propinquity,” the U.S. Supreme Court has written, “does not, without more, give rise to probable cause.” Whether LaBorde didn’t know that or didn’t care, she ordered Bobby into the back of her squad car.

LaBorde didn’t call Bobby’s mother to tell her that her 12-year-old was in custody, according to a complaint Lewis later filed with the police department. But eventually another officer did. Lewis says she told the officer not to let anybody question her son until she got there. She had to wait out a morning downpour before she could walk to the station house.

Lewis was familiar with LaBorde’s rough reputation. Still, she told me, she was shocked by how her son was treated. “She cussed him out like he’s a stray dog,” she said. “It’s like my child is a convict or a criminal.” After two hours of pressing Bobby fruitlessly, LaBorde finally let him go — but not before charging him with criminal mischief, police records show. (A judge later dismissed the charge, Lewis told me; a friend admitted throwing the rock.)

Two weeks later, on Dec. 19, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report on policing in Ville Platte and surrounding Evangeline Parish. The investigation found that, for decades, the city Police Department and the parish Sheriff’s Office maintained an unwritten policy of jailing people without probable cause — for days and even weeks at a time — to pressure them to cooperate with law enforcement. These “investigative holds” ensnared anybody who might know something about criminal activity, from a suspect to a potential witness to a suspect’s relatives. As the Justice Department report put it, “Literally anyone in Evangeline Parish or Ville Platte could be arrested and placed ‘on hold’ at any time.” Many were. From 2012 to 2014 alone, the police unlawfully held at least 700 people in Ville Platte — close to a tenth of the town’s residents.

That, the report concluded, amounted to “a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct.” To end this cycle of abuses, the report prescribed an array of institutional changes to eliminate investigative holds, such as imposing new department protocols and overhauling training regimens.
The case wasn’t merely about Ville Platte. The Justice Department lawyers viewed it as a template. Similar policing practices exist in scores of towns and villages across the country, and Justice Department officials selected Ville Platte precisely because it was a pure embodiment of a widespread problem. They hoped it would provide a model for reform at other police departments.
Justice Department officials planned to negotiate a consent decree — a long-term reform plan supervised by a federal judge — with local officials. Systemic police reform was a defining feature of the Obama-era Justice Department, which considered judicial oversight key to dislodging unlawful practices as firmly entrenched as investigative holds were in Ville Platte.

But Jeff Sessions, who took office as attorney general just months after the Justice Department report, has a different view. He considers his predecessors’ reform efforts, particularly via consent decree, to be gross federal overreach that denigrates and demoralizes police. Sessions all but declared that the Justice Department was getting out of the business of meaningful police reform. There would be no consent decree in Ville Platte. Instead, the result is what former Justice Department officials say is an anemic reform plan, announced in June, that largely leaves the future of policing there to the police.
There’s little reason, they say, to expect that this plan will induce law enforcement in Ville Platte to change its ways. The town’s policing culture is defined by arbitrary arrest and detention — and it has been for a long time. It’s a culture that’s proven intensely resistant to change. “You do what you know,” one former Ville Platte police official told me. “And that’s all they know.”

When Neal Lartigue joined the Ville Platte Police Department in 1991, investigative holds were part of his training. “I’ve been here 27 years, and that was going on before I started,” he told me when I visited Ville Platte early this year. The practice was never enshrined in any manual, but it was as good as official policy at both the department and the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office, which is headquartered in Ville Platte. (For its part, the Sheriff’s Office didn’t have a policy manual at all until last year.)

Lartigue rose to become the Police Department’s narcotics officer, and in that role, he was a regular practitioner of investigative holds, according to a former police official who worked with him during that time. Lartigue would “put people in jail” — people he thought might be drug users or small-time dealers — “and he’d make them sit there, and say: ‘You gonna tell me something? I know you ain’t got the drugs, but you’re getting them from somebody. Who you getting them from?’” the former police official told me.

It was an unnerving experience. Lartigue is an intimidating figure — a stern, laconic man with a shaved head and a stout frame. If his detainee pleaded ignorance, the former official said, Lartigue’s response was inevitably, “Well, then you’re gonna sit in jail till you decide you want to talk.” (Lartigue did not respond to requests for comment on his practices as an officer.)

Nothing had changed by 2006, when Lartigue was elected chief of police, a position he holds today. Investigative holds remained a basic policing tool in Ville Platte, like dusting for fingerprints or mapping a crime scene. According to the Justice Department report and former local law enforcement officials, the purpose of most investigative holds was to obtain information from a reticent subject: a confession from a suspect, details from a potential witness, denunciations from a prospective informant. On occasion, the point was simpler: to keep a suspect from getting in the way while a detective gathered enough evidence to support an arrest warrant, the probable cause needed to arrest the suspect in the first place. Age was no limiting factor. The Justice Department found more than two dozen instances in which juveniles were subjected to investigative holds.

Detainees — even those suspected of no wrongdoing — were strip-searched, booked and thrown in a jail cell, without access to a phone or a lawyer. The intermittent interrogations that followed, the Justice Department noted in its report, carried out “under the threat of continued, secret, indefinite detention,” raised the specter of “coerced statements or false confessions” and, worse, “improper criminal convictions.”

In 1991, the year Lartigue became a patrolman, the Supreme Court held that if police make an arrest without a warrant, they have to get a judge to verify that the arrest was based on probable cause “as soon as is reasonably feasible, but in no event later than 48 hours after arrest.” Police are not allowed, the high court said, to delay going to a judge “for the purpose of gathering additional evidence to justify the arrest.” Yet, investigative holds were unilateral in Ville Platte; judges were never asked to determine whether each arrest and detention was in line with the law.

Local officials maintain that the holds were an innocent outgrowth of parochialism. “We never intended to violate anyone’s constitutional rights,” Lartigue told local media after the Justice Department issued its 2016 report. The prevailing belief in Ville Platte, the Justice Department found, was that law enforcement could legally jail anybody for up to 72 hours without probable cause — a view of the law that had been wrong for more than half a century.

Ville Platte is a deeply isolated place. It sits on the upper edge of the Cajun Prairie, a plain of humid farmland flecked with palmettos, crawfish ponds and live oak that sprawls north from the marshy cane fields nearer to the Gulf of Mexico. In French, the words “ville platte” mean “flat town,” a name that, legend has it, was conferred by one of Napoleon’s former officers. Passing through in the 1850s, the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted lamented the tedium of the region’s “immense moist plain.”

The construction of Interstate 49, in the mid-1980s, bypassed Ville Platte and left it all the more sequestered. Apart from a few annual events, such as the summer Festival de la Viande Boucanée (the Festival of Smoked Meat), Ville Platte has few attractions to draw outsiders. It retains a distinctive sense of place. Gas stations still advertise boudin, cracklin and tasso. It’s not uncommon to run into some locals who speak the regional French dialect.

The other side of Ville Platte’s isolation is its poverty. Little gabled houses of shingle and clapboard are left abandoned to rot and collapse in the Woods, south of Main Street. In Crosstown, on the north side, the Parkview Shopping Center sits nearly tenantless, its vast, empty parking lot a reminder of all the spending power there’s not in Ville Platte. This May, an article in USA Today declared the town the poorest in Louisiana. Its median household income is about $18,700, compared with roughly $59,000 for the U.S. as a whole.

Ville Platte doesn’t have an organized civil rights community or a legal aid group to investigate policing practices, or any money to fund them. Local criminal defense attorneys might be expected to raise legal challenges to investigative holds, but they, too, thought a person could be held without probable cause for up to 72 hours, former Justice Department officials told me.

Some scoff at the notion that the problem was ignorance alone. There has always been an element within the local law enforcement apparatus, particularly in its upper ranks, that didn’t care what courts and statutes required, say five current and former local law enforcement officials. For that set, the guiding principle was convenience. “We call it the Sovereign State of Evangeline,” one parish resident told me. “Our officials don’t follow the law. They make their own law, and we have to follow it.”

