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Ken Paxton Has Used Consumer Protection Law to Target These Organizations

2 hours 7 minutes ago

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This article is co-published with The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan local newsroom that informs and engages with Texans. Sign up for The Brief Weekly to get up to speed on their essential coverage of Texas issues.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has repeatedly used the state’s powerful consumer protection laws to investigate organizations whose work conflicts in some way with his political views or the views of his conservative base, an analysis by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune found.

Paxton has been particularly aggressive among an increasing number of attorneys general who are using consumer protection statutes to investigate not only predatory lenders or unscrupulous car dealers but also political targets, experts say. ProPublica and the Tribune identified more than a dozen instances in the past two years in which Paxton has used the state’s consumer protection office to demand records from organizations with which he disagrees politically.

It’s unclear how many similar cases might be underway in Texas. The attorney general’s office told the news organizations it hasn’t consistently maintained a list of the division’s demands to examine records. The agency is also fighting to withhold certain records, citing state public information law exceptions.

The attorney general’s office did not respond to detailed questions about the investigations, including how many remained open.

AbbVie Inc. and Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc.

Date investigations began: February 2022

Stated basis for the investigation: In August 2021, then-state Rep. Matt Krause, a Republican who the same year launched an investigation into school library books that dealt with topics like sexuality and race, requested an opinion from the attorney general’s office about whether certain gender-affirming treatments, including puberty-blocking drugs, were akin to child abuse. After Paxton agreed that they were in a February 2022 nonbinding legal opinion, Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents who authorized such medical care for their children. The next month, the attorney general demanded to review two pharmaceutical companies’ records, including a list of all hormone blockers they sold and notes from meetings with Texas health care providers discussing those products. Paxton said he wanted to determine if the drug manufacturers had “deceptively advertised and promoted” those hormone blockers without disclosing the potential risks to children and their parents.

Response: AbbVie and Endo Pharmaceuticals declined to comment for this story. In 2022, however, an Endo spokesperson told the Tribune that the company was cooperating with the attorney general’s investigation and did not promote its medications for off-label reasons, which can mean the drug is used for a medical condition it’s not approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat.

Status: Paxton’s office did not answer questions about the status of the investigations.


Date investigation began: February 2022

Stated basis for the investigation: The attorney general’s office launched an investigation of GoFundMe days after the company took down a $10 million fundraising campaign launched by Canadian truckers who were protesting vaccine mandates for drivers crossing the U.S. border. GoFundMe said it removed the campaign, which was raising money for truckers’ fuel costs, food and lodging, in response to law enforcement reports of violence connected to the protests. GoFundMe initially posted a statement in 2022 saying the company would refund donations upon request and donate any remaining funds to charities chosen by the event organizers. The company then decided to refund all donations in response to donor feedback. Paxton said in a news release he would investigate GoFundMe for initially planning to shift the funds to other charities.

Response: A GoFundMe spokesperson recently told ProPublica and the Tribune in an email that the company has “clear terms of service that outline acceptable use, and when a fundraiser violates those terms it is removed from our platform.” The spokesperson said the company cooperated with Paxton’s inquiry but did not elaborate on what that entailed.

Status: Paxton’s office did not answer questions about the investigation’s status.

Texas Bar Foundation, American Gateways, Equal Justice Center and Tahirih Justice Center

Date investigations began: May 2022 and November 2022

Stated basis for the investigation: Paxton’s Consumer Protection Division launched a probe into the nonprofit Texas Bar Foundation in May 2022, following allegations by Republican U.S. Rep. Troy Nehls, from Richmond, that the organization was donating to entities that encourage and fund illegal immigration. The foundation issues grants to nonprofits that work on legal issues, including those that provide assistance to underserved people, according to its website. Months later, Paxton launched investigations into three organizations that had received funding from the foundation: American Gateways, Equal Justice Center and Tahirih Justice Center. Paxton said his office was looking into whether the money the organizations received was “being used to exacerbate the current crisis at the border.”

Response: A spokesperson for American Gateways said the organization provides legal services for immigrants, refugees and victims of torture, including human trafficking survivors. The organization provided the attorney general’s office the records the state requested as part of its investigation, including correspondence with the Texas Bar Foundation, “which demonstrates our compliance under all laws,” the spokesperson wrote. A spokesperson for the Tahirih Justice Center declined to comment. The Texas Bar Foundation and Equal Justice Center did not respond to requests for comment.

Status: Paxton’s office did not answer questions about the status of the investigations.

Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson

Date investigations began: May 2023

Stated basis for the investigation: Paxton demanded records that included any documents related to the marketing of COVID-19 vaccines in Texas from three pharmaceutical companies: Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. The attorney general wanted information related to their vaccine research, saying that he was investigating whether they misled the public about vaccine effectiveness and alleging that they potentially manipulated drug trial data. In a May 2023 news release explaining the investigations, Paxton raised questions about the money the companies stood to make from the vaccine as well as concerns about side effects. Months later, Paxton’s office sued Pfizer, accusing the company in a news release of “unlawfully misrepresenting the effectiveness of the company’s COVID-19 vaccine and attempting to censor public discussion of the product.” Pfizer’s lawyers filed a motion this March to dismiss the case in federal court, arguing in part that the attorney general can’t bring a claim under Texas’ consumer protection law because the consumers in this case got the vaccines from the federal government, not the state. “Congress has tasked FDA, not state officials, with deciding whether Pfizer’s vaccine is sufficiently safe and effective,” the lawsuit said.

Response: In a statement to the news organizations about the attorney general’s investigation, Pfizer said the company “is deeply committed to the well-being of the patients it serves and has no higher priority than ensuring the safety and effectiveness of its treatments and vaccines.” Moderna and Johnson & Johnson did not respond to requests for comment.

Status: Paxton’s office did not answer questions about the status of the investigations. A Pfizer spokesperson said the motion to dismiss Paxton’s lawsuit is pending.

Dell Children’s Medical Center

Date investigation began: May 2023

Stated basis for the investigation: In April 2023, right-wing activist group Project Veritas published a video that purported to show a social worker at Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin saying the hospital provided gender-affirming treatment for children as young as 8. In a statement posted on social media at the time, Dell Children’s said hospital officials were reviewing the allegations and would take appropriate action “to the extent that care provided at our clinic may have been inconsistent with our organization’s position on this important issue.” Two weeks later, the attorney general’s Consumer Protection Division sent investigative demands to Dell Children’s, requesting a range of documents related to gender-affirming care, including information about the hospital’s use of puberty blockers for minors. The demand letter also asked the medical center to identify any people or organizations that hospital staff referred minor children to for counseling or treatment related to gender reassignment or gender transitioning. At the time, the treatment was still legal, but a proposed Texas law limiting the age when someone could receive gender-affirming care was making its way through the state Legislature. A week after Paxton launched his investigation, families of teenagers receiving gender-affirming care at the hospital said Dell Children’s had stopped offering those services. The hospital said in a statement that while its adolescent medicine clinic remained open, “the physicians who previously staffed the clinic will be departing.”

Response: Dell Children’s did not respond to an interview request.

Status: Paxton’s office did not answer questions about the investigation’s status or whether it remains open.

Texas Children’s Hospital

Date investigation began: May 2023

Stated basis for the investigation: Houston-based Texas Children’s Hospital said it would stop providing hormone therapy to transgender children after Abbott told the state’s child welfare agency in February 2022 to open investigations into parents who authorize gender-affirming care for their children. But City Journal, a magazine published by the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute, reported in May 2023 that the hospital was providing those treatments. Paxton’s office then sent a demand letter to Texas Children’s Hospital for documents related to its gender-affirming care for minors. That care was still legal at the time, but state lawmakers passed legislation banning such treatment and sent it to the governor for final approval the same week Paxton launched his investigation. In anticipation of the measure going into effect on Sept. 1, 2023, Texas Children’s CEO told employees that the hospital would discontinue certain services, including hormone therapy. “As the largest pediatric healthcare provider in the nation, being unable to serve and support these children and families the way we have in the past is painful,” the message said.

Response: Texas Children’s Hospital declined to comment. At the time Paxton launched the investigation, a spokesperson for the hospital said in a statement that Texas Children’s “healthcare professionals have always and will continue to prioritize the care of our patients within the bounds of the law.”

Status: Paxton’s office did not answer questions about the investigation’s status.


Date investigation began: September 2023

Stated basis for the investigation: Paxton was one of 24 attorneys general who sent a letter to the business search and review site Yelp in February 2023 alleging that the company misled customers. At issue was that Yelp had appended notices to pages for crisis pregnancy centers, which counsel clients against abortion, stating that the sites provided limited medical care. In response to the letter from the attorneys general, Yelp changed the notices to say the centers do not provide abortion or abortion services. On Sept. 26, 2023, however, Paxton’s office notified Yelp that it had launched an investigation and planned to sue the company for allegedly violating state consumer protection law because of the initial notices that were posted. (Paxton is the only attorney general who has investigated the company or filed a lawsuit over the crisis pregnancy center notices.) On Sept. 27, Yelp filed a preemptive lawsuit in federal court in California, where it’s headquartered, asking the court to prevent Paxton’s office from prosecuting the company. Yelp argued allowing the state to pursue a lawsuit would violate the First Amendment. The next day, Paxton filed the state’s lawsuit in Bastrop County in Texas.

Response: In a statement to the news organizations, a Yelp spokesperson said Paxton’s action against the company “sets a dangerous precedent by using the office and powers of a government official to politicize and punish speech on issues that he disagrees with, which in this case harms consumers looking for accurate information about reproductive healthcare.”

Status: The case continues to play out in the two states. In February, a state district court judge in Bastrop County Texas granted Yelp’s motion to toss the lawsuit. Paxton has appealed. Meanwhile, a federal judge in the California case denied Yelp’s request for an injunction and dismissed the company’s lawsuit. Yelp appealed, and the case is now pending in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Paxton’s office did not answer questions about the status of its investigation.

Media Matters for America

Date investigation began: November 2023

Stated basis for the investigation: Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog nonprofit whose mission includes “correcting conservative misinformation,” published a report in November that found ads for major brands like Apple and IBM on the social media platform X were appearing alongside posts promoting antisemitic and white supremacist views. On Nov. 20, X owner Elon Musk filed a lawsuit in federal court in Texas against the nonprofit, arguing its report had disparaged the company. The lawsuit accused Media Matters of using filters on X to produce ad and content combinations it wanted to see. Paxton launched an investigation into Media Matters the same day, saying in a press release that his office was troubled by allegations that the nonprofit had “fraudulently manipulated data.” Within days of announcing his investigation, Paxton appeared on a conservative podcast and encouraged other attorneys general to pursue similar inquiries against the nonprofit. On Dec. 11, Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey, a Republican, opened a consumer protection investigation into the organization. He did not mention Paxton in a letter informing the nonprofit of the inquiry. On Dec. 12, Media Matters filed a lawsuit against Paxton in federal court, arguing the attorney general’s investigation violated the nonprofit’s First, Fourth and 14th amendment rights.

Response: Representatives from X did not respond to requests for comment, and spokespeople for Media Matters and Bailey declined to comment.

Status: The Missouri attorney general filed a lawsuit that is ongoing against Media Matters. On April 12, the federal judge in Media Matters’ case against the Texas attorney general granted the nonprofit’s request for a preliminary injunction, preventing Paxton from forcing it to turn over its documents. Paxton’s office did not answer questions about the status of the investigation, but his office has appealed the judge’s decision.

Seattle Children’s Hospital

Date investigation began: November 2023

Stated basis for the investigation: Paxton did not publicize that he’d requested records related to the hospital’s gender-affirming treatment of children who reside or used to reside in Texas as part of an investigation into the Washington-based hospital. The probe came to light after the hospital sued the attorney general in early December to block the release of patient records, arguing that handing them over would violate federal and state health care privacy laws. The hospital has said in legal filings that it had no staff members who treated transgender children in Texas or remotely.

Response: Neither the hospital nor Paxton’s office answered questions about the case.

Status: The hospital and Paxton’s office reached a settlement in April. As part of the settlement, the hospital agreed to withdraw its Texas business license. Paxton, in turn, agreed to drop the request for records.


Date investigation began: November 2023

Stated basis for the investigation: Paxton launched an investigation into the Georgia-based telehealth clinic related to its medical treatment of transgender minors. The attorney general’s office sent the clinic a demand for records on Nov. 17, the same day Paxton opened an inquiry into Seattle Children’s Hospital, according to a report published by the Houston Chronicle. The attorney general is fighting the release of the demand letter it sent seeking records from the telehealth clinic, citing exceptions when information is related to anticipated litigation. QueerMed founder Dr. Izzy Lowell told the Chronicle in January that the clinic served patients in nearly all 50 states but declined to discuss how the clinic worked with Texas patients specifically. She later told The Washington Post that the clinic stopped treating minors in Texas after the state banned gender-affirming care. The state demanded records dating back to January 2022, more than a year before the Texas law was in place.

Response: Lowell declined to comment for this story but told the Post in January that Paxton’s demand for transgender youths’ medical records was “a clear attempt to intimidate providers of gender-affirming care and parents and families that seek that care outside of Texas and other states with bans.”

Status: Paxton’s office did not answer questions about the investigation’s status or whether it remains open.


Date investigation began: February 2024

Stated basis for the investigation: PFLAG Inc., a national nonprofit that supports LGBTQ+ people and their families, was one of several organizations that, in July 2023, filed a lawsuit challenging Texas’ ban on gender-affirming care for minors. In an affidavit taken as part of the lawsuit, the nonprofit’s chief executive said that families with transgender and nonbinary adolescents were sharing their “contingency plans” at PFLAG chapter meetings in anticipation of the ban. “Those with the resources to move or seek care out of state have begun firming up their plans to do so, while the vast majority without those resources have been asking chapters for alternative avenues to maintain care in Texas,” the chief said. Paxton sent a letter to PFLAG in February asking for records related to those statements and alleging that the nonprofit had information about medical providers in the state who may have been committing insurance fraud. The attorney general accused health care professionals of providing gender-affirming care but disguising it as treatment for an endocrine disorder. PFLAG sued the attorney general’s office in state district court in Travis County on Feb. 28, asking a judge to determine the legality of his demands and for an injunction in order to withhold records. The following day, Paxton’s office issued a news release accusing the organization of hiding “incriminating documents.”

Response: Karen Loewy, a lawyer with Lambda Legal representing PFLAG, told the news organizations that the attorney general’s demand to review the nonprofit’s records was “an unlawful fishing expedition.”

Status: In March, a district court judge temporarily blocked the state from forcing PFLAG to turn over the records. The judge wrote in her order that PFLAG and its members could suffer harm, including limitations on their First Amendment rights to free speech and association and their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. Paxton appealed the ruling. The 3rd Court of Appeals, which is hearing the case, has issued a temporary order protecting PFLAG from Paxton’s demands for records. Paxton’s office did not answer questions about the status of the investigation.

Annunciation House

Date investigation began: February 2024

Stated basis for the investigation: Paxton demanded records from El Paso-based Annunciation House related to the nonprofit’s work with immigrants, alleging the organization operated as a stash house. Among the materials the attorney general requested were logs identifying immigrants who received services at the nonprofit going back more than two years. Annunciation House sued in state district court in order to get a ruling on which documents the nonprofit actually had to turn over. In response to the lawsuit, the attorney general’s office argued that the nonprofit forfeited its right to operate by failing to immediately allow access to all of its records. Annunciation House primarily serves people who turn themselves in to U.S. immigration officials and are then processed and released while they await their court hearings.

Response: Jerome Wesevich, an attorney representing Annunciation House, called Paxton’s claims about the nonprofit unfounded. He said Paxton’s ultimate goal with the investigation is to find “an excuse to harass and close Annunciation House.”

Status: In March, an El Paso state district judge temporarily blocked the attorney general’s efforts to obtain Annunciation House’s records and said the state must go through the court system to continue the investigation. On May 8, Paxton announced that he had filed a motion for a temporary injunction in El Paso County district court to stop Annunciation House’s “systemic criminal conduct” and again called for the 46-year-old charity to be shut down. On Friday, Annunciation House’s lawyers filed a motion to throw out the attorney general’s case. The nonprofit said in the legal filings that the probe has caused harm that is “not only imminent, it is ongoing.”

Spirit AeroSystems Holdings Inc.

Date investigation began: March 2024

Stated basis for the investigation: On March 28, the attorney general’s Consumer Protection Division contacted Spirit AeroSystems, a Boeing parts supplier, seeking documents and communications related to airplane product defects. The office’s request for records was part of an investigation after a door plug came off a Boeing 737 Max 9 plane in January, an event that forced an emergency landing. (Spirit makes fuselages and installs door plugs like the one that came off the plane.) The attorney general’s investigative letter also demanded records “that Spirit relies on to substantiate its claim that a diverse workplace improves product quality,” enhances performance and spurs the company to make better decisions. In a news release, Paxton’s office said his office was investigating “whether those commitments are unlawful or are compromising the company’s manufacturing processes.”

Response: A spokesperson for Spirit AeroSystems said the company does not comment on investigations but “is wholly focused on providing the highest quality products to all our customers, to include the Boeing Company.”

Status: Paxton’s office did not answer questions about the investigation’s status or whether it remains open.

by Vianna Davila

Texas’ Attorney General Is Increasingly Using Consumer Protection Laws to Pursue Political Targets

2 hours 12 minutes ago

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This article is co-published with The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan local newsroom that informs and engages with Texans. Sign up for The Brief Weekly to get up to speed on their essential coverage of Texas issues.

The men knocked on the door of a two-story, red-brick building in downtown El Paso one chilly morning in February. When a volunteer answered, they handed her a document they said gave them the right to go inside and review records kept by Annunciation House, a nonprofit that for decades has served immigrants and refugees seeking shelter.

An employee phoned Ruben Garcia, the nonprofit’s director and founder, who was at one of the organization’s other properties. Feeling a calling to do more to help immigrants and other people experiencing poverty, Garcia was part of a small group that formed the nonprofit in the 1970s. He’s since become an unofficial historian of the migration patterns and political response to immigration and immigrants.

But in his nearly five decades helming the nonprofit, Garcia had never encountered a situation like this. Standing on the organization’s doorstep were officials sent there by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s Consumer Protection Division. They were demanding to come inside and search the nonprofit’s records, including all logs identifying immigrants who received services at Annunciation House going back more than two years.

“Is this a warrant?” Garcia recalls asking the group, which included an assistant attorney general and a law enforcement officer from the state agency.

It wasn’t. Still, the letter the men presented stated that the attorney general’s office had the power to immediately enter the building without one.

Consumer protection laws give attorneys general broad legal authority to request a wide range of records when investigating businesses or charities for allegations of deceptive or fraudulent practices, such as gas stations that hike up fuel prices during hurricanes, companies that run robocalling phone scams and unscrupulous contractors who take advantage of homeowners.

But attorneys general have increasingly used their powers to also pursue investigations targeting organizations whose work conflicts with their political views. And Paxton, a Republican, is among the most aggressive. “He’s laying out kind of like the blueprint about how to do this,” said Paul Nolette, an expert in attorneys general and director of the Les Aspin Center for Government at Marquette University.

An analysis by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune shows that in the past two years, Paxton has used consumer protection law more than a dozen times to investigate a range of entities for activities like offering shelter to immigrants, providing health care to transgender teens or trying to foster a diverse workplace.

Not a single one of the investigations was prompted by a consumer complaint, Paxton’s office confirmed. A complaint is not necessary to launch a probe.

The analysis is possibly an undercount. The attorney general’s office said it has not consistently maintained a list of the Consumer Protection Division’s demands to examine records and would need to review individual case files to determine how many requests had been sent. The agency also fought the release of certain records requested under Texas’ Public Information Act, citing exceptions for anticipated litigation.

Paxton’s office did not respond to requests for comment or to detailed questions. It also did not reply to a request to speak with the Consumer Protection Division’s chief.

Two attorneys representing nonprofits that Paxton recently targeted said they believe he launched the investigations simply to harass their clients and to cause a chilling effect among organizations doing similar work. Both said the attorney general’s demands violate the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to free speech, association and religion, and the Fourth Amendment, which offers protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

The political weaponization of consumer protection divisions by Paxton and other attorneys general appears to be “a core violation” of constitutional laws that runs counter to what these divisions were established to do, said Georgetown Law professor Michele Goodwin.

The offices were intended to protect the public, Goodwin said. “Instead,” she added, “what is taking place in these times are efforts that undermine the civil liberties and the civil rights of people who are the public in those states and the people who are in those states who are seeking to aid and assist the public.”

In the Annunciation House case, the attorney general’s office went even further by showing up at the nonprofit’s door and demanding to immediately review documents rather than sending its requests for records by mail and giving organizations weeks to respond, as it often has in other cases ProPublica and the Tribune examined.

Paxton’s office then denied the nonprofit’s request for additional time to determine what information it was legally required to turn over, prompting Annunciation House to sue. In response, the attorney general’s office argued in court documents that the nonprofit had forfeited its right to operate and publicly accused it of acting as a stash house for immigrants he alleges are in the country illegally.

The attorney general’s move to shutter Annunciation House drew swift rebuke from political and religious leaders, who said his characterizations of the nonprofit were a dangerous misrepresentation of the charity. Paxton’s actions also sparked concern as far away as the Vatican. In a recent interview with CBS News, Pope Francis called Paxton’s efforts “madness, sheer madness.”

“The migrant has to be received,” the pope said on the television news program “60 Minutes.” “Thereafter you see how you’re going to deal with them. Maybe you have to send them back. I don’t know. But each case ought to be considered humanely, right?”

Annunciation House primarily serves people who are processed and released into the U.S. by immigration officials. Garcia communicates daily with Border Patrol and other federal agencies that regularly ask for help finding shelter for people who turn themselves in to authorities or are apprehended but have nowhere to go while their cases are processed.

In March, an El Paso state district judge temporarily blocked the attorney general’s efforts to obtain Annunciation House’s records and said the state must go through the court system to continue the investigation. “There is a real and credible concern that the attempt to prevent Annunciation House from conducting business in Texas was predetermined,” the judge wrote in his order.

Even when Paxton doesn’t get speedy access to the documents he wants, he often publicizes these typically confidential cases, putting out news releases that draw headlines and build support among his base of hard-line conservatives.

The simple act of publicizing that he is pursuing an organization can cause irreparable harm, said Jerome Wesevich, an attorney who represents Annunciation House.

“Someone has to say what is the line between a legitimate investigation and harassment,” Wesevich said.

As the Annunciation House case progresses through the courts, Paxton has continued his public attacks on the nonprofit. On May 8, Paxton announced in a press release that he had filed a court injunction to stop what he called Annunciation House’s “systemic criminal conduct.” He then issued a warning to other nonprofits that assist immigrants, saying that those that are “complicit in Joe Biden’s illegal immigration catastrophe and think they are above the law should consider themselves on notice.”

He again called for the charity to be shut down.

Evolving Power

The consumer protection cases that Paxton and like-minded attorneys general are pursuing today are virtually unrecognizable from the historically bipartisan and apolitical ones their counterparts undertook even 20 or 30 years ago, said James Tierney, a former Maine attorney general.

“The people that the laws were designed for were working-class people who were getting ripped off when they bought a used car,” said Tierney, who directs the attorney general clinic at Harvard Law School. While many attorneys general still do that work, consumer protection laws are also increasingly “being used to obviously move social agendas.”

The push to protect consumers was among numerous social movements that began to materialize in the 1960s and 1970s as Americans demanded more government action in areas like civil rights and environmental justice. As a result, states began to adopt laws that gave attorneys general the ability to investigate potential fraudulent activity by businesses.

Federal and state institutions also started encouraging attorneys general to think of themselves as representing not only the state but also the people who lived there. “This shift was significant because by serving as the representatives of individuals and groups allegedly harmed by corporate conduct, AGs essentially became a form of class-action litigator,” Nolette, the Marquette professor, wrote in his book, “Federalism on Trial.”

Initially, attorneys general focused consumer protection investigations in their own states. By the 1980s, however, the scope of the investigations began to change as the attorneys general offices started to work across state lines to target large industries.

Perhaps the most notable example is the decision by all 50 state attorneys general to sue tobacco companies in the 1990s. They successfully argued the industry misled consumers about the dangers of cigarettes and other tobacco products and intentionally marketed them to children. The lawsuits resulted in billions of dollars in settlement money. More recently, attorneys general across the country pursued similar multistate suits against the opioid industry and pharmaceutical supply chain.

The power of attorneys general continued to grow through the decades as Congress passed measures that empowered states to enforce federal law and the courts interpreted ambiguities in the law in such a way that made it easier for states to sue under federal statutes.

A number of other court decisions unrelated to consumer protection further changed the role of attorneys general. As states found it easier to bring cases that are similar to class-action suits, the Supreme Court issued rulings in the early 2010s that made it harder for private litigants to do so. The decisions essentially drove those cases to attorneys general, Tierney said.

A 2014 Supreme Court decision that lifted limits on individual campaign contributions raised the stakes of attorneys general campaigns and created “a funnel for dark money to flow into every AG race,” Tierney said.

“The machine is up and running,” Tierney said, “and will continue to run unless someone figures out how to stop it.”

Stretching the Boundaries

Although Paxton has used consumer protection law to investigate a wide range of organizations with which he disagrees politically, he has perhaps most aggressively pursued those that provide or support gender-affirming care for minors.

Over the past two years, his office has launched at least six investigations into hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and an LGBTQ+ advocacy and support group, often demanding records that include sensitive patient information.

These investigations came amid a growing wave of conservative initiatives in Texas and across the country that have worked to chip away at the rights of transgender people. At least 25 states ban gender-affirming care for minors in some way, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Texas was not among those states when, in August 2021, then-state Rep. Matt Krause, a Republican who the same year launched an investigation into school library books that dealt with topics like sexuality and race, wrote to Paxton asking for an opinion on whether gender-affirming care for children amounted to child abuse. In February 2022, Paxton issued a nonbinding legal opinion that said it did.

