Sunday, December 16, 2018

HUD Took Over a Town’s Housing Authority 22 Years Ago. Now the Authority’s Broke and Residents Are Being Pushed Out.

by Molly Parker, The Southern Illinoisan

This article was produced in partnership with The Southern Illinoisan, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

WELLSTON, Mo. — Twenty-two years ago, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development seized control of the public housing authority in Wellston, one of Missouri’s poorest towns. The authority had been beset by mismanagement, financial problems and unsafe buildings.
The goal of the federal takeover was to stabilize the authority and then return it to local control.
That hasn’t happened. Instead, the authority, still under federal control, is broke and its residents are being pushed out. The authority will be shut down on Jan. 1.

The move will be a crushing blow not only to some families who do not want to leave the city, but to Wellston itself. Some 400 public housing residents — a fifth of the city — are set to lose their homes sometime next year. They will receive vouchers that they can use to subsidize rent in the private market, but there’s a lack of affordable housing options in Wellston and limited choices in the St. Louis area.

“HUD, nationally, you failed us and you’re putting us in a worse predicament,” Mayor Nate Griffin told a HUD official during a closed-door City Council meeting in late November. A reporter stood outside the room and could clearly hear the discussion.

What’s happening in Wellston is emblematic of HUD’s longer-term shift away from public housing, advocates and even some HUD officials say. For years, the federal government has cut funds to public housing programs. The Trump administration has doubled down on those trends by proposing massive cuts to programs that pay for operations and repairs.

Diane Yentel, president and chief executive officer of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said she and fellow advocates sense that, under President Donald Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson, the department is retreating from its core mission of supporting public housing.

“We’ve been hearing this for a few months and seeing signs,” she said. Yentel noted that HUD recently sent a letter to housing authorities nationally calling on them to look toward the private sector to help fund expensive repairs under a program started under the Obama administration, or to demolish and sell old buildings and issue residents Section 8 vouchers, which help subsidize their rent in the private sector.

Struggling rural communities and small cities often aren’t able to participate in these programs because they can’t attract the interest of private developers and suffer from a critical shortage of private rental options.

HUD’s failure in Wellston also shows the difficulty the agency has had in recent years turning local authorities around, even when it is in charge.

HUD has put housing authorities in administrative receivership only about 20 times since 1985, when it first did so in East St. Louis, Illinois, across the Mississippi River from Wellston. In August, The Southern Illinoisan and ProPublica revealed that Carson had ended HUD’s 32-year federal receivership of East St. Louis’ housing authority and hailed it a success last year, even though most of the small city’s properties had recently failed their federal inspections.

In 2016, HUD took over a troubled housing agency based in Cairo, Illinois, the state’s southernmost town. Confronted by the housing authority’s mounting financial problems and unsafe living conditions, HUD last year decided to shutter two large public housing complexes there, saying they were beyond repair.

Most recently, federal officials have discussed the potential of placing the New York City Housing Authority, the nation’s largest, into receivership after a raft of problems. Citing what happened in East St. Louis and Cairo, 11 members of New York City’s congressional delegation recently wrote to Carson opposing a HUD takeover in their city.

Wellston would mark the second time that the agency has exited a receivership by abolishing a housing authority (the first was in Orange County, Texas, in 2004), and the first time HUD has proposed demolishing or selling all of the public housing complexes in the process.

During the closed-door City Council meeting last month, Daniel Sherrod, a HUD Midwest regional official, blamed the authority’s financial woes on a recent spate of copper wire thefts from air conditioning units, vandalism and apartment fires, which drove up insurance costs, and on tenants who had racked up hundreds of dollars in past-due rents.

But ultimately, he said the authority’s aging buildings are in need of extensive repairs and “the federal government is not investing money in public housing like they used to.”

In a statement on Thursday, HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said his agency began making plans to return the housing authority to local control in 2017, to be overseen by a board of commissioners appointed by the mayor and trained by HUD. But increased security risks around the properties and the withdrawal of a top executive director candidate necessitated a “change in strategy,” he said. Brown declined comment on Sherrod’s statement behind closed doors about the challenges posed by years of federal budget cuts to housing authorities like Wellston’s.