In fact, those officials even flouted their own mistaken view of the law: the 72 hours they believed to be the legal limit on holds. The Justice Department documented “several dozen investigate holds” at the Ville Platte Police Department that “extended for at least a full week.”

In 2014, attorneys at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which handles police reform cases, received a call from an FBI agent named Steve Krueger. Krueger had been assisting a murder investigation in Ville Platte when he’d learned about investigative holds. The FBI agent had been shocked by the patent illegality of the practice, people familiar with the episode said. He met with Lartigue and his detectives to explain that the holds were unconstitutional. The police chief shrugged off Krueger’s entreaties, according to the Justice Department’s 2016 report.

Krueger saw firsthand the harm investigative holds did to public safety in Ville Platte. People with information about his murder case had proved uncommonly hesitant to talk to him, he told colleagues. Citizens worried about getting thrown in jail if the police thought they knew anything of value. As the Justice Department’s report put it, decades of arbitrary detention had bred “deep community mistrust and fear of law enforcement.”

Police reform cases rely primarily on a Clinton-era law that Civil Rights Division attorneys often call 14141, for its original designation in the U.S. Code. The law empowers the Justice Department to investigate and sue law enforcement agencies when they “engage in a pattern or practice of conduct” that deprives people of their civil rights.
In 2009, Tom Perez took the helm at the Civil Rights Division and began to breathe new life into 14141, several former Justice Department officials say. (Perez is now chairman of the Democratic National Committee.) The Bush administration had largely sidelined police reform, favoring out-of-court settlement agreements when they entered into agreements at all. The federal government, Bush said, shouldn’t be “a separate internal affairs division.”

After studying earlier cases, Perez’s team became convinced that a court-enforceable consent decree was far more likely to produce meaningful change in most instances. Given the time reform can take, “you need to have a sustained effort, and that needs to be supported and backed up by a judge, a federal judge who’s got the authority to force people to comply with their obligations,” said Jonathan Smith, who led the section that handles police reform from 2010 to 2015.

A consent decree contains a set of institutional changes a police department has agreed to make, after negotiations with the Justice Department. A judge approves the agreement and oversees the reform process, usually assisted by an independent monitoring team. Intransigent police officials risk being held in contempt of court or even prosecuted. The judge lifts the consent decree only after the department has restructured its practices and ended its abuses. This typically occurs several years after the decree was put in place.

A growing (albeit not unanimous) body of empirical evidence suggests consent decrees measurably improve police practices. But nobody argues they’re a panacea. “Consent decrees don’t turn departments into A+ departments,” said Christy Lopez, the supervisor for the Civil Rights Division’s police-reform attorneys during the Obama administration. But, she added, “if, after a consent decree, a department is still a C-, it sure makes a big difference for the people who were living with an F department.”

Perez and his successor, Vanita Gupta, had an ambitious vision for what 14141 could achieve. They targeted common types of police misconduct and designed consent decrees to be templates for reform at other departments. “They became models for a set of best practices across the field,” Gupta told me. Another innovation was bringing local communities into the reform process. It was their rights police had violated, and they would be the ones to hold police accountable after a consent decree was lifted.

By the time Krueger placed his call to Washington, in 2014, the small group of attorneys handling 14141 cases had their hands full. In all, the Obama Justice Department would enter into 14 consent decrees, more than twice as many as the Bush and Clinton administrations combined.
But Ville Platte struck supervisors as worth the time commitment. Moving law enforcement there away from investigative holds — an egregious example of a fairly widespread policing practice — could guide improvements at other police forces that used such tactics.

Lawyers at the Civil Rights Division had received reports of similar practices throughout Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, as well as parts of Florida. “The problem in Ville Platte is very common throughout the South,” Smith said. Indeed, court records showed the problem extended across the U.S., from Texas to Michigan and Georgia to Montana. “You would constantly see judges dropping footnotes: ‘I’m not really sure about the constitutionality of this practice, but nobody raised it,’” a former Justice Department official told me. “So, we need to raise it.”

In April 2015, the Justice Department announced an investigation into whether the use of investigative holds in Ville Platte amounted to a pattern or practice of unconstitutional police conduct. In the meantime, the FBI’s Krueger had continued to examine policing practices in the town.
In response to the attention from the FBI, Lartigue told me, he told his officers and detectives that they couldn’t use investigative holds any longer. Instead, there was a new procedure: Before they booked anybody, they needed to write up a statement of probable cause, have it notarized and prepare it to be sent to a judge. In December 2014, the Police Department began to require that its detectives and officers become notaries public. That, Lartigue said, would reduce the time it took after an arrest to get a statement of probable cause notarized and sent to a judge for review. “That was our only issue — the holds — and we quickly, swiftly got rid of it,” he told me. (The Sheriff’s Office instituted similar changes.)

But what Justice Department attorneys found over the next 20 months indicated that serious problems remained. Local detectives still maintained that all they needed to jail somebody was a “hunch,” a “gut instinct” or “a pretty good feeling” that a person knew something about a crime.
Many less senior members of the Ville Platte Police Department acknowledged to Justice Department attorneys that they knew little about proper police procedure. “You haven’t had anybody tell you the right way to do things,” said Jonathon Sparks, a former officer who began working at the Ville Platte Police Department in 2009, when he was 19. “It was only later in life I realized these people’s civil rights were being violated.”

There were no beds, toilets, or running water in Ville Platte’s jail cells. Cut off from the outside world, a person on hold spent nights sleeping on a metal bench or on the concrete floor. A woman named Shawana Deville told the attorneys from Washington about the time police had held her overnight as a potential witness to a shooting. Jail guards ordered her to remove her tampon, and she spent the night sleeping on the floor without one. Lartigue confirmed her detention to Justice Department officials. “I just cried the whole time,” Deville would later tell a local television station.
Deville is white, but the vast majority of people put on hold were black, former Justice Department officials told me. It wasn’t a simple story of racist white cops, though. Two thirds of Ville Platte’s residents are black, and the local power structure has given ground in recent years to black officials, including the mayor and Lartigue.

But that hasn’t uprooted the old dynamic between power and race. “When we were growing up, there was nothing but white cops, and we thought it was bad,” one black Ville Platte resident, Raymond Anderson, told me. “But when the blacks came in, that didn’t make it easier.” (Anderson’s son is in prison — wrongfully, Anderson contends — for the murder that led police to hold Deville.)
Local residents, as Krueger had seen, feared what law enforcement would do to them if they spoke out. Nevertheless, at a community meeting in September 2015, about 150 people turned up to share their experiences with the Justice Department attorneys. “When you speak up, you are looked at as a trouble maker,” one of them told a local reporter after the meeting. But optimism overcame fear of police retaliation. If they shared their stories, the Justice Department might bring its power and resources to bear on police misconduct in Ville Platte.

As the investigation proceeded, Lartigue told me, he made a few more changes aimed at satisfying the Justice Department — “very few,” he added, to underscore his view that he’d already done all he needed to do. In March 2016, the Police Department revised its policy manual to prohibit detaining witnesses. “Unfortunately,” the policy stated, though the practice is “convenient and effective,” it “can result in civil liability.”

Despite such steps, the legal peril for law enforcement in Ville Platte seemed to be rising as 2016 progressed. The feds weren’t the only ones circling; Louisiana state prosecutors had begun their own investigation. Krueger had retired from the FBI in 2015 — and promptly teamed up with the Louisiana State Inspector General, people familiar with the case said. They eventually brought a case to Jeff Landry, the state’s newly elected attorney general. Landry agreed to open a criminal investigation, with assistance from the FBI, into unlawful detention in Ville Platte.