Days later, Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents who authorized such treatment for their children, a move that spurred both condemnation — including from families, medical professionals and the White House — and fear across the state and country. These investigations are on hold following several court rulings.

As Abbott ordered the state agency to go after parents, Paxton began launching investigations into organizations that provide or support gender-affirming care for transgender minors.

One of those targeted entities was Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin. In May 2023, one of Paxton’s Consumer Protection lawyers sent a letter to the hospital demanding documents related to the use of puberty blockers and counseling for transgender youth. Three weeks later, the same lawyer sent a letter seeking similar records from Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. In a news release announcing the investigation, Paxton said his office was examining whether the facility was “unlawfully” providing gender transition care.

At the time that the letters were sent to the hospitals, a law preventing transgender minors from getting puberty blockers and hormone therapies was working its way through the Legislature. The law ultimately passed, but it did not go into effect until Sept. 1.

Dell Children’s did not respond to an interview request. Texas Children’s Hospital declined to comment for this story.

In the months that followed, Paxton went even further. He began to investigate organizations outside of Texas for their connections to gender-affirming care: Seattle Children’s Hospital in Washington state; QueerMed, a telehealth clinic based in Georgia; and PFLAG Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based national nonprofit that supports LGBTQ+ people and their families.

Seattle Children’s Hospital sued the attorney general in December to block the release of any patient records, arguing that handing them over would violate federal and state health care privacy laws. The hospital said in legal filings it had no staff that treated transgender children in Texas or remotely.

Paxton has not answered questions about why he decided to investigate out-of-state facilities, but in court filings in the Seattle case, the attorney general’s office argued it has the right to investigate the hospital and other organizations registered to do business in Texas. The demand letter sent to the hospital asked for records related to the facility’s gender-affirming treatment of children who reside or used to reside in Texas. (The news organizations filed a public information request for the investigative letter Paxton sent to QueerMed, but the attorney general’s office is fighting its release, citing exceptions when information is related to pending or anticipated litigation.)

What seems to unite all three cases is that the attorney general’s office under Paxton “is going to use consumer protection law to stretch the boundaries of what they can do to try to make transgender care as minimal as possible in Texas,” said Colin Provost, an associate professor of public policy at University College London whose research has included how attorneys general in the U.S. work together to enforce consumer protection laws.

Paxton and Seattle Children’s reached a settlement in April. As part of the deal, the hospital agreed to withdraw its Texas business license. In exchange, Paxton dropped his demand for records.

QueerMed founder Dr. Izzy Lowell declined to comment for this story. But the doctor said in an interview with The Washington Post that Paxton’s push to access transgender youths’ medical records was “a clear attempt to intimidate providers of gender-affirming care and parents and families that seek that care outside of Texas and other states with bans.”

PFLAG sued Paxton’s office in February after the attorney general demanded its records. In court filings, Paxton alleged that the nonprofit had information about medical providers in the state that may have been committing insurance fraud. The attorney general accused health care professionals of providing gender-affirming care but disguising it as treatment for an endocrine disorder.

A Travis County district court judge issued an injunction in March that temporarily blocked the state’s access to the records. In her ruling, she wrote that failing to stop the attorney general from getting these records could result in PFLAG and its members suffering harm, including limitations on their First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights. Paxton appealed her ruling. The 3rd Court of Appeals, which is hearing the case, has issued a temporary order protecting PFLAG from Paxton’s demands for records.

Karen Loewy, a lawyer with Lambda Legal, which is representing PFLAG, said she remains baffled by the attorney general’s decision to use the state’s consumer protection law to investigate organizations like PFLAG, which provides resources to chapter support groups in the state.

“There's no consumer fraud happening here at PFLAG’s hands,” Loewy said.

Yet, she said, the attorney general appears to believe that he can send these demands to anyone his office thinks has information related to an investigation. In a court filing in response to PFLAG's lawsuit, Paxton’s office admitted it does not believe the nonprofit is violating the state’s consumer protection law, known as the Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The attorney general, however, argued in the filing that it can demand records of anyone, “not just those suspected of a violation.”

"The way in which the AG’s office has argued this already shows that they think that their power is unlimited,” Loewy said.

Sending a Message

Just as Paxton’s campaign against transgender care for minors has sent a chill through the network of people who provide this medical care, the impacts of the attorney general’s investigation of Annunciation House are reverberating throughout the community of people who work with migrants.

On Friday, Annunciation House’s lawyers filed a motion to throw out the attorney general’s case. Aside from arguing that Paxton’s claims about the organization are unfounded, the nonprofit said in the legal filings that the probe has caused harm that is “not only imminent, it is ongoing.”

Immediately after the attorney general officials showed up at the nonprofit’s offices in February, three Annunciation House volunteers quit, including the woman who answered the door. They worried the situation was “more unpredictable” than they could handle, Garcia said.

According to court records filed by Annunciation House attorneys, some volunteers have received threatening phone calls. The filings also state that the city of El Paso started stationing security guards at all of the nonprofit’s shelters “around the clock” to protect the people who are staying there.

“It’s scaring people from wanting to volunteer with us,” Garcia said. “It’s scaring people from wanting to work with the refugees.”

Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, an El Paso-based nonprofit that works with Annunciation House and provides legal services to immigrants and refugees on both sides of the border, has not lost volunteers, but the organization’s executive director, Marisa Limón Garza, said people were rattled by the fact that employees from Paxton’s office showed up at a fellow nonprofit’s door demanding access.

“If it’s a letter in the mail, that’s one thing,” Limón Garza said. “But coming and trying to access the space, that’s a different level of state intervention that definitely sends a chilling effect. It sends a message.”

That message changed how Las Americas operates. It updated its security and technology systems at a cost of $25,000, money the nonprofit’s leadership hadn’t planned to spend, Limón Garza said. The organization also better secured its internal files, got new cellphones and laptops, and added new intercom and doorbell screening systems.

It no longer allows walk-ins.

by Vianna Davila

How an Alabama Town Staved Off School Resegregation

1 day 3 hours ago

I recently traveled to rural Wilcox County, in Alabama’s Black Belt, to understand the origins of the local “segregation academy” and how it still divides the broader community. It was the first story in our series about segregation academies, private schools that opened across the Deep South after the U.S Supreme Court released its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. White Southerners opened hundreds — perhaps thousands — of these schools, which allowed white children to flee just as Black children arrived in the public schools. Now, 70 years later, ProPublica has found that hundreds of these academies still operate. Where they do, schools often remain segregated — and as a result, so do entire communities.

While I was in Wilcox County, I wondered: How would things be different if the segregation academy didn’t exist? Locals I met in the county seat of Camden mentioned another small town just a short drive over the county line where people had chosen a different path.

So I headed to Thomasville, Alabama, to meet current school leaders and a group of Black former students who were on the front lines during desegregation. They described the critical turning points when Black and white residents alike made decisions that resulted in integrated public schools and a very different future for the town’s schoolchildren.

When Jim Emerson arrived in rural Alabama’s Wilcox County to work as a paper mill executive, he saw opportunities for development in its rolling hills, lush riverbanks and charming small-town county seat of Camden.

He tried to steer new hires toward moving there.

Join us on June 5 for a virtual discussion of how private schools known as “segregation academies” in the Deep South continue to preserve divisions within communities even 70 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

But he hit an obstacle: The local schools were sharply divided by race. Virtually all of the public school students were Black, and most white students attended Wilcox Academy, one of the hundreds of private schools in the Deep South that researchers call “segregation academies.”

Many of the paper mill’s new employees instead moved to Thomasville, a small town in a neighboring county.

In Thomasville, Emerson sees what Camden could have been.

Trophy cases at A.L. Martin High School celebrated its students’ achievements. (Lt. R.C. Brooks of the Alabama Highway Patrol/Alabama Department of Archives and History)

The two small towns’ futures diverged, in many ways, starting in 1970. That year, the fairly new Thomasville City Schools came up with a court-ordered desegregation plan that called for shuttering A.L. Martin, the high school for Black students, and sending its students to Thomasville High, the school for whites. A segregation academy also opened in Thomasville that year.

Several former A.L. Martin students recalled that when they arrived at Thomasville High, they were sent to separate classrooms from the white students. Gone were their Black coaches. Their principal was relegated to a job as the superintendent’s clerk.

“It destroyed the fabric of the community. This was the nucleus of the Black community,” said G.B. Quinney, a student then who’s now director of a museum in the A.L. Martin building.

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By fall 1971, they’d had enough. Every Black student got up and walked out of school together in protest. A large majority stayed out for nearly the entire school year, organizing protests and a boycott that cost local white businesses money. Their demands included eliminating segregated classes, hiring a Black administrator and more Black teachers’ aides, and increasing the participation of Black teachers in planning school activities.

What happened next separates Thomasville from Camden and many other Black Belt areas.

White leaders eventually invited Black protestors to negotiate a return to school — and to their businesses. Many white parents also either never left the public schools or did so but soon returned.

Some students also transferred from Wilcox County to Thomasville “to escape the almost all-black Wilcox County public schools and to avoid the cost of tuition at private academies,” according to a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report issued in 1983.

In the 1970s, the chair of the Thomasville school board also stood firm: The district would not hire teachers who sent their children to private schools, nor would it beg students who left to return.

The superintendent agreed: “If they leave, I don’t want them back.”

In 1987, the segregation academy in town closed. Today, Thomasville High School’s students are about 60% Black and 40% white, far more integrated than many schools in Alabama’s Black Belt.

Annette Davis was in 10th grade when the district moved her class from A.L. Martin to the white high school in 1969, the year before the entire school was merged. She was among the student protesters who were arrested.

Today, when she returns to Thomasville High for football games and other events, she is proud to see white and Black students in class together — and a Black principal at the helm. “When I walk into that school now, I feel good,” Davis said.

Many families who can afford private school tuition still choose the city’s public schools. They use their resources to help other students with everything from transportation to winter coats and wrestling uniforms. They become alumni who support the school through fundraisers involving their businesses, Thomasville Superintendent Vickie Morris said.

In downtown Thomasville, a sign in a storefront reads, “Let’s Go Tigers!” — the public high school mascot.

In contrast, a sign in the window of a downtown Camden business reads, “Proud Supporters of the Wilcox Wildcats” — the local private academy.

A.L. Martin High School was built on a hill overlooking Thomasville. Today, a museum dedicated to the city’s Black history operates in the space. (Lt. R.C. Brooks of the Alabama Highway Patrol/Alabama Department of Archives and History)

“We’ve got the whole city’s support,” said Thomas E. Jackson, who graduated in one of A.L. Martin’s final classes and now is a longtime Democratic state legislator. In 1966, when he was a junior, he and three other Black students fled gunfire after entering an ice cream store through the front door, which was reserved for white patrons.

Morris, the current superintendent, described parents from surrounding districts, who pay $400 a year to transfer students in, tearfully begging her to admit their children when classes are full. “We are the choice,” she said.

Among those transfers are 71 students from Wilcox County.

“It shows you what can happen when the community makes up its mind not to be divided,” said Emerson, the paper mill executive who’s now retired. Wilcox County’s white citizens chose another path in the 1970s, “which, in retrospect, was a very, very bad decision.”

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by Jennifer Berry Hawes

This Mississippi Hospital Transfers Some Patients to Jail to Await Mental Health Treatment

2 days 2 hours ago

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with Mississippi Today and co-published with the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, the Sun Herald and MLK50. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

When Sandy Jones’ 26-year-old daughter started writing on the walls of her home in Hernando, Mississippi, last year and talking angrily to the television, Sandy said, she knew two things: Her daughter Sydney needed help, and Sandy didn’t want her to be held in jail again to get it.

A year and a half earlier, during Sydney Jones’ first psychotic episode, her mother filed paperwork to have her involuntarily committed, a legal process in which a judge can order someone to receive mental health treatment. After DeSoto County sheriff’s deputies showed up at Sydney’s home and explained that they were detaining her for a mental evaluation, Sydney panicked and ran inside. Following a struggle, deputies cuffed and shackled her and drove her to the county jail, where people going through the commitment process are usually held as they await mental health treatment elsewhere.

Over nine days in jail, Sydney Jones said, she believed her tattoos were portals for spiritual forces and felt like she had been abandoned by her family. In an interview, she said that the experience was so traumatic that she became anxious when she drove, afraid she could be arrested at any moment.

The second time Sydney Jones experienced delusions, in 2023, a family member contacted the local community mental health center for help. Police officers with mental health training came and called an ambulance to take Jones to Baptist Memorial Hospital-DeSoto, part of a large, religiously affiliated nonprofit hospital system. But because the hospital doesn’t have a psychiatric unit, after a few days it sent her to the jail to wait for eventual treatment in a publicly funded facility. Like the first time, she hadn’t been charged with a crime.

Sydney Jones (Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today)

Roughly 200 people in DeSoto County were jailed annually during the civil commitment process, most without criminal charges, between 2021 and 2023. About a fifth of them were picked up at local hospitals, according to an estimate based on a review of Sheriff’s Department records by Mississippi Today and ProPublica. The overwhelming majority of those patients, according to our analysis, were at Baptist Memorial Hospital-DeSoto, the largest in this prosperous, suburban county near Memphis.

“That would just be unthinkable here,” said Dr. Grayson Norquist, the chief of psychiatry at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, a professor at Emory University and the former chair of psychiatry at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi.

Norquist was one of 17 physicians specializing in emergency medicine or psychiatry, including leaders in their fields, who said they had never heard of a hospital sending patients to jail solely to wait for mental health treatment. Several said it violates doctors’ Hippocratic oath: to do no harm.

If you or someone you know needs help:

  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 988
  • Text the Crisis Text Line from anywhere in the U.S. to reach a crisis counselor: 741741

The practice appears to be unusual even in Mississippi, where lawmakers recently acted to limit when people can be jailed as they go through the civil commitment process. Sheriff’s departments in about a third of the state’s counties, including those that appear to jail such people most frequently, responded to questions from Mississippi Today and ProPublica about how they handle involuntary commitment. They said they seldom, if ever, take people who need mental health treatment from a hospital to jail. At most, said sheriffs in a few rural counties, they do it once or twice a month.

But in DeSoto County, hospital patients were jailed about 50 times a year from 2021 to 2023, according to the news outlets’ estimate, which was based on a review of Sheriff’s Department dispatch logs, incident reports and jail dockets.

At least two people have died soon after being taken from Baptist-DeSoto to a county jail during the commitment process, according to documents submitted for lawsuits filed over their deaths. One person died by suicide hours after arriving at the DeSoto County jail in 2021; the other died of multisystem organ failure after being jailed for three days in neighboring Marshall County in 2011. James Franks, an attorney who handles commitments for DeSoto County, said officials had no reason to believe that the woman who killed herself was suicidal. DeSoto County made a similar argument in a court filing in an ongoing lawsuit over that death, which didn’t name the hospital as a defendant. In lawsuits over the other death, a judge dismissed Marshall County and the sheriff as defendants, and a jury found that Baptist-DeSoto wasn’t liable.

Baptist-DeSoto officials said the hospital hands some patients over to deputies to take them to jail because those patients need dedicated treatment that the hospital can’t provide and nearby inpatient facilities are full. Most people who need inpatient treatment agree to be transferred to a behavioral health facility, according to Kim Alexander, director of public relations for Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp. But in a relatively small number of cases, she wrote in an email, patients are deemed dangerous to themselves or others and don’t agree to treatment, so they need to be committed. When that happens, she said, it’s the county’s responsibility to decide where to house them.

“We discharge mental health patients with the hope they will be transferred to a mental health facility that can provide the specialized care they need,” Alexander wrote in a statement. Jailing people who need mental health care is “not the ideal option,” she wrote. “Our hearts go out to anyone who cannot access the mental health care they need because behavioral health services are not available in the area.”

But doctors elsewhere said even if psychiatric facilities are full, Baptist-DeSoto doesn’t have to send patients to jail. They said the hospital could do what hospitals elsewhere in the country do: keep patients until a treatment bed is available.

“This is a principle of emergency medicine: You care for all people, under all circumstances, at any time," said Dr. Lewis Goldfrank, who spent 50 years working in emergency medicine, including at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. Sending patients to jail because of their illness, he said, "is just unethical and irresponsible."

Sandy Jones said she was in disbelief when it happened to her daughter. If Sydney has another psychotic episode, Sandy Jones said she won’t try to get help in DeSoto County. “I will tie her up until it’s over.”

Baptist Memorial Hospital-DeSoto (Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today) Headed to Jail in a Hospital Gown and Handcuffs

Baptist, the largest and oldest hospital in DeSoto County, sits right off the interstate amid big-box stores and chain hotels in Southaven, Mississippi. It’s the first place many residents think of when they need medical help. Since 2017, it has served as the drop-off point for the county’s crisis intervention team, which was established to give law enforcement a way to help people with mental illness without bringing them to jail.

But when people show up in the emergency department needing inpatient psychiatric treatment, they don’t get it at Baptist-DeSoto. Instead, a crisis coordinator sets about finding some other place for them. If patients agree to treatment, they may be able to go to a publicly funded crisis unit, the closest of which is 50 miles away, or to a private psychiatric hospital. If they don’t, the crisis coordinator pursues commitment, which means turning patients over to the Sheriff’s Department. And because the Sheriff’s Department usually won’t transport patients over a long distance multiple times for a court hearing and eventual treatment, those patients usually go to jail.

That was the case with Sydney Jones. After she arrived at the hospital in April 2023, a psychiatrist contracted by the hospital evaluated her and concluded that she needed inpatient treatment. Jones was prescribed antipsychotic medication, admitted to the hospital, placed in her own room and monitored by a security guard.

Meanwhile, a staffer for Region IV, the local nonprofit community mental health center that works with Baptist-DeSoto to place patients who need treatment, was trying to find someplace for Jones other than the hospital. Catherine Davis, the crisis coordinator, concluded that Jones would need to be committed.

After Sydney Jones was taken to Baptist Memorial Hospital-DeSoto in the midst of a psychotic episode, a staffer for Region IV, the local community mental health center, filed paperwork to have Jones committed. Catherine Davis, the staffer, wrote that she did so because of Jones’ psychosis and because she wouldn’t comply with treatment recommendations. (Obtained by Mississippi Today and ProPublica. Highlighted by ProPublica.)

The next day, Davis contacted Jones’ cousin, who had tried to get Jones help, and asked the cousin to initiate commitment proceedings. (Region IV’s contract with Baptist-DeSoto requires it to try to get a patient’s family member or friend to file commitment paperwork before doing so itself.) The cousin refused because she knew Jones would be jailed until a bed opened up, according to Sandy Jones. (The cousin declined an interview request.)

So Davis filed the commitment paperwork herself, writing that Sydney Jones “should be taken to DeSoto County jail” while awaiting further evaluations, a court hearing and eventual treatment.

On Sydney Jones’ fourth day at Baptist-DeSoto, two sheriff’s deputies arrived. They received discharge papers from a nurse and wheeled Jones out of the hospital, according to her and an incident report. Jones, who said her delusions at the time were “like if Satan made goggles and put them on you,” was terrified that the deputies would drive her to a field, rape her and kill her.

Sandy Jones said she didn’t understand why she had no say in what was happening to her daughter, although that’s typical during the commitment process. “I felt like she was kidnapped from me,” Sandy Jones said. Her daughter spent nine days in jail before being admitted to a crisis unit, where she was treated for about two weeks.

Mississippi Today and ProPublica interviewed five other people who were discharged from Baptist to jail, including two who had been taken to the hospital because they had attempted suicide. One said that when deputies came to his room, he wondered if he had somehow committed a crime after trying to kill himself by overdosing on prescription medication. Another said he felt humiliated to be wheeled through the hospital wearing just a hospital gown. Three of the five said they were handcuffed before being taken away.

Hospital officials noted that all patients are medically stabilized before being released and that some patients are committed by family members. Dr. H. F. Mason, Baptist-DeSoto’s chief medical officer, said in an interview that he didn’t know how often patients who need behavioral health treatment might be discharged to jail, but he has no concerns about the practice. When hospital staff hand patients over to local authorities, Mason said, “we feel that they’re going to take the appropriate care of that patient.”

The jail, however, offers minimal psychiatric treatment, if any. Region IV staff members visit the jail primarily to evaluate people going through the commitment process or to check on people on suicide watch, Region IV Director Jason Ramey said. Jail officials said medical staff try to make sure inmates have access to their prescription drugs, although some people jailed during commitment proceedings have said they didn’t consistently get their medications.

Davis and county officials involved in the commitment process said sending patients to jail as they await treatment is better than allowing them to go home, which they see as the only other option. Jail is “not ideal, but we’ve got to make sure these people are safe so they’re not going to harm themselves or somebody else,” Davis said. “If they’ve had a serious suicide attempt, and they’re just adamant they’re going home, I mean — I can’t ethically let them go home. ... We do try to explore all the options before we send them there.”

Once in jail, many patients wait days or weeks to be evaluated further, to go before a judge and to be taken somewhere for treatment, according to a review of jail dockets. One 37-year-old man picked up at Baptist-DeSoto in 2022 was jailed for nearly two months, which according to jail dockets was one of the longest detentions between 2021 and 2023.

Desoto County Detention Center (Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today)

The husband of a 64-year-old woman said that during the evaluation process he was encouraged by someone at Baptist-DeSoto — he doesn’t remember who — to pursue commitment proceedings after his wife stopped taking her bipolar disorder medication and overdosed on prescription drugs and alcohol. She was jailed for 28 days.

“I’m a Jehovah’s Witness,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified because she doesn’t want people to know she was jailed for mental illness. “I never known anything like that in my life. Never been arrested. All my rights just stripped from me. To do that to an old woman, because I was having mental troubles!”

She said the experience left her terrified to seek mental health care in DeSoto County. “I’d rather die than go back in there,” she said of the jail.

DeSoto County Struggles with a Problem Other Communities Have Addressed

Although DeSoto County has long relied on its jail to house people awaiting treatment, some communities elsewhere in the state have found other options. They rely on nearby crisis units to provide short-term treatment and in many cases have arrangements with local hospitals to treat patients if a publicly funded bed isn’t available.

On the Gulf Coast, people who come to hospitals in Ocean Springs or Pascagoula can be admitted to an eight-bed psychiatric unit, said Kim Henderson, director of emergency services for Singing River Health System, which operates those facilities.

Henderson said the psychiatric unit loses money because many patients lack insurance and can’t pay. “It would be so much easier to say we’re not going to do this anymore and shut it down,” she said. “But we don’t believe that’s the right thing to do.”

Over the years, DeSoto County officials have expressed frustration with how many people are jailed during the commitment process, but they’ve made little progress in coming up with an alternative.

In 2007, Baptist-DeSoto initiated 152 commitments, according to board meeting minutes and a news story in the DeSoto Times-Tribune; many of those patients went to jail. The hospital sends people “as quickly as they can to the Sheriff's Department. They want them out of there,” Michael Garriga, then the county administrator, said at the time, according to another Times-Tribune article. (The news stories didn’t include a comment from the hospital; Alexander, Baptist’s spokesperson, said she couldn’t comment on practices from years ago because no one who was part of the leadership team then is still around.)

A contractor working for Baptist-DeSoto filed this affidavit in 2009 initiating commitment proceedings against a patient, who was then taken to jail to await treatment. Mississippi Today and ProPublica reviewed about 200 court files from around that time in which someone working on behalf of the hospital filed paperwork to commit a patient; in most of those cases, the patient was taken to jail. (Obtained by Mississippi Today and ProPublica. Highlighted by ProPublica.)

In 2008, the CEO of Parkwood Behavioral Health System, which operates a psychiatric facility in the county, offered to treat people going through the commitment process for $465 per patient per day — many times more than the $25 a day it cost back then to house someone in jail. No contract was ever signed.

Two years later, again aiming to reduce how often people awaiting mental health treatment were jailed, DeSoto County started working with a different community mental health center, Region IV. The number of people held in jail during commitment proceedings fell sharply, but within several years it had risen.

In 2021, the state Department of Mental Health said it would give Region IV money to create a crisis unit in DeSoto, the largest county in the state without one. But the county must provide the building, and it has taken about two years just to move forward with a location, according to meeting minutes.

County officials considered putting the crisis unit in a building a few miles from the hospital and even got an architect to scope out a renovation, according to meeting minutes. By 2023, those plans had been scuttled amid concerns about the cost of renovations and opposition from neighbors, according to Mark Gardner, a county supervisor, and board meeting minutes.

Former Sheriff Bill Rasco said he was told by an alderman for the city of Southaven that residents didn’t want people with mental illness in their neighborhood. Rasco, who served from 2008 through 2023, said he believes the rapidly growing county has had the means to build a facility, but supervisors prioritize paving roads and keeping taxes low. “We build agricultural arenas, walking trails and ballfields, and we let our mental health suffer,” he said.

The county Board of Supervisors inched forward again in February, voting to hire an architect to draw up plans to renovate a different county building. But construction on the 16-bed facility won’t start until spring 2025 at the earliest.

Gardner, who was first elected in 2011, said he has always believed that people with mental illness shouldn’t be jailed, but the Sheriff’s Department and Region IV didn’t propose an alternative until recently. “We need it today,” he said. “I hate that we haven’t been able to find a suitable place till now to put this.”

A year after Sydney Jones’ second psychotic episode, she’s doing better. She hasn’t experienced another mental health crisis. The sight of a police cruiser no longer triggers a panic attack, though she does get anxious when she sees one in her neighborhood.

But she wants to remind herself of what she survived to get here, so she keeps mementos. The composition book where she wrote notes during group therapy at the crisis unit. The Bible she read in jail. The planner where she wrote “Hospital” in one square and “Jail” in the next. And two plastic wristbands: The white one identified her as a hospital patient; the yellow one, with her mug shot and booking number, identified her as a prisoner.

