a Better Bubble™


Louisiana Sheriff’s Department Settles Two Use-of-Force Cases, Including One in Which an Autistic Teen Died

15 hours 34 minutes ago

This article was produced for Verite News by Richard A. Webster, who covered Jefferson Parish as part of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in 2021-22. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, has agreed to pay settlements to two families who accused its sheriff’s deputies of using excessive force against teenagers.

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office agreed to contribute to a $1.25 million settlement with the family of Eric Parsa, a 16-year-old boy with severe autism who died nearly four years ago after deputies pinned him to the pavement and then sat on his back for more than nine minutes. The September settlement, the cost of which will be shared by the shopping center where the boy died, is one of the largest in the department’s history.

The Parsa settlement also requires that an outside expert develop a program to train JPSO deputies on how to deal with people with autism. Parsa’s parents, Donna Lou and Daren Parsa, told Verite News they hope it will prevent other families from enduring the same pain they have suffered.

JPSO also will pay an undisclosed sum to the family of Tre’mall McGee, who was shot in the shoulder by a deputy while he was facedown on the ground, about two months after Parsa’s death. The sheriff’s office was accused of concealing its role in the shooting of the 14-year-old from both the public and McGee’s mother for months. McGee’s attorney, Ron Haley, said neither he nor McGee’s mother, Tiffany, could discuss terms.

Both Parsa’s death and McGee’s shooting were covered as part of a yearlong investigation by ProPublica and WWNO/WRKF, which found that JPSO rarely upholds complaints against its deputies. Over a three-year period, from 2017 to mid-2020, JPSO’s internal affairs division upheld only one misconduct complaint against a deputy, according to the investigation by the news organizations. During that same time, the New Orleans Police Department upheld 247.

The sheriff’s office did not respond to requests for comment, but in a recent interview with WWL-TV, Sheriff Joe Lopinto said his deputies didn’t do anything wrong in the Parsa case and were not deserving of discipline. He has previously denied any wrongdoing in the McGee case as well.

“This is not a scenario where any of our deputies are trying to hurt a kid, trying to use force or even justified using deadly force,” he told WWL-TV about the Parsa case. “They’re encountering a situation that happens … and in the course, a death occurs.”

The two recent settlements have led the ACLU of Louisiana to renew its calls for federal prosecutors to investigate the sheriff’s office and put the agency under a consent decree. Relying on lawsuits filed by the victims of police brutality is not enough to force JPSO to reform its practices and stop violating the civil rights of people with disabilities and Black and Hispanic residents, said Nora Ahmed, legal director of the ACLU of Louisiana.

“It cannot be the case that people continue to be killed, maimed and violated, and the only recourse that they have is yet another lawsuit that will be fought to the bones, and, if they’re lucky, settled,” Ahmed said.

Handcuffed and Shackled

Parsa died in January 2020 in the parking lot of the Westgate Shopping Center in Metairie. Surveillance footage shows the boy repeatedly slapping his own head, then slapping and wrestling with his father for several minutes before law enforcement was called.

A nearby business manager contacted a JPSO deputy who was working a security detail for the shopping center and informed him that a child with special needs was having a violent episode. In total, at least six deputies arrived in four patrol cars and two unmarked vehicles. They handcuffed and shackled the teen as deputies took turns sitting on his back, with one putting him in a chokehold. After nearly 10 minutes, deputies noticed Parsa had gone “limp” and urinated, according to the lawsuit.

“When I saw Eric’s dead body in the emergency room, I broke out into tears saying: ‘Sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’” said Daren Parsa, who told the business manager to call the police when his son began suffering a disability-related “meltdown.” “And I’m still sorry. I wish I’d known that when you say ‘yes to law enforcement being involved, there’s a risk of mortality.”

The coroner ruled the teen’s death an accident as a result of excited delirium, with “prone positioning” as a contributing factor.

Up to half of all people killed during encounters with police are disabled, according to a 2016 study by the Ruderman Family Foundation, a Boston-based philanthropic organization.

The inability of those with autism to effectively communicate their feelings can often cause them to express themselves and their frustrations through more negative behaviors, such as aggression and self-injuring, Lou, Parsa’s mother, said. This can lead to deadly results when they encounter police officers who haven’t been trained on how to appropriately handle people with developmental disabilities. “They’re not trying to be malicious. They’re really asking for help,” Lou said. “They’re in distress, and they don’t know how to express it.”

The sheriff’s office stated in court documents that the show of force that day was necessary to deal with a violent and out-of-control teenager, but Daren Parsa said there was minimal risk of danger. His son would often have meltdowns when he felt overwhelmed, but they would fade if he was given space to calm down. Lou said she tried to explain to the officers that one of her son’s triggers while he was in an excited state was being crowded by a lot of unfamiliar people.

“They said, ‘Let us do our job.’ And we all know the outcome of that,” Lou said, “It just doesn’t make sense. We assumed they were trained, that they knew what to do.”

“What’s heartbreaking is that he was calming down,” Daren Parsa said, “and we almost got him inside of the car, and then they showed up.”

by Richard A. Webster, Verite News

Some Republicans Were Willing to Compromise on Abortion Ban Exceptions. Activists Made Sure They Didn’t.

22 hours 34 minutes ago

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

State Rep. Taylor Rehfeldt was speaking on the floor of the South Dakota Capitol, four months pregnant with her third child, begging her Republican colleagues to care about her life.

“With the current law in place, I will tell you, I wake up fearful of my pregnancy and what it would mean for my children, my husband and my parents if something happened to me and the doctor cannot perform lifesaving measures,” she told her fellow lawmakers last February, her voice faltering as tears threatened.

Rehfeldt was a stroke survivor and her pregnancy put her at high risk for blood clots and heart issues that could kill her. The state’s ban made abortion a felony unless it was “necessary to preserve the life of the pregnant female.” If Rehfeldt developed complications, doctors told her, the law didn’t make clear how close to death she needed to be before they could act.

“When can a doctor intervene? Do I need to have my brain so oxygen-deprived to the point that I am nonfunctional?” she asked the room.

Listen: South Dakota Legislature

In February, Republican South Dakota state Rep. Taylor Rehfeldt, then four months pregnant, spoke on the floor of the state Legislature about how the state’s strict abortion ban put her health at risk.

(Courtesy South Dakota House of Representatives)

Rehfeldt is an ambitious rising Republican: She has a strong anti-abortion voting record and is serving as the House assistant majority leader. She also was a nurse. But her background and credentials failed to rally her colleagues to support a narrow clarification to the ban that would allow a doctor to end a pregnancy if “the female is at serious risk of death or of a substantial and irreversible physical impairment of one or more major bodily functions.”

“I would never have possibly imagined that a bill protecting a woman’s life could be so contentious,” Rehfeldt said on the floor of the House, announcing she was withdrawing her bill before even bringing it to a vote.

The language she and two other Republicans had landed on was still so slim, most national medical organizations and abortion-access advocates wouldn’t support it.

But even that had no chance. South Dakota Right to Life — a local affiliate of the major anti-abortion organization National Right to Life, which can rally voters to sway Republican primary elections — had told her it opposed any changes. (South Dakota Right to Life declined to comment.)

When the Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion last year, strict abortion bans in more than a dozen states snapped into effect. Known as “trigger laws,” many of the bans were passed years earlier, with little public scrutiny of the potential consequences, because few expected Roe v. Wade to be overturned.

Most of the trigger laws included language allowing abortion when “necessary” to prevent a pregnant person’s death or “substantial and irreversible” impairment to a major bodily function. Three allowed it for fatal fetal anomalies and two permitted it for rape victims who filed a police report. But those exceptions have been nearly inaccessible in all but the most extreme cases.

Many of the laws specify that mental health reasons can’t qualify as a medical emergency, even if a doctor diagnoses that a patient might harm herself or die if she continues a pregnancy. The laws also carry steep felony penalties — in Texas, a doctor could face life in prison for performing an abortion.