More generally, HUD officials have said they are trying to transform public housing, moving away from their reliance on decades-old dilapidated structures in need of massive repairs and toward public-private partnerships. Carson has suggested raising tenant rents and has held listening tours to encourage more private landlords to accept vouchers as public housing complexes are sold or demolished.

HUD’s departure comes as the agency’s inspector general prepares to send teams of agents out to examine dozens of “troubled” housing authorities nationwide, which it has never done before, officials said. HUD labeled the Wellston Housing Authority as troubled in 2015. It barely passed an assessment the following year.

This summer, the inspector general released a stinging report criticizing HUD for waiting so long to take action in Cairo, where residents lived for years in unsafe buildings as local managers misspent federal funds. Officials at HUD headquarters refused to sign off on a takeover as they worried over political repercussions, the financial cost of receivership and a lack of staff knowledge about how to run a housing authority, the report said. “Ultimately, we want to help HUD to prevent the next Cairo,” said Darryl Madden, spokesman for the Office of Inspector General.

At Wellston’s council meeting, Sherrod, who is the HUD director over public housing in Illinois, also mentioned what had happened in Cairo, saying HUD did not want to repeat its mistakes.
“Cairo, Illinois, was a huge failure — a huge failure,” Sherrod said. He told the council that Wellston’s buildings are in better shape than Cairo’s were, but without much hope for federal investment in public housing, the situation could rapidly deteriorate. “Instead of waiting for the housing to fall apart like it did in Southern Illinois, this is the most prudent thing we can do,” he said.
The mayor directed a reporter from The Southern to leave the room after Sherrod announced that his presentation was intended for a closed executive session. But the walls are thin at City Hall, and most of the meeting could be heard from the hallway. (A handful of other citizens in attendance, who were not part of the official presentation, were allowed to stay.)

City officials in Wellston had a decidedly more optimistic view than those at HUD. Like in other cities, Wellston officials felt that they could make additional progress when decisions were being made at a local level, and they wanted the opportunity to try on behalf of their citizens. “It’s pretty much a done deal,” Griffin, the mayor, told The Southern in the fall of 2017, about the prospects of returning the authority to local control. “That is awesome for us.”

But in response to the mayor’s criticism of HUD for allowing the housing authority to fail, Sherrod called it a “combined failure.” He noted that a former housing authority executive director was indicted this August on a federal charge of stealing tenant rent payments and marking relatives’ rents as paid when they were not. She has pleaded not guilty.

“I lost sleep making this decision,” he told them.

In his statement on Thursday, HUD spokesman Brown said Wellston’s mayor and the City Council had unanimously agreed that it is best for the city and its residents to transfer their housing authority’s property to a neighboring housing authority on Jan. 1. He described the plans Sherrod outlined to the council about the demolition and sale of all apartment complexes as “tentative.”

During the closed-door meeting, council members asked if they had a say in the dissolution of the housing authority, and they were told no. That night, Sherrod asked them to approve a resolution that stated they could have their land back after the public housing properties were demolished. The resolution they signed included a line saying they agreed with HUD’s plan, but in an interview Thursday, the mayor said he and other council members were “backed into a corner.

“They told us: You support what we want to do, or you have no say-so about the future of your city’s land — period,” Griffin said.

With the end of the housing authority weeks away, community leaders are concerned about losing so many people at once and how it will affect their hopes of rebuilding Wellston.
“It’s a national policy attack on public housing,” said Farrakhan Shegog, who was among the five members named to an advisory committee late last year as HUD was preparing to return the housing authority to local control.

Wellston is the poorest city in St. Louis County. About 44 percent of residents live below the poverty line, and more than half of the city’s children. The city’s population has shrunk by 75 percent since the 1950s, and its financial struggles have grown more extreme in recent years. In 2015, cash-strapped Wellston dissolved its troubled police department and a neighboring department took over patrolling the streets.

Among those who will have to find a new home is Herman Lee White.
Until he moved to Wellston about 15 years ago, White said he had never lived in public housing. But at the time, White, now 75, said he took stock of his finances — he was then driving forklifts and trucks for a living — and realized this was the only way he could ever retire.

When HUD officials called tenants to a meeting in October to let them know that they may have to move, White was startled and filled with dread at the thought of packing up all of his belongings. As a young man, White wanted nothing more than to move about the country. He marched for civil rights in Mississippi and Alabama. He drove a taxi in Pasadena, California. He built tires for Goodyear in Akron, Ohio. But now, he’s tired of moving.