In her planner and Bible, Jones kept track of the time she spent at Baptist-DeSoto, in jail and at a crisis stabilization unit in Corinth, Mississippi, where she eventually received treatment. (Courtesy of Sydney Jones) How We Reported This Story

To report this story, we obtained DeSoto County Sheriff’s Department logs from 2021 through 2023 that showed when deputies were called to two local hospitals to take people into custody for involuntary commitment proceedings to receive treatment for mental illness or substance abuse. Those logs included nearly 200 calls, mostly to Baptist Memorial Hospital-DeSoto.

To determine which calls resulted in jail detentions, we needed to cross-reference the logs with incident reports and county jail dockets. We requested incident reports for about half of calls from 2021 through 2023. Although this sample wasn’t collected at random, we requested records from a range of months to account for possible variations throughout the year. Patients’ names were redacted from incident reports, but by using other identifying information in those reports, we matched 76% of the call logs in our sample to an entry in jail dockets. The remaining calls included not just those for which we couldn’t match an incident report to a jail docket entry, but also those for which there was no incident report or the patient was taken to a crisis unit or a private psychiatric hospital.

Based on that percentage and the volume of calls during the three-year period, we estimated that about 23% of the roughly 650 people jailed during the civil commitment process in DeSoto County had been picked up at a local hospital. Again, the overwhelming majority were taken from Baptist-DeSoto. To ensure that our estimate was conservative and accounted for any variation due to our sample, we characterized this as about one-fifth of civil commitment jail detentions. We shared our preliminary findings with hospital and county officials; no one disputed them.

To determine how the number of people jailed during commitment proceedings in DeSoto County has changed over time, we obtained jail dockets dating back to 2007. We don’t have data for 2009 and 2010 because of a file storage issue at the Sheriff’s Department.

Agnel Philip contributed reporting. Mollie Simon contributed research.

by Isabelle Taft, Mississippi Today

Maine’s Health Department Rarely Investigates When Residents Wander Away From Their Care Facilities

2 days 3 hours ago

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with The Maine Monitor. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

Late one morning in May 2021, a resident of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, spotted an “elderly, disoriented” man standing in a driveway, according to a police report. The resident called police and then followed the man on foot as he wandered to a nearby intersection.

When police officers arrived, the man had difficulty communicating with them. But he was clutching a toiletry case that contained a card for Cape Memory Care, the residential care facility where he lived. When the officers brought him back, the facility’s staff said they didn’t know that he had been missing. The officers reported the incident to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services for “inadequate care and supervision of a patient.”

The health department opened an investigation but only conducted a “desk review” — looking into the incident without visiting the facility. Three weeks later, it closed the case without citing Cape Memory Care for failing to prevent the man from wandering away.

The health department’s minimal response to the incident illustrates what happens when residents wander away from their residential care facilities in Maine: In the vast majority of cases, investigators never inspect the facilities, conducting only a desk review or no investigation at all, and rarely impose sanctions.

A portion of the police report describing an incident in which a man who lives in the Cape Memory Care facility wandered away and was brought back by a neighbor. (Obtained by The Maine Monitor and ProPublica. Highlight added by ProPublica.)

Maine is the oldest state in the country, where people aged 65 or older make up the highest share of the population. The Maine Monitor and ProPublica reported last year how residential care facilities in the state had been ill-prepared to handle the influx of older Mainers, many with significant medical needs, following the state’s decision in the mid-1990s to make it harder to qualify for nursing home placement.

The number of people in the state with dementia is projected to grow by 20% between 2020 and 2025. And for residents with dementia in residential care facilities, elopement — which the state defines as an incident in which a resident “unsafely wanders” out of a long-term care facility — is a real risk. From 2020 to 2022, new reporting shows, residents wandered away from Maine residential care facilities at least 115 times, according to state inspection records and a database of incidents reported to the health department.

The incidents took place at 48 residential care facilities classified as Level IV, which resemble what are known generally as assisted living facilities in other states. According to the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation’s online licensing portal, there are roughly 190 Level IV facilities in the state.

The Maine Monitor and ProPublica found that at least 30 of the elopements took place at Cape Memory Care and other facilities that house people with severe dementia — which are required to be locked or otherwise secured to prevent residents from wandering away.

In 98 of the elopements, investigators conducted only a desk review or no investigation at all. Health department spokesperson Lindsay Hammes said investigators decide not to take action for a variety of reasons, including because a facility has already moved to correct the underlying issue.

“The Department takes seriously and investigates instances of elopement. A desk review is one type of investigation,” Hammes said.

In at least 30 incidents, residents wandered away from facilities like Cape Memory Care that house people with severe dementia. (Tara Rice for ProPublica)

Woodlands Senior Living, which runs Cape Memory Care and 13 other Maine facilities, declined to comment on the May 2021 incident.

Eilon Caspi, a gerontologist and assistant research professor at the University of Connecticut’s Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention and Policy, said the health department should investigate every time a resident wanders away, even for a brief moment, and impose substantial fines in more serious cases.

The health department “should consider every situation where a resident leaves for a few — even for five seconds — as a serious incident,” Caspi said, “because if staff are not there, then the resident may continue out the door into the road or into a lake or snowbank. ... It only takes two minutes."

From 2020 to 2022, the health department imposed sanctions against only two residential care facilities for failing to prevent their residents from wandering away, state inspection records show. This contrasts sharply with how the federal government responds to elopements at nursing homes.

Even though the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which regulates nursing homes, isn’t mandated to impose sanctions, the agency did so in response to at least 11 elopements in Maine that it investigated from February 2021 to February 2024. (CMS couldn’t provide the total number of elopements reported by Maine nursing homes.)

According to a CMS inspection database, the agency imposed a fine of more than $71,000 against one Maine nursing home and issued three additional “immediate jeopardy” citations, which can lead to the facility being prohibited from billing Medicare or Medicaid if deficiencies aren’t corrected. CMS determined that most of the other elopements resulted in “minimal harm,” but those comparatively minor incidents still led the agency to require the facilities to submit a plan of correction stating how they intended to address the deficiencies.

Under state regulations, the health department does have the power to impose a fine of up to $10,000 or issue a conditional license that bars residential care facilities from accepting new residents for up to 12 months. But even with the two serious cases that led to sanctions, including one where a resident died, it employed only the lowest level of intervention: requiring the facilities to submit a plan of correction.

In one of the two incidents, in December 2022, a resident at Woodlands Memory Care of Rockland in the state’s Midcoast region died after getting into a locked outdoor courtyard without anyone at the facility noticing for nearly two hours. The resident was one of the nearly 100 people around the country who have died since 2018 after they wandered away from their assisted living facilities, according to a December investigation by The Washington Post.

But the health department didn’t impose a fine or issue a conditional license after the courtyard incident. Woodlands of Rockland was only required to submit a plan of correction, in which the facility said it would “limit access to the exterior courtyard” with consideration of “weather conditions, time of day, and time of year.”

Woodlands Senior Living, which also runs Woodlands of Rockland, declined to comment further.

The only other sanction imposed in response to elopements was against another Midcoast residential care facility, Frankfort Assisted Living, where a resident was found by a neighbor standing in the middle of a busy road with her walker during a heat wave in August 2022.

Tara Lyford, who lives across the street from the facility, told the Monitor and ProPublica that the resident appeared confused and disoriented as cars zipped by going much faster than the road’s 45 mph speed limit. When Lyford approached, the resident told her that she was trying to hitchhike away from the facility.

According to Lyford, when she brought the woman back, an employee told her that no one had noticed that the woman was missing. The employee also told Lyford — and a state investigation later confirmed — that she was the only one on duty at the time, even though, under state regulations, the facility was supposed to be staffed by at least one more direct-care worker.

An excerpt from a state inspection record describing an incident in which a resident of Frankfort Assisted Living wandered away and was found standing in the middle of a busy road (Obtained by The Maine Monitor and ProPublica. Highlight added by ProPublica.)

Lyford also learned that the facility didn’t have alarms on its doors; that precaution isn’t required by the state because it isn’t a memory care facility. But the whole situation worried her.

“How is that safe?” Lyford said she asked the employee. “I said, ‘You’re the only worker here. You don’t know who’s coming and who’s going. She’s in the road.’”

After investigating the incident, the health department issued a “statement of deficiencies” against the facility, saying it “caused the resident to be at risk for physical harm and injury when the resident wandered outdoors on the road alone, confused, and disoriented.”

The health department could have imposed a fine or issued a conditional license but it only required the facility to submit a plan of correction.

The facility’s parent company, Texas-based Magnolia Assisted Living, told the Monitor and ProPublica that the incident took place days after the company purchased the facility.

“There were significant issues at the time of acquisition and we immediately tried to address each of the issues,” Edward Sedacca, CEO and founder of Magnolia Assisted Living, said in an email. “All of the initial staff of the Frankfort property have been replaced as part of an overall effort to improve the property.”

In its plan of correction, the facility told the health department that it would train its employees on “observation of residents with potential elopement issues” and ensure “continuous observation of residents.”

Dr. Karen Saylor, a Falmouth, Maine-based geriatrician who works with residents at several Level IV facilities, said the incident was “alarming” and highlights the need for the state to make sure that people with dementia are promptly moved to nursing homes or memory care facilities when their conditions worsen.

“If you have somebody who is that confused that they’re standing in the middle of traffic, that’s a hard stop,” Saylor said. “They need to not be there. That is not the right place for them.”

But Sedacca said the shortage of beds funded by MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid, means that it can take months to move people with dementia to nursing homes or memory care facilities.

“Many Assisted Living properties cannot accommodate residents with dementia and cognitive disorders that are exit-seeking or elopement risks,” Sedacca said. Further complicating matters, he said, is that MaineCare’s rules don’t allow facilities to hold residents who aren’t in memory care against their will or to physically keep them from leaving.

Long-term care advocates say it’s ultimately the responsibility of each residential care facility to make sure that it has the capacity to meet the needs of all of its residents.

”If a care home is going to take care of people living with dementia, they have a moral, if not regulatory, obligation to know what they’re doing,” said Susan Wehry, who directs AgingME, a program at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, that trains health care workers, patients and their families to improve health outcomes for older adults.

Hammes, the health department spokesperson, said residential care facilities are expected to adjust how they care for residents who start showing the signs of dementia. Facilities could, for instance, put an ankle monitor on or closely monitor the habits of those who have a tendency to wander away.

Hammes added that residential care facilities must also ensure that they have sufficient staff to meet the needs of their residents.

But even some providers say the state isn’t doing enough to make sure that residential care facilities are living up to expectations. Nichole Lessard, the co-owner of Heron House, a Level IV facility north of Portland, said the state’s staffing requirement is particularly lacking, calling it “scary,” “unsafe” and “completely inadequate.”

Currently, residential care facilities with more than 10 beds are required to have one direct-care worker for every 12 residents during the day, one for every 18 residents in the evening and one for every 30 residents overnight.

Even though Heron House isn’t a memory care facility, Lessard said about 95% of its residents have memory issues, so she ensures that it has almost twice the required number of staff. She said that’s what it takes to keep residents from wandering away.

“If you’re going to take care of people with more memory care needs, then you’re going to need to be able to staff for those behaviors that come with it,” Lessard said.

Lessard added that the state’s dementia training requirement is also woefully inadequate. Currently, non-memory-care facilities aren’t required to provide any dementia training. Memory care facilities, meanwhile, are mandated to provide a one-time dementia training — but not ongoing training, which is required for nursing homes.

Pat Sprigg, who served as the CEO of a North Carolina retirement community called Carol Woods for 30 years, said it’s important for all long-term care facilities to make sure they have well-trained staff.

Sprigg, who is writing a book about how to care for people with dementia without restricting the freedom of their movement, said not educating staff about memory care means that “you’re going to have people walking out of your community all the time.”

During this year’s legislative session, state Rep. Margaret Craven, a Democrat who represents the city of Lewiston and serves on the health and human services committee, introduced a bill calling for the establishment of a dementia advisory council that would recommend a state plan to better meet the needs of people with Alzheimer’s disease and other memory issues.

Craven told the Monitor and ProPublica that she would support having higher staffing requirements and more dementia training as part of the state plan “because people, in my opinion, are not adequately taken care of.”

In May, the Legislature passed Craven’s proposal, but Gov. Janet Mills’ office said she isn’t signing that bill or 34 others based on a technicality: Lawmakers approved the measures on a day when they were supposed to only consider overriding vetoes.

Craven said she was disappointed but not giving up, even though she isn’t running for reelection and won’t return to the Legislature for the next session. “I’ll have someone refile the same bill next year,” she said.

How We Counted Elopements at Maine’s Residential Care Facilities

To examine how often people wander away from Level IV residential care facilities in Maine, The Maine Monitor and ProPublica examined state inspection records and analyzed a database of incidents reported to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services from 2020 to 2022. The database included elopements reported to the health department by facilities themselves and additional incidents reported by others, such as law enforcement agencies.

In December, we looked up each of the 48 facilities where elopements took place using the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation’s online licensing portal to check whether they were licensed for memory care at the time of the incidents.

We found that at least 30 elopements took place at facilities licensed for memory care and 72 were at non-memory-care facilities. An additional 13 elopements took place at eight facilities that did not appear in the state licensing portal, so we could not determine if they were memory care facilities. The health department did confirm that all eight facilities are licensed to operate in Maine.

Haru Coryne contributed data reporting.

by Rose Lundy, The Maine Monitor

After Decades, Voters Finally OK Replacement for Crumbling Idaho School

6 days 1 hour ago

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The Salmon School District in remote Central Idaho will finally get a new school.

After decades in which voters rejected every bond the district asked for, the community on Tuesday approved a $20 million bond to build a new pre-K-through-8 school with a resounding 72% support.

The election comes after the Idaho Statesman and ProPublica reported last year on how children across the state were learning in schools with freezing classrooms, leaking roofs and discolored water. Salmon was one of the most poignant examples — in the last two decades, the district failed to pass around a dozen bonds to replace its dilapidated schools. Idaho is one of just two states that require support from two-thirds of voters to pass a bond.

At Salmon’s Pioneer Elementary, the plumbing is failing, the floors are uneven and pose tripping hazards, and sewage sometimes backs up into a corner of the kitchen. Parts of the building aren’t accessible for students with disabilities. The foundation is crumbling.

Unable to pass a bond or to find other ways to fix these problems, the district turned to a state program created in 2006. It was one of only two districts ever to do so. But a state panel decided that Salmon’s problems — though bad enough to pose safety hazards — did not warrant a new school, only new roofs and seismic reinforcements. After that process, the district ultimately decided to close its middle school, which now sits abandoned beside the elementary school, surrounded by a razor-wire fence.

When the Statesman and ProPublica visited the elementary school last year, reporters saw many of the same problems the school had said it had about a decade ago, when it first applied for help from the state.

Over the past several months, a group called the Salmon Schools Needs Assessment Committee has been active on social media to provide information about the bond and share the challenges that the elementary school faces. In a Facebook post Wednesday, the committee said it was “overcome with gratitude and excitement.”

Jill Patton, the principal of the elementary school, said she is “deeply thankful” that the community came together to support the district’s schools. She praised the grassroots initiative spearheaded by the assessment committee.

The effort “involved a remarkable group that dedicated countless hours to understanding community concerns and identifying preferred solutions,” she said in an email. “They meticulously developed a plan that the community could rally behind.”

Since 2006, the news organizations reported, fewer than half of all Idaho school bonds have passed, but that 80% of them would have passed if a simple majority were required.

Idaho lawmakers considered a proposal that would have started the process to lower the vote threshold needed to pass a school bond, but the effort did not move forward during the legislative session.

Legislators did approve $2 billion in funding over a decade to repair and replace schools. The measure was signed by Republican Gov. Brad Little, who cited the investigation and called school funding “priority No. 1” in his State of the State address in January.

Help ProPublica Report on Education

by Becca Savransky, Idaho Statesman

How Residents in a Rural Alabama County Are Confronting the Lasting Harm of Segregation Academies

6 days 2 hours ago

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Join us for a virtual discussion of how private schools known as “segregation academies” in the Deep South continue to preserve divisions within communities even 70 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

In the rural community of Wilcox County, Alabama, a Black principal is working to empower students in the segregated public high school. A Black woman is grappling with demons of the county’s past. A white woman is digging into that history. A white high school graduate is realizing the importance of interracial friendships. Others are using art to bridge divides.

ProPublica is examining the lasting effects of “segregation academies,” private schools that opened across the Deep South in opposition to desegregation. In our first story, we wrote about how the local academy in Wilcox is nearly all white while the public schools are virtually all Black. As a result, people don’t often know one another well. When we asked local residents how often they have ever invited someone of another race over for dinner, we heard variations of, “That would be very uncommon.”

Although people haven’t often forged those deeper relationships, we met many who said they want to. We met others who are already doing so.

They confront a long and painful legacy of racism. They battle the inertia of “the way things are.” And they must build trust across racial divides where it often hasn’t existed before.

Shelly Dallas Dale Shelly Dallas Dale, left, talks with a visitor to Black Belt Treasures, a cultural center in downtown Camden.

Shelly Dallas Dale still has flashbacks to being sprayed with tear gas, especially that first time.

Dale was 16 years old in 1971 when she joined a march in downtown Camden, 40 miles south of Selma in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt, to protest its segregated schools. She and 428 others were arrested for “illegal marching.” They included 87 students. In an article about the march, the local newspaper called them “deluded blacks.”

Dale had grown up afraid of white people, but she still summoned her courage to join the Civil Rights Movement as it unfolded in Camden — even though protestors had lost their jobs and faced violence and arrests.

Before the desegregation march, she had become so fearful for her safety that she wrote her own obituary. Then she went to her older sister with a request. “This is the dress,” she recalled saying. “If I should get killed, bury me in it.”

At the march, someone fired tear gas at her. A white man shot her younger sister, she said, the bullet rocketing across the girl’s back just beneath the skin. But Dale and her family remained determined that Black students in Wilcox County should have access to the same educational opportunities as white children. She would march again — and face tear gas again.

Dale went on to become the county’s long-serving (and first female) tax assessor, a role that brought her into contact with every type of person — including the white people who had traumatized her and other Black children.

She tried to face her fear each day. She said she got to know people beyond the flashbacks and the years of fighting for basic rights like voting and school equality.

“I think it has helped me to embrace people more,” she said. “And to look beyond the evil side.”

Betty Anderson Betty Anderson, left, and Vera Spinks chat during one of Anderson’s frequent visits to Black Belt Treasures, where Spinks works.

Unlike many Black residents of Wilcox County during the 1950s and 1960s, Betty Anderson’s father did not work for a white man. For more than four decades, Joe Anderson ran the Camden Shoe Shop in the heart of downtown. Because he was his own boss, he joined local actions in the Civil Rights Movement without the fear for his livelihood that others, including sharecropping families, faced.

When his health declined in 2006, Betty Anderson moved back to help him. She had spent 42 years away, including a stint modeling in New York, but quickly became a fixture again in Wilcox County.

To honor her father and other family members, she opened the Camden Shoe Shop & Quilt Museum in his old building. The sidewalk leading up to it is painted shades of rose, azure and forest green. A pillow embroidered with “Welcome” sits on the arm of an old chair adorned with flowers. Inside its colorful doors awaits an array of artwork and historical memorabilia, much of it from her own relatives.

Her whole family was involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited their home. Activists stayed with them. Her grandmother and other family living in nearby Gee’s Bend made quilts to earn money for demonstrators’ gas and other needs.

The museum features quilts made by her great-great-grandmother, who had been enslaved and passed the craft down to later generations. Her father’s 1965 voting card and his 1967 NAACP membership card are on display. So are the jeans and a shoe Anderson herself wore in the historic 1965 march from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to the state capital of Montgomery, Alabama, 54 miles away. Her Converse — black with a red stripe — has two golf-ball-sized holes worn into its sole.

Anderson marched again for voting rights in Camden a few weeks later with classmates from her school. Although Wilcox County was mostly Black, virtually none of its registered voters were. Police arrested her middle brother. They jailed her youngest brother, just 8 years old, in Selma. For hours, nobody knew where he was.

Despite the pain she lived through, Anderson is one of the people in Camden who seems to know everyone in town — Black and white. An upbeat and gregarious woman, she has no qualms crossing racial lines and is a frequent presence at activities held by both Black and white residents. She opens her eclectic museum as a local gathering spot.

Frequent visitors include the women who work in the nearby Black Belt Treasures Cultural Arts Center. Anderson is an artist in residence there, but the organization means much more to her. In a town where white and Black neighbors remain apart in many ways, she and the white women who run it have become close friends.

Black Belt Treasures Black Belt Treasures operates a gallery in downtown Camden that sells the work of hundreds of artists from across the region.

When Black Belt Treasures launched in 2005, one goal rose above others: Its founders wanted to craft a new narrative, one that had gone largely untold in a region often defined by poverty and need.

To do this, they wanted to draw people off the interstate and into Alabama’s Black Belt — particularly Camden, in the heart of it — to see for themselves.

“We have gotten so much negative press and yet there’s a richness of life here,” Executive Director Sulynn Creswell said. “We have problems, but there are many, many talented, gifted people who live in this region.”

Among other things, Black Belt Treasures operates a gallery in a former car dealership that is now filled with paintings and pottery and quilts fashioned by hundreds of artists from across the region. Its staffers also work with tourism efforts and take myriad arts programs out into schools and the broader community.

Creswell and the center’s other employees have been key players in revitalizing downtown Camden, including playing a role in the creation of a colorful “Revolution of Joy” mural on a building between their gallery and Betty Anderson’s museum. All of their names are painted on it, along with those of a diverse group of people from around the county who came together to add their own artistic touches. Creswell and Kristin Law, who directs the center’s art programs and marketing, also were founding members of a local racial reconciliation group. The women, who are white, emphasized that they want the community to come together more — and they see the arts as a prime vehicle for that.

“Yes, we have had our bad history,” Law said. “But we are also a beautiful place with beautiful people, and we’re all trying to work together to make a better place.”

That includes two teenagers who work with them. Jazmyne Posey is a Black student at the local public high school. While working in the gallery, she met and befriended Law’s daughter, Samantha Cook, who is white and attends Wilcox Academy, the local private school. The other key women on staff here also have sent their children to the academy.

In a town that is otherwise still segregated, especially in its schools, the two teenagers forged a friendship that likely would never have happened if they had relied on their school encounters.

Susan McIntyre

In 1975, a few years after the private Wilcox Academy opened in Camden when schools were being desegregated, a young white woman named Susan McIntyre took a job there.

During her 12 years teaching French, she admired the school’s instruction and met families whose ancestors had owned plantations in the area. She sent her two daughters to the school and became close friends with another white woman whose children were about the same age.

Back then, it was unheard of, she said, for a Black student to attend the academy, and none did. After growing up in a white world, she didn’t think much about why.

Later, she took a job teaching in the county’s mostly Black public schools, where she still works. She interacted with Black students and teachers far more than ever before in her life.

One day, while watching a group of Black students, a thought struck her. She wondered what message generations of school segregation had sent them. It was, she feared, an unjust lesson of inferiority.

She began to read every book she could find in the local library about slavery. She dug into the ways desegregation played out in Wilcox County — and how it continues to affect students. It was hard to ignore the role Wilcox Academy had played in the continued segregation of students.

“This is the thing that’s haunted me for years,” she said. “What if we had never started the private school?”

The public schools in Wilcox County remain nearly all Black. But in recent years, a few Black students have crossed the county’s racial divide to enroll at the academy.

Anna Crosswhit

In August 2020, McIntyre’s granddaughter Anna Crosswhite was about to start her junior year at Wilcox Academy when she volunteered to be a water girl for the football team. One day, she noticed four Black students watching practice. Recognizing a couple of them from her brother’s summer baseball league, she walked over to say hello.

The guys explained that COVID-19 had shut down the public school’s football season. As upperclassmen, they didn’t want to miss their last years of high school sports and they were thinking of applying to the academy.

Crosswhite, who is white and has an adopted brother from China, was excited about the prospect of the academy’s student body becoming more diverse.She only knew of one Black student at the school. And with just 23 students in her class, she liked the possibility of new friends.

She also thought back to when she was younger and volunteered at BAMA Kids Inc., a local nonprofit. Once in a while, she heard Black youth volunteers say things like, “Girl, we’re not allowed at your school.” Maybe the new students would help change that perception.

But old notions lingered. She said she heard pushback from other academy students, although she didn’t want to divulge details that would identify her classmates.

“We were 50 years behind,” she said. “I didn’t realize how behind we were.”

The academy admitted the football players, and Crosswhite said she became friends with them. Although they hung out on the weekends and often went out to eat together, she never went into any of their homes. But she got to know them far better than she would have if they hadn’t gone to school together.

Now a student at Auburn University, she is studying to become a teacher and sees how those friendships better prepared her for what she calls “the real world.”

Principal Curtis Black Wilcox Central High School Principal Curtis Black drops in on a science class.

When a bell blared at Wilcox Central High School one morning this spring, the principal slipped from behind his desk beneath a stuffed deer head with blue school baseball caps propped on its antlers.

Curtis Black emerged into a hallway filled with students who, like him, grew up in a segregated school. Not a single white student attended the one he went to in a neighboring county. He realized the detriments of isolating students this way when he arrived at college and encountered a wider variety of people.

Due to population decline in Wilcox County, the school operates in a building far bigger than its student body of about 400 can fill. Where once the county had three public high schools, it now has just this one. When the centralized school opened in this building near downtown Camden, complete with a competition-size swimming pool, many hoped it offered what white parents wanted — and that they might give it a chance.

That didn’t happen. But Black carefully avoided criticizing Wilcox Academy. Instead, he rattled off programs that his school offers. Students can access the high school’s medical-training lab, its agriculture lab, its welding lab. They can take dual credit courses with area community colleges. They can earn certifications.

As principal, he wants to create broader opportunities for his students, many of whom descend from people who were enslaved in this area. Their grandparents were traumatized by violent reactions to the Civil Rights Movement. His goals include exposing them more to the outside world and providing them the academic tools to land quality jobs out of high school or to succeed in college.