The overturn of Roe has intensified the struggle between those who don’t want strict abortion bans to trump the life and health of the pregnant person and absolutists who see preservation of a fetus as the singular goal, even over the objections of the majority of voters. In the states where near-total abortion bans went into effect after Roe’s protections evaporated, the absolutists have largely been winning.

And the human toll has become clear.

On the floors of state legislatures over the past year, doctors detailed the risks their pregnant patients have faced when forced to wait to terminate until their health deteriorated. Women shared their trauma. Some Republican lawmakers even promised to support clarifications.

But so far, few efforts to add exceptions to the laws have succeeded.

A review by ProPublica of 12 of the nation’s strictest abortion bans passed before Roe was overturned found that over the course of the 2023 legislative session, only four states made changes. Those changes were limited and steered by religious organizations. None allowed doctors to provide abortions to patients who want to terminate their pregnancies because of health risks.

ProPublica spoke with more than 30 doctors across the country about their experiences trying to provide care for patients in abortion-ban states and also reviewed news articles, medical journal studies and lawsuits. In at least 70 public cases across 12 states, women with pregnancy complications faced severe health risks and were denied abortion care or had treatment delayed due to abortion bans. Some nearly died or lost their fertility as a result. The doctors say the true number is much higher.

Early signs indicated Republicans might compromise, as voters in red states showed strong popular support for protecting abortion access and polls revealed the majority of American voters do not support total abortion bans. That opposition has only hardened since then, as reproductive rights drove a wave of Democratic electoral victories in Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania in November. In Ohio, voters approved an amendment to the state’s constitution guaranteeing the right to an abortion.

But in the most conservative states, Republicans ultimately fell in line with highly organized Christian groups. Those activists fought to keep the most restrictive abortion bans in place by threatening to pull funding and support primary challenges to lawmakers that didn’t stand strong.

Their fervor to protect the laws reflects a bedrock philosophy within the American anti-abortion movement: that all abortion exceptions — even those that protect the pregnant person’s life or health — should be considered the same as sanctioning murder.

Facing Political Threats, Lawmakers Cave

By the time the 2023 legislative sessions began, the consequences of total abortion bans written years earlier by legal strategists with no medical expertise had become clear.

Across the nation, women described the harm they experienced when care was delayed or denied for high-risk complications or fatal fetal anomalies.

Amanda Zurawksi, a Texas woman who almost died after she was made to wait for an abortion until she developed a serious infection, testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee: “The preventable harm inflicted on me has already, medically, made it harder than it already was for me to get pregnant again.”

Jaci Statton, an Oklahoma woman who had a dangerous pregnancy that is never viable and can become cancerous, sued after being told that doctors “couldn’t touch me until I was crashing and that we should wait in the parking lot until I was about to die,” she told the Tulsa World.

Nancy Davis, a Louisiana woman who traveled out of state for an abortion after she learned her fetus was developing without a skull, said doctors told her, “I had to carry my baby to bury my baby.”

Mylissa Farmer, a Missouri woman who described being denied abortion care at three separate emergency room visits after her water broke before viability, sparked a federal investigation of the hospitals. The experience was “dehumanizing,” she told The Associated Press. “It was horrible not to get the care to save your life.”

Polls show that the majority of Americans reject laws that don’t allow patients to make health care decisions about their own bodies. When voters have been asked directly, as they were in ballot measures in Kansas, Kentucky, Montana and Ohio, they have chosen to protect abortion access. And in the 2022 midterms, congressional Republican candidates in some swing districts lost over their abortion stances.

Sensing backlash, some Republicans signaled a willingness to revisit their states’ abortion bans.

“I think there’s enough support for a compromised solution that matches up with most voters,” Republican Kentucky state Sen. Whitney Westerfield told Louisville Public Media in November 2022.

“We need to make clear what the trigger law meant,” Tennessee state Sen. Becky Duncan Massey said to WBIR Channel 10 in August 2022. “Doctors should be concerned about saving the life of a mom.”

In 10 of the 12 states with laws that ProPublica reviewed, lawmakers made efforts to add new exceptions or clarify language in 2023. In eight of them, Republicans were part of the effort.

But over time, calls from some Republicans for compromise were overwhelmed by strong opposition from anti-abortion lobbyists. In Idaho, Louisiana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas, Republican lawmakers voted down or killed exceptions that would give doctors broader discretion to address health risks.

In Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, North Dakota, Tennessee and Texas, they quashed bills that would let doctors offer abortion when it was clear the fetus would never survive. Bills proposing rape and incest exceptions failed in eight of the states. In Arkansas, lawmakers voted against rape and incest exceptions that were narrowed to apply only to children.

The rejections came after women and families came to statehouses to share their own heartbreaking experiences.

“We found out that my baby had a giant hole in her chest and her intestines were strangling her heart,” Chelsea Stovall said in testimony to the Arkansas State Legislature, crying as she shared her experience terminating a nonviable pregnancy earlier that year. “I had to travel out of state to a doctor who didn’t know me and didn’t know potential complications.”

Stovall told ProPublica she did have complications — she bled for more than a month after the abortion and had to have a second procedure.

State Rep. Delisha Boyd, a Democrat who put forward a rape and incest exception bill in Louisiana, shared that she was conceived when her mother was raped at 15 by an older man.

“I know that my mother never recovered from that and she was dead before she was 28 years old,” Boyd said. “If we are pro-life, we have to be concerned with more than just the baby in utero. No one looked out for my mother. No one looked out for me once I was born.” Boyd said she noticed Republican lawmakers leaving the room as she and other women shared their personal stories.

In Arkansas, when state Rep. Ashley Hudson, a Democrat, proposed a rape and incest exception that was limited to children under 16 — because “we are talking about a situation where a 10-year-old child is being forced to carry a pregnancy that may kill her” — her Republican colleagues swiftly voted against it.

Republican Rep. Cindy Crawford countered with her experience operating a shelter for girls, where she said she had supported many 12-year-olds who gave birth.

“Just because a young girl is pregnant and — at 12 or whatever — you think she should have an abortion, would you not agree that two wrongs don’t make a right? That her mental health would be worse after she experienced an abortion?” she asked Hudson.

“I disagree and I would disagree that it’s up to me at all,” Hudson replied.

All of those efforts failed.

Arkansas lawmakers discuss an bill that would allow abortions in cases of rape or incest involving a child under 16 years old. “We need to start having the discussion about why we’re forcing children to carry pregnancies to term,” state Rep. Ashley Hudson told the state House Judiciary Committee on March 30. The amendment failed. (Courtesy Arkansas House of Representatives)

Four states made minor changes to their total abortion bans, in close alignment with anti-abortion organizations.

In Idaho and Tennessee, doctors who first pushed for changes were cut out of the process after local anti-abortion organizations pressured lawmakers.

In North Dakota, the state repealed its abortion ban because of constitutional challenges. Then the representatives of local Catholic dioceses worked with the hospital association to pass a new bill that was nearly as strict as the original.

In Texas, a narrow bill quietly passed. It was put forward by Democrats, then changed by Republicans and specifically addresses court challenges.

In the four states, the new laws created exceptions for immediately life-threatening situations, such as ectopic pregnancies, where the fetus implants outside the uterine cavity, and molar pregnancies, where no embryo forms. The Texas law still allows doctors to be charged for providing abortion care for an ectopic pregnancy or if a patient’s water breaks before viability, but it codifies those conditions as a legitimate defense in court. The North Dakota law made some small concessions: A “serious health risk” is now defined as one that poses only “substantial physical impairment to a major bodily function,” not substantial and irreversible, for example.

Doctors said the new changes did little to help patients facing health risks or whose fetuses have severe anomalies. They said the exceptions are mainly limited to people who are already facing an emergency.

This was by design, according to some lawmakers, including Idaho state Sen. Todd Lakey, whose exceptions bill intentionally focused only on situations where a pregnant patient is facing death. “That was our decision, was to focus on the life versus more of a health-type exception,” he said. He said earlier that a woman’s health “weighs less, yes, than the life of the child.”