In mid-November 2016, Donald Trump announced that he would nominate Sessions to be his attorney general. The choice didn’t bode well for the Justice Department’s plans in Ville Platte. As a senator, Sessions had made no secret of his antipathy for consent decrees and Obama-era police reform. Critics argued that the Justice Department deployed them too aggressively.

Sessions’ concern, however, wasn’t that police reform by consent decree was overused or ineffective. His problem was with the very premise. He saw consent decrees as unconstitutional federal intrusions into state and local affairs. They “undermine the respect for police officers,” he testified at his January 2017 confirmation hearing, “and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness.”

In its December 2016 report, the Justice Department laid out the changes it anticipated requiring of the Ville Platte Police Department and Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office: They would need to overhaul policies, training procedures, recordkeeping systems and internal accountability mechanisms. The plan was to implement those reforms through a consent decree, former Justice Department officials said, and in early March 2017, Civil Rights Division attorneys traveled to Ville Platte to discuss reforms with community members and local officials.

But on March 31, Sessions issued what many lawyers for the Justice Department saw as the coup de grâce to its police reform efforts. “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies,” the attorney general wrote in an agency-wide memorandum, which ordered a review of contemplated consent decrees. He expanded on his thinking in an Op-Ed in USA Today: “We will not sign consent decrees for political expediency that will cost more lives by handcuffing the police instead of the criminals.”

In April 2017, the Justice Department made its first endeavor to translate policy into practice — an 11th-hour attempt to scuttle a consent decree with Baltimore’s embattled police department. A judge in Maryland swatted it away. Meanwhile, in Ville Platte, the Justice Department went silent.
In an interview with a local newspaper right after the Justice Department report was issued, Lartigue compared investigative holds to an old family recipe for boudin sausage. He meant to highlight the lost provenance of the practice. But the analogy was apt in another sense, too. In Ville Platte, the police were used to making their sausage in particular ways, and they wouldn’t be easy to give up. Even townspeople who’d suffered under the holds saw them as a kind of local custom. “Dat just how dey do,” was the refrain I heard, in patois laced with resignation.

In one sense, Lartigue was right that law enforcement in Ville Platte had stopped using investigative holds. There was no longer an open policy of jailing local residents without probable cause. But that didn’t mean local law enforcement had stopped using arbitrary arrest and detention. They hadn’t. As one law enforcement official in Ville Platte put it, “They’re just finding another way.” (“It’s very common,” a former Justice Department official told me, to see unlawful policing practices, in the face of federal scrutiny, “simply morph and take on new forms that are harder to ferret out.”)

On May 15, 2017, Robert Wilson and three friends walked into the Ville Platte police station, a squat, salmon-colored bunker that sits just behind City Hall, at the center of town. Three weeks earlier, a stray bullet had killed a bystander down the street from a housing project where Wilson — who is 22 and goes by his middle name, Marquez — and several friends had been wiling away a Sunday evening. A couple days after the shooting, Marquez’s 19-year-old brother, Tieberrious, was arrested on murder charges.

Now, Marquez had gotten word that detectives wanted to talk to him. At the police station, Marquez was ushered into the office of the chief detective, Steve Deville. A heavyset man with a dark goatee and a low, soft drawl, Deville turned on a tape recorder and asked Marquez to sign a form to confirm he understood his Miranda rights. Marquez panicked when he saw where Deville was asking him to sign. “Why you — why you got it as ‘suspect’?” he asked Deville. “I’m a suspect?” Deville assured him that was just how the form is designed.

Marquez walked Deville through what had happened the night of the shooting, according to a police transcript of the interview. His account largely lined up with what Tieberrious had told detectives the previous month. Marquez had gotten into an argument on the street with a contemporary of his named Santiago Thomas. Afterward, Marquez, Tieberrious, and their companions had gone to a friend’s house to avoid further conflict. Ten or fifteen minutes later, they heard gunshots and ran outside to see Thomas’ car careening down the street.

Deville wasn’t buying it. “I’m not saying that you are lying,” he told Marquez. “But if you are, I want to just explain something to you, okay? If you are, then there’s nothing that we can do to help later on.” Marquez insisted he was telling the truth.

After 14 minutes, Deville turned off his tape recorder. But, according to Marquez, the interrogation didn’t end: “If you lie to me again, I’m going to lock you up,” Deville told him. Marquez again insisted that he wasn’t lying. “All right,” Deville said. “We’re gonna see if you’re lying.”
Deville led him to a holding cell. “I was terrified,” Marquez told me. Deville said he’d find out soon enough if Marquez’s story matched the recollections of the friends who’d come with him to the police station. Marquez took a seat on a metal bench and waited. He’d grown up in Beaumont, Texas, and he wasn’t used to how the police operated in Ville Platte. He’d never been to jail before, he told me.

When I later reached Deville by phone, he denied having put Marquez in a jail cell. “After he gave us the recorded statement, we walked him straight back to the front lobby, where he waited for everybody to finish, and they left together,” Deville told me. But the friends who accompanied Marquez to the station house that day recall things differently. One of them, Ebony Soileau, said she doesn’t remember seeing Marquez after he went to be interviewed, and Marquez later told another friend, Shawn Thomas, that “they had him in the back,” Thomas said, a reference to the police station’s jail.

Marquez didn’t know this, but Deville had a reason to lean on him. The detective had next to no evidence against Tieberrious. In three weeks — with a woman dead, Tieberrious in jail and memories growing no sharper — police had collected statements from only two witnesses, according to Deville’s official summary of his investigation. Neither witness had seen Tieberrious fire a gun.
Two hours later, Marquez told me, Deville opened the cell door. Deville had interviewed his friends. His story checked out. He was free to go.

This, three former Ville Platte police officials told me, is one of the tactics that has come to replace investigative holds at the police department. In this case the hold is unofficial and it’s shorter, rarely lasting more than a day. “They would bring them in and make the person think they’re being arrested,” one of the former police officials said. The detainee was never actually booked into the jail, and the absence of a paper trail made it harder to prove that somebody had been illegally detained.
“The longer-term holds — the overnight holds — stopped by 2016,” Jonathon Sparks, one of the former officers, said. After leaving the Ville Platte Police Department in late 2009 and working at other law-enforcement agencies in southwestern Louisiana, he’d returned in 2016, hoping to find that things had changed. They hadn’t, and he left after a few months. “They were still bringing people in during the day,” Sparks said. “They were very much holding them with no charges and no warrants — just smoke and mirrors.” The tactic remained in regular use for several months after the Justice Department issued its report, said another former officer, Natosha Murphy, who worked at the Police Department until summer 2017.

Lartigue disputed these accounts. “That never happened,” he said. (Murphy is suing Lartigue and the department, alleging she was forced to resign after she contacted state and federal authorities to reveal illegal conduct at the department.)

Often, Murphy and Sparks told me, detectives hold their quarries in the station house breakroom, where the surveillance cameras don’t work. Sometimes, as Marquez learned firsthand, detectives transfer them to a jail cell for a few hours to scare them into talking.

To compel reluctant Ville Platte residents to go with police to the station house — without actually arresting them — detectives developed a separate set of dubious tactics. “You say you’re going to arrest them for interfering with an investigation for not talking or you say, ‘We have a warrant on you,’” Murphy told me. “Ninety percent of the time, there’s no warrant.” (Courts let police lie about a lot of things but not about having a warrant.) When I asked Deville, the chief detective, about this practice, he was silent.

At times, police took this method a step further. When a detective didn’t have enough evidence to get a judge to approve an arrest, the three former Ville Platte police officials said, the detective filled out a probable cause affidavit and got another officer to notarize it, but never forwarded it to a judge. To the untrained eye, a notarized affidavit could pass for an arrest warrant. Other times, detectives would flash an official-looking document that had nothing to do with the case. “They’d show it to suspects, pretending it was a warrant,” Murphy told me. “A lot of people can’t read or write.”