This spring, walking down the school’s hallways, he pointed to the senior class.

“In two or three months, they’re going to be around people from different backgrounds, different ethnic groups, different Christian groups,” Black said. “So we need that exposure.”

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by Jennifer Berry Hawes, photography by Sarahbeth Maney

Nine Takeaways From Our Investigation Into 3M’s Forever Chemicals

6 days 3 hours ago

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After years of reporting on forever chemicals, ProPublica reporter Sharon Lerner had one question that still nagged at her. She knew that a handful of 3M scientists and lawyers had learned in the 1970s that the chemical PFOS had seeped into the blood of people around the country and that company experiments around that time had shown that PFOS was toxic. But the company kept making the compound until 2000. How, she wondered, had 3M kept its dark secret for decades? For years, no one who knew what had happened inside the company had spoken publicly. Then last year, a former 3M chemist reached out to Lerner. Here are nine takeaways from the investigation published by ProPublica and The New Yorker.

In the late 1990s, a 3M scientist found the company’s forever chemicals in almost every human blood sample she analyzed.

In the late 1990s, 3M chemist Kris Hansen tested samples from dozens of blood banks around the country and found PFOS in every sample. For decades, the company had used chemicals that break down into PFOS in its top-selling fabric coating, Scotchgard, and in a grease-proof coating for food packaging. It also sold PFOS and firefighting foam that contained it. The only blood that didn’t contain PFOS, Hansen found, had been collected either before 3M began selling these products or in rural China, where items containing the fluorochemicals weren’t widely used.

When told about Hansen’s findings, 3M supervisors repeatedly questioned her work.

Hansen said her managers tried to convince her there was something wrong with the testing. Some suggested that her equipment was tainted. Rather than accept her results, they purchased more scientific equipment — machines that each cost more than a car — and even had Hansen repeat her tests at the offices of the company that made the machines. Her managers’ skepticism caused Hansen to sometimes doubt her own work.

Hansen discovered that she was not the first 3M scientist to find one of the company’s fluorochemicals in human blood, and that the company had kept this past discovery secret.

In the late 1990s, Hansen learned that two academic researchers had contacted 3M more than two decades earlier; they’d found a fluorochemical in human blood and wondered whether Scotchgard might be the source. A 3M scientist named Richard Newmark confirmed their suspicions, but Newmark told Hansen that 3M lawyers had urged his lab not to admit it, according to notes that Hansen took at a meeting with Newmark.

According to Hansen’s notes from her 1998 meeting with 3M scientist Richard Newmark, 3M confirmed that a fluorochemical found in human blood in the late 1970s was its own chemical, PFOS, but company lawyers urged Newmark’s lab not to admit it. CAL stands for 3M’s Central Analytical Laboratory; OF stands for organofluorine. (3M document released by the Minnesota attorney general’s office. Highlighting by ProPublica.) A chance to present her findings to 3M’s CEO didn’t go as planned.

In 1999, Hansen was invited to present her PFOS research to top 3M executives, including CEO Livio D. DeSimone. She said that she was immediately pelted with skeptical questions from those in attendance: Why did she do this research? Who directed her to do it? Whom did she inform of the results? Meanwhile, she said, DeSimone appeared to have fallen asleep during her presentation.

Soon after, she learned her job would be changing: A different scientist was going to lead 3M’s PFOS research, she recalled her boss telling her, and she was to spend most of her time analyzing samples for other scientists and not ask questions about the results. She felt like she was being punished.

When 3M told the public that it had found its fluorochemicals in blood bank samples, executives downplayed the risks.

The company’s medical director told The New York Times in May 2000 that the presence of the chemical in human blood “isn’t a health issue now, and it won’t be a health issue.” 3M stopped making PFOS by 2002 but replaced it with PFBS, another forever chemical that persists in the environment and accumulates in people.

The company didn’t reveal that experiments it had conducted in the 1970s had shown PFOS to be toxic.

What Hansen’s bosses didn’t tell her or the public was that 3M had conducted animal studies on PFOS in the 1970s and that those tests had shown PFOS was toxic. The results had remained secret, even to many at the company. In one animal study, 3M scientists found that a relatively low daily dose of PFOS (4.5 milligrams for every kilogram of body weight) could kill a monkey within weeks. While that daily dose was orders of magnitude greater than the amount a typical person would ingest, the results show the chemical would currently fall into the highest of five toxicity levels recognized by the United Nations.

Lerner identified another 3M scientist, Hansen’s former boss, who said he had confirmed the presence of PFOS in the blood of the general public in the 1970s.

Jim Johnson, Hansen’s former boss, said in an interview that he knew “within 20 minutes” that PFOS wouldn’t break down in nature and that he had identified the chemical in a sample he obtained from a blood bank in the 1970s. He also determined back then that the chemical binds to proteins in the body, causing it to accumulate, and found it in the livers of animals that were exposed to the company’s products. Yet he didn’t disclose this information to Hansen before he gave her the assignment that led her to find PFOS in the blood of the general public almost 20 years later. Johnson told Lerner that he knew that Hansen would discover — and thoroughly document — the presence of PFOS in the blood of the general public. “It was time,” he said.

The EPA has begun to reckon with the ubiquity of these toxic chemicals.

In April, the Environmental Protection Agency set drinking water limits for six forever chemicals, including PFOS and PFBS. The agency noted that PFOS is “likely to cause cancer” and that no level of the chemical is considered safe.

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3M produced tens of millions of pounds of PFOS and compounds that degrade into it after learning that PFOS was toxic and accumulating in people. In 2022, 3M said that it would stop making the broader group of forever chemicals known as PFAS and would “work to discontinue the use of PFAS across its product portfolio” by the end of 2025. (PFOS and PFBS are PFAS compounds.) In a written statement, a 3M spokesperson said that the company “is proactively managing PFAS” and that its approach to the chemicals has evolved along with “the science and technology of PFAS, societal and regulatory expectations, and our expectations of ourselves.”

“We’re reducing public health on an incredibly large scale.”

Recent studies have linked PFAS to an increased risk of some cancers, developmental effects in children, reduced immune function, interference with hormones and other health harms. Virtually everyone now has at least one PFAS compound in their blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because of their ubiquity, the chemicals are “reducing public health on an incredibly large scale,” according to an environmental chemist from Harvard University.

Read the complete investigation into how 3M executives convinced a scientist that the forever chemicals she found in human blood samples were safe.

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​Uvalde Police Will Face More Active Shooter Training as Part of $2 Million Settlement Between City and Families

6 days 14 hours ago

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The city of Uvalde, Texas, will overhaul police training and hiring policies as well as support more mental health services for survivors of the 2022 massacre at Robb Elementary School as part of a settlement with the families of 19 victims announced just two days before the second anniversary of the shooting.

Attorneys for the families said in a news conference this week that the city will also pay $2 million in restitution and help construct a permanent memorial.

The settlement is the first to be reached with families as lawsuits pile up against local and state officials and companies, including the manufacturer of the killer’s weapon, over the school shooting in which 19 children and two teachers died. Among the key failures that it seeks to address is providing sufficient training for law enforcement to respond to a mass shooting.

City officials did not respond to questions seeking more details about the settlement, which included anagreement to implement a new “fitness for duty” standard for local police officers in coordination with the Justice Department and committed to providing enhanced training for police. But they issued a statement saying they were thankful to have arrived at an agreement “that will allow us to remember the Robb Elementary tragedy while moving forward together as a community to bring healing and restoration to all those affected.”

Legal action could have bankrupted the city of Uvalde, which the families did not want, according to attorneys, who added that the details of the settlement, specifically those related to training, are still being finalized. A separate agreement is being negotiated with Uvalde County, which had 16 deputies responding, including the sheriff, according to attorneys.

Most civil settlements in mass shootings are with private companies and therefore tend to be confidential, so the public rarely learns what they entail, said Jaclyn Schildkraut, executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, a public policy think tank in Albany, New York.

While in some high-profile cases, the public may learn about the financial payoff, Schildkraut said that she has never heard of a legal settlement including a stipulation for more training. When there have been recommendations or changes related to training, as occurred after the 1999 Columbine school shooting, they tend to come from law enforcement or local, state or federal authorities. She said that the families agreeing to a settlement with such specific training stipulations in the Uvalde case demonstrates that “it was never about the money.”

“It was about accountability and making it better so that it doesn’t happen again,” said Schildkraut, who has studied mass shootings for 17 years. “And so I think in that respect, if that was their goal, to have their loved ones not have died in vain with no change, then that absolutely is a positive.”

Though hundreds of officers descended on the elementary school on May 24, 2022, none confronted the shooter for 77 minutes, wrongly treating the situation as one with a barricaded suspect instead of an active threat even as children and teachers pleaded with 911 dispatchers for help. They failed to follow multiple best practices taught as part of active shooter training, including setting up a clear command structure.

An investigation published in December by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and FRONTLINE found that about 72% of the at least 116 state and local officers who arrived at the school before the gunman was killed had received some form of active shooter training during their careers. A majority, however, had only taken it once, which is not enough, according to law enforcement experts. Federal officials declined to provide their training records to the news organizations or to the Justice Department, which released a separate review a month later.

The news organizations analyzed training requirements across the country, which revealed that children are required to train more often for the possibility of a school shooting than law enforcement officers.

During a press conference in Uvalde, Josh Koskoff, the families’ attorney, said the state’s failure to prevent the deaths began long before the shooting occurred. He said Texas failed to provide small communities like Uvalde, a city of about 15,000 people, with enough resources to train their officers.

“You think the city of Uvalde has enough money, or training, or resources? You think they can hire the best of the best?” Koskoff said. “As far as the state of Texas is concerned, it sounds like their position is: ‘You’re on your own.’”

Attorneys said they are working with Uvalde families who plan to file additional lawsuits before the statute of limitations for such cases ends Friday. The lawyers announced the first of those suits on Wednesday.

The new federal lawsuit against the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, an energy management company and a telecommunications company seeks at least $500 million in damages on behalf of the families of 17 children who were killed and two who were injured.

The 98-page lawsuit claims that the failure of more than 90 DPS troopers to engage the shooter endangered children and cost lives, Koskoff and other attorneys argued in the lawsuit. It also names the former school district police chief, Pete Arredondo, the school’s principal, Mandy Gutierrez, a school resource officer, Adrian Gonzales, and Jesus R. Suarez Jr., a member of the school board and reserve officer for the Southwest Texas Junior College Police Department, citing their inaction. Reached on his cellphone, Suarez said he hadn’t seen the lawsuit and referred questions to his attorney, who did not respond to calls and emails. An attorney for Gutierrez and Gonzales also did not return calls and texts sent to his listed cell phone number. Arredondo could not be reached for comment, but his attorney has previously argued that he was being scapegoated.

The lawsuit argues that while the “craven actions” of the school district police are well known, “equally culpable actions” by DPS officers have been “shielded from public scrutiny.” It notes that DPS has fought the release of its officers’ body-camera footage, radio communications, officer interviews and other records. The Tribune, ProPublica and other media organizations are suing the agency for such records. A state district judge ruled last year that DPS should release those records, but the agency has appealed.

Spokespeople for DPS and the school district declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“For two long years, we have languished in pain and without any accountability from the law enforcement agencies and officers who allowed our families to be destroyed that day,” Veronica Luevanos, whose daughter Jailah and nephew Jayce were killed, said in a statement. Luevanos said that while the settlement with the city reflects a first good-faith effort to begin rebuilding trust, “it wasn’t just Uvalde officers who failed us that day.”

“Nearly 100 officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety have yet to face a shred of accountability for cowering in fear while my daughter and nephew bled to death in their classroom.”

Only about a dozen officers from the nearly two dozen agencies that responded to the shooting have been fired or suspended, or have retired as a result. At least five DPS officers were among them.

The lawsuit also names as defendants two companies: Massachusetts-based Schneider Electric USA Inc., which it claims manufactured or installed the door-locking mechanisms at Robb Elementary, arguing that the designs are “unreasonably dangerous” because they force teachers to step outside their classrooms to lock doors, and Motorola Solutions Inc., which designed or sold the radio communication used by police and medics at the scene. The devices are “defective and unreasonably dangerous” because they left some first responders without access to necessary communications, according to the lawsuit.

A spokesperson for Motorola did not respond to emailed questions about the lawsuit. A spokesperson for Schneider Electric USA Inc. wrote in an email that the company did not make the locks at Robb Elementary and said that its inclusion was an error. He noted the company had been dropped in a previous lawsuit for that reason and was in touch with attorneys for the families in the current filing. He said the company expects to be dropped from this case.

A spokesperson for the attorneys said that if Schneider Electric USA Inc. provides information confirming it did not make the locks, the company will be removed from the suit.

The settlement and lawsuit bring some needed accountability after an “unbearable two years,” said Javier Cazares, whose 9-year-old Jacklyn Cazares was killed in the shooting.

“There was an obvious system failure out there on May 24. The whole world saw that,” Cazares said. “The time has come to do the right thing.”

by Lomi Kriel, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune and Berenice Garcia, The Texas Tribune

Texas Appeals Court Orders Dismissal of Lawsuit Against ProPublica, Texas Tribune

6 days 20 hours ago

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This article is co-published with The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan local newsroom that informs and engages with Texans. Sign up for The Brief Weekly to get up to speed on their essential coverage of Texas issues.

A Texas state appeals court on Wednesday ordered the dismissal of a 2022 disparagement lawsuit against ProPublica and The Texas Tribune filed by MRG Medical LLC., a health care services company. The court ruled that the defamation claims were barred by the one-year statute of limitation.

Writing on behalf of a three-judge panel of the 3rd Court of Appeals, Judge Rosa Lopez Theofanis sent the case back to the lower court to consider the news organizations’ request for court costs, attorneys fees and sanctions.

MRG Medical filed the suit in September 2022 challenging a 2020 Texas Tribune and ProPublica article about efforts by the company and its founder, Kyle Hayungs, to secure contracts from local governments during the COVID-19 pandemic. The investigation, based on dozens of interviews and a review of hundreds of emails, audio recordings and social media posts, found local elected officials hadn’t disclosed the extent of their relationships with Hayungs as they tried to persuade their governments to work with him or companies he hoped to partner with.

Hayungs, who founded MRG Medical in 2017, claimed the news organizations and the three reporters who worked on the story included statements or information in the article that disparaged the company and interfered with current and prospective contracts. Hayungs based his lawsuit on what he purported to be implications in the story that the company was illegally avoiding competitive public procurement by keeping contracts under $50,000, that he was selling unreliable non-FDA-authorized COVID-19 tests and that he was bribing elected officials.

The authors of the investigation, Vianna Davila, Jeremy Schwartz and Lexi Churchill, were also named as defendants in the lawsuit.

In May 2023, a Texas district court denied the news organizations’ motion to dismiss pursuant to the Texas Citizens Participation Act. The act protects speech on matters deemed of “public concern” by authorizing courts to quickly review the legal merit of lawsuits that seek to stifle speech through the imposition of civil liability damages.

Attorneys for the news organizations appealed the decision, arguing MRG Medical’s claims were baseless. “MRG remains unable to point to any false statement in the entire Article, relying instead on alleged ‘gists and implications’ that are contradicted by the Article’s text,” the attorneys for the news organizations wrote.

MRG Medical had further argued that the article was of no public relevance because the company had not secured a contract with the government. However, in the appeals court ruling, Theofanis wrote that the TCPA did apply because the dispute centered around the proper allocation of public funds, “and where the public’s purse goes, so goes the public’s concern.” Moreover, the article also raised concerns about the accuracy and usefulness of COVID-19 tests promoted by Hayungs, which, she wrote, were intended to be part of the government’s response to the pandemic.

Theofanis also agreed with the news organizations’ argument that the nature of MRG Medical’s claims were not for business disparagement but for defamation, which carries a one-year statute of limitation. The suit was filed past that deadline.

“The public has a fundamental right to know how its leaders act during a crisis and who they help potentially profit from the uncertainty,” said Jeremy Kutner, ProPublica’s general counsel. “We are thrilled the court has tossed this baseless case and protected this meticulous and illuminating article from those who sought to silence it.”

MRG Medical’s attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

ProPublica and the Tribune were represented by Marc Fuller and Maggie Burreson of Jackson Walker LLP.

by Perla Trevizo

For the Women Who Accused the Trump Campaign of Harassment, It’s Been More Harassment

1 week ago

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Nearly eight years ago, convinced that she’d been treated unfairly, Jessica Denson sued Donald Trump’s campaign for workplace harassment.

Then she discovered the lengths Trump’s attorneys would go to hit back — and their unwillingness to stop.

Immediately, the campaign filed a counterclaim for $1.5 million. It won a $52,229 judgment, and the campaign froze her bank account and almost forced her into bankruptcy.

She found it humiliating when the campaign lawyers branded her a “judgment debtor” in a subpoena. They monitored her Twitter account, which had 32 followers, and submitted hundreds of pages of printouts to a judge. They even deposed her mother, grilling her about the family’s religious practices.

The judgment was ultimately thrown out by a judge, but her legal fight continues.

The process has been “unbearable,” Denson said, describing the unrelenting pressure she felt from Trump campaign attorneys. “This had become my life. I had no income and had this lien against me. It crippled my ability to work.”

The legal resources deployed to try to crush Denson’s case are not unusual. At least four women of color involved in the 2016 operation have been embroiled in legal fights with the campaign over workplace harassment, discrimination or violations of nondisclosure agreements. They have been subjected to scorched-earth tactics. For years, the Trump campaign has persisted, despite losing consistently, in at least some cases after it was clear that its efforts had damaged the women.

Trump was regularly updated on the women’s cases, according to two people familiar with the matters. In one, he wanted to escalate the dispute by filing a federal defamation lawsuit against the former employee, but his lawyers persuaded him it was best handled through confidential arbitration. Campaign lawyers urged him to settle the ongoing “legacy lawsuits” from 2016 before the 2020 election, but he declined.

Now as Trump engages in another presidential run, a judge’s order in one of those cases may force into public view the new details about staffers who lodged similar accusations. A federal magistrate judge has ordered the campaign to produce by May 31 a list of all discrimination and harassment complaints made during Trump’s 2016 and 2020 presidential runs, allegations that the campaign initially tried to keep confidential through rigorously enforced NDAs. Last year, a federal judge freed 422 employees of the 2016 campaign from confidentiality agreements in a class-action lawsuit brought by Denson, a major crack in the campaign’s strategy.

As the media has chronicled, Trump is a well-known bully. He has belittled and sought to dominate political rivals like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former allies like Bill Barr, who was his attorney general. Trump and his surrogates have appeared to relish hounding or humiliating women who have verbally crossed him, including media and Hollywood stars and a long list of accusers who have complained over the years about sexual harassment or inappropriate conduct. (He has denied all of the allegations.)

But ProPublica found that Trump’s campaign used similar bullying tactics against its own workers. These fights have been waged out of the public eye against women with few resources to stand up against the campaign’s battery of lawyers, paid from a seemingly bottomless trove of campaign money.

The campaign is “still litigating these ridiculous cases that should have been settled” long ago, said campaign finance authority Brett Kappel of Harmon Curran, who has been tracking Trump’s civil and criminal cases. Trump’s strategy is the same one he’s used in other lawsuits: “Drag it out and make it as painful and expensive as possible for the opponent, and maybe they’ll go away,” he said.

The Trump campaign did not respond to a detailed list of questions. Spokesperson Steven Cheung in an emailed statement said one of the cases filed by a former campaign worker was “an absurd and fake story.”

Supporters are giving him money earned with “blood, sweat and tears,” Denson said. “And it is being turned around to terrorize people.”

As is being revealed now in the Stormy Daniels case, Trump’s chaotic 2016 campaign was governed by one overriding public relations strategy: Lock down any whiff of scandal that could be unflattering or compromising to the candidate.

Trump’s campaign used a trio of tools, borrowed largely from the Trump Organization, to ensure that. Allegations were met with swift denials. Employees were bound to silence by onerous NDAs that imposed a lifetime ban on disparaging Trump, his extended family or any of his companies. And the campaign’s lawyers brought in a phalanx of Trump-savvy outside lawyers prepared to crush.

How much the campaign has poured into such efforts is unclear, but it is likely millions, according to spending reports. Trump’s bills for all his many legal challenges — workplace harassment claims aren’t broken out — have topped $100 million.

Trump’s use of donor money to fight lawsuits against the campaign is legal, but experts say he has pushed the limits of laws that forbid using campaign contributions for legal matters that have nothing to do with running for office.

The campaign faced its first-known discrimination complaint in January 2016 when Iowa field organizer Elizabeth Davidson filed a case with a local civil rights agency claiming she had been underpaid because she was a woman. The law student had been fired and accused of violating her NDA by making “disparaging comments” to the press, according to the complaint. Davidson dropped her case without explanation in 2018. She did not return phone calls.

The Trump campaign brought out heavy artillery to try to discredit another female employee who filed a federal lawsuit in February 2019. Alva Johnson, a field operations director from Alabama, alleged pay disparities and a hostile workplace in 2016, but her most explosive allegation was that Trump engaged in “sexually predatory conduct” by kissing her without permission during a Florida campaign event.

To handle her case, the campaign hired attorney Charles Harder, best known for winning a privacy case in 2016 that financially destroyed the gossip website Gawker. Harder’s firm was paid $4.3 million for legal work on a number of campaign cases between 2018 and 2021, according to spending reports. Trump was then in the White House, and spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Johnson’s accusation “absurd.”

Harder produced a video filmed by an unnamed supporter. It showed Trump kissing Johnson near her mouth as he approached her for the first time in a reception line. Harder argued the video showed the kiss was not forced; Johnson’s lawyers argued it proved the kiss was real and unwelcome.

A Trump-appointed judge threw out Johnson’s case in 2019, calling the kissing allegation a political attack, and gave her a chance to refile a complaint focused only on alleged pay disparities. She said recently in an interview she chose not to do so, largely because she was frightened for herself and her family as Trump supporters rallied to the president’s defense.

“I definitely heard about every possible way I could die,” she said. “We lived in a cul-de-sac, and they would just drive around with their Trump flags.”

Harder subpoenaed Johnson’s bank statements, extensive news media contacts and communications with potential employers. At one point, Johnson said, Harder offered to withdraw the complaint if she would apologize to Trump and leave the NDA in place. She refused. At another point, Trump wanted to countersue her for defamation, but his lawyers talked him out of it, according to two people.

In response to questions, Harder said his legal tactics were “100% permissible discovery in an employment case” and her attorneys did not object. “It’s called litigation, and it’s part of the legal process,” he said.

Johnson’s arbitration case dragged on long after Harder’s firm withdrew. The campaign brought in new outside lawyers, but by then, judges in Denson’s New York case had found the NDA invalid and other courts seemed likely to follow. If Johnson won, Trump’s NDA said the losing party must pay legal fees.

In August 2022, the arbitrator found Johnson’s NDA unenforceable and ordered the campaign to pay her lawyers $303,285. She said she personally received no money but “won the ability to speak.”

In a statement, Cheung, the spokesperson for Trump’s 2024 campaign, called Johnson’s account “an absurd and fake story that has previously been debunked and contradicted by multiple, highly credible eyewitness accounts.”

The campaign also relied on Harder in an NDA case it brought against former White House official Omarosa Manigault Newman, a Black former contestant on “The Apprentice” who wrote a 2018 tell-all book describing Trump as a racist. Trump smeared her on Twitter as a “low life.” Harder said he withdrew from the case before its conclusion.

Newman had signed an NDA in 2016 when she joined the campaign, and its lawyers demanded $1.5 million for violating the secrecy agreement. The case plodded along until 2021, when an arbitration judge ruled in Newman’s favor and found Trump’s NDA too vague to enforce. He ordered the campaign to pay $1.3 million to Newman’s lawyers. “The bully has met his match,” Newman declared at the time. She could not be reached for comment.

A discrimination case pending in a Manhattan court, however, might force the culture of Trump’s previous campaigns and their suppression efforts into the light.

Arlene “AJ” Delgado sued the 2016 campaign and three senior officials for discrimination after she became pregnant by her supervisor, Jason Miller, then the campaign’s chief spokesperson.

Trump had called Delgado a rising star when she went on the campaign trail as one of his Hispanic surrogates, and she expected an administration job. But she claimed that when she confronted Miller about her pregnancy, he told her Trump could not afford to have her “waddling around the White House pregnant.” Other senior officials shut her out of work discussions until her transition job ended with Trump’s inauguration, she claimed.

Ten days after Delgado delivered her baby, the Trump campaign filed a $1.5 million-claim against her for NDA violations. Delgado’s main offense, according to the campaign, was a series of angry tweets about Miller and Trump’s decision to promote him to White House communications director. The attorney on the case, Lawrence Rosen, who left LaRocca Hornik Rosen & Greenberg, as it was then known, late last year, and his former partners did not return calls or emails.

Miller did not respond to repeated attempts to seek comment.

The firm, now named LaRocca, Hornik, Greenberg, Kittredge, Carlin & McPartland, leases space in a Trump office building, and it has long been a favored legal vendor for the Trump campaign. It’s been paid at least $2.8 million since 2016 by the Trump campaign and its affiliated PAC, Make America Great Again, according to campaign reports. Rosen was described on the firm’s website as a “bulldog” litigator, and he recently surfaced in testimony from Trump fixer Michael Cohen as a lawyer involved in his effort to silence Daniels, a porn star.

Delgado, a Harvard Law School graduate, claims in the lawsuit filed in December 2019 that the campaign deprived her of a job and hurt her other employment prospects. Squaring off against campaign lawyers, she serves as her own attorney and has raised money for legal expenses, including taking depositions from top former White House officials, through GoFundMe.

Delgado recently accused the campaign of withholding information about its handling of harassment and discrimination cases. A LaRocca partner said in a court filing the campaign has disclosed all of the information it has on women’s complaints.