He assumed this is where he would spend his final years.

Wellston grapples with high crime, he said, but neighbors look out for one another, especially the seniors. Many of them live alone, and White said that if someone hasn’t been seen for several days, a neighbor comes knocking. He worries that he may end up in a neighborhood that is less safe and less familiar. White, who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said his doctor is only a couple of miles away.

“They’re putting us at a real inconvenience,” he said. “If you want to shut some of it down, that’s up to you. But we don’t want to move.”

Beyond concerns about the loss of housing here, Shegog said he doesn’t believe that HUD is providing residents the information they need to ensure they receive all the benefits they’re entitled to if they’re forced to move.

In preparing for this action, tenants told Shegog the housing authority has begun eviction proceedings on numerous tenants who owe hundreds of dollars — thousands, in some cases — in back rent, he said. Shegog said that the agency has told these tenants they will not be able to access their rental vouchers until they pay. But most cannot come up with this kind of money quickly, he said.
In a Facebook post announcing his resignation from the advisory committee, Shegog called the plan to move residents and demolish or sell all of the apartments a “manufactured crisis, which HUD played a role in creating.”

A HUD official said the housing authority filed the notices in order to encourage tenants to come into the office to arrange a payment plan.

Legal advocates also have been frustrated with HUD.

“We’re certainly concerned about how fast everything is moving and the fact that it seems like things are happening behind closed doors,” said Susan Alverson, the co-managing attorney of the housing program of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, which represents low-income clients. “Secrecy and lack of transparency is bothersome when we’re talking about federal money and public housing.”
Because the city is so distressed, Quintella Stevenson, who moved in only eight months ago, said she has mixed feelings about HUD’s decision. “Wellston is like a family,” she said of neighbors who watch out for one another, but Stevenson said she also worries about her children playing outside because of crime. Stevenson was among a number of families who said they were excited to learn about being able to access a voucher, because of the flexibility that it provides. But she’s also worried about finding a place large enough for her family of nine in a neighborhood that offers the safety and opportunities she desires for her children.

Most of the nearly 7,000 tenants whose rent is subsidized by vouchers managed by the St. Louis County Housing Authority live north of Delmar Boulevard. The “Delmar Divide,” as it’s known, separates poor, majority African-American communities like Wellston from more prosperous majority white neighborhoods in the southern part of the county.

The divide is stark. Wellston, for all of its challenges, sits just miles from million-dollar mansions, a university campus and premier regional medical facilities. That’s why community leaders see so much potential here.

Losing so many people at once may prove too much, though. “This is the beginning of the end of Wellston,” Shegog said.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Bankrupt Donald Stumps for Lyin' Ted

We fact checked Donald Trump's rally in Texas

"We fact checked Donald Trump's rally in Texas" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
President Donald Trump visited Houston on Monday for a “Make America Great Again” rally in support of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Cruz is locked in a tough race with Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, and Trump and Cruz both criticized O’Rourke during their speeches. Read about the event here. We fact-checked some of the highlights from Trump and other featured speakers:

What happened to ISIS? (It’s not “gone.”)

One of the many speakers who took the stage prior to the president was his son, Eric Trump, who made the bold claim that "ISIS is gone."
"It’s really amazing," Eric Trump said, echoing his father’s claims that the Trump administration defeated ISIS. "That’s what [happens] when you take the handcuffs off the military and let them do what they do best, which is kill the bad guys."
But military leaders say that while ISIS has been severely weakened, it is still a credible threat. In August, the Pentagon acknowledged that the group “is well-positioned to rebuild and work on enabling its physical caliphate to re-emerge.”
Just last week, the Pentagon said the terrorist organization still "remains a deadly adversary."
"Overall, ISIS is territorially defeated, and until we achieve an enduring defeat, we will continue the fight," Colonel Sean J. Ryan said, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