Democratic Idaho state Sen. Melissa Wintrow questions Republican state Sen. Todd Lakey about abortion exceptions that cover only life-threatening conditions, not health risks. “That was our decision, to focus on the life,” Lakey said in March. (Courtesy Idaho Senate)

Also in Idaho, Democratic state Sen. Melissa Wintrow asked David Ripley, the leader of Idaho Chooses Life, why the law’s new language couldn’t include a broader exception for the health of the mother.

“It sounds pretty easy to me to say, ‘Hey, protect the health of the mother.’ I’m at a loss as to why you can’t put that language in the bill,” she said during a hearing.

“In the real world, we’re talking about a spectrum,” Ripley responded. “We’re talking about death, and we’re talking about a headache.” Idaho Chooses Life did not respond to a request for comment.

During the session, a state senator tried to remove Idaho’s exception for rape or incest. He failed, but the exception was limited to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

The exception, as with most abortion bans that have a rape or incest clause, requires a woman to produce a police report. Current law doesn’t explicitly guarantee that rape or incest victims can get copies of their own reports when an investigation is open, said Wintrow.

When Tennessee Republicans introduced a bill to give doctors more protection to offer terminations when a pregnant patient faced a condition that could become life-threatening, Will Brewer, the lead lobbyist for Tennessee Right to Life, testified against it, arguing the patient’s condition needed to deteriorate before a doctor could intervene.

“There are issues with pregnancy that could be considered an emergency — or at least could possibly be considered an anomaly or medically futile — that work themselves out,” Brewer, who has no medical training, testified on the House floor. “I’m not talking about an eleventh hour, you know, a patient comes into the ER bleeding out, and what do we do? I’m talking about (a situation when) there is a condition here that some doctors would say constitutes an emergency worthy of a termination and other doctors would say, ‘Let’s pause and wait this out and see how it goes.’ I wouldn’t want the former to terminate when the latter says there’s room to see how it goes before this is urgent enough.”

Will Brewer, the lead lobbyist of Tennessee Right to Life, opposed a bill that would have given doctors more protection to offer terminations when a pregnant patient faced a potentially life-threatening condition. He testified before the state House on Feb. 14. (Courtesy Tennessee House of Representatives)

He also opposed language that would allow doctors to “prevent” medical emergencies instead of treating active emergencies.

“That ‘prevent’ language has me concerned because that would mean that the emergency hasn’t even occurred yet,” he said. Brewer did not respond to a request for comment.

Doctors say that real-life pregnancy complications are rarely so cut and dried. In many cases, patients can go from stable to requiring life support in a matter of minutes.

“It is not always so clear, and things don’t always just work themselves out,” said Dr. Kim Fortner, a Tennessee maternal-fetal medicine specialist with 20 years of experience, testifying at the same hearing.

And doctors point out that health risks that are not immediately life-threatening can still have severe consequences.

Conditions like hypertension or blood clots within the veins that are not life-threatening in the first trimester could cause death as the pregnancy progresses, said Dr. Carrie Cwiak, an OB-GYN in Georgia. In those cases, it should be the patient’s decision whether to continue their pregnancy — not their doctor’s or their legislator’s decision, she said.

Anti-Abortion Groups Turn Up the Pressure

Tennessee Right to Life is part of a network of Christian special-interest groups that represents a minority of voters but wields outsized influence in Republican-majority legislatures. They use score cards to rate lawmakers on their fealty to anti-abortion causes and fund primary campaigns against Republicans who do not toe the line.

In February in Tennessee, for example, seven Republicans at a House subcommittee hearing expressed strong support for a bill written with input from doctors that would create exceptions for abortion care to prevent medical emergencies and for severe fetal anomalies.

“No one wants to tell their spouse, child or loved one that their life is not important in a medical emergency as you watch them die when they could have been saved,” said Republican state Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes, a nurse and one of the bill’s sponsors.

But Brewer, the Right to Life lobbyist, threatened during his testimony before the legislature that the group’s political action committee would issue negative score cards to any lawmaker who voted for a health exception.

His comments drew a strong rebuke from the Republican speaker of the House that day. Afterward, Tennessee Right to Life sent out emails to their network of voters, urging them to contact lawmakers who supported the bill.

Tennessee state Sen. Richard Briggs, a physician, planned to introduce the same bill in the Senate because polling showed about 80% of Tennesseeans believe abortion should be either completely legal or legal under some conditions. But he told ProPublica the pressure was too much. He couldn’t get the bill heard in any Senate committees after Right to Life came out against it.

Weeks later, Tennessee Right to Life supported a separate “clarification” bill that did not address the majority of the doctors’ concerns. No doctors were given the opportunity to speak in the legislature and the bill was quickly passed.

“This is just pure power politics,” said Briggs. “We’re going to have to address that we’re not listening to the voting public. And you know, we could lose. I mean, our people will start losing elections.”

But in Louisiana, Mary DuBuisson, a Republican state representative who proposed a change to clarify that abortions are legal for people having miscarriages, lost her next election after the group ran attack ads against her.

In North Dakota, two Republican lawmakers considering an amendment to allow abortions after the six-week limit in cases of child rape said they would not vote for if it did not have the support of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, a group that acts on behalf of the state’s two Catholic dioceses. The amendment quickly failed.

In March, North Dakota state Rep. Gretchen Dobervich tried to extend the state abortion law’s rape and incest exception from covering six weeks of pregnancy to covering 12. Two of her Republican colleagues opposed the move because it had not been approved by the North Dakota Catholic Conference, a powerful lobby in the state. The amendment failed. (Courtesy North Dakota House of Representatives)

In Idaho, an effort by doctors and the Idaho Medical Association to lobby a small health exception was stopped in its tracks when the chair of the Idaho Republican Party, Dorothy Moon, issued a letter accusing the medical association of being a “progressive trade association” that represents “doctors educated in some of the farthest Left academic institutions in our country.” Soon after, Republicans introduced a separate bill that cut out the doctors and was written with the input of Idaho Chooses Life.

In the four states that did pass bills, the changes were limited and designed to respond to court challenges.

For example, in Idaho, a state district judge found that their no-exception abortion ban violated a federal law that requires emergency departments to treat pregnant patients facing an emergency. The clarification bill, supported by Idaho Chooses Life, made a small exception for life-threatening emergencies, ectopic pregnancies and molar pregnancies, targeted to deflect the judge’s argument.

Idaho and Tennessee “wanted to keep their law intact,” said Ingrid Duran, the legislative director for National Right to Life. Her organization didn’t want to see changes to the bans, but, she said, “I understand why they needed to do that, just to remove the wind from the sails of the opposition.”

The law has continued to make practicing maternal care in Idaho untenable for some doctors. They say the law is still unclear about the level of risk a patient must be facing for a doctor to offer abortion.

“Idaho still has no exceptions for mom unless we know 100% they’re dying,” said Dr. Lauren Miller, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist who has since left the state, part of an exodus of OB-GYNs who have moved due to the abortion ban.

Blaine Conzatti, the president of Idaho Family Policy Center, a group that helped pass the original version of the no-exception abortion law, said his organization did not want to see the law clarified.

“We would want a stricter standard than what this law allows,” he said. In his group’s view, abortion is almost never ethical.

“The only appropriate reason for abortion would be treating the mother and the unintended consequence is the death of the preborn child,” he said. “If the mother got cancer and you began treating her with chemo and radiation and the unintended consequence is that the baby dies, that’s ethically appropriate. But performing an abortion procedure to terminate the pregnancy is not ethically appropriate.”

A Core Philosophy

For the anti-abortion movement, the goal has always been total abortion bans with no exceptions and constitutional recognition that a fetus has the same rights as a person, said Mary Ziegler, a leading historian of the U.S. abortion debate.

This unyielding position was influenced by thinkers like Charles E. Rice, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame whose 1990 book “No Exception: A Pro-Life Imperative,” argues that the anti-abortion movement should not support any exceptions — even for the life of the pregnant person.