The judge ordered the campaign to produce a full list of cases by May 31. (It’s unclear whether there are any cases that have not emerged yet into public view.)

The LaRocca firm abruptly withdrew from the case, citing “irreparable differences” with the campaign, after five years pursuing Delgado in court.

As for former 2016 campaign staffer Denson, now an actress currently hosting a podcast, she continues to pursue her personal discrimination and retaliation suit, saying she wants her persistence to inspire others.

The federal judge’s decision in October 2023 to void NDAs for all 2016 employees, vendors and volunteers was a blow to the campaign. The campaign agreed to pay $450,000 to Denson’s lawyers and to no longer pursue employees for NDA violations.

Denson said her problems began when she went to work for the campaign’s data division as a national phone bank administrator, one of a dozen employees who reported to director Camilo Sandoval. She had no experience and believed she and another woman, a model, were hired simply because of their looks.

She claimed that Sandoval, who later worked in several high-ranking Trump administration jobs, made inappropriate comments and assigned end-of-day tasks to make her stay late. In one private meeting, she said, he reclined on a sofa. In a deposition, Sandoval denied many of Denson’s charges. He did not respond to calls or email.

Denson’s work on a Spanish-language project caught the attention of Steve Bannon, then the campaign’s CEO, who moved her to work on Hispanic outreach and raised her pay by $3,000 a month, her complaint said. Sandoval reacted angrily to the transfer and scolded her immediate boss for letting his “sheep wander.” He told her, “I hired you and I can also fire you,” she alleged.

Denson introduced emails Sandoval sent to senior officials describing her as a security risk who should be reported to the police and the Secret Service. He suggested she was stealing documents and may have had a role in mailing Trump’s 1995 personal tax return to a reporter at The New York Times, court records show. She claimed he hacked into her personal laptop while she was traveling. In a deposition, he denied accessing her personal information.

Based on Bannon’s encouraging emails about her performance, Denson thought she would be hired for Trump’s transition. But documents showed the campaign’s human resources director telling others, “Jessica is NOT ever to be hired onto transition, inaugural or brought to DC!” An email from Sandoval to senior official Stephen Miller said, “This bitch is out of control.”

Camilo Sandoval’s email to senior official Stephen Miller (New York County Clerk. Redactions by ProPublica.)

She filed a lawsuit in New York state court in November 2017 claiming emotional distress as a result of “pervasive slander,” discrimination and harassment. A month later, Rosen pounced. On Christmas Eve, Denson got papers demanding that she face arbitration for violating her NDA by filing the suit. The campaign sought $1.5 million in damages.

Denson declined to go to arbitration, arguing that her right to a safe workplace was unrelated to the NDA, and the campaign won the judgment for legal fees by default. Rosen had her bank account frozen and went after $1,200 she had raised through GoFundMe.

“This is how cruel and scorched earth they were,” she said in a recent interview.

Denson said in her deposition that Trump campaign lawyers grilled her aggressively about her whereabouts. “Their obsession with my location was very frightening,” she said. “The fear has lived with me ever since.”

She felt further traumatized when the campaign demanded to see mental health and medical records. She was upset when they suggested to her during her deposition that her emotional damage was not extreme.

Denson’s cases followed a circuitous path, and at first she served as her own lawyer because she had no money to pay attorney fees. She remembered crying inconsolably late one night, fearing her situation was hopeless, then waking up to learn a judge had sided with her and had thrown out the judgment in the campaign’s favor as unfair.

In March 2021, a federal judge declared her individual NDA invalid under New York state contract law and said the campaign had used NDAs repeatedly to “suppress free speech.” Denson and her legal team moved forward to extend her victory to all 2016 staffers.

Legal experts say the class-action victory established a precedent that should deter future campaigns from trying to quash employees’ free-speech rights.

Denson and other women fighting the campaign have been struck by Trump’s repeated assertions in his own cases that his right to speak freely has been violated.

“I came to the campaign as someone who cared deeply about human rights, First Amendment, individual liberty; I thought I was working on a campaign that supported those values,” Denson said. “Then I saw the opposite of what this country stands for, going after perceived critics and trying to destroy them.”

Do you have information about discrimination or workplace issues involving the Trump campaign or its payments to lawyers? Email marilyn.thompson@propublica.org or call 347-325-3348.

Alex Mierjeski and Ken Schwencke contributed research.

by Marilyn W. Thompson

Judge Lifts Order That Mandated Albuquerque Stop Throwing Away Homeless People’s Belongings

1 week ago

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A New Mexico judge has lifted a temporary order that had mandated the city of Albuquerque stop throwing away the possessions of homeless people without providing notice and an offer to store their belongings.

District Court Judge Joshua Allison stood by his previous finding that the city had seized and destroyed personal property without providing “basic constitutional protections.” But, on Friday, he wrote that a pending U.S. Supreme Court ruling could alter arguments in the Albuquerque case, and until the Supreme Court rules, any resolution to the New Mexico case is “unworkable.”

Recent reporting by ProPublica showed the city had routinely ignored the injunction as well as its own policies for dealing with encampments, which have crowded sidewalks and popped up in empty lots.

Advocates for homeless people expressed frustration over the judge’s decision, saying the city should have done more during the six months the injunction was in effect to curb its aggressive campaign to remove encampments.

“We thought things would change,” said Ilse Biel, a longtime community advocate. “None of that actually worked.”

Regardless, Biel said she and other volunteers will continue to collect affidavits from people whose rights are violated by having their possessions taken.

Those written accounts were the basis for Allison’s prior injunction against the city. Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, joined by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and two private law firms, sued in December 2022 on behalf of eight homeless people. They alleged that the criminalization of unhoused people and the confiscation of personal property amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and deprivation of property rights. A trial was set for August but has been vacated until the Supreme Court case is decided. (A New Mexico Supreme Court appeal initiated by the city in response to the injunction is also pending.)

“I would just want to see the city actually wanting to change the situation,” Biel said.

In a written statement responding to the judge’s order, Albuquerque said it will “continue to offer shelter and resources to those experiencing homelessness in our community, including transportation to services and storage.”

“The city makes every effort to provide resources and shelter to those experiencing homelessness, and we balance those efforts with the need to keep our city clean and safe for all who live here,” said city spokesperson Staci Drangmeister.

City policy instructs workers to give notice before removing personal items, to try to find people whose possessions have been left unattended and to offer to connect them to services. If they cannot find the individual, the city is supposed to store property for 90 days. ProPublica found the storage program is rarely used.

Christine Barber, the executive director of AsUR, an organization that serves women living on the street, frequently drives around the city’s International District neighborhood, which has one of the highest homeless populations in Albuquerque, handing out hygiene supplies and other survival gear. Barber said she has never seen city crews try to find the occupants of tents before discarding them and other possessions. She fears the workers will now become more aggressive.

“Those policies have been around for awhile and they’ve never applied them,” Barber said, adding that she sees a disconnect between what the city administration says and what city workers do.

During an Albuquerque City Council meeting Monday night, the council member who represents the International District, Nichole Rogers, said she had witnessed earlier that day encampment “operations” occurring in full force. Rogers said she didn’t see city crews offer resources and had “questions about our response.”

Chief Administrative Officer Samantha Sengel said that encampment removals may happen more on Mondays because crews are responding to a backlog of calls from the weekends. The city said it responds to more than 50 reports of illegal camping a day.

“Even if there isn’t an injunction, we believe that our city policy is the appropriate way for us to interact and make sure we’re taking care of individuals,” she said.

Before the injunction was rescinded, ProPublica spoke to nearly 30 people who said their belongings were discarded without an offer of storage or resources.

The city in recent years has increased its pace of clearing encampments. In 2023, crews visited more than 4,500 locations where people were camping, more than double the number from the previous year, according to data obtained from the Solid Waste Management Department. The city is on pace to remove nearly 6,000 encampment locations this year, according to the data.

Adam Flores, one of the attorneys who sued the city over its handling of homelessness, said even if the injunction was being ignored, it was important to be able to say there was a court order in place.

“It’s a hard pill to swallow because there’s no question that the city’s violating people’s rights and that those violations are causing irreparable harm to thousands of people here in Albuquerque who are forced to live outside,” he said. “There’s no court order to protect anybody anymore, there’s nothing that people can even point to.”

Have You Experienced Homelessness? Do You Work With People Who Have? Tell Us About Encampment Removals.

by Nicole Santa Cruz

A Security Camera Caught an Employee Beating a Patient. It Took 11 Days for Anyone to Take Action.

1 week ago

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Cameras in the common areas of Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center were supposed to make the troubled southern Illinois facility safer for the approximately 200 people with developmental disabilities who live there.

But in mid-February, a camera caught a mental health technician grabbing a patient by the shirt, throwing him to the floor and punching him in the stomach, according to court records.

Although the worker has since been indicted, for 11 days following the incident, the employee continued to work on the same unit without consequence or restriction until an anonymous letter prompted an investigator to go looking for the video. During that time, no one at the facility, including witnesses to the event, reported the abuse, according to public records.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration announced in March the plan to install cameras in the wake of an ongoing news investigation by Capitol News Illinois and ProPublica that unearthed a culture of cruelty, abuse, neglect and cover-ups at Choate. The administration also announced it would move 123 individuals from the facility. So far, 34 Choate residents have moved, mostly to other state-operated developmental centers.

The cameras were supposed to deter employees from mistreating patients or to quickly dispel false allegations of abuse by keeping a record of interactions. But a little-discussed provision, intended to protect workers’ rights and patients’ privacy, almost kept the incident from coming to light: The video can only be reviewed if there is an allegation of abuse or neglect.

The anonymous letter that sparked the investigation accused mental health technician John Curtis “Curt” Spaulding of attacking a patient on Feb. 12. The allegation led investigators to access video from that day to determine if the accusation was valid. Records show that it took until Feb. 23 for Choate security to review the video.

Within hours of that review, Spaulding submitted his resignation. Another employee, Shushya Salley, was placed on paid administrative leave after the video emerged. Though her involvement isn’t clear, the form referring the case to the state police, from the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General, noted that there were witnesses. If Salley witnessed the abuse, she was required to report it within four hours. She did not respond to requests for comment.

During a phone interview on Thursday, Spaulding denied abusing any patients. He said he resigned because he was tired of the poor working conditions and difficult schedules at Choate.

The OIG, which is charged with looking into allegations of abuse and neglect, investigated Spaulding five times in the past three years, records show. None of the prior allegations were substantiated.

“I was better to those guys than 90% of the people who work there,” Spaulding told a reporter. “But I was never one to let them walk all over me.”

Spaulding, who has worked at Choate since 2015, said he believed that policy revisions have kept patients who have had emotional outbursts from facing any consequences, and that in turn has led to the facility “going to shit.”

Tyler Tripp, the state’s attorney in Union County, where Choate is located, did not respond to questions about the incident, though Illinois State Police records indicate the agency presented the case to him in March. A grand jury indicted Spaulding on Thursday on a felony charge of aggravated battery and a charge of misdemeanor battery.

A grand jury indictment outlines the charge of aggravated battery against John Curtis Spaulding while on the Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center grounds. (Obtained by ProPublica and Capitol News Illinois. Highlighted and redacted by ProPublica.)

Spaulding has not appeared to enter a plea. He is scheduled to appear in court on July 1.

Of the more than 20 employees identified as being charged with felonies on suspicion of abusing patients at Choate or covering it up during the news organizations’ ongoing investigations, only two were convicted of a felony. One of those defendants was later allowed to withdraw his plea and plead down to a misdemeanor. Not one employee, even those who caused serious injuries, has received prison time for abusing a patient.

The governor’s office — which pushed for the cameras when it announced a plan to transition many residents out of Choate — credited them with bringing the incident involving Spaulding to light.

“Thanks to the addition of the cameras in the facility, the offenders were caught and promptly removed for their entirely unacceptable misconduct,” Alex Gough, spokesperson for Pritzker, said in a statement. “The vast majority of workers at the state’s 24/7 facilities perform their duties with compassion, but anyone who violates the sacred trust between care provider and patient should be held accountable.”

The OIG has repeatedly called for the installation of cameras. At least 21 times in six years, the OIG asked for cameras so it could more quickly assess the credibility of abuse and neglect allegations, but these recommendations were rejected because of budget and privacy concerns.

Last year, then-IDHS Secretary Grace Hou announced the cameras would be installed at all state-operated developmental centers, starting with Choate.

Barry Smoot, a longtime IDHS and OIG employee who also served as head of security at Chester Mental Health Center and Choate, said it is important for employees to be able to report without fear of retaliation or repercussions since video can only be accessed after an allegation is made and footage is not continuously monitored.

“Has it affected the culture? No. Has it been used to catch abusers? Yes. The only way the cameras can do their job is if someone reports it. And the staff that are identified as present and not stopping the abuse or reporting the abuse need to be severely dealt with,” Smoot said.

If staff and residents are fearful of speaking out, Smoot said, they can report their allegation anonymously to the inspector general and include the time, date and location so the video can be accessed.

Choate’s employee head count was full as of Tuesday, but IDHS records showed that 65 employees — nearly 14% of the workforce — were on administrative leave or reassigned to other duties while the inspector general investigated allegations of abuse against them.

AFSCME Local 141, the union that represents most Choate employees, did not respond to written questions. But eight days before the video was pulled and reviewed by the OIG, the union posted on its Facebook page: “Be professional when interacting with our individuals and please keep yourself safe. We know the cameras can be beneficial in our daily operations. Remember, you may be reviewed by cameras when allegations are presented. Again, be professional. You may be seen even though you are not a target of the accusations. Remember, you may be reviewed.”

by Beth Hundsdorfer, Capitol News Illinois

Ticketed at School as a Teen, a Young Black Woman Is Suing an Illinois City for Violating Her Civil Rights

1 week ago

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Amara Harris, the young Black woman from suburban Chicago who won a yearslong fight against a police ticket that accused her of stealing a classmate’s AirPods, took her fight to court again Tuesday.

This time, she was the plaintiff, not the defendant.

Harris’ attorneys filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday alleging civil rights violations, including racial discrimination and malicious prosecution. When she was a high school junior in 2019, a city police officer based at the school, using information gathered by school deans, ticketed her for violating a municipal ordinance against theft. Harris has always said she did not steal the AirPods but picked them up by mistake, thinking they were her own.

The city refused to drop the ticket, which could have cost Harris up to $500, despite a lack of evidence, the lawsuit alleges. Harris maintained her innocence for nearly four years and took the ordinance violation case to a rare jury trial in August. A jury found Harris not liable after a three-day trial.

The lawsuit names as defendants Naperville — Illinois’ fourth-largest city, about 30 miles west of Chicago — as well as former school-based police officer Juan Leon and his then-supervisor, Jonathan Pope. Leon, who issued the ticket, acknowledged during the trial he had no direct evidence that Harris had stolen the AirPods.

ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune first spotlighted Harris’ fight in 2022 as part of “The Price Kids Pay” investigation, which examined school ticketing in Illinois schools and the impact on students and their families. Two civil rights attorneys took on Harris’ case after that story was published.

Now 21, Harris graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta on Sunday, then traveled home to Naperville ahead of the lawsuit being filed.

Harris said she hopes the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, not only rectifies her troubling experience but leads to students being treated fairly. The lawsuit seeks compensatory damages of at least $20 million, punitive damages and for Naperville and its police department to implement training and oversight to prevent future civil rights violations.

“They were wrong and they have to face consequences and be held accountable for what they did and for dragging this on,” Harris told ProPublica this week.

Naperville City Attorney Mike DiSanto said in a statement that the allegations “are without merit” and the city plans to “vigorously defend this lawsuit.” He said the city relied on statements from school officials and students, and noted that the city won several pretrial motions, including one from Harris’ lawyers seeking to have the case dismissed.

“The fact that the jury acquitted Ms. Harris does not negate the factual basis for the actions of the City and its officers,” according to the statement.

“The Price Kids Pay” investigation found that across Illinois, students have been subjected to a capricious system of police ticketing as a form of school discipline. The municipal tickets — for violating ordinances such as vaping, truancy and disorderly conduct — are difficult to fight and often come with fines and administrative fees that can reach hundreds of dollars. Some families have gone into debt and faced serious financial consequences because of unpaid tickets. Unlike in juvenile court, there is no option for a public defender. And taking the case to a jury, as Harris did, can require incredible resources and commitment.

“We’re hoping to highlight that this form of discipline needs to be prohibited throughout the state of Illinois and even throughout the country,” said Juan Thomas, Harris’ attorney and a recent chair of the civil rights and social justice section of the American Bar Association.

Following the Tribune-ProPublica investigation, the Illinois superintendent of education told administrators to stop outsourcing discipline to police, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he wanted to stop school-based ticketing and state lawmakers have considered ways to change the law, though efforts have stalled during the past two legislative sessions.

S. Todd Yeary, who also represents Harris, said he hopes the lawsuit will deter schools from using tickets as was done in Harris’ case.

“If the legislators aren’t going to fix the law, if the system isn’t going to make sure there is accountability, the only recourse is to get the courts involved,” said Yeary, the former CEO of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a civil rights organization.

“This is about one young woman’s courage to say, ‘The reason I am not going to pay the ticket is because I did nothing wrong,’” Yeary said. Just before the trial was set to begin in August, a Naperville prosecutor offered to settle the case if Harris paid a $100 fine. She refused.

Harris’ attorneys, S. Todd Yeary, left, and Juan Thomas, speak with Harris and her mother, Marla Baker, outside the DuPage County Courthouse in August. (Mustafa Hussain for ProPublica)

The ProPublica-Tribune investigation found that Black students were twice as likely to be ticketed at school than their white peers. At Naperville North High School, Harris’ school, Black students were nearly five times more likely than white students to be ticketed by police over the three school years the investigation examined, up until the spring of 2021.

The lawsuit alleges that Harris was discriminated against because she is Black and that the ticket issued to her “constituted racial discrimination, a denial of constitutional rights, intimidation and retaliation.”

“If there were ever a civil rights issue, this is it,” Yeary said.

Naperville spokesperson Linda LaCloche has previously denied that race played a role in Harris’ case or in police decisions to ticket students. The school district has distanced itself from the case and has said the Naperville police decide whether to ticket students.

Since police issued her the ticket, Harris graduated early from high school, earned an associate’s degree from a community college, studied abroad in Japan and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in international studies. She said she plans to apply to veterinary school.

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by Jodi S. Cohen and Jennifer Smith Richards

“I Refuse to Be Told What to Do”: Facebook Posts Show a Conservative School Board Member Rejecting Extremism

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I have been covering the bare-knuckle, far-right political battles in a rural North Texas county since shortly after the 2020 presidential election. Just about an hour southwest of Fort Worth, Hood County might be off the beaten path, but it has been at the cutting edge of hard-line conservative activism in Texas for the past few years.

A year after the 2020 presidential election, I covered the effort in the county, which voted 81% for former President Donald Trump, to force out its independent elections administrator and give her duties to an elected county clerk who had used social media to promote baseless allegations of widespread election fraud.

That’s when a local activist named Courtney Gore first came across my radar; she seemed to be the very embodiment of an uncompromising Republican movement intent on making schools the battleground for culture war issues over race and gender. As the co-host of a local far-right web-based talk show, Gore and her colleagues had taken aim at fellow Republicans they considered insufficiently conservative and frequently attacked the school district, alleging it was providing sexually explicit books to kids and teaching socialism and left-wing ideology about race and gender.

Gore ran for a seat on the Granbury Independent School District board in the fall of 2021. After she won, I spoke to parents who feared the worst. One gay parent said she and her wife were contemplating moving their 4-year-old son out of the district.

“Seeing stuff like the school board election definitely opens my eyes,” the parent told me. “Even though this is a small town, and I know most of the people, and I grew up next door, when it comes to sexuality nobody’s safe.”

A few months after the election, the local school district became one of the first in Texas to remove about 130 library books. The district eventually returned most of the books to the shelves, but in 2022 the Department of Education launched an investigation into whether the district violated federal laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender after ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and NBC News published audio of the district superintendent targeting books with LGBTQ+ themes.

As we continued to cover the district and efforts to remove LGBTQ+ library books, I kept tabs on the always lively local Facebook forums, where I watched Gore make a stunning about-face.

In May 2022, she publicly broke with her former hard-line supporters and admitted to her Facebook followers that she had unwittingly contributed to an effort to weaken support for public education in Granbury. Without naming names, she warned her followers on social media to be on guard against misinformation and efforts to manipulate their emotions with “conjecture.”

In May 2022, Gore wrote on Facebook about misinformation and efforts to “manipulate with the power of suggestion.” (Screenshot by ProPublica)

Gore’s social media messages became more pointed a week later. In response to a Facebook post about some of the tactics she believed were being used by her former allies, she spoke bluntly: “I’m over the political agenda, hypocrisy bs,” she wrote. “I took part in it myself. I refuse to participate in it any longer, it’s not serving our party. We have to do better, imvho.”

The next month, she made her break explicit and began warning residents that a deeper plan was afoot to eliminate public education in Texas.

In June 2022, Gore wrote on Facebook, “I refuse to be someone’s puppet.” (Screenshot by ProPublica)

Then, in October, she told her Facebook followers that she had witnessed firsthand a plan for “weaponizing” the school board in an effort to build support for a voucher program, in which public education dollars would be spent on private and religious schools.

In October 2022, Gore wrote on Facebook about a “systemic plan” that involved “weaponizing our local school board.” (Screenshot by ProPublica)

I reached out to Gore to see if she would be willing to talk to me about her political evolution. She was initially hesitant to do an interview, but I kept in communication with her. Then, nearly a year after I’d first reached out, as the Granbury district continued to undergo battles about library books, bond elections and vouchers, she agreed to meet with me. Since then we have done hours of interviews over Zoom, where she has described her experience, providing insight into what was happening behind the scenes as she ran for school board and in those first crucial months after she took office. Our stories this week detail how she came to her conclusions and her thoughts on what she sees as the larger forces that have played a role in Hood County politics.

Texas politics experts told me it is rare to see someone in modern political life have the fortitude to not just admit that they were wrong and had been misled, but to then turn around and challenge the party directly. Much more common in the Trump age, political scientists told me, is for politicians to stay silent or quietly resign rather than risk facing the wrath of the conservative hard-liners.

I’ll continue to report on school district elections and vouchers in Texas throughout the year. If you have tips or inside information, you can fill out this form.

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by Jeremy Schwartz

Scenes From a MAGA Meltdown: Inside the “America First” Movement’s War Over Democracy

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Standing in a cafe decorated with tiny American flags and antique cabinets as big as bodyguards, Peter Meijer paused as he considered what to say to the man in the “Stand for God” shirt who had just called for his bodily harm.

It was a snowy morning in February. Meijer was the keynote speaker at a coffee-and-donuts meeting hosted by the Republican Party chapter in Kent County, Michigan, the most populous county on the west side of the state. Dressed in a candidate-casual uniform of jeans, a flannel shirt and an outdoorsy blazer, Meijer was seeking the Republican nomination for an open U.S. Senate seat, a race that could determine control of Congress’s upper chamber, in a state that could decide the presidential election. If Republicans wanted to win in November, Meijer told the 40-odd people in attendance, they needed to move on from the past and focus on their shared enemy.

“Is there anyone who thought that Jan. 6th was good for the Republican Party?” he asked. “Did it help us win in 2022?”

“We weren’t gonna win,” someone yelled. “It was rigged.”

“The election was stolen,” another person said. “It doesn’t matter.”

I watched this exchange from a table near the back of the room. Until that moment, the crowd met Meijer’s stump speech with polite nods and gentle applause. But when he brought up elections and Jan. 6th, the mood turned from Midwest nice to hostile.

Not long ago, this setting was friendly terrain for Meijer. For decades, voters here rewarded sensible, pro-business, avowedly conservative politicians. Meijer fit the archetype of a West Michigan Republican when he first ran for Congress in 2020. He was also basically Michigan royalty as an heir to the Meijer grocery store fortune. In one of the state’s most competitive districts, he won his debut congressional race by a comfortable 6-point margin.

At the Kent County event, however, many attendees seemed to feel nothing but scorn for him. That anger flowed from a single decision Meijer had made in Congress: He voted to impeach then-President Donald Trump. In response, he faced a far-right primary challenger who had served in the Trump administration and said Biden’s 2020 victory was “simply mathematically impossible.” Meijer narrowly lost. Now, as a Senate candidate, he was trying to make amends, even pledging to vote for Trump — whom he had once called “unfit for office” — if the former president won the Republican nomination. But to some, he was still a traitor.

“How did you vote to impeach Trump when he said in his [Jan. 6] speech, ‘I want a peaceful demonstration,’” a man angrily asked. “You don’t have to go any further than that to know that he was right and that he shouldn’t have been impeached.”

“I was there,” another man called out. “We were peaceful.”

“No shouting now,” the emcee said.

Then-Rep. Peter Meijer, a Republican, voted in 2021 to impeach President Donald Trump. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

One audience member accused Meijer of taking a bribe in exchange for his impeachment vote.

Another challenged him to name five “political prisoners from Jan. 6” who were “sitting in prison and falsely accused.” I watched Meijer struggle to complete a sentence before being cut off.

A third person pointed a finger at him as he questioned whether Meijer was actually in the Capitol complex on Jan. 6, 2021, as he’d claimed.

“I have a photo I took in the House,” Meijer said, trying to defend himself without sounding defensive. Mostly, he listened wide-eyed, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup.

An older woman asked, in a gentler tone, if Meijer would redo his impeachment vote if he could. Would he at least have abstained instead of voting “yes”?

Meijer responded by saying that when he was in Congress, someone had once joked that they’d throw him off a bridge if he ever voted “present.”

A deep voice rang out on the far side of the room. The man in the “Stand for God” shirt.

“Sorry?” Meijer said, not hearing him.

The man repeated himself: “You should’ve gotten thrown off the bridge.”