When I asked him about notarized affidavits doubling as ersatz warrants, Lartigue grew uncharacteristically animated. “No,” he insisted. “That’s a blatant lie. I guarantee you that’s not the case. No.” Three former Ville Platte police officials, including Murphy and Sparks, told me Lartigue was aware of the practices they described. Those who refused to take part, they said, were threatened with professional reprisal.

Sometimes, instead of faking warrants, detectives faked their way to real warrants. The trick was to write — but never issue — a ticket or citation for a fabricated infraction in the name of whomever a detective wanted to talk to, the three former Ville Platte police officials told me. Detectives could get an arrest warrant on the basis of the unissued ticket. A popular choice of infraction was fleeing from the police, Murphy and Sparks told me. “The person might not have been doing anything. They might have been at their house,” Sparks said. Lartigue denied the existence of this practice, too. Deville hung up on me when I asked him about it.

By the time Lartigue and I spoke in late February, he hadn’t heard from the Justice Department in nearly a year. He figured that meant the feds were satisfied with what they’d seen when they visited a year earlier. He maintained that he’d gotten his department right with the law a long time ago. “We corrected it, and we’re sticking to it,” he said. “We’re still operating like we were.”

In Washington, meanwhile, Sessions and his team continued to dismantle the Justice Department’s police-reform programs. During the summer of 2017, they achieved in Chicago what they’d failed to accomplish in Baltimore: stop a consent-decree process initiated by the previous administration.
Despite Sessions’ explicit opposition to consent decrees, attorneys in the Civil Rights Division felt strongly enough about the problems in Ville Platte, according to a Justice Department official, that they drafted a consent decree. Their bosses rejected it.

The Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office assists the police in Ville Platte, but it chiefly patrols the further-flung parts of the parish, outside its towns. The consensus among residents and those who’ve seen local law enforcement from the inside is that it’s less prone to arbitrary detention than the Ville Platte Police Department. The Justice Department’s report bears that out: It documented about 200 investigative holds at the Sheriff’s Office from 2012 to 2014, compared with about 700 at the Police Department.

Still, unlawful detentions have persisted at the Sheriff’s Office. Detectives and deputies have adapted to the Justice Department probe by holding people by the roadside instead of in the jailhouse, a law enforcement official in Ville Platte told me. “To protect themselves, they strong-arm people on the street,” the official said. It’s relatively easy to avoid documenting a catch-and-release-style street stop.

One Saturday in mid-February, Leeann Fontenot witnessed a friend steal a truck. Later that night, she offered to give a statement to deputies from the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office, but they weren’t interested, she told me a few days later.

Fontenot drifts between the homes of friends and relatives. “I’m actually homeless,” she told me. Her warbling Cajun accent betrays hints of a hard Texan “r,” the result of a childhood crisscrossing Texas and Louisiana with her mother. Several run-ins with the law have made it difficult to find steady work, she says. When we spoke, she was staying at a house just outside Ville Platte. Rusted gardening implements and propane tanks cluttered the front porch. Two metal crosses and what looked like part of an animal skull hung beside the front door.

By Sunday evening — the day after the truck theft — the sheriff’s deputies had seemingly changed their minds. Fontenot and a friend had just pulled into the driveway of another house where she sometimes stayed when her friend’s pickup truck filled with pulsing light. Two deputies ordered Fontenot and her friend, Jeff Fontenot, out of the truck. (The pair aren’t related; the surname Fontenot is to Ville Platte what Smith is to the rest of the country.)

One of the deputies took her aside. Fontenot is 26, but she looks a decade younger; she’s barely 5 feet tall and slight. The deputy handcuffed her nevertheless. “Where’s the truck?” he asked. Fontenot said she didn’t know.
As the deputy began searching her pockets, Fontenot says she asked him to stop and call a female officer, but the plea went unheeded. She wasn’t wearing a belt, and as the deputy shoved his hands into her pockets, she told me, her shorts began to slide down her thigh. When she asked the deputy to pull them back up, he told her to wait. The deputy went through her cell phone, Fontenot says, without her permission. (Under a 2013 Supreme Court decision, police need a warrant or permission for such a search.)
Fontenot was perplexed. The deputy, whose name she didn’t catch, had seen her the night before. “Why y’all doing all this?” she asked. “Y’all saw me last night.” The deputy called her a liar. “It happens all the time,” Fontenot told me later — law enforcement stopping her on the street for no reason other than to press her for information.

In the meantime, the other sheriff’s deputy, Eric Frugé, had taken Jeff behind his police cruiser. Frugé patted him down but didn’t cuff him. When the deputy searched Jeff’s truck, he found a small amount of marijuana. Fontenot admitted it was hers.

The deputies ordered her to come in the following morning, a Monday, and tell them where the stolen truck was. Otherwise, they’d charge her with marijuana possession and grand theft auto. The second charge confused her; it was her friend who’d stolen the truck. (Jeff corroborated key details of Fontenot’s account but was standing a squad car’s length away from her, so he didn’t know whether the deputy had searched Fontenot’s phone or threatened to charge her. The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a detailed set of questions. In response to questions sent to Frugé via Facebook, the deputy responded with an emoji of an angry face.)

Fontenot didn’t go to the sheriff’s office that Monday. She didn’t know where the truck was, but more to the point, she was afraid of what might happen to her. She’d been subjected to an investigative hold before, she told me. “I don’t want them to put me on another hold.”

On Feb. 27, 2018, after nearly a year of silence, a lawyer from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division sent an email to Eric LaFleur, a powerful state senator who moonlights as the Ville Platte city attorney. The Justice Department, the attorney wrote, had “prepared a proposal to address the findings” in its December 2016 report.

Arthur Sampson, arguably the only civil rights activist in Ville Platte, had been a key community liaison. But he was caught by surprise when I told him I’d learned Justice Department attorneys were coming to town in March. The Trump administration had eliminated from the discussions the local community whose rights its police-reform work was meant to protect. “How can they know what we need when they’re not meeting with the community?” Sampson said. (A Civil Rights Division official said community input obtained earlier in the process “played an important role.”)
It wasn’t initially a happy moment for local officials, either. I called Lartigue in March to ask about the negotiations. “You’ll have to ask the Justice Department,” he said curtly, before hanging up on me.

The tenor would soon change. When I spoke with LaFleur a couple of weeks later, he was evasive about the details of the agreement. But he chuckled and said: “We’re happy with what they’re recommending.”

By June 4, it was official: There would be no consent decree and no federal judge to ensure compliance. Instead, the Justice Department announced a pair of out-of-court settlement agreements with the Ville Platte Police Department and the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office.

“This is a way to basically allow these departments to go forward just as they were before,” said Roy Austin, who oversaw the department’s police-reform docket from 2010 to 2014. Austin was troubled by the lack of a local independent monitor, a regular feature of Obama-era reform agreements. Combined with the lack of judicial oversight, that meant “there’s no one to hold them accountable in any formal way,” Austin said. “It’s very hard to hide things from a true monitoring team, as compared to hiding things from someone who can’t be there all the time.”

The Justice Department disagreed, calling the agreements “stringent.” “The Justice Department monitors and assesses the compliance” of the Police Department and Sheriff’s Office “on a basis similar to an independent monitor team, and reserves the right to take appropriate legal action if we determine that both parties are not in substantial compliance or have not worked in good faith to achieve substantial compliance,” Justice Department spokesperson Kelly Laco said. Laco did not explain what led the department to reject the recommendation of the attorneys working on the case to implement a consent decree.