“If two people are on a one-man raft in the middle of the ocean, the law does not permit one to throw the other overboard even to save his own life,” he wrote.

The Catholic Church and the anti-abortion movement also have a history of celebrating the stories of women who were willing to sacrifice their lives to continue their pregnancies.

One of the most well-known stories is about Chiara Corbella Petrillo, a young Italian woman who refused chemotherapy in 2011 for cancer on her tongue because she was pregnant. As the cancer progressed, it became difficult for her to speak and see. A year after giving birth to a healthy baby boy, she died.

Live Action, a major anti-abortion advocacy group, included Petrillo on a list of “7 Brave Mothers Who Risked Their Lives to Save Their Preborn Babies.”

“In a culture where women are bombarded with the message that convenience and worldly achievement are tantamount — even overriding their children’s right to life — it is refreshing to see women who have defied the norm,” an editor for the organization wrote.

In anti-abortion circles, Petrillo has been described as a “heroine for the 21st century” and a “modern day saint.”

Her story was turned into a book, which appeared on a 2016 Mother’s Day gift list in the magazine Catholic Digest. The Catholic Church has opened an inquiry to consider whether Petrillo should be elevated to sainthood.

For decades, major anti-abortion groups did not see a no-exceptions approach as politically possible. Groups including National Right to Life and Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America instead made gains by pressuring lawmakers to chip away at abortion protections via targeted restrictions that strangled access but wouldn’t curtail the basic right enshrined in Roe v. Wade. Between 2011 and 2017, 50 abortion clinics in the South closed due to the new laws.

But after Donald Trump was elected and began filling the Supreme Court with judges handpicked by the Federalist Society, a network of conservative and libertarian lawyers, some influential anti-abortion activists saw an opening for more radical action.

Paul Benjamin Linton was one of them. A longtime Catholic legal activist, he had argued against Rice’s commitment to a no-exceptions position that had no chance in the Supreme Court — not because he disagreed with it morally, but because he believed an incremental strategy would result in more babies being born. (Linton did not respond to emails and voicemails.)

After Trump’s election, he shifted to supporting banning abortion completely. Linton began drafting legislation that did not include explicit exceptions for the life or health of the pregnant person. Starting in 2019, he promoted some of the country’s strictest abortion bans in Tennessee, Idaho, and Texas. Those trigger laws, unenforceable at the time they were passed, became a stark reality for millions of people of childbearing age when Roe was overturned. Though slightly modified in 2023, they continue to sharply limit the ability of doctors to provide abortions to patients facing health risks.

Bleak Path Forward

To many doctors in the most restrictive abortion-ban states who participated in the 2023 legislative session, the path forward offers few signs of hope. Some see little appetite from lawmakers and lobbyists to continue pushing for new exceptions unless the political calculus changes significantly.

Nikki Zite, a doctor involved in the effort to add exceptions to Tennessee’s abortion law, said she and her colleagues across the state have been asking lobbyists what the strategy is for a renewed push in the next session. “I was hopeful that these issues would be revisited and we might have more success,” Zite said. “But I’m hearing the excuse, ‘It’s an election year and there’s a supermajority of Republicans’ and that it’s very unlikely to go anywhere.”

Briggs, the Tennessee state senator, said he is considering sponsoring another bill that would cover health complications and severe fetal anomalies in 2024. But he is mindful that it’s an election year and many of his moderate Republican colleagues will be facing Right to Life-backed challengers.

“I’m not optimistic about the bill passing, not at all,” he said. “And I don’t want to hurt any of our moderates enough to get a radical elected.”

Westerfield, the Kentucky state senator who last year spoke about a possible compromise on the abortion ban “that matches up with most voters,” told ProPublica he still believes most Kentuckians support allowing abortions in some cases. But he said he didn’t think it was something he could vote for — and he didn’t know whether his Republican colleagues might consider it either.

“I wouldn’t put a wager on any of it,” he said.

Some doctors in abortion-ban states that have made small changes to their laws told ProPublica they now feel cautiously comfortable treating obviously life-threatening conditions, like ectopic pregnancies, without calling legal counsel or an ethics committee. But they regularly turn away women requesting abortions in the vast gray zone related to health.

Some spoke of having to tell patients dealing with multiple medical complications, like diabetes and lupus, that pregnancy is likely to worsen their condition — but they can’t help with an abortion. They have cared for patients with serious heart complications who have continued dangerous pregnancies against their will. In some cases, doctors have had to rush patients facing extreme complications exacerbated by pregnancy, like kidney failure, to hospitals out of state.

Doctors like Sarah Osmundson, a maternal-fetal-medicine specialist in Tennessee, continue to ask themselves: How close to death does a patient have to be before I can intervene?

“We are keeping patients pregnant entirely for fetal benefit — not for maternal benefit, Osmundson said. “If a patient says, ‘I don’t want to take on that risk,’ we need to honor that.”

Research by Mollie Simon and Mariam Elba. Video editing by Lisa Riordan Seville.

by Kavitha Surana

How “The Kids of Rutherford County” Sets Investigative Reporting to Music

5 days 22 hours ago

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive our stories in your inbox every week.

The Serial podcast series “The Kids of Rutherford County” begins with a hum. It’s a low hum, sort of ominous, that lasts for two or three seconds before the podcast’s host, Meribah Knight, comes in with, “It was a March afternoon in Rutherford County, Tennessee …”

The hum is a bass note, a low F, the lowest note J.R. Kaufman can play on his accordion in the Los Angeles home-slash-studio he shares with his half-brother and bandmate Justin Rubenstein. Once Knight begins speaking, Kaufman’s note slips beneath her voice, still there, but in the background.

The stories investigative reporters tell have drama. They have tension and tragedy, a natural fit for orchestration. (See, for example, “The Night Doctrine,” an animated film from ProPublica with music by Afghan composer Milad Yousufi.) Words and instruments work in tandem, as evidenced by the opening of “The Kids of Rutherford County.”

That March afternoon, Knight says, school was out for the day, “and a dozen or so little kids were playing a game of pickup basketball in someone’s backyard.” An upright bass comes in, doubled with Moog synthesizer, making four low thumps. “And then, as kids do, one said something about another kid’s mom,” Knight says. A Juno synthesizer runs through a bunch of guitar pedals, and then a high, oscillating melody arrives, from flutes and clarinets. The insult leads to shoving, Knight says, and shoving leads to a couple of feeble punches. Enter trumpet, harp and electric bass, all still in the background, kind of hidden, the music swirling, in step with the story.

Knight introduces the series, “This is ‘The Kids of Rutherford County,’” and as she finishes speaking, the music comes out of hiding; drums kick in, there’s guitar, a dash of pedal steel, and an explosion of trumpet, trombone and saxophone. It is here, for about 25 seconds, that the listener gets to appreciate the name of Rubenstein’s and Kaufman’s band — The Blasting Company — before the music slips back beneath the surface of the words.

This podcast series originated with a print story that Knight, a reporter at Nashville Public Radio, did in partnership with ProPublica. The story detailed how Rutherford County, southeast of Nashville, had illegally jailed hundreds, if not thousands, of children. After that story published in 2021, ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio partnered with Serial and The New York Times to produce a four-part podcast.

For ProPublica, partnering with Serial meant we got to watch colleagues do something we rarely do. We saw them set investigative reporting to music.

Between the two of them, Rubenstein and Kaufman play at least 22 different instruments on the podcast. Those instruments include the expected (violin, piano) and the less expected (pedal steel guitar). Rubenstein plays a lot of brass and strings, Kaufman a lot of woodwinds and keyboards. They also brought in five friends to play. Kaufman, asked to describe the podcast’s music, says, “I was calling it minimalist country classical synth music, and then Justin added, ‘with maximal tendencies.’”

In an Instagram post, Rubenstein and Kaufman joke that the music reflects their “super inclusive musical methodology: All instruments, everywhere, at all times.”