A crowd gathers outside the Capitol at a pro-Trump protest on Jan. 6, 2021. (Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA/AP Images) The System Falls Apart

What divides the Republican Party of 2024 is not any one policy or ideology. It is not whether to support Donald Trump. The most important fault line in the party now is democracy itself. Today’s Republican insurgents believe democracy has been stolen, and they don’t trust the ability of democratic processes to restore it.

This phenomenon is evident across the country, in Georgia and Nevada, in Arizona, Idaho and Florida. But it’s perhaps the starkest in Michigan, a place long associated with political pragmatism and a business-friendly GOP, embodied by governors George Romney, John Engler and, most recently, Rick Snyder. It was a son of Michigan, former President Gerald Ford, who once said, “I have never mistaken moderation for weakness, nor civility for surrender.”

I grew up in Michigan. My own political education and my early years as a journalist coincided with a stunning Republican resurgence in my home state. Over several decades, Michigan’s dynastic families — the DeVoses and Meijers and Van Andels on the west side, the Romneys and Fords on the east — poured money and manpower into the Michigan Republican Party, building it into one of the most vaunted political operations in the country. They transformed Michigan from a bastion of organized labor that leaned Democratic into a toss-up state that, until recently, had a right-to-work law and put Republicans in control of all three branches of government for eight of the last 14 years. Michigan Republicans were so successful that other states copied their tactics. As Dick DeVos, heir to the Amway fortune and a prolific Republican donor, once told a gathering of conservative activists, “If we can do it in Michigan, you can do it anywhere.”

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Several years ago, however, my home state stopped making sense to me. I watched as thousands of political newcomers, whose sole qualification appeared to be fervor of belief, declared war on the Republican establishment that had been so dominant. Calling themselves the “America First” movement, these unknowns treated the DeVoses and other party leaders as the enemy. I had covered the DeVoses and the Michigan Republican Party long enough to know that they were not just pro-business but staunch conservatives who wanted to slash taxes, abolish regulations and remake the public education system in favor of vouchers and parochial schools. Yet the new “America First” activists disparaged prominent Michigan Republicans as “globalist” elites who belonged to a corrupt “uniparty” cabal. That cabal had denied Trump a rightful second term and needed to be purged from the party.

With a consequential election looming, I traveled back to Michigan earlier this year to understand how this all happened. I sought out the activists waging this struggle, a group of people who don’t trust institutions or individuals except Trump and one another — and sometimes not even that. Could they triumph over the elites? I found chaos, incompetence, strife, a glimpse of a future post-Trump Republican Party and, all around me, danger for our system of government and the state of the country.

“We can’t keep going through election after election like this where a large plurality of the country just does not accept the outcome of the majority and refuses to abide by it,” said Jeff Timmer, a former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party who now works with the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. “That’s when the system falls apart.”

Trump at a 2024 rally in Waterford Township, Michigan (Scott Olson/Getty Images) A Call From God

After Peter Meijer’s event in Kent County, I drove west toward Lake Michigan to meet a plumber named Ken Beyer for lunch. Barrel-chested and with a neatly trimmed goatee, Beyer is in his late 50s but looks younger. He’s disarmingly earnest, the kind of guy who’d offer to help you fix a flat tire in a snowstorm. In less than two years, Beyer had risen from a political nobody to a district chair in the state GOP and a leader of the “America First” movement in Michigan. He is known for his fiery videos, in which he might equate a rival to Adolf Hitler or warn that “the storm is upon us.” Like many of his “America First” allies, he questions whether democracy still exists in this country. “I don’t know if any election is fair anymore,” he said.

Over chicken tenders and iced tea, Beyer, a church-going Christian, told me about a series of what he saw as divine revelations that had delivered him to this point. The pandemic and 2020 election had shaken him. He no longer recognized his own country. He feared that the moment had come, he said, “where freedom and the American dream end.”

Ken Beyer, a Republican district chair, feels he is on a divine mission. (Nick Hagen for ProPublica)

His next revelation happened on Jan. 6, 2021. Because he was convinced that Democrats stole the White House from Trump, he had gone to Washington to make his voice heard and show support for the president. Standing on the steps of the Capitol, he encountered a reporter with the conservative outlet Newsmax who needed help carrying gear. Beyer grabbed a tripod and backpack and filled in as a makeshift field producer for one of the biggest events of the 21st century. “What God wanted me to do,” he later said, “was help capture the history of what’s happening and get the truth out of what really was going on there.”

Back in Michigan, Beyer enlisted the help of a young videographer who had produced content for Beyer’s plumbing business, and together they churned out videos about COVID-19 (overblown), election fraud (rampant) and the “truth” of Jan. 6 (“a big prayer meeting”). He read about disturbing allegations about voting-machine software changing votes. He listened to poll workers allege that mysterious suitcases of mail-in ballots had arrived overnight at the state’s largest ballot-processing site in downtown Detroit (a claim that was later debunked). The more he heard, the more he came to believe that his home state had been central to the Democrats’ plan to steal the 2020 election.

In his free time, Beyer urged Republican lawmakers to investigate the allegations of fraud made by Trump and his allies. Most Republicans brushed him off. A few, like Peter Meijer, had openly turned on Trump, voting for impeachment or dismissing Trump’s stolen-election theories. Beyer couldn’t understand it. “Why weren’t they fighting for him?” he said.

According to more experienced people in the party, there was a simple answer: Many of the claims brought forward weren’t true. A long-awaited investigation by a Republican-led state Senate committee found “no evidence of widespread or systematic fraud” in Michigan.

If Republicans wouldn’t act, Beyer reasoned, then they were just as bad as the Democrats. Trump supporters in other states had also encountered Republican indifference in response to Trump’s fraud allegations. What were they supposed to do now?

Republican Party delegates listen to a speaker at a state GOP convention. (Nick Hagen for ProPublica) The Re-Founding Fathers

A solution arrived in the form of the “precinct strategy.” It was a plan promoted by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon to ensure that the political establishment in both parties didn’t “steal” future elections. Precincts are the smallest geographical unit in American elections. In Michigan, there are roughly 4,700 precincts typically made up of a few thousand active registered voters. Each precinct elects at least one delegate as its representative to a county convention, and sometimes three or four. In all, there are upwards of 8,000 delegate positions in Michigan.

If a state political party is a pyramid with a chairperson at the top, precinct delegates occupy the lowest, broadest tier. Until recently, it was an obscure position. Thousands of the seats often sit empty. If enough Trump supporters filled them, Bannon said, they could form a majority within the party, elect allies to leadership positions and, eventually, take control.

Ken Beyer had never heard of a precinct delegate until he stumbled across the website for MI Precinct First, a group inspired by Bannon’s plan. He decided to run. He believed that this, too, must be part of God’s plan for him. “I believe that He’s using people like me throughout the United States to become the re-founding fathers,” he told me.

The precinct strategy proved successful. In Michigan, thousands of new activists, many recruited by “America First” groups, became precinct delegates in 2022. In Ottawa County, a deeply conservative enclave along Lake Michigan, the number of delegates leapt from 170 to 330. The same trend played out in other battleground states. “The Trump apparatus did very little correct except infiltrate the party right down to the precinct level,” said Timmer, the former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party. “Not just in Michigan but all over.”

The first test for the new “America First” delegates came in late August 2022. In Michigan, the voters select most nominees for elected office in a normal primary election. But for two key positions with oversight of elections — attorney general and secretary of state — the precinct delegates decide the party’s nominees at a statewide convention. These conventions were often sleepy affairs, the outcome predetermined. But this time, when the party’s chair, a wealthy donor and former U.S. ambassador named Ron Weiser, took the stage, the cavernous ballroom filled with boos and jeers.

“How many of you believe we can sweep in November?” Weiser asked.

“With the new people!” a woman wearing a “Keep America Great” hat yelled. “With ‘America First’!”

Over the opposition of Weiser and other longtime party operatives, the “America First” contingent nominated two election deniers for attorney general and secretary of state. Matthew DePerno, a combative lawyer who had promoted a viral yet baseless theory about voting fraud in tiny Antrim County, Michigan, vowed to use the power of the attorney general’s office to investigate election crimes. Kristina Karamo, a tall, commanding woman in her late 30s with a breathless speaking style, was the “America First” pick for secretary of state. A community college instructor and live-trivia host, Karamo had come to prominence after she testified before the Michigan Legislature about irregularities involving ballot counting and voting machines she said she’d witnessed as a poll challenger in Detroit in 2020.

The party convention nominated Kristina Karamo, who has argued that the 2020 election was illegitimate, to be the GOP secretary of state candidate in 2022. (Nic Antaya/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

As a show of political force, nominating DePerno and Karamo was impressive. As an electoral strategy, it was disastrous. Both candidates were trounced in November, and Michigan Democrats won control of all three branches of government for the first time in more than 30 years.

DePerno conceded defeat right away. Karamo did not. To outside observers, her stance was laughable: She had lost by 615,000 votes, roughly the population of Detroit. But Beyer and many other “America First” delegates saw Karamo’s actions as brave and principled, the opposite of DePerno’s cowardly and hypocritical concession. Several months later, she and DePerno ran against each other to be the next chair of the Michigan Republican Party. DePerno won endorsements from Trump and Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO and a funder of the election-fraud movement. But the delegates rallied behind Karamo and delivered her the victory. In just two years, Bannon’s precinct strategy had gone from a quixotic scheme to a reality.

No sooner had Karamo won than paranoia set in. Standing on the convention floor just before her victory, a well-connected precinct delegate approached Beyer to deliver a message. “He says, ‘Leadership is going to let you guys have this one,’” Beyer recalled. Karamo would be chair, in other words, because party leaders let it happen. Why’d they do that, Beyer asked. “Because they believe that they can make her fail quicker than they can Matt DePerno.”

File Number One

A state political party is like the HVAC unit of American politics. When it does its job, you don’t think about it. It hums away in the background, as unsexy as it is essential. State parties recruit candidates to run for office. They mobilize voters. They raise money that helps candidates spread their message and win elections.

Karamo had other priorities when she took over the Michigan Republican Party. Top of the list: “election integrity.” She created a new “election security operations” team to recruit hundreds of volunteers as poll challengers, dropbox monitors and recount specialists, and to serve on county canvassing boards, which certify the final vote count. To oversee this work, she enlisted grassroots activists best known for filing a lawsuit that accused Detroit’s election clerk of running an “illegal election” in 2022. (A judge dismissed the case, calling it “frivolous” and “rife with speculation.”) Training and embedding “America First” activists in every part of the election process was critical to the future of the party and the state. “Otherwise,” one of Karamo’s advisers told a group of activists, “the big money is going to come right back in and start doing all this for us and selecting all the candidates for us again.”

Karamo’s plan to “secure” elections had two objectives: Not only did she and her team hope to catch future cheating by the Democrats, but they sought revenge against the Republican establishment. To do that, Karamo turned to a lawyer and political outsider named James Copas. He was given a special project: write a new constitution for the state Republican Party that would give as much power as possible to precinct delegates. People like Ken Beyer.

There was no greater priority for Karamo’s team. “If you were to look in my records, I opened 82 different project files,” Copas told me. “The constitution was file number one.”

Karamo showed little interest in the day-to-day work of running the party. Bills went unpaid, emails unanswered. When members of the party’s state committee, in effect the board of directors, questioned her, she ignored them or removed them from leadership positions. Even her allies were critical. “I can tell you unequivocally that there was no chance that Kristina was qualified to be the chair,” Copas said. “So what? She was elected.” (Karamo did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Near the end of 2023, Copas circulated a draft of his proposed overhaul of the party constitution. The new constitution proposed a radical change: Eliminate open primary elections and replace them with closed caucuses. Under the current system, about a million people voted in an August GOP primary to choose nominees for local elected offices, state legislative seats, judgeships and federal House and Senate races. Instead of those million or so voters casting ballots, fewer than 10,000 precinct delegates — the same precinct delegates who had powered Karamo to victory — would meet behind closed doors and select the candidates.

The aim of this proposal, said Joel Studebaker, who was Karamo’s chief of staff, was to break up the “corruption club” that had ruled Michigan Republican politics for far too long. “We want something that’s pure,” he told me. “The best answer for that is putting power in the hands of the people.” The irony, critics pointed out, was that Karamo’s proposal would disenfranchise far more people than it empowered.

A portion of the preamble and introduction of a proposed new version of the Michigan Republican Party’s constitution (Obtained by ProPublica)

There was another reason the closed-caucus model appealed to the “America First” faithful: It meant there was no need for voting machines, mail-in ballots, high-speed scanners or any of the other technologies that election-fraud believers had spent the last two years railing against. “You’re eliminating cheating in the election system,” Beyer told me.

The backlash was fierce. “Nothing says ‘we respect democracy’ like cutting out millions of Michigan voters,” wrote one prominent Michigan conservative activist.

Karamo’s proposed voting reforms and the party’s dire finances plunged the organization into turmoil with the 2024 elections less than a year away. Even some of Karamo’s own supporters turned against her. Privately, a group of delegates discussed whether to urge her to step down for the good of the party. Karamo had no plans to resign. If her enemies wanted her gone, they would have to try to remove her.

And so they did: On Jan. 6, 2024, a group of anti-Karamo delegates on the Republican state committee invoked party bylaws and voted to remove Karamo as chair. Two weeks later, the same faction elected former U.S. representative Pete Hoekstra to replace her.

Former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra addresses the press at the 2024 convention of Michigan precinct delegates. (Nick Hagen for ProPublica) Up From the Ashes

By the time Trump walked onstage in Waterford Township, Michigan, in mid-February with his red hat pulled low, the Michigan Republican Party was a national punchline. Karamo had refused to leave office, saying the vote to oust her was “illegitimate.” An unsigned statement issued by the state GOP called it a “political lynching.” Her critics filed a lawsuit in state court to enforce the removal vote, and Karamo said only a judge’s order could make her leave. In the meantime, she urged her followers to travel to Detroit on March 2 for a special convention. There, they would vote on her controversial plan to rewrite the Michigan GOP’s constitution.

At his mid-February rally, Trump waded into the chaotic mess that was the Michigan Republican Party despite his supporters urging him not to. He described Hoekstra as “your new Michigan Republican Party chairman,” a line that was greeted with a mix of cheers and boos. The boos continued as Trump said he’d recommended Hoekstra for the job. “I said, ‘Do you think you could ever get this guy Hoekstra? He’s unbelievable,’” Trump said.

The Trump campaign seemed to recognize that the longer Karamo remained in charge, the weaker the state party was and the less chance he had to win Michigan. For both Trump and Biden, Michigan is arguably a must-win state.

Still, some of Trump’s most ardent supporters saw his support for Hoekstra as a betrayal. “I’m not happy with Mr. Trump right now,” one voter said at a Republican town hall I attended. “I think he should keep his nose out of Michigan politics.” When I asked Beyer what he thought, he said he suspected Trump was playing a double game. “If you know anything about election integrity, you know it’s a rigged program here,” he said. For Trump to win, “he’s gotta join the riggers.” I heard a Karamo supporter say she had read on “Truth” — meaning Truth Social, the social media platform partly owned by Trump — that Trump hadn’t even written the endorsement of Hoekstra that appeared on his account.

Around the time of Trump’s visit to Michigan, I went to hear Karamo speak in Saginaw County, an hour and a half north of Detroit. The event was part of a barnstorming tour of the state meant to rally her supporters and assure them that she remained the party’s legitimate leader. To her supporters, the date of the vote to remove her, Jan. 6, 2024, had taken on a mythological quality — it was the new Jan. 6. Their Jan. 6. The audience sat rapt as Karamo told them that it wasn’t just 2020 and 2022 that were rigged. “Our election system has been corrupted for decades. There’s an entire network protecting the corrupt system.”

At the end of her remarks, she reminded her supporters to go to Detroit on March 2. The date had taken on an outsize significance. Not only would delegates choose which presidential candidate received Michigan’s 39 remaining delegates on the path to the Republican nomination, but they would vote on Karamo’s constitution plan. Hoekstra, who was calling himself the rightful chair, was planning a separate event on the same day in Grand Rapids. The schism in the party would be on full display.

A few days before the dueling conventions, a judge issued a preliminary ruling that Karamo had been properly removed. The Detroit convention was called off, and her constitutional overhaul was shelved for the time being. With Karamo’s event canceled, Beyer, now a regional GOP chairman as well as a delegate, said he would carry the torch for the “America First” movement. In an act of defiance aimed at “Adolf” Hoekstra, as Beyer called him, he and Studebaker announced their own miniconvention.

On the morning of March 2, Beyer picked me up at a Wendy’s on the drive to his breakaway convention. A deluge of text messages lit up his phone as we drove down the highway. Beyer told me that the theme for Hoekstra’s convention was “Up From the Ashes.”

“It’s fitting,” he said. “Because they lit the match. They don’t like the new group of people that have come in over the last two years.” He paused. “They’re burning down the Republican Party to get rid of people like me.”

After Beyer and Studebaker had run their protest convention, they jumped in Studebaker’s truck and drove to Hoekstra’s event in Grand Rapids. There, Studebaker ran into some operatives aligned with Trump’s team in Michigan. Studebaker was furious with them and with Trump for abandoning Karamo and for, as he saw it, thwarting the will of the delegates.

“He’s going to lose Michigan if he keeps doing this,” Studebaker said. The delegates will still vote for Trump, he added, but they’re not going to knock doors and they’re not going to give money. They might tune out of state and national elections and focus on local races.

The operatives were unmoved. “We gotta go,” one of them said. “Trump stuff.”

A constituent wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat at a state Republican convention in early March. (Nick Hagen for ProPublica) A Future Without Trump

Not long afterward, Trump disappointed his grassroots followers again. In Michigan’s high-stakes Republican Senate contest, Trump endorsed Mike Rogers, a former representative, all but assuring that Rogers would clinch the nomination in the August primary.

As for Peter Meijer, that throw-you-off-the-bridge exchange in the cafe in February had proved prophetic: His comeback bid was doomed. In late April, he dropped out.

Trump’s endorsement of Rogers left his supporters mystified. Like Meijer, he had been a vocal critic of Trump, once calling the former president “more gangster than presidential.” He had chaired the powerful House intelligence committee, which led Trump followers to label him a member of the “deep state.” A former aide to Trump had tweeted: “Can’t imagine a worse or more dangerous ‘Republican’ candidate for Senate than Mike Rogers.”

Jim Copas, who quit his role with the party shortly before Karamo was forced out, told me he was disgusted with Trump’s actions. “I’ve lost complete faith in the state GOP and I’ve lost complete faith in the national GOP,” he said. Speaking of Trump, he added: “To be honest, I think Don has learned a little bit about being a politician and he’s forgotten his soul.”

Beyer hadn’t given up on Trump. He still “loved” the man, he said, but he wasn’t taking direction from Trump. “I’m not gonna always listen to him,” Beyer told me. “I’m not part of a cult.”

He had his own plans. In one of our last conversations, he laid out a more religious, more uncompromising version of the “America First” movement. He had started his own PAC called Faith Family Freedom and he planned to target the precinct delegates around the state who had opposed Karamo and replace them with “America First” allies in the next round of delegate elections this August. He had already signed up 350 supporters in various counties, he said, to help with his efforts.

If the Republican establishment — the DeVoses and the Meijers, Pete Hoekstra and the people who had voted to remove Karamo — fought him and his compatriots, Beyer stood ready. “They’re not after Trump. They’re not after Kristina,” he told me. “They’re after me. They’re after everybody like me. That’s what this is all about.”

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by Andy Kroll

Marshall Allen, a Tenacious Health Care Journalist, Dies at 52

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Marshall Allen, a former ProPublica investigative reporter who relentlessly took on the U.S. health care system and fought for the rights of patients facing unfair medical bills, died Sunday at a hospital in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He was 52.

The cause was a heart attack, said Sonja Allen, his wife of 29 years.

Guided by his Christian faith, Allen approached his stories with the moral conviction that doctors, hospitals, drugmakers and health insurers could be less wasteful and more transparent and humane. His stories showed that drug companies purposely made eyedrops too big and set unnecessarily short expiration dates for drugs that were still effective and safe, leading to waste and driving up costs.

With other reporters, he analyzed millions of Medicare records to create “Surgeon Scorecard,” a ProPublica database that allowed patients to see for the first time the death and complication rates of surgeons performing common procedures like knee replacements and gallbladder removals. In another story, he showed how a hospital system refused to cover the care of an employee’s premature baby, leaving her with a bill for $898,984.57. Within days of Allen calling the system’s media representative, it promised to cover the bill.

“He would be our tour guide to things that were incredibly enraging,” said Tracy Weber, a ProPublica managing editor who worked with Allen. “He would walk us through it, and then he'd show us how it didn’t have to be that way.”

Allen’s journalism won numerous honors. A series of stories he did on patient safety in Las Vegas hospitals while at the Las Vegas Sun won the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. He was one of the first people at ProPublica to volunteer to cover the COVID-19 pandemic and was a member of the team that was a finalist for the Pulitzer in public service in 2021. That year, Allen also published a book, “Never Pay the First Bill: And Other Ways to Fight the Health Care System and Win,” which showed consumers how to advocate for themselves.

More than the honors, his stories exposing medical scams, waste in the health care system and hidden incentives in the insurance industry steadily achieved impact and motivated people in power to make changes.

“Marshall had this curiosity about the health care system that allowed him to explore stories with a freshness that many veteran health care reporters can’t do,” said Charles Ornstein, a ProPublica managing editor and longtime health journalist.

That curiosity led him to receive an award as one of America’s “Top Doctors,” despite having no medical credentials. Rather than ignoring a voice message from a telemarketer, calling about his “Top Doctor” award, Allen decided to inquire, exposing the absurdity of the accolades in the process.

After he explained that he was actually a journalist, not a doctor, he asked if he could still receive the award. Indeed, he could — for a “reduced rate” of $289.

Allen came to journalism through his work as a Christian missionary. After graduating from the University of Colorado Boulder with an English degree, he spent five years as an evangelical minister, including three in Kenya, and earned a master’s degree in theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.

While he and his wife were in Kenya, he started writing newsletters and reports to his family about their experiences, Sonja Allen said. “He just came to life when he started to write,” she said. “I would say the No. 1 thing that motivated his work was his belief in the Bible, of standing up for what's right.”

But not all editors saw it that way. In an interview for one of his first journalism jobs, a hard-nosed editor questioned Allen about how his faith background would prepare him for reporting.

“I explained what I saw as a natural progression from the ministry to muckraking, pointing out that both are valid ways of serving a higher cause,” Allen wrote in a 2018 essay that was copublished in The New York Times. “The Bible endorses telling the truth, without bias. So does journalism. The Bible commands honesty and integrity. In journalism, your reputation is your main calling card with sources and readers.”

After a few years working for community newspapers in Southern California, he joined the Las Vegas Sun. There, his editor asked him to cover health care.

“Marshall’s exact words were, ‘I couldn’t imagine anything more boring than health care,’” Sonja Allen said.

But he soon discovered an endlessly intriguing and infuriating beat, challenging what many people accepted as just the way it is. The opening to the series that won the Goldsmith began, “There’s a running joke about hospitals here: ‘Where do you go for great health care in Las Vegas?’ ‘The airport.’ The implication is everyone knows hospital care in Southern Nevada is substandard.”

Allen and his colleague showed that health care insiders had access to information that the public didn’t. Analyzing records on preventable infections and injuries, they provided consumers with quality-of-care data that allowed them to make better decisions and led to new state laws.

In 2011, Allen was hired by ProPublica, where he began to dig into surgical complications.

“Everybody told Marshall that this was impossible, that you could never do this, that you could never do this right, that you should leave this to the pros,” Ornstein said. “And, of course, Marshall was completely undaunted by this challenge.”

Marshall Allen reporting from a hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, in 2014 (Daymon Hartley for ProPublica)

Farley Chase, Allen’s literary agent, described him in almost identical terms: “He was insulted by the inscrutability of the health care system but had this kind of like just roll-up-your-sleeves, undaunted-by-any-kind-of-challenge attitude.”

In addition to his steadfastness, Allen was known in the newsroom for his generosity, especially as a mentor to younger reporters.

Caroline Chen, who covers health care, said that when she moved across the country to New York, Allen immediately invited her and her husband over for dinner.

“He was just generous in every way, like talking over stories,” she said. “He sent me sources. I’d send him sources. We would sometimes take a peek at each other’s drafts.”

When COVID-19 hit, Allen, Chen and others raced to pursue stories in a stressful environment. But no matter how late it was, Chen said, he kept his cool as a team player with no ego.

Allen’s passion for mentoring others extended into teaching at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. In 2020, he edited a project for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, showing how New Jersey police unions had cut deals to shield cops from accountability while increasing their benefits.

In 2021, Allen decided to leave journalism to tackle the problems he saw in the health care system directly by working for the Office of Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. There, he led work tracking pandemic relief funds and helped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention improve the process for nursing homes to report COVID-19 data, the agency said.

But Allen never gave up his passion for writing — or for helping patients. Following the success of his book, he started a Substack newsletter where he continued to expose abuses in the health care system and give consumers advice about how to fight medical bills. He created a company called Allen Health Academy to turn his book into video tutorials and regularly spoke at conferences for health insurance brokers and benefits advisers, where he would offer to lend a hand.

“Hundreds and hundreds of people called him, and he helped them navigate their bills,” Sonja Allen said. He never charged anyone and used any money he received from his newsletter to hire patient advocates for people who needed additional help, she said.

To extend his reach further, Allen had recently created an AI clone of himself, she said, training it on all his articles, his book and podcasts and teaching it to mimic his own voice, so that more people could tap into his knowledge.

At home, Allen was deeply involved in his church, teaching Sunday school and leading a group of men, encouraging them to be good husbands and fathers, his wife said. He was a coffee connoisseur and roasted his own beans. “You could smell it when you drove up because the whole neighborhood smelled like coffee,” she said.