The Justice Department will superintend reforms from 1,000 miles away in Washington. The difficulty isn’t just distance. Even in the best of circumstances, “these cases are really time intensive and very difficult to do,” Austin said. These weren’t the best of circumstances. The Civil Rights Division’s police-reform group has lost a quarter of its staff attorneys during the Trump administration, and those who remain have told former colleagues they’ve grown more deferential in their dealings with local law enforcement. They don’t believe the political leadership will back them if disputes arise.

The settlement terms themselves mostly retained only a faint outline of what past agreements would have required. For example, there was a section called “Community Engagement,” which in earlier agreements contained detailed requirements for improving and monitoring police-community relations, sometimes even obligating cities to establish civilian oversight bodies. In the Ville Platte agreements, the section consisted of a single short paragraph calling for a “public education effort.” What does that mean in practice? In early August came the apparent answer: The Police Department held its first “Police and Community Together Fun Day,” an event advertised as featuring face painting, a dunking booth and “LoLo the Clown.”

The “outcome assessments” that determine when the agreements are satisfied — usually carried out by an independent monitor under a consent decree — are now self-assessments. “The city is coming up with the metrics, measuring its own compliance with the metrics, and then the parties are deciding on that basis whether the police get out of the agreement,” a former Justice Department official said. “It undermines the whole purpose of the agreement.”

Lartigue seemed content with the settlement. As he told a local publication, it amounts to “just a few more documents.” Indeed, the types of reforms the agreements emphasize — “clear policy guidance”; “thorough documentation” of arrests, detentions and interrogations; “supervisory oversight” — amount to just a few more documents if nobody’s making sure they amount to more than that.
Policy, for example, is easily flouted. What happened to Leeann Fontenot, Bobby Lewis and Marquez Wilson was already forbidden by policy. It happened anyway. (This year, after a judge ordered Marquez’s brother released from jail for lack of evidence, prosecutors charged Marquez in his place. He has pleaded not guilty, and it’s unclear whether the evidence is any less shaky this time around.) And supervisory oversight is of dubious value if the supervisors themselves — the detectives — are the chief perpetrators of the misconduct.

The settlement agreements did change at least one thing in Ville Platte: It raised the likelihood that no police official will be held individually accountable for illegally detaining the town’s citizens. For more than two years, the Louisiana attorney general’s office and the FBI had been collecting evidence of criminal wrongdoing by officials at the Ville Platte Police Department, according to several people familiar with the case. “Their file is like this,” said one person who had spoken repeatedly with investigators, gesturing to indicate a stack of documents a foot high.

All of that fizzled after the Justice Department unveiled its deal. The press release announcing the agreements lauded police officials: they had “cooperated fully throughout this matter, and we are eager to continue to work together,” it read. Investigators saw the agreement as lenient, according to people who have spoken with them.

The Louisiana attorney general’s office felt it was untenable to recommend the indictment of officials at a police department the Justice Department had publicly praised and, in the view of investigators, had let off the hook with a lax settlement agreement. That, two people familiar with the decision say, led the office to conclude that it had to close the criminal investigation. (The attorney general’s office and FBI declined to comment. The Justice Department’s Laco said the agreement “does not in any way preclude or prevent any law enforcement agency from taking criminal action against an individual under any other law.”)

In Ville Platte, as news of the agreements spread, a familiar fatalism settled on the town. Residents had taken risks sharing their stories because the federal government had promised change. Nobody from the Justice Department had come to explain what the agreements purported to do — another past practice jettisoned — but locals had a pretty good idea that the federal government wasn’t living up to its side of the bargain. After talk of a lawsuit and a federal judge, they got watered-down agreements brokered in secret. “A lot of people stuck their necks out on the promise that the Justice Department was going to do something and that change was coming,” said a former official there who had been involved in the case. “And then they didn’t do anything — they soft-shoed it instead.”
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Monday, August 20, 2018

An Epidemic of Opioid Documentaries — Who Is that Stranger with a Camera?

by Elizabeth Price, 100 Days in Appalachia

It’s been more than five years since documentary filmmaker Sean Dunne of Peekskill, NY, released Oxyana. The IMDb description reads, “The 'Hillbilly Heroin' epidemic that's slowly rotting the soul of rural America.”

As the film begins, a harrowing mist rolls over the hillsides and wooded ridges of Oceana, WV , while a lo-fi guitar score hums. When describing the small, rural town and recent events, a local dentist shares, “It’s incredible and amazing and awful, all at the same time,” as he slouches on an examining table. He laments that it became difficult to appreciate the beauty of the natural landscape as complex social and material problems emerged in his community. He felt haunted by its new reality.

He’s right — Oceana’s beauty is complex. Oxyana’s B reels hardly neglect that. At first, the filmmaker nails a distinct “West Virginianness” — the moodiness of low, ambient dream-haze lighting at roadside service shops at midnight, the lull and familiarity of winding back roads and passing by locals sitting on porches at dusk. The grit of the atmosphere and the grit under your fingernails. Coal lurches up impossibly long conveyor belts to be processed, ethereal fog obscures a full moon, and dew coats the windows of broken down 1970s Winnebagos parked between lush pine trees. West Virginia, like most places, is complex, and Oxyana pays careful attention to intimate glimpses of beauty in contraction, albeit peripherally.

Since the film’s release and subsequent acceptance into the documentary film milieu, the concept of the “opioid crisis” as a long-form documentary genre has emerged. Several independent films have joined Oxyana in undertaking the daunting task of documenting events leading up to and as a result of a public health crisis. Many weigh in on factors leading to the emergence of the American opioid crisis, making the normative claim that the monumental rise in licit and illicit opioid use and trafficking in rural American communities is wrought by irresponsible and unethical decisions made by doctors and pharmaceutical companies.

It’s worth noting, however, that not all documentary films are directed by filmmakers who are intimately familiar with the communities they profile, and Appalachian people have long been exploited by visiting photographers and documentarians.

In 1964, and in the wake of President Johnson’s ongoing war on poverty, photojournalist John Dominis captured images of residents of eastern Kentucky communities as a part of a photo series, titled “The Valley of Poverty,” for the contemporaneously popular LIFE magazine. Therein exists an even more uncomfortable reality that poverty tourism was once a common practice in eastern Kentucky.

The “Valley of Poverty” dispatch aimed to illuminate ongoing Depression Era wealth inequality, which was palpably evident in Appalachian Kentucky, but the photos, in many ways, reduced their subjects to nameless stand-ins for the socioeconomic challenges they themselves and their region faced. To Dominis, their valley appeared “lonely,” their homes “ruins,” and their children “urchins.”

OXYANA TRAILER from Sean Dunne on Vimeo.
Indie film buffs will recognize Oxyana’s Dunne as the creator of a breakout short film, American Juggalo, released in September 2011, which debuted at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Juggalo functions as a sardonic, searingly funny biopic of the lives of a fiercely devoted subculture of followers of the Insane Clown Posse. A once-underground cohort of hip-hop artists hailing from Detroit’s working-class neighborhoods, I.C.P. boats an extensive discography and a loyal following of fans who immerse themselves in the music’s carnival themed lore and macabre motifs.
The laughs are cheap, however. A few views of the 24-minute long film and it’s nearly blatant that the director doesn’t seem to be laughing with the Dark Carnival. In reality, the film is laughing at a quirky fandom of individuals who are merely observing the working class tradition of finding relief, comradery and joy despite everyday pains and monotony through exploring music and culture.
The Juggalos and Juggalettes show the filmmakers how they cut loose and share with Dunne and his crew that the Gathering is the best weekend of their year. The Gathering of the Juggalos seems … eclectic — for lack of a kinder word — to outsiders. It’s no secret that I.C.P. and their fans have found little else but ridicule from onlookers since the Carnival’s inception. But to the Juggalo “family,” as they lovingly refer to one another, it’s meaningful. And to some, the Gathering is the only place where they truly feel accepted and embraced by a community who chooses to love them unconditionally, despite their status in “the real world.”
Juggalo’s dialogue reveals that, most of all, these people are genuinely happy, belting out the ubiquitous “whoop whoop” refrain each chance they get, and maybe — as bystanders — we shouldn’t knock it until we’ve tried it.