Rubenstein and Kaufman did not study music at a conservatory. Their education was more organic. Both played cello as kids, and it kind of rolled from there. “I basically learned the piano by not practicing cello,” Kaufman says. Rubenstein picked up the guitar because it was cool. As a young adult, Rubenstein, with a friend, bought a short school bus for $2,000, converted it to run on vegetable oil, and then moved into it with his brother. They lived on the bus while busking across the country, Kaufman on accordion, Rubenstein the trombone. The brothers formed The Blasting Company 15 years ago.

While Kaufman and Rubenstein are the composers, the conductor is Phoebe Wang, Serial’s senior sound designer and mixer. She finds the musicians and commissions the score, working with the musicians on the mood she’s looking for. Then she stitches and weaves the music throughout the story.

With “The Kids of Rutherford County,” Wang wanted the music to convey a sense of place. At the same time, “I didn’t want it to sound like a caricature of southern culture,” she says. She wanted music that isn’t too cleaned up or precious, that makes people feel something.

Wang found The Blasting Company courtesy of Spotify, when their hauntingly gorgeous song “Candy” popped up in her Discover Weekly mixtape. For Kaufman and Rubenstein, getting noticed in roundabout ways is kind of a thing. They got hired to score “Over the Garden Wall,” an animated miniseries on Cartoon Network, after one of the show’s writers heard them busking at the Hollywood Farmers Market. For this podcast, providing a sense of place would not be a reach. The two were born and raised in Nashville, next to Rutherford County.

Julie Snyder is Serial’s executive editor and its co-creator. She says that when scoring a podcast, she wants the music to help with comprehension most of all. These are long stories. There’s a lot of talking. Music can act like a cue for your brain. When music starts, you pay attention. When it stops, you pay attention. Music can be used in the same way that a section break is used in print.

With “The Kids of Rutherford County,” the score can be traced to a spirit of experimentation. On Zoom calls with Wang and Daniel Guillemette, a senior producer for Serial, the two musicians had woodwinds, horns, keyboards and whatnot scattered about, visible in their background. Rubenstein remembers the pair from Serial spying different instruments and saying, “Try that thing, try that.”

“We were game to try anything,” Rubenstein says.

In the end, Serial used close to 20 tracks that The Blasting Company created for the show.

Wang, asked to illustrate how she used particular tracks in the podcast, highlighted three:

Listen to “Mother’s Children”

“Mother’s Children” is the podcast’s theme song. It’s the track described at the top of this story and used in the beginning of the podcast’s first episode, as a childhood scrap blows up into something more. Wang calls it a “beautiful, ambient track” that is a slow burn. “It feels like it’s setting something up.” Since it moves slowly, she wanted it to deliver a real payoff — and that payoff is the blast that comes when Knight finishes her introduction. “It’s like the world is opening up to you,” Wang says of that moment.

For Kaufman and Rubenstein, that moment in the song is memorable because it’s the one time they were asked to go bigger. Most other times, with most other tracks, they were asked to be more restrained. But in this instance, as Wang kept requesting more, Rubenstein kept layering in trombones and trumpets while Kaufman added saxophones.

Listen to “Stone Door”

The “Stone Door” track — named for a hiking trail in Tennessee’s South Cumberland State Park, is threaded throughout the show. It was inspired by chamber music — a piece for a string quartet by Maurice Ravel, specifically — to which the composers added a clarinet section reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, then layered in electric guitar and rock drums. For Wang, this track provided “a feeling that something is off.” And that’s what The Blasting Company was going for. While scoring the podcast, Rubenstein says, “we’re thinking of the cognitive dissonance in the show, that things are always on the verge of falling apart.”

In Episode 1, the song starts within the first 10 minutes, as a child is writing down names for a police officer. (This will lead to all kinds of trouble.) In Episode 2, the track plays as a lawyer, flabbergasted at what’s before him, looks around a courtroom and thinks, “What the hell are you people doing?” In the third episode, the song comes in as Knight describes the tension between two realities: what the lawyers see (an illegal operation) and what the judge sees (a system with sound criteria). And in the final episode, the track appears one last time, as lawyers who have sued the county are driving around, searching, futilely, for potential plaintiffs who stand to be compensated, if only they can be found.

Listen to “Rites of Passage”

Kaufman remembers sitting on the floor, on a yoga mat as Rubenstein began playing a beautiful melody on the violin that would become “Rites of Passage.” It was “bendy” and “slidy,” Kaufman says. They added guitar, flute, other strings and drums, and sent it to Wang. Wang remembers listening to the song for the first time. “This is a special track,” she thought to herself. The strings were enveloping. Listening, she got a sense of place. She wound up using the track in a special spot at the end of Episode 1. The track plays as Knight describes how Rutherford County has been jailing a staggering number of children, so many that for the county’s kids, getting jailed was “almost a rite of passage.” The end of an episode is one of Wang’s favorite places for her favorite pieces of music, because the listener sits with the song. It’s a place for the music to shine.

by Ken Armstrong

Listen to All Episodes of “The Kids of Rutherford County”

5 days 22 hours ago

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive our stories in your inbox every week. This podcast was created with Serial/The New York Times and WPLN/Nashville Public Radio.

When a video surfaced of an after-school scuffle, 11 Black children were arrested. Their crime: not stepping in to stop a fight. The arrests set off a firestorm of controversy — and an investigation into the juvenile justice practices in one Tennessee county.

Reporters Meribah Knight with Nashville Public Radio and Ken Armstrong with ProPublica obtained years’ worth of personnel files, state inspection reports, emails, depositions and other records, and reports from all 98 juvenile courts in the state.

What they discovered was that for more than a decade, Rutherford County had arrested and illegally jailed hundreds of children. And behind those decisions was a powerful judge, Donna Scott Davenport, who went unchecked by higher authorities in Tennessee.

That work, done through ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, led to a series of stories; it also led to an outcry from community leaders and Tennessee lawmakers. The university where Davenport taught a criminal justice class cut ties with her; members of Congress asked the Department of Justice to open an investigation into the county’s juvenile justice system; and Davenport announced that she would step down in 2022 rather than run for reelection.

There was, however, more to tell. In collaboration with Serial Productions and The New York Times, Knight reported and hosted a podcast about the two down-on-their luck lawyers who recognized the broken system and tried to shut it down. “The Kids of Rutherford County” is a four-part narrative series that reveals a juvenile court shrouded by confidentiality rules, illuminating how something so secretive and illegal was allowed to grow. How did this happen? What does it take to stop it? And will the people in charge face any consequences?

Listen to the entire series in the audio player below, or follow the link to your favorite podcast app.

Episode 1: The Egregious Video

A video of little kids fighting in Rutherford County, Tennessee, comes to the attention of a local police officer. Her investigation leads to the arrest of 11 kids for watching the fight. The arrests do not go smoothly.

The arrests lead to a public scandal. But there seems to be a difference in how people on the outside of this juvenile justice system see things and how people on the inside do. What the outside world will eventually learn is that this juvenile justice system has been locking kids up illegally.

Episode 2: What the Hell Are You People Doing?

A young lawyer named Wes Clark begins defending kids at the Rutherford County juvenile court. He quickly sees a troubling pattern: kids jailed for minor offenses, even when the law says they shouldn’t be. But he can’t always persuade the juvenile judge to let those kids out.

Wes is frustrated and demoralized, even more so because no one else at the court seems to think there’s a problem with how things are done there.

That is until Wes meets another lawyer who sees things the way he does. When one of Wes’ clients is held in solitary confinement, they both think they have a case that might finally allow them to strike back.

Episode 3: Would You Like to Sue the Government?

After winning their solitary case, Wes Clark and his law partner Mark Downton get a call from the ACLU: Would they like to represent some kids who were arrested for watching a fight? As Wes begins his research into the case, he comes across a line in a police report saying there was a “judicial requirement” to arrest kids. From this he learns some Rutherford County policies for arresting and jailing kids violate the law. He and Mark realize they have a massive class-action lawsuit on their hands.