O’Rourke’s "F" rating from the NRA

During his time on stage, Cruz said that O’Rourke is against the Second Amendment, and, once again, bashed the El Paso congressman for bragging about his "F" rating from the National Rifle Association.
“Beto tweeted out how proud he is to have an ‘F’ rating from the NRA,” Cruz said to a crowd of jubilant supporters. “I promptly retweeted him.”
It’s true, O’Rourke received an "F" from the NRA. Cruz received an "A+."
Trump, too, railed O’Rourke for his views on guns.
"I’ve never heard of an 'F' [rating]. An 'F' means he wants to take away your guns," he said. "If Ted doesn’t win, your guns are going to be in trouble. Real trouble."
O’Rourke has repeatedly said he supports the Second Amendment. However, he is in favor of stricter regulations when it comes to buying firearms. One week after a school shooting in Florida earlier this year that left 19 dead, O’Rourke called for a complete ban on assault rifles. More recently, he said he believed lawmakers should pass tougher national gun laws.
In The Texas Tribune’s issues guide, O’Rourke elaborated on what he thinks should be done to prevent gun violence:
"Texas should lead the way in preserving the Second Amendment while ensuring people can live and go to school without fear of gun violence. Let’s require background checks for all gun sales and close all loopholes; give federal help to local school districts to improve campus safety; stop selling weapons of war that are designed to kill people as effectively and efficiently as possible; and fully support federal research on gun violence so that we can better understand and address its root causes."

Trump says Texans got in boats to watch Hurricane Harvey. Local officials have said they didn't see such a thing.

This isn’t the first time Trump has said Texans went out in boats to watch Hurricane Harvey, which slammed the Texas Gulf Coast last August, caused tens of billions of dollars of damage and left nearly 90 Texans dead.
In June, Trump said in a conference call with state and federal leaders that “people went out in their boats to watch the hurricane. That didn't work out too well." Tonight, he said people with “little boats” wanted to go out into the storm during Harvey to “show their wife how great they are.”
When Trump first made this comment, first responders and lawmakers alike said they were taken aback. There’s been no evidence to back up Trump’s claim.
“I didn't see anyone taking the approach that would reflect his comments,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez previously told The Houston Chronicle. "I'll be sure to invite the president to ride out the next hurricane in a jon boat in Galveston Bay the next time one approaches.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also said at the time that he was unsure of what Trump was talking about.

Is O’Rourke in favor of abolishing ICE?

Cruz tonight slammed O’Rourke for being "open" to the idea of abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The issue has already been a point of contention between the two men.
When asked in June whether he supported abolishing ICE, O’Rourke said "no" — adding that he didn’t know enough about how immigration law would be enforced without the agency. He also discussed the need to eliminate fear in immigrant communities under Trump and to find a better way to enforce immigration laws.
"If that involves doing away with this agency, giving that responsibility to somebody else, changing how this agency performs, I’m open to doing that," O’Rourke said at the time.

Did O’Rourke vote against Congress’ tax bill?

Late last year, Congress ultimately approved a major overhaul of the American tax code. But every Democrat in Texas’ 38-member delegation voted against the measure, which offered significant cuts in corporate taxes and, for some taxpayers, major changes to deductions.
In a Medium post, O’Rourke defended his “no” vote, saying that the bill “disproportionally benefits the wealthiest” and that it “will cause inequality to grow.” He also said the bill would negatively impact middle-class families.
“The conference tax bill that was rushed to a vote today is even worse than the House version that passed last month. It repeals the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate,” he wrote. “This will cause 13 million more Americans to lose the ability to see a doctor. One million in Texas alone, the least insured state in the union. Those Texans lucky enough to still be insured will see their premiums go up by an average of $1,730 a year. So we’ve got to ask, is there really a tax break if families have to pay more for their healthcare and their children’s well-being?”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

Texas Tribune mission statement
The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Lock Her Up? DA Who Imposed Harsh Sentence For Illegal Voting Has Some Explaining Of Her Own To Do

Sharen Wilson,  the Tarrant County district attorney who pressed for the harsh eight year sentence on a permanent U.S. resident for illegal voting, is not doing a very good job of "protecting the integrity of the election" when it comes to her own campaign practices.

In Texas, district attorneys have to run for office every four years. According to an article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Ms. Wilson used her office to solicit campaign donations for  a Republican fundraiser. When a special prosecutor was assigned to investigate the issue, Ms. Wilson simply apologized and claimed that she did not realize that she was violating the law. The charges against her were then quietly dismissed.