Watch the short and you’ll notice that Oxyana begins with Dunne’s newfound curiosity of Juggalo culture. Oxyana‘s opening scene is a short dialogue between the film crew and a man living in Wyoming County, WV, who had just lost a loved one. The man’s account becomes the focal point of the film, sharing intimate truths about the many ways opioid use has shaped his recent life. While holding an autographed shirt with I.C.P.’s hatchet man logo, he shares that it was his loved one’s “pride and joy.” He reveals that he recently lost him to an overdose and was struggling with his loss, holding on to a memento that was special to him in life.
I.C.P. has thousands of loyal followers across the U.S. It seems fairly innocuous that a 30-something man would be a member of the “Juggalo family.” I wondered if the filmmaker found the dialogue to be meaningful enough to be an introductory scene because it was such a palpably relatable depiction of loss. It calls the viewer to remember the longing and heartbreak associated with holding onto the last remnants you have to hold after losing a loved one. On the other hand, Dunne has made a career of mocking I.C.P.’s fans and their subculture, directing a narrative that their beloved cultural markers are garish, obnoxious, and honestly, trashy.

Juggalos gather at the National Mall for the Juggalo March in 2017. Photo by Blink O'fanaye on Flickr.
He chose to begin a long-form documentary that investigates the social and cultural conditions of a southern West Virginia community experiencing unforseen hardships with an “easter egg” Juggalo reference, and honestly, it’s difficult to ignore. Could it be that the scene reveals that Dunne was unintentionally othering his Appalachian film subjects in the same vein that he mocked the Gathering? The subject revealed a special vulnerability that comes with grieving. And I couldn’t ignore the place the scene had in context with Dunne’s earlier work.
The pain of Oceana’s residents is real. Dunne and producers show bleary-eyed, unfiltered accounts of the way opioid addiction has moved through their lives. However, the scene was an uncomfortable reminder that Oxyana’s narrative was never in the hands of those living in Oceana, West Virginia, no matter how well-intentioned its filmmakers were.
Over the past ten years, a documentarian has visited my own hometown to create a similar project.
The documentary trailer features B reel footage—supplemental footage used as “filler” between the main shots—of people intravenously using heroin as often as landscapes. The documentarian periodically visits East Liverpool, OH, to collect material for a documentary and photo-series “project.”

A voiceover explains that there’s nothing worthwhile here. People come here to die.
It’s clear that the filmmaker joins Dunne in conveying a similar message communicated by Oxyana: East Liverpool, too, is hardly more than a community in crisis.

The project offers “industrial de-evolution” as a wholesale diagnosis of our community’s problems without historical context of which of East Liverpool’s native industries no longer function or what led production to a halt. Glum, dreary footage and stills of buildings, neighborhoods and landscapes barely look like the same places I grew up.

My classmates, neighbors and people my mother taught as a high school teacher are depicted wearing outdated, tattered clothing, posed lifelessly in cluttered rooms of working-class homes. Images of the community are devoid of joy. Stereotypical misrepresentations of what people and cultural landmarks in our region look like abound. The systemic issues that these communities face are specters that render the community entirely dysfunctional.

Although I’m not an expert on the function of the “gaze” in art and film, it’s clear to me that the documentary filmmakers and photojournalists that visit Appalachia from elsewhere enter our communities with preconceived notions about who lives here and what struggles we face, effectively leading to inaccurate reporting and their own unconscious social distancing from their subjects.
In spite of everything, I don’t find it difficult to find beauty in places like Oceana or East Liverpool. Like other Appalachian communities, our relationship to more than a century of the presence of extractive industries in our region has compounded complex social problems, which over time have led to the public health crisis symptomatic of the emergence of a new extractive industry: pharmaceutical companies.

But our communities are not defined by the social problems we have no fault in generating, just as individuals and lives are not defined by their struggles with addiction and recovery. Most of all, Appalachian people should have the agency to direct new and extant narratives about their communities and those that do create seminal, revelatory works that uncover truths that would have been otherwise slighted by others.

As a long-form documentary genre focused on the opioid crisis and its cultural reverberations emerges, it becomes evidently clear that those that irresponsibly visit the region, who mistakenly engage in inaccurate reporting and misrepresentation of subjects, contribute to longstanding stereotypes about people in the region, leave and profit from their findings just might have more in common with exemplars of extractive industries that have shaped the Appalachia we know.
Holler-casting blackened bluegrass to you from the Ohio Valley, Liz Price studies Appalachian regional policy by day and spins mountain-metal by night.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Will West Virginia Become the Next Flint?

Flint, Michigan serves as a prime example of what can happen when when state and local governments put the drinking water supply at risk for short term economic gain. In April 2014, the municipality's water supply was changed from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the less expensive Flint River. Shortly thereafter, a sharp increase in the number of reported lead poisoning cases lead to the discovery that because the water from the Flint River was not being treated properly, lead was leaching into the water supply and poisoning the residents of Flint. Needless to day, the suffering and misery that was caused by this fiasco -- as well as the cost of treating it -- far outstrips any potential economic gains that the state of Michigan or the city of Flint could have realized.


As Propublica reports below, instead of learning from the Flint experience, other states, such as Virginia and West Virginia, are perfectly willing to place the public water supply at risk for a project that quite frankly, has very dubious prospects of generating any type of long term economic gain for the vast majority of the citizens.


What Happens When a Pipeline Runs Afoul of Government Rules? Authorities Change the Rules.

Federal authorities halted work on the massive Mountain Valley Pipeline this month after an appeals court ruled that federal agencies neglected to follow environmental protections.


by Kate Mishkin and Ken Ward Jr., The Charleston Gazette-Mail, and Beena Raghavendran, ProPublica

A week ago, the federal government halted work on a massive pipeline project that runs from Northern West Virginia through Southern Virginia.

The government said it had no choice but to order work on the multibillion-dollar Mountain Valley Pipeline stopped after a federal appeals court ruled that two federal agencies had neglected to follow important environmental protections when they approved the project.

The court had found that the U.S. Forest Service had suddenly dropped — without any explanation — its longstanding concerns that soil erosion from the pipeline would harm rivers, streams and aquatic life. It also found that the Bureau of Land Management approved a new construction path through the Jefferson National Forest, ignoring rules that favor sticking to existing utility rights-of-way.

“American citizens understandably place their trust in the Forest Service to protect and preserve this country’s forests, and they deserve more than silent acquiescence to a pipeline company’s justification for upending large swaths of national forestlands,” Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote for a unanimous ruling from a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “Citizens also trust the Bureau of Land Management to prevent undue degradation to public lands by following the dictates” of federal law.

It turns out, those weren’t the only times state and federal regulators bent environmental standards for the project, which began construction in February.

A review by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, in collaboration with ProPublica, shows that, over the past two years, federal and state agencies tasked with enforcing the nation’s environmental laws have moved repeatedly to clear roadblocks and expedite the pipeline, even changing the rules at times to ease the project’s approvals.

Projects like the Mountain Valley Pipeline, known as MVP, require a variety of approvals before being built. Developers and regulators must study various alternatives, describe a clear need for the project, and show that steps will be taken to minimize damage to the environment and reduce negative effects on valuable resources like public lands and the water supply.

But in numerous instances, officials greenlit the pipeline despite serious unanswered questions, records show.

For example:
— After citizen groups brought a lawsuit challenging how West Virginia regulators concluded that the pipeline would not violate state water quality standards, the state Department of Environmental Protection dropped its review and instead waived its authority to decide if the project complied with its rules. This effectively ended the legal challenge and paved the way for construction to begin.