Episode 4: Dedicated Public Servants

The lawyers settle their case on behalf of the kids wrongfully arrested or illegally jailed by Rutherford County. The county ends its illegal detention policy, and some kids who were wronged by the system get paid. But none of the people behind the illegal policies face serious consequences. So what’s changed in Rutherford County, and what hasn’t?

Listen to “The Kids of Rutherford County”
by ProPublica

For Alaska Families, Questions Remain About Unsolved Deaths and “Suicides”

6 days 16 hours ago

This story details allegations of violence against Indigenous women and girls.

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

KOTZEBUE, Alaska — The hum of a clothes dryer, zippers clinking, filled Saima Chase’s house one afternoon in September as she set down a steaming dish of moose stir-fry. “Egg roll in a bowl,” she said of the quick after-work recipe. The conversation turned to the reason for my visit: unsolved killings, unexplained deaths and suicides that might not really be suicides.

A 41-year-old Inupiaq woman raised in Kotzebue, Chase recently became the city’s mayor. Before that she worked for the Alaska State Medical Examiner Office, preparing autopsy tables, and at a local nonprofit that offers legal help to domestic violence survivors.

When Chase’s friend Sarah Stallsworth was found dead at her home in 2010, Kotzebue police labeled the case suicide. Chase has always suspected otherwise.

“I know she didn’t kill herself,” said Chase, who learned about the condition of the body from Stallsworth’s mother and sister. “She was beat up really bad. She had missing teeth.”

The death came years before Chase won city office, but she offered to help the family obtain police records in the case.

“I really want to bring Sarah peace,” she messaged Stallsworth’s family at the time, a text she shared with a reporter years later. “I know something bad happened to your family and nobody did anything about it and it needs to be brought back to the surface.”

Family members show an undated photo of Sarah Stallsworth. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

The family never did get the police records. Their questions remain unanswered. (In a Nov. 16 email, Kotzebue Police Chief Roger Rouse said that Stallsworth’s death is officially considered a suicide. He said he couldn’t comment on the department’s communications with the family prior to his becoming police chief in 2020.)

And so it goes in dining rooms and office lobbies across Kotzebue. Rouse said earlier this year that he knew of only one unsolved killing in this Arctic Circle city, that of Susanna “Sue Sue” Norton in 2020, whose case we wrote about this month.

Many people we spoke with, the new mayor included, aren’t so sure.

When Anchorage Daily News photographer Emily Mesner and I stopped by the local high school to research Norton’s yearbook photos, a front desk clerk said her own sister-in-law died in a case police stopped short of labeling homicide. (The police department said the cause of death in that case, involving a gunshot wound to the chest, is considered “undetermined.” Though the death was not labeled a homicide, it remains an “open cold case,” Rouse replied in an email.)

When Norton’s childhood friend posted a note to Facebook asking about unexplained deaths in the Northwest Arctic, her phone bubbled with names and cases.

I’d first started asking for information about Norton in 2020, and this June, after years of receiving little to no information, I decided it was finally time to visit and take a closer look. What I didn’t expect was to come home with a notebook full of additional names.

Susanna “Sue Sue” Norton was buried in this cemetery on a bluff overlooking Kotzebue and the Chukchi Sea. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

When I visited Norton’s burial site on a bluff overlooking the Chukchi Sea, her family pointed out two adjacent graves. One belonged to a woman who, Norton’s niece said, “was hit on the head by her boyfriend and died” in 2022. According to the police department, bruises found on the woman’s body did not contribute to her death, which resulted from a brain injury due to lack of oxygen after a heart attack related to ethanol withdrawal. Buried beside her was the woman we had heard about at the high school, who died by gunshot in 2016.

Alaska has the third-highest suicide rate in the nation, and the numbers are especially high in the northwest Arctic. Over the years, police have told me that families might have trouble accepting that a loved one committed suicide or died by accident and may be looking for alternate explanations.

But in such cases as the death of Jennifer Kirk, which we learned about while looking into Norton’s homicide, major questions remain unanswered. Police said she shot herself, but her body also showed signs of strangulation, according to the department’s death investigation report. Kirk’s body was found at a home on the property of former city mayor Clement Richards Sr., the same property where Norton was found strangled two years later. No charges have been filed in either case.

Though Kirk’s death has been labeled a suicide, her boyfriend, the mayor’s son, admitted to causing injuries found on her body the day she died. The boyfriend told police he did not kill Kirk, and he has not been charged in her death. He had previously been convicted of domestic violence assault involving Kirk, including two cases of nonfatal strangulation. (He did not respond to interview requests.)

The Kotzebue Police Department does not have a designated homicide detective or investigator, according to the current chief. The FBI and state troopers will assist in a murder investigation if they are asked or, Chase said, if the case is considered one that might make the news or draw political pressure.

Asked how the department decides when to request outside help in a homicide case, Rouse replied: “If a case has reached a point that additional resources beyond KPDs capabilities or manpower beyond what KPD is capable of handling are needed to bring the case to a conclusion.”

Otherwise, years pass and cases grow colder. Across Western Alaska and the Arctic, from St. Michael to Utqiagvik, I’ve met families who wonder about cases labeled as accidents or suicide. Some, like the 2016 gunshot death, are suspended in limbo with the cause of death classified as “undetermined.”

The failure of Kotzebue police to solve the strangling death of Norton in the center of a town of 2,900 only deepens those suspicions. It doesn’t help that every officer on the police force lives hundreds or thousands of miles away from Kotzebue, in other Alaska cities or other states. They commute to the city for two-week shifts, then fly home. Some have been featured on a TV show.

The Kotzebue Police Department (Emily Mesner / ADN)

In some instances, neighbors and even police believe they know what happened and who did it. One mother I spoke to about her daughter’s 2012 death in Utqiagvik has since died. Norton’s mother suffered a stroke a few months after we first interviewed her in 2020 and now has trouble speaking. Stallsworth’s mother, Patsy Mendenhall, is now 71.

How long must they wait?

At her dinner table, Chase texted Stallsworth’s family and arranged for us to talk. After a few wrong turns, Emily and I found the house. Stallsworth’s sister, Mary Ann Towksjhea, stood beckoning from the doorway of the qanitchaq, or arctic entry. (Many Alaska homes have this in-between room, where visitors peel off winter gear before stepping inside the warm house.)

Inside, driftwood and stones hung from the ceiling, by the dozens. Mendenhall likes to comb the beach for artifacts to add to the collection. On the wall, a finger of whale baleen hung above a wooden snowshoe and an image of Jesus.

First image: Patsy Mendenhall sits with her daughter Mary Ann Towksjhea at their home in Kotzebue. Second image: Decorations hang from the ceiling of their home. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Mendenhall said she couldn’t understand why police didn’t put up crime scene tape or prevent people from coming and going from the house immediately after her daughter’s body was found. One visitor cleaned up blood in the bathroom, she said.

From deep in the house, Mendenhall unearthed an accordion folder filled with court records and correspondence. Among the documents: a yellowed copy of a letter the family addressed to the city 10 days after Stallsworth’s death.

“On July 16, 2010 my mother & I went to speak to Chief Ward to see if a police report was done as to what happened to Sarah S. Stallsworth who passed away on July 6, 2010 & Chief Ward told us they didn’t need one,” the letter said. “My mother & I Mary Ann Towksjhea said that it wasn’t right” and that authorities were supposed to do a thorough investigation “as to what happened to Sarah.”

Former Kotzebue Police Chief John Ward said in a phone interview that he doesn’t recall the Stallsworth case and doesn’t recall seeing the letter. He said he retired at the end of July 2010.

The family never received a written police report. Chase said she tried and failed to help obtain the documents. For more than a year, Stallsworth’s mother and sister kept returning to the police station, they said. Rouse, the current police chief, said in an email that “KPD does not have any record of the request in 2016 for Stalsworth information, or if any information was provided to the requestor.”

Mendenhall said police told her to stop watching so much “CSI.” “I didn’t even have TV at the time!” she said. (Ward, who was police chief at the time of Stallsworth’s death, said he doesn’t remember making any comment about the TV show. Rouse, the current chief, said: “KPD cannot comment on why the previous police chief at that time would make CSI comments.").