Rosa Ortega, a permanent U.S. resident and mother of four, was not so lucky. Like District Attorney Sharen Wilson, Ms. Ortega unknowingly violated campaign finance law. Unlike District Attorney Sharen Wilson, however, the charges against Ms. Ortega were not quietly dismissed.

The charges against Ms. Ortega stemmed from her (unknowingly) voting illegally in the 2012 and 2014 elections. According to a New York Times article about the case, it was not until Ms. Ortega contacted the Tarrant County election officials after her ballot was rejected in 2015 that she realized that she may have violated the law. In her conversation with the election officials, Ms. Ortega complained that Dallas County had no issue with the fact that she is a permanent U.S. as opposed to being a U.S. citizen. These are clearly not the actions of a person who intends to break the law.

Nonetheless, DA Sharen Wilson saw to it that charges were filed against her and pressed for the maximum sentence in the name of "protecting the integrity of the election" . Ultimately, Rosa Ortega was sentenced to eight years in prison; in addition, she is facing certain deportation when her sentence is over.

As for DA Wilson's "mistake," Maureen Shelton, the special prosecutor who was assigned to investigate the matter, cited "insufficient evidence of criminal intent" as the reason for dismissing the charges. Apparently, Maureen Shelton and the other people responsible for investigating the matter did not bother to look at DA Wilson's campaign finance reports. If they had, they would have found that DA Wilson has been accepting campaign donations from employees of the Tarrant County DA's office long after she took office in 2015. As the chart below shows, DA Wilson has been accepting campaign donations from employees since at least as early as 2016 when she began gearing up for re-election. With at least one local blog describing DA Wilson as a "horrible boss", one can't help but wonder if any of the people in the table shown below felt pressured to donate money to Wilson' re-election campaign.

Also, nobody is saying how or why DA Maureen Shelton was selected as the special prosecutor to investigate the corruption charges against DA Sharen Wilson; however, DA Maureen Shelton's hand-written campaign finance reports also look a little shady.

Source: Texas Ethics Commission   
View/Download Copy of Report

10/11/2016BrowderRobert D.LawyerTarrant County DA700
09/30/2016CallaghanLisaLawyerTarrant County DA250
09/29/2016CarrizalJoseInvestigatorTarrant County DA250
09/28/2016ClaytonArtLawyerTarrant County DA250
09/30/2016DeenerAshleaLawyerTarrant County DA100
10/11/2016DettmerRobinLawyerTarrant County DA100
09/30/2016DiamondAnnLawyerTarrant County DA100
09/20/2016FickesGaryCommissioner Tarrant County 500
09/30/2016FletcherShannon D. ManagementTarrant County DA100
10/11/2016FriemelRussLawyerTarrant County DA100
09/30/2016GilpinTimLawyerTarrant County DA150
09/28/2016HudsonDavidLawyerTarrant County DA200
09/30/2016HusemanRobertLawyerTarrant County DA200
09/30/2016HusemanRonaldLawyerTarrant County DA250
09/26/2016JohnsonJ.D.Commissioner Tarrant County500
09/26/2016Peerwani M.DNizamMedical ExaminerTarrant County500
09/30/2016PerrymanDerrelynnLawyerTarrant County DA100
09/30/2016PonderChristopherLawyerTarrant County DA100
09/30/2016PriceDannyLawyerTarrant County DA500
09/30/2016PurselleyMartin LawyerTarrant County DA100
09/26/2016RichardsDavidLawyerTarrant County DA1000
09/09/2016RodmanLanceSheriff's DeputyTarrant County700
09/30/2016RolfeJordanLawyerTarrant County DA100
09/30/2016ShawRileyLawyerTarrant County DA100
09/30/2016StimpsonTyLawyerTarrant County DA100
09/28/2016ThompsonLarryLawyerTarrant County DA100
09/09/2016ThornhillMarkInvestigatorTarrant County DA100
10/11/2016ValverdeAlfredoLawyerTarrant County DA200
09/30/2016VassarBillLawyerTarrant County DA100
09/30/2016WesleyKimberlyLawyerTarrant County DA100
09/30/2016WhitleyGlenCounty JudgeTarrant County100
09/30/2016WilliamsKhayanLawyerTarrant County DA100
09/30/2016WindsorDebraLawyerTarrant County DA250

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Hidden Money Funding the Midterms

by Derek Willis, ProPublica, and Maggie Severns, Politico

Allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used a blind spot in campaign finance laws to undercut a candidate from their own party this year — and their fingerprints remained hidden until the primary was already over.