But more than anything, Sonja Allen said, he dreamed of being a good father to his three sons, Isaac, Ashton and Cody. He came up with quizzes to ensure they paid attention in church and invented games that made him famous for his neighborhood birthday parties.

In one, played outside at night, his sons’ friends had to sneak through the dark and place a penny in a plastic bin hidden in the woods. But if Allen shined his flashlight on them, they were out.

“He could totally see the kids, but he would, you know, kind of pretend that he couldn’t see them,” his wife said. “They were crawling on the ground and hiding behind trees and, you know, giggling, and then he would kind of pass by them like he didn’t see them. And then he would turn around and catch people every so often with his flashlight.”

Allen went into cardiac arrest on Thursday and was rushed to Baylor Scott & White Medical Center-Grapevine, where he died Sunday surrounded by friends and family. Dr. Marty Makary, a friend and professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who hired Allen to edit two of his books, said he visited him in the hospital.

“In the final hours, this is what I told him,” he wrote on LinkedIn. “Marshall, we watched you fight tirelessly for the voiceless and become a fierce advocate for the defenseless — a fight many will continue.”

Friends have created a GoFundMe page to help support the family.

by Michael Grabell

ProPublica Selects 10 Journalists for Investigative Editor Training

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We are pleased to announce the 10 journalists chosen as the 2024 cohort of the ProPublica Investigative Editor Training Program.

The ProPublica Investigative Editor Training Program was established in 2023 to expand the ranks of editors with investigative experience in newsrooms across the country, with a focus on journalists from underrepresented backgrounds.

This program is funded by the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, which supports journalism, film and arts organizations whose work is dedicated to social justice and strengthening democracy.

Participants will undergo a five-day intensive editing boot camp in New York, with courses and panel discussions led by ProPublica’s senior editors. After the boot camp, participants will gather virtually every two months for continuing development seminars and be assigned a ProPublica senior editor as a mentor for advice on their work and careers.

This year, 115 people applied for the program.

“ProPublica is proud to continue this unique program, which aims to help diversify the industry by providing investigative editing training to journalists from underrepresented backgrounds,” said Stephen Engelberg, editor-in-chief of ProPublica.

We’re thrilled to introduce the 2024 cohort of the ProPublica Investigative Editor Training Program:

Rebekah Allen is the politics editor of The Texas Tribune, an award-winning nonprofit newsroom that focuses on policy and politics. She oversees a team based in Austin and Washington, D.C., that reports on government accountability and political influence. Previously, Rebekah was a state government reporter at The Dallas Morning News. Before that, she worked as an investigative reporter at The Advocate/Times Picayune in South Louisiana, where she was named Louisiana Reporter of the Year in 2018 by the Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press and Media Editors Contest. She was in the inaugural cohort of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network.

Liz Brazile is the deputy online managing editor at KUOW Public Radio in Seattle, where she helps oversee the newsroom’s daily web coverage and digital news strategy and edits stories across various beats. Liz joined KUOW in January 2020 as an online editor/producer, splitting her time between reporting and editing. Prior to that, Liz covered education for Crosscut/KCTS 9. She is also an alumna of YES! Magazine, WLWT-TV and The Cincinnati Herald. Liz is senior vice president on the board of the Seattle Association of Black Journalists.

Ana Campoy is an editor in The Washington Post’s climate team, where she oversees the Climate Solutions vertical and other climate reporters who focus on innovative storytelling. She started her journalism career at her hometown newspaper in Monterrey, Mexico, before covering the oil industry and national news for The Wall Street Journal. Her reporting portfolio ranged from complex data projects to quirky features on such topics as suburban feral pigs. Before arriving at the Post, Ana was an editor at Quartz, where she led a team of international reporters covering the inner workings of the global economy.

Leah Donnella is a senior editor on NPR’s award-winning Code Switch team, which reports on race, identity, politics and culture. In her role, Leah edits the Code Switch podcast and writes the weekly newsletter, which analyzes how race intersects with the biggest news stories around the country. She has worked on the Code Switch team since 2015, reporting on everything from Donald Trump’s entrance into presidential politics to the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder to how Jewish American identity has been reshaped since the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7. Before coming to NPR, Leah worked at WHYY in Philadelphia, where she supported the Public Media Commons, which trains young people who are interested in becoming journalists.

Subrina Hudson is the business editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, where she manages a team under the newly created Money desk that helps readers understand how business impacts their daily lives. Previously, she was the business editor at the Las Vegas Review-Journal after serving as the assistant business editor. She joined the Review-Journal as a retail reporter and expanded her coverage to include real estate and unemployment. She has also been a reporter at the Orange County Business Journal, The Real Deal and the Los Angeles Business Journal. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern California and a bachelor’s in journalism from Boston University.

Clarissa A. León serves as the deputy editor for Documented, New York's go-to source for immigration news. At Documented, she works on advancing newsroom operations and community engagement reporting. Previously, she held numerous positions as an editor, researcher, reporter and educator. Originally from Reno, Nevada, she is now based in New Jersey.

Asraa Mustufa is managing editor at The Examination, an investigative news outlet focused on global health. She was previously an editor at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, where she worked on the award-winning Pandora Papers investigation and other global reporting collaborations. She’s also served as an editor, digital producer and social media specialist helping shape and promote investigative reporting and news products in Chicago on a range of topics including COVID-19 data, police misconduct, public school funding and local elections.

Soo Oh is an investigative editor at The Markup. Before joining The Markup, she was the data editor at Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. She has reported stories, analyzed data, coded interactive visuals, and built internal tools at the Center for Investigative Reporting, The Wall Street Journal, Vox, the Los Angeles Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education. In 2018, she was a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University, where she researched how to better manage and support journalists with technical skills.

Maye Primera is the editorial director at El Tímpano, a civic media organization serving and covering the Bay Area’s Latino and Mayan immigrants. She has worked as a reporter and editor for more than 20 years, covering politics, immigration, borders, human rights, and violence in Latin America and the U.S. Her enterprise multimedia work has received a national News and Documentary Emmy Award, the Hillman Prize, the RFK Human Rights Award, two Edward R. Murrow Awards, two King of Spain Awards, and the Ortega and Gasset prize. Primera is an alumna of the executive program in news innovation and leadership at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.

Naveena Sadasivam is an investigative journalist at Grist covering the oil and gas industry and climate change. She previously worked at the Texas Observer, Inside Climate News and ProPublica and has won accolades from the Society of Environmental Journalists, Society of Professional Journalists and Online News Association, among others. She is based in Oakland, California.

by Talia Buford

How 3M Executives Convinced a Scientist the Forever Chemicals She Found in Human Blood Were Safe

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This story is exempt from our Creative Commons license until July 19.

Kris Hansen had worked as a chemist at the 3M Corporation for about a year when her boss, an affable senior scientist named Jim Johnson, gave her a strange assignment. 3M had invented Scotch Tape and Post-­it notes; it sold everything from sandpaper to kitchen sponges. But on this day, in 1997, Johnson wanted Hansen to test human blood for chemical contamination.

Several of 3M’s most successful products contained man-made compounds called fluorochemicals. In a spray called Scotchgard, fluorochemicals protected leather and fabric from stains. In a coating known as Scotchban, they prevented food packaging from getting soggy. In a soapy foam used by firefighters, they helped extinguish jet-fuel fires. Johnson explained to Hansen that one of the company’s fluorochemicals, PFOS — short for perfluorooctanesulfonic acid — often found its way into the bodies of 3M factory workers. Although he said that they were unharmed, he had recently hired an outside lab to measure the levels in their blood. The lab had just reported something odd, however. For the sake of comparison, it had tested blood samples from the American Red Cross, which came from the general population and should have been free of fluorochemicals. Instead, it kept finding a contaminant in the blood.

Johnson asked Hansen to figure out whether the lab had made a mistake. Detecting trace levels of chemicals was her specialty: She had recently written a doctoral dissertation about tiny particles in the atmosphere. Hansen’s team of lab technicians and junior scientists fetched a blood sample from a lab-­supply company and prepped it for analysis. Then Hansen switched on an oven-­size box known as a mass spectrometer, which weighs molecules so that scientists can identify them.

As the lab equipment hummed around her, Hansen loaded a sample into the machine. A graph appeared on the mass spectrometer’s display; it suggested that there was a compound in the blood that could be PFOS. That’s weird, Hansen thought. Why would a chemical produced by 3M show up in people who had never worked for the company?

Hansen didn’t want to share her results until she was certain that they were correct, so she and her team spent several weeks analyzing more blood, often in time-consuming overnight tests. All the samples appeared to be contaminated. When Hansen used a more precise method, liquid chromatography, the results left little doubt that the chemical in the Red Cross blood was PFOS.

Hansen now felt obligated to update her boss. Johnson was a towering, bearded man, and she liked him: He seemed to trust her expertise, and he found something to laugh about in most conversations. But, when she shared her findings, his response was cryptic. “This changes everything,” he said. Before she could ask him what he meant, he went into his office and closed the door.

This was not the first time that Hansen had found a chemical where it didn’t belong. A wiry woman who grew up skiing competitively, Hansen had always liked to spend time outdoors; for her chemistry thesis at Williams College, she had kayaked around the former site of an electric company on the Hoosic River, collecting crayfish and testing them for industrial pollutants called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Her research, which showed that a drainage ditch at the site was leaking the chemicals, prompted a news story and contributed to a cleanup effort overseen by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. At 3M, Hansen assumed that her bosses would respond to her findings with the same kind of diligence and care.

Hansen stayed near Johnson’s office for the rest of the day, anxiously waiting for him to react to her research. He never did. In the days that followed, Hansen sensed that Johnson had notified some of his superiors. She remembers his boss, Dale Bacon, a paunchy fellow with gray hair, stopping by her desk and suggesting that she had made a mistake. “I don’t think so,” she told him. In subsequent weeks, Hansen and her team ordered fresh blood samples from every supplier that 3M worked with. Each of the samples tested positive for PFOS.

3M Global Headquarters in Maplewood, Minnesota

In the middle of this testing, Johnson suddenly announced that he would be taking early retirement. After he packed up his office and left, Hansen felt adrift. She was so new to corporate life that her office clothes — pleated pants and dress shirts — still felt like a costume. Johnson had always guided her research, and he hadn’t told Hansen what she should do next. She reminded herself of what he had said — that the chemical wasn’t harmful in factory workers. But she couldn’t be sure that it was harmless. She knew that PCBs, for example, were mass-produced for years before studies showed that they accumulate in the food chain and cause a range of health issues, including damage to the brain. The most reliable way to gauge the safety of chemicals is to study them over time, in animals and, if possible, in humans.

What Hansen didn’t know was that 3M had already conducted animal studies — two decades earlier. They had shown PFOS to be toxic, yet the results remained secret, even to many at the company. In one early experiment, conducted in the late ’70s, a group of 3M scientists fed PFOS to rats on a daily basis. Starting at the second-lowest dose that the scientists tested, about 10 milligrams for every kilogram of body weight, the rats showed signs of possible harm to their livers, and half of them died. At higher doses, every rat died. Soon afterward, 3M scientists found that a relatively low daily dose, 4.5 milligrams for every kilogram of body weight, could kill a monkey within weeks. (Based on this result, the chemical would currently fall into the highest of five toxicity levels recognized by the United Nations.) This daily dose of PFOS was orders of magnitude greater than the amount that the average person would ingest, but it was still relatively low — roughly comparable to the dose of aspirin in a standard tablet.

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In 1979, an internal company report deemed PFOS “certainly more toxic than anticipated” and recommended longer-term studies. That year, 3M executives flew to San Francisco to consult Harold Hodge, a respected toxicologist. They told Hodge only part of what they knew: that PFOS had sickened and even killed laboratory animals and had caused liver abnormalities in factory workers. According to a 3M document that was marked “CONFIDENTIAL,” Hodge urged the executives to study whether the company’s fluorochemicals caused reproductive issues or cancer. After reviewing more data, he told one of them to find out whether the chemicals were present “in man,” and he added, “If the levels are high and widespread and the half-life is long, we could have a serious problem.” Yet Hodge’s warning was omitted from official meeting notes, and the company’s fluorochemical production increased over time.

Hansen’s bosses never told her that PFOS was toxic. In the weeks after Johnson left 3M, however, she felt that she was under a new level of scrutiny. One of her superiors suggested that her equipment might be contaminated, so she cleaned the mass spectrometer and then the entire lab. Her results didn’t change. Another encouraged her to repeatedly analyze her syringes, bags and test tubes, in case they had tainted the blood. (They had not.) Her managers were less concerned about PFOS, it seemed to Hansen, than about the chance that she was wrong.

Sometimes Hansen doubted herself. She was 28 and had only recently earned her Ph.D. But she continued her experiments, if only to respond to the questions of her managers. 3M bought three additional mass spectrometers, which each cost more than a car, and Hansen used them to test more blood samples. In late 1997, her new boss, Bacon, even had her fly out to the company that manufactured the machines, so that she could repeat her tests there. She studied the blood of hundreds of people from more than a dozen blood banks in various states. Each sample contained PFOS. The chemical seemed to be everywhere.

When 3M was founded, in 1902, it was known as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company. After its mining operations flopped, the company pivoted to sandpaper and then to a series of clever inventions aimed at improving everyday life. An early employee noticed that autoworkers were struggling to paint two-tone cars, which were popular at the time; he eventually invented masking tape, using crêpe paper and cabinetmaker’s glue. Another 3M employee created Post-it notes to help him bookmark passages in his church hymnal. An official history of 3M, published for the company’s 100th anniversary, celebrated its “tolerance for tinkerers.”

Fluorochemicals had their origins in the American effort to build the atomic bomb. During the Second World War, scientists for the Manhattan Project developed one of the first safe processes for bonding carbon to fluorine, a dangerously reactive element that experts had nicknamed “the wildest hellcat” of chemistry. After the war, 3M hired some Manhattan Project chemists and began mass-producing chains of carbon atoms bonded to fluorine atoms. The resulting chemicals proved to be astonishingly versatile, in part because they resist oil, water and heat. They are also incredibly long-lasting, earning them the moniker “forever chemicals.”

In the early ’50s, 3M began selling one of its fluorochemicals, PFOA, to the chemical company DuPont for use in Teflon. Then, a couple of years later, a dollop of fluorochemical goo landed on a 3M employee’s tennis shoe, where it proved impervious to stains and impossible to wipe off. 3M now had the idea for Scotchgard and Scotchban. By the time Hansen was in elementary school, in the ’70s, both products were ubiquitous. Restaurants served French fries in Scotchban-treated packaging. Hansen’s mother sprayed Scotchgard on the living-­room couch.

Hansen grew up in Lake Elmo, Minnesota, not far from 3M’s headquarters. Her father was one of the company’s star engineers and was even inducted into its hall of fame in 1979; he had helped to create Scotch-Brite scouring pads and Coban wrap, a soft alternative to sticky bandages. Once, he molded some fibers into cups, thinking that they might make a good bra. They turned out to be miserably uncomfortable, so he and his colleagues placed them over their mouths, giving the company the inspiration for its signature N95 mask.

First image: Lake Elmo, Minnesota, the town not far from 3M headquarters where Kris Hansen grew up. Second image: Family photos of Paul Hansen, Kris’ father, at 3M functions over the years.

Hansen never intended to follow her father to the company. She spent her childhood summers catching turtles and leopard frogs at the lake and hoped to have a career in environmental conservation. Her first job after earning her chemistry Ph.D. was on a boat, which took her to remote parts of the Pacific Ocean. But the voyage left her so seasick that she lost 20 pounds, and she soon retreated to Minnesota. In 1996, at her father’s suggestion, Hansen applied for a position in 3M’s environmental lab.

After Hansen started her PFOS research, her relationships with some colleagues seemed to deteriorate. One afternoon in 1998, a trim 3M epidemiologist named Geary Olsen arrived with several vials of blood and asked her to test them. The next morning, she read the results to him and several colleagues — positive for PFOS. As Hansen remembers it, Olsen looked triumphant. “Those samples came from my horse,” he said — and his horse certainly wasn’t eating at McDonald’s or trotting on Scotchgarded carpets. Hansen felt that he was trying to humiliate her. (Olsen did not respond to requests for comment.) What Hansen wanted to know was how PFOS was making its way into animals.

She found an answer in data from lab rats, which also appeared to have fluorochemicals in their blood. Rats that had more fish meal in their diets, she discovered, tended to have higher levels of PFOS, suggesting that the chemical had spread through the food chain and perhaps through water. In male lab rats, PFOS levels rose with age, indicating that the chemical accumulated in the body. But, curiously, in female rats the levels sometimes fell. Hansen was unsettled when toxicology reports indicated why: Mother rats seemed to be offloading the chemical to their pups. Exposure to PFOS could begin before birth.

Another study confirmed that Scotchban and Scotchgard were sources of the chemical. PFOS wasn’t an official ingredient in either product, but both ­contained other fluorochemicals that, the study showed, broke down into PFOS in the bodies of lab rats. Hansen and her team ultimately found PFOS in eagles, chickens, rabbits, cows, pigs and other animals. They also found 14 ­additional fluorochemicals in human blood, including several produced by 3M. Some were present in wastewater from a 3M factory.

At one point, Hansen told her father, Paul, that she was frustrated by the way senior colleagues kept questioning her work. Paul had recently retired, but he had confidence in 3M’s top executives, and he suggested that she take her findings directly to them. But as a relatively new employee — and one of the few women scientists at a company of about 75,000 people — Hansen found the idea preposterous. When Paul offered to talk to some of 3M’s executives himself, she was mortified at the idea of her father interceding.

Hansen knew that if she could find a blood sample that didn’t contain PFOS then she might be able to convince her colleagues that the other samples did. She and her team began to study historical blood from the early decades of PFOS production. They soon found the chemical in blood from a 1969-71 Michigan breast cancer study. Then they ran an overnight test on blood that had been collected in rural China during the ’80s and ’90s. If any place were PFOS-free, she figured, it would be somewhere remote, where 3M products weren’t in widespread use.

The next morning, anxious to see the results, Hansen arrived at the lab before anyone else. For the first time since she had begun testing blood, some of the samples showed no trace of PFOS. She was so struck that she called her husband. There was nothing wrong with her equipment or methodology; PFOS, a man-made chemical produced by her employer, really was in human blood, practically everywhere. Hansen’s team found it in Swedish blood samples from 1957 and 1971. After that, her lab analyzed blood that had been collected before 3M created PFOS. It tested negative. Apparently, fluorochemicals had entered human blood after the company started selling products that contained them. They had leached out of 3M’s sprays, coatings and factories — and into all of us.

That summer, an in-house librarian at 3M delivered a surprising article to Hansen’s office mailbox. It had been written in 1981 by 3M scientists, and it described a method for measuring fluorine in blood, indicating that even back then the company was testing for fluorochemicals. One scientist mentioned in the article, Richard Newmark, still worked for 3M, in a low-lying structure nicknamed the “nerdy building.” Hansen arranged to meet with him there.

Newmark, a collegial man with a compact build, told Hansen that, more than 20 years before, two academic scientists, Donald Taves and Warren Guy, had discovered a fluorochemical in human blood. They had wondered whether Scotchgard might be its source, so they approached 3M. Newmark told her that his subsequent experiments had confirmed their suspicions — the chemical was PFOS — but 3M lawyers had urged his lab not to admit it.

As Hansen wrote all this down in a notebook, she felt anger rising inside her. Why had so many colleagues doubted the soundness of her results if earlier 3M experiments had already proved the same thing? After the meeting, she hurried back to the lab to find Bacon. “He knew!” she told him.

Bacon’s face remained expressionless. He told Hansen to type up her notes for him. She remembers him telling her not to email them. (In response to questions about Hansen’s account, Bacon said that he didn’t remember specifics. When I called Newmark, he told me that he could not remember her or anything about PFOS. “It’s been a very long time, and I’m in my mid-80s, and just do not remember stuff that well,” he said.)

A few months later, in early 1999, Bacon invited Hansen to an extraordinary meeting: She would have the chance to present her findings to 3M’s CEO, Livio D. DeSimone. Hansen spent several days rehearsing while driving and making dinner. On the day of the meeting, she took an elevator up to the executive suite; her stomach turned as a secretary pointed her to a conference room. Men in suits sat around a long table. Her boss, Bacon, was there. DeSimone, a portly man with white hair, sat at the head of the table.

A photo that Kris Hansen saved shows her father, Paul, with 3M CEO Livio D. DeSimone.

Almost as soon as Hansen placed her first transparency on the projector, the attendees began interrogating her: Why did she do this research? Who directed her to do it? Whom did she inform of the results? The executives seemed to view her diligence as a betrayal: Her data could be damaging to the company. She remembers defending herself, mentioning Newmark’s similar work in the ’70s and trying, unsuccessfully, to direct the conversation back to her research. While the executives talked over her, Hansen noticed that DeSimone’s eyes had closed and that his chin was resting on his dress shirt. The CEO appeared to have fallen asleep. (DeSimone died in 2017. A company spokesperson did not answer my questions about the meeting.)

After that meeting, Hansen remembers learning from Bacon that her job would be changing. She would only be allowed to do experiments that a supervisor had specifically requested, and she was to share her data with only that person. She would spend most of her time analyzing samples for studies that other employees were conducting, and she should not ask questions about what the results meant. Several members of her team were also being reassigned. Bacon explained that a different scientist at 3M would lead research into PFOS going forward. Hansen felt that she was being punished and struggled not to cry.

Even as Hansen was being sidelined, the results of her research were quietly making their way into the files of the Environmental Protection Agency. Since the ’70s, federal law has required that companies tell the EPA about any evidence indicating that a company’s products present “a substantial risk of injury to health or the environment.” In May 1998, 3M officials notified the agency, without informing Hansen, that the company had measured PFOS in blood samples from around the U.S. — a clear reference to Hansen’s work. It did not mention its animal research from the ’70s, and it said that the chemical caused “no adverse effects” at the levels the company had measured in its workers. A year later, 3M sent the EPA another letter, again without telling Hansen. This time, it informed the agency about the 14 other fluorochemicals, several of them made by 3M, that Hansen’s team had detected in human blood. The company reiterated that it did not believe that its products presented a substantial risk to human health.

Hansen recalls that in the summer of 1999, at an annual picnic that her parents hosted for 3M scientists, she was grilling corn when one of the creators of Scotchgard, a gray-haired man in glasses, confronted her. He accused her of trying to tear down the work of her colleagues. Did it make her feel powerful ruining other people’s careers? he asked. Hansen didn’t know how to respond, and he walked away.

Several of Hansen’s superiors had stopped greeting her in the hallways. When she presented a poster of her research at a 3M event, nobody asked her about it. She lost her appetite, and her pleated pants grew baggy. She started to worry that an angry co-worker might confront or even harm her in the company’s dark parking lot. She got into the habit of calling her husband before walking to her car.

A year after Hansen’s meeting with the CEO, 3M, under pressure from the EPA, made a very costly decision: It was going to discontinue its entire portfolio of PFOS-­related chemicals. In May 2000, for the first time, 3M officials revealed to the press that it had detected the chemical in blood banks. One executive claimed that the discovery was a “complete surprise.” The company’s medical director told The New York Times, “This isn’t a health issue now, and it won’t be a health issue.” But the newspaper also quoted a professor of toxicology. “The real issue is this stuff accumulates,” the professor said. “No chemical is totally innocuous, and it seems inconceivable that anything that accumulates would not eventually become toxic.”

Hansen was now pregnant with twins. Although she was heartened by 3M’s announcement — she saw it as evidence that her work had forced the company to act — she was also ready to leave the environmental lab, where she felt marginalized. After giving birth, she joined 3M’s medical devices team. But first, she decided to have one last blood sample tested for PFOS: her own. The results showed one of the lowest readings she’d seen in human blood. Immediately, she thought of the rats that had passed the chemical on to their pups.

Hansen told me that, for the next 19 years, she avoided the subject of fluorochemicals with the same intensity with which she had once pursued it. She focused on raising her kids and coaching a cross-country ski team; she worked a variety of jobs at 3M, none related to fluorochemicals. In 2002, when 3M announced that it would be replacing PFOS with another fluorochemical, PFBS, Hansen knew that it, too, would remain in the environment indefinitely. Still, she decided not to involve herself. She skipped over articles about the chemicals in scientific journals and newspapers, where they were starting to be linked to possible developmental, immune system and liver problems. (In 2006, after the EPA accused 3M of violating the Toxic Substances Control Act, in part by repeatedly ­failing to disclose the harms of fluorochemicals promptly, the company agreed to pay a small penalty of $1.5 million, without admitting wrongdoing.)

During that time, forever chemicals gained a new scientific name — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, an acronym that is vexingly similar to the specific fluorochemical PFOS. A swath of 150 square miles around 3M’s headquarters was found to be polluted with PFAS; scientists discovered PFOS and PFBS in local fish and various fluorochemicals in water that roughly 125,000 Minnesotans drank. Hansen’s husband, Peter, told me that, when friends asked Hansen about PFAS, she would change the subject. Still, she repeatedly told him — and herself — that the chemicals were safe.

First image: Hansen. Second image: A sign warns against consuming fish from Eagle Point Lake in Lake Elmo Park Reserve because of PFAS contamination.

In the 2016 book “Secrecy at Work,” two management theorists, Jana Costas and Christopher Grey, argue that there is nothing inherently wrong or harmful about keeping secrets. Trade secrets, for example, are protected by federal and state law on the grounds that they promote innovation and contribute to the economy. The authors draw on a large body of sociological research to illustrate the many ways that information can be concealed. An organization can compartmentalize a secret by slicing it into smaller components, preventing any one person from piecing together the whole. Managers who don’t want to disclose sensitive information may employ “stone-faced silence.” Secret-keepers can form a kind of tribe, dependent on one another’s continued discretion; in this way, even the existence of a secret can be kept secret. Such techniques become pernicious, Costas and Grey write, when a company keeps a dark secret, a secret about wrongdoing.