— Confronted with a similar lawsuit filed by the same citizen groups, the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers moved to rewrite their rules for how long pipeline construction could block the flow of rivers. Environmentalists fear that, under the plan approved by the Corps, four West Virginia rivers could be left dry for long periods of time, potentially harming aquatic life during construction.

— Developers persuaded judges to speed court proceedings and grant them access to private property along the route to cut down trees, saying they needed to do so before protected bats came out of hibernation. But then, despite guidelines saying no logging could take place after March 31, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission twice extended the company’s deadline.

Regulatory agencies waiving standards and rewriting rules to pave the way for economic projects isn’t new. West Virginians have watched it happen for decades with the coal industry, as mine operators used variances to avoid strict land reclamation standards or fill streams with waste rock and dirt. That pattern is continuing with the natural gas boom.

“I’ve seen this kind of behavior from agencies before,” said Pat Parenteau, who teaches environmental law at the Vermont Law School. “They start out being strong, but they roll over, especially for these big energy projects that have this national interest, energy security push behind them.”

In its “stop work” order last week, FERC said, “there is no reason to believe” that the federal agencies involved would not “ultimately issue” new permits that would withstand the court’s scrutiny. But until then, FERC ordered that “construction activity along all portions of the project and in all work areas must cease immediately.”

A news release from Mountain Valley Pipeline echoed FERC’s statement that the pipeline permits would be easily reissued. Developers said they would work closely with the agencies involved to resolve the challenges to their work and “we look forward to continuing the safe construction of this important infrastructure project.”

When it is built, the Mountain Valley Pipeline will transport natural gas from Wetzel County, near West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle, to Pittsylvania County, Virginia, crossing about 200 miles in West Virginia and 100 miles in Virginia. It is one of several large transmission pipelines in the works across the Appalachians, part of the ongoing rush to market natural gas from the boom in drilling and production in the sprawling Marcellus Shale formation.

In another ruling that exposed flaws in the government’s pipeline review process, the 4th Circuit earlier this week threw out two permits for a pipeline even bigger than the MVP: The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a $5.5 billion effort to transport gas more than 600 miles, from central West Virginia to the eastern portions of Virginia and North Carolina.

Chief Judge Roger Gregory wrote that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved the project without setting any real limits on damage to endangered species, and the National Park Service granted permission for pipeline developers to drill under the Blue Ridge Parkway without determining if doing so was consistent with the road’s protection as a unit of the Park Service.
Jeffrey Olson, a spokesman for the Park Service, said the agency is reviewing the ruling.
Because different permits for pipelines cover different parts and types of construction work, it’s not entirely clear how one court ruling that overturns one permit ultimately affects other parts of the construction. Eventually, such decisions are made by FERC, which is the lead agency for gas infrastructure projects.

So far, FERC has not decided if it will issue a broad stop-work order aimed at the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, also known as ACP. Project developers argue that it shouldn’t. They say the ruling affects only a small part of the route and that the “court’s concerns can be promptly addressed through additional review by the agencies without causing unnecessary delay to the project,” which is scheduled to go online in late 2019.

Aaron Ruby, a spokesman for the ACP and its lead developer, Dominion Energy, said the project has been under review for nearly four years by more than a dozen state and federal agencies.
“The courts have found some errors in the process, and they’ve given the agencies the opportunity to correct them,” Ruby said in an email this week.

Pipeline project opponents say the court rulings are evidence of something else entirely.

“This is an example of what happens when dangerous projects are pushed through based on politics, rather than science,” said Southern Environmental Law Center attorney D.J. Gerken, who represented citizen groups in the ACP case.

‘This Is What They’re Taking From Me’

On a spring morning earlier this year, Mark Jarrell got in his all-terrain vehicle and drove up the hill to the top of his Summers County property.

“This is what they’re taking from me,” Jarrell said, looking out onto the Greenbrier River and Keeney Mountain.

That day, Summers County was quiet. But Jarrell knew it wouldn’t last. About a month later, he heard machines whirring outside. He drove up the hill behind his house and found three machines clearing trees to make way for the Mountain Valley Pipeline — leaving behind a barren, 3,000-foot-long and 125-foot-wide swatch running down Jarrell’s property.
He’d dreaded that day for three years, “but when you see it for the first time, that’s the real punch in the gut.”

As West Virginia’s natural gas industry continues to grow, business boosters and state political leaders portray it as the key to a bright future filled with jobs, tax revenue and prosperity. Some residents in communities along the Mountain Valley Pipeline route see the project as part of that hopeful future.

“This is an infrastructure project putting money into the state,” said Bill Shiflet, an insurance agent in Union, West Virginia.

But others are wary that West Virginia has been too quick to embrace the natural gas rush and projects like the pipelines. They fear this movement is taking the state down the same path as the coal industry. And as construction proceeds this summer, some of their fears are starting to come true.
For Jarrell, the Mountain Valley Pipeline means a swath of brown, barren path snaking up the hillside. The pipeline itself will be buried, and the hillside along the pipeline’s 50-foot-wide operational right-of-way will be reclaimed with grass. But it won’t be the same.

“Now it’s real, it’s not talking about it and worrying about it and thinking about it, it’s happening,” Jarrell said. “And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”

Water Pollution

Jarrell and many of his neighbors have tried to stop the pipeline, and they have been joined in their quest by state and national environmental groups.

While FERC is generally the lead agency for interstate pipeline proposals, permits and approvals are needed from a variety of other agencies. Environmental groups opposed to the pipelines have challenged the projects at nearly every possible turn, raising issues about local environmental damage, questioning the need for the pipelines and warning of the global warming implications of increased use of another fossil fuel.

Among the many permits they’ve challenged is one called a “401 Certification,” issued under Section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act.

That section was intended to give states a bit of a check on federal authority. It was passed when federal agencies were pushing through large hydroelectric projects that included dams that often upset local officials.

If a state wanted to step in and block such a project, it could refuse certification. States also may attach additional conditions to their certifications. Or they can waive their authority altogether, if they want to.

West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection issued its 401 certification for Mountain Valley Pipeline in March 2017, issuing a news release that touted the project’s potential to “transport West Virginia’s abundant natural gas to meet the growing need for power generation” in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions. The DEP directed reporters to the pipeline developer’s own website for information about the “potential economic benefit” of the project.

Local citizens and state environmental groups urged DEP Secretary Austin Caperton to reconsider the permit approval. Caperton refused, and he provided no explanation for his decision. The citizens sued in the 4th Circuit, the federal appeals court that covers West Virginia. (Under the Natural Gas Act, appeals of permits for pipelines bypass local federal district courts and go directly to appeals circuits.)

The lawsuit alleged that the DEP had not really done a required study to determine if the pipeline would harm state waterways. It also said the agency had not required pipeline developers to determine how streams along the route were being used, what the baseline water quality was prior to construction or if the pipeline would “significantly degrade” those waters.

A week before state lawyers were due to explain the DEP’s actions in legal pleadings, the agency said it needed to study whether the information used to issue the water quality certification was adequate or needed to be enhanced. Citizen groups went along with a DEP request that the court send the 401 certification back to the state agency and expressed hope the agency was going to do a better job this time.

Weeks went by, though, and the DEP said little about how this evaluation was being conducted or when it might be finished.

Then, on Nov. 1, Caperton went on statewide talk radio and announced that his agency would not do an additional review. Instead, he said, DEP officials were going to waive their legal authority to decide if the pipeline complied with West Virginia pollution limits.

Waivers are not the normal practice for the DEP, and West Virginia political leaders and regulators usually are staunch advocates of states, not the federal government, calling the shots on environmental matters.