Super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited sums of money in elections, are supposed to regularly disclose their funders. But in the case of Mountain Families PAC, Republicans managed to spend $1.3 million against Don Blankenship, a mustachioed former coal baron who was a wild-card candidate for a must-win West Virginia Senate seat, in May without revealing who was supplying the cash.

The move worked like this: Start a new super PAC after a deadline for reporting donors and expenses, then raise and spend money before the next report is due. Timed right, a super PAC might get a month or more undercover before being required to reveal its donors. And if a super PAC launches right before the election, voters won’t know who’s funding it until after they go to the polls.

The strategy — which is legal — is proving increasingly popular among Democrats and Republicans. The amount of super PAC spending during the 2016 congressional primaries in which the first donor disclosure occurred after the primary election totaled $9 million. That figure increased to $15.6 million during the 2018 congressional primaries and special elections.

Backers of Mountain Families PAC didn’t respond to a request for comment. It is one of 63 super PACs this election cycle that have managed to spend money to influence races and postpone telling voters who funded them, according to an analysis by Politico and ProPublica of Federal Election Commission data.

Voters bear much of the cost when they head to the polls without information on who funded a PAC that tried to sway their votes, said Meredith McGehee, executive director at the nonpartisan watchdog group Issue One.

“The whole idea behind disclosure is that one of the factors that voters can, and understandably should, take into account in judging the message is who the messenger is,” McGehee said.

In total, super PACs have spent at least $21.6 million this cycle in 78 congressional races before disclosing who donated that money — $15.7 million of it during primary races. In many cases, that disclosure came after voters had gone to the polls.

Super PACs were created after the Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision ruled that people and corporations had the right to spend unlimited amounts of money on independent expenditures such as funding ads or mailers, but that they couldn’t hide that spending from the public.
But while they can’t keep donors secret forever, super PACs are increasingly figuring out methods of temporarily masking donor identities that are either legal or fall into gray areas that rarely attract regulators’ attention.

One tactic is the one Mountain Families PAC used, which is likely to be replicated for the general election. A new super PAC that starts between Oct. 18 and Nov. 6 could spend money right before Election Day without having to disclose its donors until after the midterm results are tallied. (There are 11 super PACs that together have spent at least $5.8 million since the primaries but should begin disclosing their donors on Oct. 15, when the next FEC filing is due.)

Another involves going into debt to pay for advertising and other campaign-related activities, and fundraising later to pay off those debts. A super PAC that does this would not have to disclose donors until well after the money is spent.

In the case of Mountain Families PAC, Blankenship was increasingly popular among the state’s anti-Washington set. So D.C. Republicans behind the PAC avoided disclosing they were behind ads attacking Blankenship — “Isn’t there enough toxic sludge in Washington?” asked one of them — until after the primary.

Then they revealed their identity and dissolved the super PAC entirely.
Here are more examples of PACs that have delayed disclosing their donors this cycle — and how they did it:

As Republican Martha McSally battled two opponents in the Arizona Senate primary, a super PAC called Red and Gold spent $1.7 million attacking McSally, airing television ads that said McSally had supported an “age tax” on older people’s health insurance. But shortly after filing its initial paperwork with the FEC, Red and Gold notified the commission it was going to file on a monthly basis, which meant its first disclosure wasn’t due until Sept. 20, three weeks after the primary election.

When Red and Gold finally disclosed its funders, it was revealed that Senate Majority PAC, which is aligned with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, was the main funder of Red and Gold and had meddled in the primary in an attempt to hurt McSally’s chances of victory and boost a weaker Republican. Chris Hayden, spokesman for Senate Majority PAC, said that “Senate Majority PAC and Red and Gold have followed the FEC reporting schedule and follow the law governing super PACs.”
A super PAC called Ohio First PAC has been in operation since the start of April and has spent $774,822 helping Republican Jim Renacci in the Ohio Senate race. But it has only disclosed raising $79,200 from donors. Instead of disclosing donations, Ohio First’s filings with the FEC show the committee has hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to vendors for advertising and mailers, and almost no fundraising yet. The PAC did not respond to a request for comment.