Certain unpredictable events — a leak, a lawsuit, a news story — can start to unspool a secret. In the case of forever chemicals, the unspooling began on a cattle farm. In 1998, a West Virginia farmer told a lawyer, Robert Bilott, that wastewater from a DuPont site seemed to be poisoning his cows: They had started to foam at the mouth, their teeth grew black and more than a hundred eventually fell over and died. Bilott sued and obtained tens of thousands of internal documents, which helped push forever chemicals into the public consciousness. The documents revealed that the farm’s water contained PFOA, the fluorochemical that DuPont had bought from 3M, and that both companies had long understood it to be toxic. (The lawsuit, which ended in a settlement, was dramatized in the film “Dark Waters,” starring Mark Ruffalo as Bilott.) Bilott later sued 3M over contamination in Minnesota, but the judge prohibited discussion of health repercussions; a jury ultimately decided in 3M’s favor. Finally, in 2010, the Minnesota attorney general’s office filed its own suit, alleging that 3M had harmed the environment and polluted drinking water. The company paid $850 million in a settlement, without an admission of fault or liability. The AG also released thousands more internal 3M records to the public.

The AG’s records helped me report a series of stories for The Intercept about forever chemicals. Much of my reporting, which started in 2015, focused on what 3M and DuPont knew, even as they continued to produce PFAS. But, as I reported on the cover-up, I wondered what it meant for a sprawling multinational company to know that its products were dangerous. Who knew? How much, exactly, did they know? And how had the company kept its secret? For many years, no one inside 3M would agree to speak with me.

Then, in 2021, John Oliver did a segment on his comedy news show, “Last Week Tonight,” about forever chemicals. The segment, which mentioned my reporting, said that they could cause cancer, immune-system issues and other problems. “The world is basically soaked in the Devil’s piss right now,” Oliver said. “And not in a remotely hot way.” One of Hansen’s former professors sent her the segment, and Hansen watched it at her kitchen table — a moment that would eventually lead her to me.

“This actually made me sad as there are so many inaccuracies,” Hansen wrote to her professor in response. But, when the professor asked her what was incorrect, Hansen didn’t know what to say. For the first time, she Googled the health effects of PFOS.

Hansen was deeply troubled by what she read. One paper, published in 2012 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that, in children, as PFOS levels rose so did the chance that vaccines were ineffective. Children with high levels of PFOS and other fluorochemicals were more likely to experience fevers, according to a 2016 study. Other research linked the chemicals to increased rates of infectious diseases, food allergies and asthma in children. Dozens of scientific papers had found that, in adults, even very low levels of PFOS could interfere with hormones, fertility, liver and thyroid function, cholesterol levels and fetal development. Even PFBS, the chemical that 3M chose as a replacement for PFOS, caused developmental and reproductive irregularities in animals, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Reading these studies, Hansen felt a paradoxical kind of relief: As bad as PFOS seemed to be, at least independent scientists were studying it. But she also felt enraged at the company and at herself. For years, she had repeated the company’s claim that PFOS was not harmful. “I’m not proud of that,” she told me. She felt “dirty” for ever collecting a 3M paycheck. When she read the documents released by the Minnesota AG, she was horrified by how much the company had known and how little it had told her. She found records of studies that she had conducted, as well as the typed notes from her meeting with Newmark.

In October 2022, after Hansen had been at 3M for 26 years, her job was eliminated, and she chose not to apply for a new one. Three months later, she wrote me an email, offering to speak about what she had witnessed inside the company. “If you’d be interested in talking further, please let me know,” she wrote. The next day, we had the first of dozens of conversations.

When Hansen first told me about her experiences, I felt conflicted. Her work seemed to have helped force 3M to stop making a number of toxic chemicals, but I kept thinking about the 20 years in which she had kept quiet. During my first visit to Hansen’s home, in February 2023, we sat in her kitchen, eating bread that her husband had just baked. She showed me pictures of her father and shared a color-coded timeline of 3M’s history with forever chemicals. On a bitterly cold walk in a local park, we tried to figure out if any of her colleagues, besides Newmark, had known that PFOS was in everyone’s blood. She often sprinkled her stories with such Midwesternisms as “holy ­buckets!”

Hansen at her home in Minnesota

During my second trip, this past August, I asked her why, as a scientist who was trained to ask questions, she hadn’t been more skeptical of claims that PFOS was harmless. In the awkward silence that followed, I looked out the window at some hummingbirds.

Hansen’s superiors had given her the same explanation that they gave journalists, she finally said — that factory workers were fine, so people with lower levels would be, too. Her specialty was the detection of chemicals, not their harms. “You’ve got literally the medical director of 3M saying, ‘We studied this, there are no effects,’” she told me. “I wasn’t about to challenge that.” Her income had helped to support a family of five. Perhaps, I wondered aloud, she hadn’t really wanted to know whether her company was poisoning the public.

To my surprise, Hansen readily agreed. “It almost would have been too much to bear at the time,” she told me. 3M had successfully compartmentalized its secret; Hansen had only seen one slice. (When I sent the company detailed questions about Hansen’s account, a spokesperson responded without answering most of them or mentioning Hansen by name.)

Recently, I thought back on Taves and Guy, the academic scientists who, in the ’70s, came so close to proving that 3M’s chemicals were accumulating in humans. Taves is 97, but when I called him he told me that he still remembers clearly when company representatives visited his lab at the University of Rochester. “They wanted to know everything about what we were doing,” he told me. But the exchange was not reciprocal. “I soon found out that they weren’t going to tell me anything.” 3M never confirmed to Taves or Guy, who was a postdoctoral student at the time, that its fluorochemicals were in human blood. “I’m sort of kicking myself for not having followed up on this more, but I didn’t have any research money,” Guy told me. He eventually became a dentist to support his wife and family. (He died this year at 81.) Taves, too, left the field, to become a psychiatrist, and the trail ended there.

Last year, while reading about the thousands of PFAS-related lawsuits that 3M was facing, I was intrigued to learn that one of them, filed by cities and towns with polluted water, had produced a new set of internal 3M documents. When I requested several from the plaintiff’s legal team, I saw two names that I recognized. In a document from 1991, a 3M scientist talked about using a mass spectrometer — the same tool that Hansen would use years later — to devise a technique for measuring PFOS in biological fluid. The author was Jim Johnson — and he had sent the report to his boss, Dale Bacon.

This revelation made me gasp. Johnson had been Hansen’s first boss and had instigated her research into PFOS. Bacon had questioned her findings and ultimately told her to stop her work. (In a sworn deposition, Bacon said that by the ’80s he had heard, during a water-cooler chat with a colleague, that Taves and Guy had found PFOS in human blood.) What I couldn’t understand was why Johnson would ask Hansen to investigate something that he had already studied himself — and then act surprised by the results.

Jim Johnson, who is now an 81-year-old widower, lives with several dogs in a pale-yellow house in North Dakota. When I first called him, he said that he had begun researching PFOS in the ’70s. “I did a lot of the very original work on it,” he told me. He said that when he saw the chemical’s structure he understood “within 20 minutes” that it would not break down in nature. Shortly thereafter, one of his experiments revealed that PFOS was binding to proteins in the body, causing the chemical to accumulate over time. He told me that he also looked for PFOS in an informal test of blood from the general population, around the late ’70s, and was not surprised when he found it there.

Johnson initially cited “480 pounds of dog” as a reason that I shouldn’t visit him, but he later relented. When I arrived, on a chilly day in November, we spent a few minutes standing outside his house, watching Snozzle, Sadie and Junkyard press their slobbery snouts against his living ­room window. Then we decamped to the nearest IHOP. Johnson, who was dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, was so tall that he couldn’t comfortably fit into a booth. We sat at a table and ordered two bottomless coffees.

In an experiment in the early ’80s, Johnson fed a component of Scotchban to rats and found that PFOS accumulated in their livers, a result that suggested how the chemical would behave in humans. When I asked why that mattered to the company, he took a sip of coffee and said, “It meant they were screwed.”

At the time, Johnson said, he didn’t think PFOS caused significant health problems. Still, he told me, “it was obviously bad,” because man-made compounds from household products didn’t belong in the human body. He said that he argued against using fluorochemicals in toothpaste and diapers. Contrac­tors working for 3M had shaved rabbits, he said, and smeared them with the company’s fluorochemicals to see if PFOS showed up in their bodies. “They’d send me the livers and, yup, there it was,” he told me. “I killed a lot of rabbits.” But he considered his efforts largely futile. “These idiots were already putting it in food packaging,” he said.

Johnson told me, with seeming pride, that one reason he didn’t do more was that he was a “loyal soldier,” committed to protecting 3M from liability. Some of his assignments had come directly from company lawyers, he added, and he couldn’t discuss them with me. “I didn’t even report it to my boss, or anybody,” he said. “There are some things you take to your grave.” At one point, he also told me that, if he were asked to testify in a PFOS-related lawsuit, he would probably be of little help. “I’m an old man, and so I think they would find that I got extremely forgetful all of a sudden,” he said, and chuckled.

Out the windows of IHOP, I watched a light dusting of snow fall on the parking lot. In Johnson’s telling, a tacit rule prevailed at 3M: Not all questions needed to be asked, or answered. His realization that PFOS was in the general public’s blood “wasn’t something anyone cared to hear,” he said. He wasn’t, for instance, putting his research on posters and expecting a warm reception. Over the years, he tried to convince several executives to stop making PFOS altogether, he told me, but they had good reason not to. “These people were selling fluorochemicals,” he said. He retired as the second-highest-­ranked scientist in his division, but he claimed that important business decisions were out of his control. “It wasn’t for me to jump up and start saying, ‘This is bullshit!’” he said, and he was “not really too interested in getting my butt fired.” And so his portion of 3M’s secret stayed in a compartment, both known and not known.

3M is among the largest employers in Minnesota.

Johnson said that he eventually tired of arguing with the few colleagues with whom he could speak openly about PFOS. “It was time,” he said. So he hired an outside lab to look for the chemical in the blood of 3M workers, knowing that it would also test blood bank samples for comparison — the first domino in a chain that would ultimately take the compound off the market. Oddly, he compared the head of the lab to a vending machine. “He gave me what I paid for,” Johnson said. “I knew what would happen.” Then Johnson tasked Hansen with something that he had long avoided: going beyond his initial experiments and meticulously documenting the chemical’s ubiquity. While Hansen took the heat, he took early retirement.

Johnson described Hansen as though she were a vending machine, too. “She did what she was supposed to do with the tools I left her,” he said.

I pointed out that Hansen had suffered professionally and personally, and that she now feels those experiences tainted her career. “I didn’t say I was a nice guy,” Johnson replied, and laughed. After four hours, we were nearing the bottom of our bottomless coffees.

Johnson has strayed from evidence-­based science in recent years. He now believes, for instance, that the theory of evolution is wrong, and that COVID-19 vaccines cause “turbo-cancers.” But his account of what happened at 3M closely matched Hansen’s, and when I asked him about meetings and experiments described in court documents he remembered them clearly.

When I called Hansen about my conversation with Johnson, she grew angrier than I’d ever heard her. “He knew the whole time!” she said. Then she had to get off the phone for an appointment. “So glad I’m going to see my therapist,” she added, and hung up.

I once thought of secrets as discrete, explosive truths that a heroic person could suddenly reveal. In the 1983 film “Silkwood,” which is based on real events, Karen Silkwood, a worker at a plutonium plant, assembles a thick folder documenting her employer’s shoddy safety practices; while driving to share them with a reporter, she dies in a mysterious one-car crash. In another adaptation of a true story, the 2015 film “Spotlight,” a source delivers a box of critical documents to The Boston Globe, helping the paper to publish an investigation into child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Talking to Hansen and Johnson, though, I saw that the truth can come out piecemeal over many years, and that the same people who keep secrets can help divulge them. Some slices of 3M’s secret are only now coming to light, and others may never come out.

Between 1951 and 2000, 3M produced at least 100 million pounds of PFOS and chemicals that degrade into PFOS. This is roughly the weight of the Titanic. After the late ’70s, when 3M scientists established that the chemical was toxic in animals and was accumulating in humans, it produced millions of pounds per year. Scientists are still struggling to grasp all the biological consequences. They have learned, just as Johnson did decades ago, that proteins in the body bind to PFOS. It enters our cells and organs, where even tiny amounts can cause stress and interfere with basic biological functions. It contributes to diseases that take many years to develop; at the time of a diagnosis, one’s PFOS level may have fallen, making it difficult to establish causation with any certainty.

The other day, I called Brad Creacey, who became an Air Force firefighter in the ’70s at the age of 18. He told me that several times a year, for practice, he and his comrades put on rubber boots and heavy silver uniforms that looked like spacesuits. Then a “torch man,” holding a stick tipped with a burning rag, ignited jet fuel that had been poured into an open-air pit. To extinguish the 100-foot-tall flames, Creacey and his colleagues sprayed them with aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF. 3M manufactured it from several forever chemicals, including PFOS.

Creacey remembers that AFFF felt slick and sudsy, almost like soap, and dried out the skin on his hands until it cracked. To celebrate his last day on a military base in Germany, his friends dumped a ceremonial bucket on him. Only later, after working with firefighting foam at an airport in Monterey, California, did he start to wonder if a string of ailments — cysts on his liver, a nodule near his thyroid — were connected to the foam. He had high cholesterol, which diet and exercise were unable to change. Then he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. “It makes me feel like I was a lab rat, like we were all disposable,” Creacey told me. “I’ve lost faith in human beings.”

To celebrate Air Force firefighter Brad Creacey’s last day on a military base in Germany, his friends doused him with a bucket of the same aqueous film-forming foam they used to extinguish fires. Later, Creacey wondered if a string of ailments was connected to his many years of contact with the foam. (Courtesy of Brad Creacey)

It may be tempting to think of Creacey and his peers as unwitting research subjects; indeed, recent studies show that PFOS is associated with an increased risk of thyroid cancer and, in Air Force servicemen, an elevated risk of testicular cancer. But it is probably more accurate to say that we are all part of the experiment. Average levels of PFOS are falling, but nearly all people have at least one forever chemical in their blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “When you have a contaminated site, you can clean it up,” Elsie Sunderland, an environmental chemist at Harvard University, told me. “When you ubiquitously introduce a toxicant at a global scale, so that it’s detectable in everyone ... we’re reducing public health on an incredibly large scale.” Once everyone’s blood is contaminated, there is no control group with which to compare, making it difficult to establish responsibility.

New health effects continue to be discovered. Researchers have found that exposure to PFAS during pregnancy can lead to developmental delays in children. Numerous recent studies have linked the chemicals to diabetes and obesity. This year, a study discovered 13 forever chemicals, including PFOS, in weeks-old fetuses from terminated pregnancies and linked the chemicals to biomarkers associated with liver problems. A team of New York University researchers estimated in 2018 that the costs of just two forever chemicals, PFOA and PFOS — in terms of disease burden, disability and health-care expenses — amounted to as much as $62 billion in a single year. This exceeds the current market value of 3M.

Philippe Grandjean, a physician who helped discover that PFAS harm the immune system, believes that anyone exposed to these chemicals — essentially everyone — may have an elevated risk of cancer. Our immune systems often find and kill abnormal cells before they turn into tumors. “PFAS interfere with the immune system, and likely also this critical function,” he told me. Grandjean, who served as an expert witness in the Minnesota AG’s case, has studied many environmental contaminants, including mercury. The impact of PFAS was so much more extreme, he said, that one of his colleagues initially thought it was the result of nuclear radiation.

In April, the EPA took two historic steps to reduce exposure to PFAS. It said that PFOS and PFOA are “likely to cause cancer” and that no level of either chemical is considered safe; it deemed them hazardous substances under the Superfund law, increasing the government’s power to force polluters to clean them up. The agency also set limits for six PFAS in drinking water. In a few years, when the EPA begins enforcing the new regulations, local utilities will be required to test their water and remove any amount of PFOS or PFOA which exceeds four parts per trillion — the equivalent of one drop dissolved in several Olympic swimming pools. 3M has produced enough PFOS and chemicals that degrade into PFOS to exceed this level in all of the freshwater on earth. Meanwhile, many other PFAS continue to be used, and companies are still developing new ones. Thousands of the compounds have been produced; the Department of Defense still depends on many for use in explosives, semiconductors, cleaning fluids and batteries. PFAS can be found in nonstick cookware, guitar strings, dental floss, makeup, hand sanitizer, brake fluid, ski wax, fishing lines and countless other products.

In a statement, a 3M spokesperson told me that the company “is proactively managing PFAS,” and that 3M’s approach to the chemicals has evolved along with “the science and technology of PFAS, societal and regulatory expectations, and our expectations of ourselves.” He directed me to a fact sheet about their continued importance in society. “These substances are critical to multiple industries — including the cars we drive, planes we fly, computers and smart phones we use to stay connected, and more,” the fact sheet read.

Recently, 3M settled the lawsuit filed by cities and towns with polluted water. It will pay up to $12.5 billion to cover the costs of filtering out PFAS, depending on how many water systems need the chemicals removed. The settlement, however, doesn’t approach the scale of the problem. At least 45% of U.S. tap water is estimated to contain one or more forever chemicals, and one drinking water expert told me that the cost of removing them all would likely reach $100 billion.

In 2022, 3M said that it would stop making PFAS and would “work to discontinue the use of PFAS across its product portfolio,” by the end of 2025 — a pledge that it called “another example of how we are positioning 3M for continued sustainable growth.” But it acknowledged that more than 16,000 of its products still contained PFAS. Direct sales of the chemicals were generating $1.3 billion annually. 3M’s regulatory filings also allow for the possibility that a full phaseout won’t happen — for example, if 3M fails to find substitutes. “We are continuing to make progress on our announcement to exit PFAS manufacturing,” 3M’s spokesperson told me. The company and its scientists have not admitted wrong­doing or faced criminal liability for producing forever chemicals or for concealing their harms.

A photo of the Hansens: Paul, Kris and her mother, Nancy

Hansen often wonders what her father would say about 3M if he were still alive. A few years ago, he began to show signs of dementia, which worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Every time Hansen explained to him that a novel coronavirus was sickening people around the world, he asked how he might contribute — forgetting that the N95 mask he helped to create was already protecting millions of people from infection. When he died, in January 2021, Hansen noticed some Coban wrap on his arm. It was shielding his delicate skin from tears, just as he had designed it to. “He invented that,” Hansen told the hospice nurse, who smiled politely.

After she left 3M, Hansen began volunteering at a local nature preserve, where she works to clear paths and protect native plants. Last August, she took me there, and we walked to a creek where she often spends time. The water is home to three species of trout, she told me. It is also polluted by forever chemicals that 3M once dumped upstream.

For most of our hike, a thick wall of flowers — purple joe-pye weed and goldenrod — made it impossible to see the creek bank. Then we came to a wooden bench. I climbed on top of it and looked down on the creek. As I listened to the gurgling of water and the buzzing of insects, I thought I understood why Hansen liked to come here. It was too late to save the creek from pollution; 3M’s chemicals could be there for thousands of years to come. Hansen just wanted to appreciate what was left and to leave the place a little better than she’d found it.

The conservancy where Kris Hansen began volunteering after leaving 3M. The creek is polluted with forever chemicals that 3M once dumped upstream.

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Kirsten Berg contributed research.

by Sharon Lerner, photography by Haruka Sakaguchi, special to ProPublica

Kristi Noem Said She Is Proud to “Support Babies, Moms, and Families.” Her Record Shows Otherwise, Critics Say.

1 week 3 days ago

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Last month, former President Donald Trump announced he would not pursue a federal abortion ban, as many of his supporters hoped, and he criticized states with bans that make no exception for rape or incest.

Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, who at the time was on a short list of candidates to become Trump’s pick for vice president, responded immediately. Even though her state’s ban has neither exception and is considered one of the strictest in the country, Noem highlighted the parts of Trump’s message that she agreed with and sidestepped the rest.

“.@realDonaldTrump is exactly right… this is about ‘precious babies.’ It should be easier for moms, dads, and families to have babies — not harder,” she wrote on X following Trump’s announcement. “South Dakota is proud to stand for LIFE and support babies, moms, and families.”

But some state lawmakers, health care advocates and political observers in South Dakota say that Noem does not always follow through on that rhetorical promise. Since she became the first female governor of South Dakota in 2019, she has rejected programs and millions of dollars in federal funds that would have benefited pregnant people, parents and children — policies that might be at odds with her vision of limited government.

That Noem doesn’t always follow through on her talk is an oft-repeated criticism, said Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, who put it another way: Noem, he said, is “all hat and no cattle.”

“You look like a cowboy, but you’re not one,” Schaff said of the well-worn phrase. “I think there’s been a sense that she’s maybe overly concerned about sort of the imagery of politics rather than the substance.”

Much of that criticism has been eclipsed by the fallout from Noem’s memoir, “No Going Back,” in which she provides an account of shooting and killing a pet hunting dog called Cricket two decades ago. Still, Noem has pitched herself as a governor, rancher and mom passionate about family values and a second Trump presidency. For his part, Trump has not yet publicly eliminated her as a potential running mate, so her record on taking “care of moms and their babies both before birth and after” bears examination.

Noem’s Record

Noem’s office declined to comment, saying responses from state agencies were sufficient. But her record does, in fact, include measures that support families. In 2020, she helped create the first paid family leave policy for state employees, and she expanded it last year from eight to 12 weeks. She extended the length of time that people in prison can spend with their newborns in a “mother-infant program” from 1 month to 30 months. And she expanded a program called Bright Start, which pairs nurses with first-time parents, to cover the entire state with a $2.5 million budget increase.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the South Dakota Department of Health wrote that Noem is “committed to freedom for life” and pointed to a recently launched mobile health clinic called Wellness on Wheels, which provides services to rural communities such as connections with federal Women, Infants and Children benefits and pregnancy risk assessments. Over half the state counties are defined as a maternal care desert.

“DOH programs like Bright Start, Wellness on Wheels, WIC, pregnancy care and many more support this initiative in ensuring our future generations are healthy and strong,” the statement said.


At times, Noem has tried to put distance between herself and the state’s abortion ban, which was put in place by a trigger law that was passed before she took office. The ban only allows the procedure to “preserve the life of the pregnant female.” But she has not embraced opportunities to add exceptions to the ban’s language, even after calls to do so from within her own party.

Three female Republican lawmakers attempted to enact legislation to add “risk of death or of a substantial and irreversible physical impairment of … major bodily functions” to the permissible circumstances for an abortion. Rep. Taylor Rehfeldt, Sen. Sydney Davis and Sen. Erin Tobin — all registered nurses who identify as pro-life — met several times with Noem staffers as they tried to build support for the measure, and they believed they had Noem’s support. But as opposition emerged from anti-abortion advocates, principally South Dakota Right to Life, Noem did not help. Rehfeldt withdrew the bill.

“I never got an official statement from her office,” Rehfeldt said. “But I will tell you that there was consensus, and then all of a sudden there wasn’t.”

In the next legislative session, Rehfeldt brought a new bill that mandated that the Department of Health and the state attorney general create an educational video intended to clarify — but not change — the ban’s language; Noem signed that one in March. Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America released a statement thanking Noem “for making South Dakota the first state to protect women’s lives with a Med Ed law.”

Medicaid Expansion

Maternal and infant health outcomes are particularly alarming in the state’s Native American population. About 44% of all pregnancy-associated deaths from 2012 to 2021 were Native Americans and Alaska Natives. In 2023, more than 3% of all Native American babies born in South Dakota had syphilis, part of an unprecedented modern outbreak.

One component of the problem is the chronically underfunded Indian Health Service hospitals and clinics, which are overseen by the federal government. If South Dakota expanded eligibility for its Medicaid program, as 39 other states and the District of Columbia have done, it would infuse IHS facilities with badly needed additional money from newly covered patients.

“That may be like a job position for a new doctor or salary for a dentist,” said Janelle Cantrell, head of the Medicaid and health care exchange enrollment program at Great Plains Tribal Leaders’ Health Board in Rapid City, South Dakota.

But Noem has opposed and delayed expansion. In 2022, South Dakota voters took the decision out of her hands by approving a ballot initiative for Medicaid expansion. According to state Rep. Linda Duba, a Democrat, Noem has dragged her feet on the expansion, which has resulted in far fewer residents enrolling than expected. At the same time, Noem supports adding a work requirement to Medicaid eligibility, which is popular among GOP governors.

“There’s nothing proactive going on,” Duba said. “That comes from the administration. They didn’t want Medicaid expansion. They’re doing everything they can to slow-walk it and keep the enrollments down.”

Department of Social Services Cabinet Secretary Matt Althoff said in a statement that Medicaid expansion enrollment is going “efficiently and smoothly,” and that he expects a monthly average of 40,000 enrollees a month in the next fiscal year. He pointed to the state’s low unemployment rate and rising per capita personal income as an explanation for below-expected enrollment.

Early Childhood

South Dakota has no state-funded preschool program. Noem’s administration declined to apply for $7.5 million in federal money to pay for a free summer meal program for low-income children, something several GOP governors have also done. She also helped defeat proposals to pay for school lunches for eligible students and once called subsidized child care a “line in the sand” she wouldn’t cross.

“I just don’t think it’s the government’s job to pay or to raise people’s children for them,” she said in a radio interview in December 2023.

Some of Noem’s own initiatives have fallen flat. A pledge to eliminate the state’s 4.5% grocery tax, a full sales tax on all food items that only South Dakota and Mississippi charge, was a cornerstone of her 2022 reelection campaign. Repealing the tax, she said, would help “single moms who may rent an apartment and have a tough time feeding their kids with the rising food costs that we have.”

But the bill to repeal the tax failed to pass one of its first committee hearings, despite the Legislature’s Republican supermajority.

“It is amazing to me how much of a national profile that Kristi Noem has, in some ways not being all that successful in terms of achieving legislative agendas,” said state Sen. Reynold F. Nesiba, a Democrat and the chamber’s minority leader.

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by Jessica Lussenhop