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?

Yes.
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 https://www.texastribune.org/2018/10/22/texas-donald-trump-ted-cruz-texas-senate-fact-check/.

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.

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>>


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.

                                 <<Read More>>

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.

                                                    <<<<<<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.

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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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Sunday, August 5, 2018

Kris Kobach’s Lucrative Trail of Courtroom Defeats

by Jessica Huseman and Blake Paterson, ProPublica, and Bryan Lowry and Hunter Woodall, The Kansas City Star

Kris Kobach likes to tout his work for Valley Park, Missouri. He has boasted on cable TV about crafting and defending the town’s hardline anti-immigration ordinance. He discussed his “victory” there at length on his old radio show. He still lists it on his resume.

But “victory” isn’t the word most Valley Park residents would use to describe the results of Kobach’s work. With his help, the town of 7,000 passed an ordinance in 2006 that punished employers for hiring illegal immigrants and landlords for renting to them. But after two years of litigation and nearly $300,000 in expenses, the ordinance was largely gutted. Now, it is illegal only to “knowingly” hire illegal immigrants there — something that was already illegal under federal law. The town’s attorney can’t recall a single case brought under the ordinance.

“Ambulance chasing” is how Grant Young, a former mayor of Valley Park, describes Kobach’s role. Young characterized Kobach’s attitude as, “Let’s find a town that’s got some issues or pretends to have some issues, let’s drum up an immigration problem and maybe I can advance my political position, my political thinking and maybe make some money at the same time.”
Kobach used his work in Valley Park to attract other clients, with sometimes disastrous effects on the municipalities. The towns — some with budgets in the single-digit-millions — ran up hefty legal costs after hiring him to defend similar ordinances. Farmers Branch, Texas, wound up owing $7 million in legal bills. Hazleton, Penn., took on debt to pay $1.4 million and eventually had to file for a state bailout. In Fremont, Neb., the city raised property taxes to pay for Kobach’s services. None of the towns are currently enforcing the laws he helped craft.

“This sounds a little bit to me like Harold Hill in ‘The Music Man,’” said Larry Dessem, a law professor at the University of Missouri who focuses on legal ethics. “Got a problem here in River City and we can solve it if you buy the band instruments from me. He is selling something that goes well beyond legal services.”

Kobach rode the attention the cases generated to political prominence, first as Kansas secretary of state, and now as a candidate for governor in the Republican primary on Aug. 7. He also earned more than $800,000 for his immigration work, paid by both towns and an advocacy group, over 13 years.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

What criminal conspiracy charges against an alleged Russian spy might mean for the NRA: 3 questions answered



Brian Galle, Georgetown University
Editor’s note: U.S. authorities have arrested Mariia Butina, a Russian advocate for firearms ownership also known as Maria. In a criminal complaint that led to her indictment, the Justice Department accused her of secretly infiltrating American electoral politics as a foreign agent working on behalf of Russia and engaged in an anti-U.S. conspiracy. Numerous media reports allege that Butina illegally helped funnel Russian money into Donald Trump’s presidential campaign through the National Rifle Association. Brian Galle, a law professor who used to work for the Justice Department, explains what the consequences might be if the charges and accounts are true.

1. How could the government punish the organization?

The court papers allude to the NRA, although not by name. Several news sources have described in detail the relationship Butina and her Russian employer built with the organization, starting in 2013 or earlier. Depending on what NRA officials knew and when they knew it, the government could make a case that the gun advocacy and lobby group coordinated with Butina to help her advance Russian interests here in the U.S. – making it a co-conspirator in her individual lawbreaking.

The NRA has several arms. Its largest operation is technically known as a social welfare group or 501(c)(4) organization, granting it exemption from U.S. taxes. Another branch is a traditional charitable organization, making contributions to that entity tax deductible. Under federal tax law, when either of these kinds of nonprofits break laws, they jeopardize their tax exempt status.

The government has stripped several nonprofits of their tax exemptions for breaking the law over the years, including organizations that used their charitable status to defraud donors and, in the 1940s and ‘50s, groups suspected of supporting communism.

Some media reports suggest the NRA served as a conduit for Russian money that landed in the Trump presidential campaign’s coffers. If that proves true, it would violate election laws that bar foreigners from funding political candidates. At the same time, however, there could be some ways to structure such transactions as technically legal, as dark money expert Robert Maguire notes.

In addition, many state and federal laws treat the use of fake or “straw donors” to make campaign contributions with someone else’s money as a crime, punishable with fines. Conceivably, there could be individual criminal liability, even jail time, for any NRA leaders who might be found guilty of scheming to misreport campaign expenditures.

But, I want to emphasize, nothing in the court papers unsealed on July 16, 2018, support those scenarios.

2. What might happen to its influence?

Since charitable giving tends to be an emotional act, some donors might not continue to support the NRA if it lands in legal trouble. Past scandals have weakened support for other prominent nonprofits, such as the Wounded Warrior Project.

For an organization that has cast itself as a bulwark of patriotism, any evidence that it conspired to undermine U.S. laws seems off-brand. On the other hand, polls indicate that support for Vladimir Putin has soared among Republicans, making it hard to predict how the NRA’s members and big donors might respond.

Public scrutiny might also make the NRA more cautious in how it doles out its political spending, a major source of its influence these days. The organization spent more than $30 million supporting President Trump alone in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. If its benefactors become more suspect, even among the NRA’s base, that could loosen its grip over many American politicians and policymakers.

3. How might the government catch more of these alleged infractions?

Although U.S. charities can’t engage in political spending, they are allowed to partner with social welfare groups, as the NRA and the NRA Foundation do.

Unlike charities, social welfare groups can lobby, and they are allowed to spend at least some of their budget on election-related activity. Their donors are known to the government, but hidden from the public, which is why their funding is sometimes called “dark money.”

And the Trump administration just made dark money darker.

Just hours after the government announced Butina’s arrest, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin declared that the IRS was reducing the reporting requirements for donations to social welfare groups. Under this new guidance, 501(c)(4) groups will no longer need to reveal most of their donations on their tax returns, even to the IRS.

The ConversationIn my opinion, it’s hard to see this move as anything except an effort to help big-money donors cover their tracks. Without a list of donors, the IRS can’t know when an organization is being used to further the interests of those backers, instead of the public.




Brian Galle, Professor of Law, Georgetown University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.