The FEC has sent the PAC twoletters about possible late filings for some of its spending; the committee said in correspondence in August that it is working to resolve any issues.
During the week leading up to a seven-way Democratic primary in Illinois in March, a super PAC called SunshinePAC blitzed the battleground 6th Congressional District with $130,000 in mailers and phone calls. Because it started spending money so late in the race, SunshinePAC didn’t have to reveal its donors before the primary.

But nearly a month after the election, SunshinePAC revealed its lone funder: Tom Casten, the father of primary contender Sean Casten — raising questions about whether the super PAC was really independent from the campaign. By then, Sean Casten had eked out a victory in the primary by 2,177 votes.

Tom Casten said in an interview that “there was no effort or conversation about reporting in the delayed form” when he gave to SunshinePAC, and that “I certainly didn’t ask for it.” Greg Bales, campaign manager for Casten for Congress, said in an email that “as with any outside group, there was no coordination between Sean or the campaign and that group on their spending or disclosure practices.” SunshinePAC did not respond to a request for comment.
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Thursday, October 4, 2018

Another Court Ruling Against a West Virginia Pipeline, Then Another Effort to Change the Rules

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

Time and again, opponents have tried to delay a natural gas pipeline that would stretch from Northern West Virginia to Southern Virginia, using lawsuits to stall permit approvals or construction.

And time and again, state and federal regulators have stepped in to remove such hurdles, even if it has meant rewriting their own rules.

Now, the process looks to be repeating itself.

                                                   <<Read More>>

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Why Crystal Mason Should Be Free

Crystal Mason is a Tarrant County, TX resident who is currently sitting in jail for supposedly casting an illegal ballot in the 2016 election. Whether you believe her when she says that nobody told her that it was illegal to vote because she was on probation, there may be a major problem with her conviction.

According to campaign finance reports obtained by The Weekly Gavel, it appears that her attorney at the time of her original conviction,  J. Warren St. John, has made several campaign contributions to Sharen Wilson, the Tarrant County District Attorney who pushed for her conviction and harsh prison sentence.

For a lawyer to accept a client who is being prosecuted by a District Attorney's office that has accepted campaign contributions from his or her law firm is a clear conflict of interest. Furthermore, J Warren St. John testified at Crystal Mason's hearing for a new trial that he was the one who told her that she could not vote until her supervision was over. His campaign donations to Distict Attorney Wilson's campaign should have been disclosed at the time of trial.  It therefore follows that Ms. Mason's rights to effective counsel which is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of The United States have been violated. On those grounds, Ms. Mason's conviction should be overturned and any criminal record stemming from these charges that have been imposed on her should be expunged.

An itemization of those campaign contributions is as follows:

12/11/2013J WarrenSt. JohnLawyer250View Copy
10/23/2015J WarrenSt. JohnLawyer350View Copy
09/30/2016J WarrenSt. JohnLawyer500View Copy
04/26/2017J WarrenSt. JohnLawyer500View Copy
09/25/2017J WarrenSt. JohnLawyer500View Copy

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Jacksonville Sheriff Uses Misleading Data to Defend Pedestrian Ticketing

by Topher Sanders, ProPublica, and Benjamin Conarck, The Florida Times-Union [Jacksonville]

Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams in recent months has repeatedly defended his department’s enforcement of pedestrian violations. Claims of a racial disparity have been overstated, he has argued. There is no policy targeting people of color, he has insisted. He’s made his case before the City Council. Most recently, Williams had a report supporting his claims hand-delivered to a local NAACP official.

When making his case, Williams has relied on what he has said is a true accounting of pedestrian ticket data for recent years. That data, he claims, shows that 45 percent of tickets went to blacks. That figure, while greater than the city’s black population, is substantially less than the number reported by the Times-Union and ProPublica in a series of articles late last year. The Times-Union and ProPublica reported that 55 percent of the tickets over the prior five years had been issued to blacks.
This week ProPublica and the Times-Union obtained the sheriff’s data, and the numbers are misleading.

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Sunday, September 23, 2018

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

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.

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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.

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