Caperton said a separate state permitting process aimed at controlling stormwater runoff from the pipeline was sufficient and defended the decision to waive the certification authority. He said the DEP would “use all of our resources” to ensure the pipeline would be built safely.
“We feel very comfortable that this pipeline can be installed in an environmentally sound manner and that the environmental impacts ultimately will be zero,” Caperton said on the West Virginia MetroNews program, “Talkline.”

Months later, Caperton’s own inspectors have started identifying problems that belie Caperton’s statement.

Since April, state water quality inspectors have issued citations along the pipeline route in West Virginia: sediment-laden water leaving the construction site; missing or improperly installed runoff controls; failure to add more pollution protections when existing ones were shown to be inadequate. So far, the MVP has not paid any fines for those violations.

Jake Glance, a spokesman for the DEP, defended his agency’s handling of pipeline issues.
“To suggest that we are not performing our statutory duty, or ‘putting our thumb on the scale,’ is simply not true,” Glance said in an email this week. “We remain committed to our mission of protecting the health of West Virginians and our environment, enforcing the regulations passed by our legislature, and ensuring the permits we issue are being adhered to.”

But Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said her group warned about the water quality violations that DEP inspectors are now finding.

“There are smart people working at [the] DEP who I believe knew these shortcuts would be a problem down the line,” Rosser said. “They knew these pipelines would be a problem for water quality. But my sense is those people aren’t making the decisions. There’s a culture in this state and within our agencies that this is just what we have to deal with as a state reliant on an extractive industry economy.”

Crossing the Rivers

As it winds from West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle to the Virginia-North Carolina border, the Mountain Valley Pipeline will cross four West Virginia rivers: the Elk, the Gauley, the Greenbrier and the Meadow.

For the pipeline to be constructed, each river needs to be dammed and excavated — sometimes with blasting — so that the 42-inch-diameter pipeline may be buried beneath the streambed.
For this work, the Mountain Valley Pipeline needs another type of permit, a Clean Water Act “dredge-and-fill” permit. If the construction is not handled correctly, sediment can increase in the water, oxygen can decrease and aquatic habitats can be harmed. And, of course, while each river is dammed, there is no stream for aquatic life there to live in.
Because of those effects, state officials, working with the Corps of Engineers, put a 72-hour time limit for completing these kinds of stream crossings in West Virginia. That time limit applies to all projects that seek approval under a streamlined Corps of Engineers review process, as Mountain Valley Pipeline did.

The problem is, Mountain Valley Pipeline says each of its stream crossings will take four to six weeks to complete. And despite the 72-hour time limit, the Corps approved the Mountain Valley Pipeline permit anyway, using the streamlined process that saved the developers time, money and scrutiny.

In May, the Sierra Club, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and other groups sued again in federal court. On June 21, the 4th Circuit issued a stay of the Corps-approved permit until the appeals court could hold an oral argument this fall.

The court order prompted a late-night news release from Gov. Jim Justice.

“This project represents thousands of jobs and millions of dollars being spent to benefit this state, not to mention the long-term stability and boost the energy economy of this country will see as a result of this project’s completion,” the governor said.

Justice said he had talked with DEP officials and “they report that the builders of each segment of this pipeline work hard to protect the waters of this state, and they are doing a good job.”
“While there have been violations that have resulted from the WVDEP’s inspection of this pipeline, these violations have been corrected quickly,” Justice said.

The governor said his administration would “continue to monitor these proceedings closely to determine what role the state may play expediting the construction of this pipeline.”
In early July, the Corps of Engineers rewrote its approval of the pipeline to essentially waive the 72-hour time limit on the river crossing construction. In a court filing, Corps lawyers defended the move, saying the alternative of digging a trench for the pipeline without diverting water flow would cause more environmental damage.

And just this Wednesday, the DEP released a proposal to exempt the stream-crossing method Mountain Valley Pipeline proposed from the 72-hour limit.

Environmental groups said the agencies could instead push MVP to use a more conventional method to bore under the rivers, perhaps reducing the effects.

All sides are now waiting for the court to decide if the new Corps approval, revised to meet MVP’s needs, is enough to lift the stay of the Clean Water Act permit.

Extending Time to Cut Trees

When MVP developers told three federal judges in early 2018 that they needed access to private property to build the pipeline, their lawyers argued that they needed it quickly.
They were up against a strict March 31 deadline — the day federally protected, threatened or endangered bats come out of hibernation in certain areas along the pipeline route, and roost in the trees.

If developers didn’t start cutting down trees quickly, they’d miss that deadline, and they’d have to wait to clear trees until November, MVP developers said in court.

That would have pushed the project’s finish date past the end of 2018, its goal, costing the company hundreds of millions in lost revenue and termination clauses, the project’s senior vice president of engineering and construction testified in court hearings when the pipeline developers sued landowners to secure easements through eminent domain. The landowners were not willing to sell on their own, forcing developers to go to court.

The landowners urged MVP to slow down, but within weeks of each hearing, judges granted possession of the land, allowing developers to start clearing trees. Two of three judges mentioned the bats in their decisions to allow construction on private property.

But March 31 came and went, and MVP hadn’t cut down all the trees it needed along the route. So lawyers asked FERC to extend that March 31 deadline by two months, to allow them to cut down trees on a small portion of the Jefferson National Forest. Tree-sitting protesters had delayed the company’s logging, MVP lawyers told FERC, and the small area of the national forest they wanted to work in was not believed to be home to any of the threatened or endangered bats.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose job is to protect threatened or endangered species, signed off on an extension for MVP to cut trees in the national forest, so long as it was finished by May 31.
“If there is a desire to extend tree clearing past May 31, that answer would change,” Troy Andersen, a supervisory Fish & Wildlife biologist, wrote in an email to the Forest Service, which MVP later filed with FERC.

FERC granted that extension.

In June, MVP asked FERC for another extension, complaining that “obstructionists continued to prohibit Mountain Valley from felling the trees” by the deadline, and asking to keep working through July 31. FERC approved the request. The 4th circuit decision on July 27 put a halt to construction in the Jefferson National Forest, four days before the deadline. At that point, trees had mostly been cut down but hadn’t been cleared from the road. According to the most recent construction status report filed with FERC on July 26, tree-cutting was still in progress, but not entirely finished. As of Friday morning, MVP hadn’t asked for an extension.

“This may seem to be just a minor adjustment allowing them to tree cut until the end of July,” said Bill Price, field organizing manager for the Sierra Club, “but the impact of that to the habitat in the area, I don’t know anyone knows for sure.”

The federal agency also has approved other requests by the MVP developers that residents along the route say affect their quality of life in more straightforward ways.

In recent weeks, residents fought a request for FERC to extend the construction day until as late as 9 p.m. Letters poured in from residents, organizations and county governments, urging FERC to turn it down. Extending construction would create more noise and more workers on the road while commuters try to get to and from work, they said. Longer hours would mean tired, and careless, workers. And, residents said, it was just another example of developers rewriting the rules to make things more convenient for them.

It’s enough that crews have to work during the day, said David Werner, who lives on the pipeline’s route in neighboring Virginia. He was one of the dozens who wrote to FERC, urging the commission to reject the proposal. If construction continues until dark, it disrupts his ability to play ball with his four grandkids or keeps him from sitting on his porch and enjoying the quiet.

FERC approved the request over the residents’ objections.

“They’re already working weekends,” Werner said in an interview. “Now they want to expand well beyond that. They’re violating what they said they were going to do.”

On Wednesday, Jarrell was back on his all-terrain vehicle, weaving through the construction area, which has been mostly abandoned since FERC’s stop-work order. Other than a few workers stabilizing the construction sites — per FERC’s order — Summers County was quiet again.
Jarrell doesn’t think it’ll last.

“They just don’t care, because there’s so much money at stake,” he said. “It’ll get built, no matter what.”

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