Stallsworth’s daughter, Rena Mendenhall, then 5 years old, was home when her mother died.

I asked if we could talk to Rena, who is now 18 and was living in Anchorage at the time of our visit. Moments later, Patsy Mendenhall reached her on a cellphone. Rena Mendenhall said she still remembers the night her mother died.

“It was real late. They were partying,” she said. “I woke up and heard lots of noise in the living room.”

She remembers going back to sleep. The next morning, Stallsworth was dead.

“I don’t think she would kill herself knowing I was there,” the daughter said.

In August, the Alaska Department of Public Safety released a Missing Indigenous Persons report to great fanfare. Sue Sue Norton’s name isn’t on it. Nor are such cases as Eliza Simmonds in Utqiagvik and Chynelle “Pretty” Lockwood in St. Michael. That’s because the report lists people who haven’t been found. It doesn’t include the names of those whose deaths remain unsolved.

Jennifer Kirk, left, and Susanna “Sue Sue” Norton died two years apart, both in homes owned by the former mayor of Kotzebue and often occupied by his adult sons. The father said he had no comment and did not respond to written questions. The sons also did not respond to questions. (Left photo: Facebook; right photo: courtesy of Lesley Sundberg)

It also includes only cases reported by Alaska State Troopers and the Anchorage Police Department, not the Kotzebue Police Department, North Slope Borough Police Department or dozens of others that serve smaller cities and towns.

Still, there are 345 names, as well as new information about certain cases that shows for the first time whether police believed these disappearances were related to criminal activity.

“This report was definitely a step in the right direction,” Charlene Aqpik Apok, executive director of Data for Indigenous Justice, said at the time.

Before leaving Kotzebue, we added Stallsworth’s name to the list of death investigations to request from the city police department. We’re awaiting the results of those public records requests.

As part of the fact-checking process for this story, I emailed Rouse to ask if he still believed Sue Sue Norton’s death was the only unsolved homicide. On Monday, he replied that the police department is now taking a fresh look at other cases.

“We are digging through our historic records to see if there are any additional investigations that may be open cold homicide cases that we are unaware of,” Rouse wrote. In fact, he wrote, Kotzebue police have now asked the state’s Murdered and Missing Indigenous Persons unit to review the 2016 gunshot death that we heard about at the high school. They are also looking at cases where the cause of death was ruled “undetermined” to see if they, too, should be reexamined.


Nov. 22, 2023: A headline with the story originally referred imprecisely to a death. While the cause of death is homicide, it has not yet been officially called a murder.

by Kyle Hopkins, Anchorage Daily News

How a Maine Businessman Made the AR-15 Into America’s Best-Selling Rifle

6 days 21 hours ago

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Outside Healy Chapel on the campus of Saint Joseph’s College of Maine, the American flag swayed at half-staff. Inside, candles flickered, and the dying autumn light filtered softly through stained glass. A nursing student sobbed as a small group of mourners read aloud the names of the 18 people slaughtered with an assault-style rifle in late October at a bowling alley and a restaurant up the road in Lewiston. The college had shut down for two days as police sought the killer, whose body was found in the woods after he turned a gun on himself.

Saint Joseph’s is sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, a 192-year-old society of nuns that has accused the firearms industry of “profiting from these killings.” Toward the end of the vigil, a graduate assistant asked the mourners to pray for political leaders.

“Give them insight, wisdom and courage,” she implored, “to address the epidemic of gun violence.”

Several months earlier on the same campus, as fog enveloped Sebago Lake and rain poured down in sheets, a larger crowd celebrated the life of a man who did as much as anyone to make assault-style rifles — like those used in Lewiston and other massacres — ubiquitous in America. After cocktails and crudites, they bid farewell to one of Maine’s own, Richard E. Dyke.

As a digital photo tribute flashed images from his life, family members, friends and former employees praised Dyke’s kindness and generosity. Beside a framed proclamation by Maine’s state Legislature declaring that Dyke would be “long remembered and sadly missed,” they recounted his rise from mill-town poverty to multimillionaire philanthropist and friend of powerful politicians.

“When he walked into a room, it became his room,” a former colleague told the packed hall. “It’s difficult to drive around Maine and not see something that Dick touched. … He touched thousands of people’s lives.”

What the heartfelt tributes to Dyke that day omitted were the human costs of the industry that allowed him to be so generous — costs that the fellow residents of his beloved home state would soon be the latest to bear.

When the public asks, “How did we get here?” after each mass shooting, the answer goes beyond National Rifle Association lobbyists and Second Amendment zealots. It lies in large measure with the strategies of firearms executives like Dyke. Long before his competitors, the mercurial showman saw the profits in a product that tapped into Americans’ primal fears, and he pulled the mundane levers of American business and politics to get what he wanted.

Dyke brought the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, which had been considered taboo to market to civilians, into general circulation, and helped keep it there. A folksy turnaround artist who spun all manner of companies into gold, he bought a failing gun maker for $241,000 and built it over more than a quarter-century into a $76 million business producing 9,000 guns a month. Bushmaster, which operated out of a facility just 30 miles from the Lewiston massacre, was the nation’s leading seller of AR-15s for nearly a decade. It also made Dyke rich. He owned at least four homes, a $315,000 Rolls Royce and a helicopter, in which he enjoyed landing on the lawn of his alma mater, Husson University.

Although his boasts of military exploits and clandestine derring-do caused associates to roll their eyes, he was actually no gun enthusiast. As a teenager, he dreamed of becoming a professional dancer. Once, when his brother Bruce persuaded him to go deer hunting, Dyke sat in his Jeep reading The Wall Street Journal, rifle out of reach as a deer ambled safely past.

Along the way, Dyke and his team capitalized on the very incidents that horrified the nation. Sales typically went up when a mass killer used a Bushmaster. After a pair of snipers in the Washington, D.C., area murdered 10 people with a Bushmaster rifle in 2002, Dyke’s bankers noted that the shootings, while “obviously an unfortunate incident … dramatically increased awareness of the Bushmaster product and its accuracy.” A decade later, a 20-year-old wielding a Bushmaster murdered 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Last year, a Bushmaster was used to kill 10 Black people at a market in Buffalo, New York. The murderer painted racist taunts on the rifle, including “Here’s Your Reparations!”

The arc of Dyke’s journey illustrates the often misunderstood story of “assault rifles” — a now-politicized description that Dyke, for a time, embraced. Mainstream American businesses, financiers and politicians abetted the rise of AR-15s. Banks loaned money to make them, Wall Street invested in them, video games and Hollywood movies glamorized them, and Congress shielded their manufacturers from liability for shootings.

As Dyke’s company seeded its guns into American society, paving the way for imitators, he relied on those same institutions to largely insulate him from scrutiny or retribution. He carefully cultivated political connections, including with the Bush family; William S. Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine and U.S. secretary of defense; and Susan Collins, a Republican senator from Maine since 1997. “Dick Dyke’s influence at the senior most levels of the U.S. military and political establishment has created numerous revenue opportunities,” Bushmaster’s bankers wrote.

“Dick was a longtime friend of mine,” Collins told ProPublica in a statement. “He was a vocal advocate for small businesses in Maine and America.” Collins called Dyke to wish him well when he was diagnosed with cancer and sent her condolences to the family after he died, said her spokesperson, Annie Clark.

Today, more than 24 million AR-15s are in circulation. Because of their accuracy, light weight and low recoil, they are the most popular rifle in the U.S. But while they accounted for less than 3% of homicides in 2020, they’ve become a favored weapon of mass shooters. Both fetishized and demonized, they’ve also emerged as a potent symbol of defiance. Gun rights activists have flaunted semi-automatic rifles at counter-protests against Black Lives Matter, on social media and at rallies at state capitol buildings. In 2022, President Joe Biden called for banning AR-style weapons, saying too many schools and workplaces “have become killing fields, battlefields here in America.”

(Illustration by Clay Rodery for ProPublica)

Richard Earl Dyke was born in Wilton, Maine, in 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression and one of Maine’s coldest winters on record. His father, Earl, worked in a shoe factory and later became a police officer. His mother, Gladys, had a series of jobs, including as a burler in a woolen mill. Foreshadowing her son’s career of fixing damaged companies, she repaired imperfections in fabric.

One day, Dyke came home from school to find his mother weeping at the dinner table. Her per-piece pay had been cut while her employer raised the price of health insurance. The memory, he later told friends, shaped his generosity toward employees at Bushmaster, whom he would reward with lavish bonuses, 100% health care coverage and holiday dinners served on china.

The same year Dyke was born, the Roosevelt administration enacted the first federal gun control legislation, registering and taxing machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and silencers. The furious response, led by the NRA, to a tougher early version of the bill anticipated modern legislative battles over Second Amendment rights.

During Dyke’s boyhood, New England was the heart of the firearms industry. Its spine stretched from Winchester in New Haven, Connecticut, to Colt in Hartford to Smith & Wesson in Springfield, Massachusetts, and north to machine-gun maker Saco Lowell in Maine. Much of the industry has since moved south, but some firearms companies remain in New England, including Sturm, Ruger, which made the rifle used in the Lewiston shootings.

In Wilton, almost every young boy hunted and fished. Dyke killed his first deer when he was 11. A photo in his biography shows him proudly cradling his rifle as he stands beside a slain buck strapped to the hood of the car with its legs stretching to the sky.

But dancing and acting were Dyke’s teenage passions. In 1951, he starred in a church-sponsored production of a musical-comedy, “Crazy Daze,” according to a newspaper account at the time. “Who is it that makes everyone laugh with his jokes and crazy antics and who is always willing to do his share of the work? Why Dicky, of course!” read his yearbook blurb.

After a stint in the Army, Dyke earned a degree in accounting from Husson College (now Husson University) in Bangor. He worked for the IRS, started his own firm and began investing on the side. A self-described “bottom fisherman,” he demonstrated a knack for seeing future profit in present disasters. Tom Kent, a longtime friend and former Maine state trooper, recalled driving by a dilapidated marina with Dyke. Kent saw a bunch of rotting cabins, but Dyke smelled opportunity. He bought the marina and turned the cabins into condos, Kent said.

Over the decades, records show, Dyke bought or started scores of other businesses, sometimes owning as many as 10 at a time. There was an inn on the Caribbean island of Antigua, a candle company, a restaurant called Mr. D’s, a nursing home and an apartment building in Portland, Maine, that he named after his father, “The Earl.” He invested in a Windham, Maine, firm that made poker chips and sold them to Trump casinos.

“He was somewhat a Donald Trump. In that it was always ‘I, I, I’ with him and not ‘we, we we,’” Kent said. “If we were in a meeting and someone disagreed with him, you better not pick up that rope because you were gone.”

In the late 1970s, Dyke called Kent with a proposition. “I was just at the bankruptcy court,” Dyke told his friend. “There’s an interesting gun company there. I don’t know the first thing about guns, but you do.”

Dyke wanted to buy the company and offered Kent a stake for a $25,000 investment. That was almost every penny Kent and his wife, Joan, possessed. “Dick has always been good to us,” Joan told him. “So let’s take a chance.”

Dyke also confided his plans to his younger brother, Bruce.

“You don’t even hunt,” Bruce recalled telling him.

“Well, this guy in Bangor has this little outfit,” Dyke replied. “I think it could really do something. He doesn’t have any idea how to get (the guns) out and sell them.”

The “little outfit” made a futuristic weapon, the Bushmaster Arm Pistol, named after a Central American viper. It was designed for Air Force pilots whose planes had been downed. The automatic version could rattle off 550 rounds a minute, its founder Mack Gwinn boasted to a local reporter. An early reviewer for Guns & Ammo noted, “for civilian use, it will provide knock-down power far exceeding many heavy pistol calibers,” and it was “light enough for a woman to handle.” On the flip side, the writer warned, “Its production, I believe, will create considerable controversy and certain uneasiness by (federal) Agents! Its deadly appearance is against it in the eyes of the man on the street.”

Dyke bought the company out of bankruptcy. At his first gun show, an angry customer confronted him. “I got one of your goddamned guns and it’s no damned good,” the man barked, according to Kent. “It sure isn’t,” Dyke admitted. “But we will soon have a gun that is.”

Vincent Pestilli, a garrulous bull of a man who trained U.S. special forces members in the use of Russian-made automatic rifles, was Bushmaster’s head of sales. To improve the crudely made Bushmaster pistol, Pestilli got help from legendary firearms designer Uziel Gal, inventor of the Uzi submachine gun. He still keeps a sheet of Gal’s stationary on which Pestilli scrawled suggested improvements.

The early going was hard. Pestilli recalled getting a call from a man with a thick Spanish accent, seeking Bushmaster guns. Pestilli said he thought it was a crank call and hung up, but soon two Mexican Federales were touring the new Bushmaster factory. The problem: Bushmaster had not started production and had few workers. Pestilli frantically hired the workers’ relatives and friends to pretend to be making guns. Bushmaster didn’t get the contract.

In the 1980s, Connecticut-based Colt was the only major seller of AR-15s to civilians. Decades earlier, it had purchased patents to the design from Armalite, for which the AR was named. (The AR-15 was the 15th iteration of the rifle Armalite developed for the military.) In 1964, Colt introduced the semi-automatic civilian version, which fired a single shot with each trigger pull, marketing it as a sporting rifle.

But imported assault-style guns, like the Uzi and the AK-47 known as the Kalashnikov, were increasingly popular. With scant commercial interest in the arm pistol, Dyke focused on selling rifles and parts. Instead of investing in expensive stamping, machining and forging equipment to manufacture guns in house, he reduced costs by buying rifle uppers, lowers, barrels and stocks from other, mostly local, suppliers and having employees assemble them.

In marketing materials, the company boasted that its new solid wood stock, semi-automatic “Assault Rifles,” a hybrid of the AK-47 and Colt’s AR-15s, weighed just 6.25 pounds. Dyke even had the words “Bushmaster Assault Rifle” stamped on the guns. You could buy one in 1981 for $484.95. Eventually, Bushmaster made AR-15 clones. Years later, Dyke told a New York Times journalist he had been impressed by the AR-15’s accuracy. “At 25 meters, if you are a decent shot, you can put it into a bull’s-eye that is the size of a quarter.”

Bushmaster marketed “The Lady,” a tan AR-15, to women. (Courtesy of Vincent Pestilli)

Dyke periodically contributed to gun designs, coming up with “The Lady” Bushmaster in a tan color to match a purse style he’d seen, Pestilli said. For years, during the summer lull in firearms sales, Dyke offered dealers a free Maine lobster for every rifle they sold. “It pushed up his numbers considerably,” recalled Richard Thurston, then Bushmaster’s chief financial officer.

Two mass shootings in the 1980s put semi-automatic rifles in the spotlight. In a 77-minute spree, a California man with a 9 mm Uzi murdered 21 people and wounded more than a dozen at a McDonalds near the Mexican border. Another gunman used a Chinese-manufactured AK-style rifle to kill five schoolchildren and maim more than two dozen in Stockton, California.

In 1989, California banned 44 models of rifles and pistols it branded as assault weapons, including the Bushmaster Assault Rifle and the Bushmaster Pistol. Soon after, President George H. W. Bush stopped the importation of Uzi and AK-style weapons. Although its domestically made guns weren’t affected by the federal ban, Colt stopped selling AR-15s to civilians. It would jump in and out of the civilian market over the ensuing decades.

Dyke had no such qualms. Bushmaster sales climbed.

Five years later, President William J. Clinton was pushing for a national ban on manufacturing assault-style rifles for civilian use. Worried about Bushmaster’s future, Dyke and Kent turned to a political ally: U.S. Sen. William Cohen of Maine.

Kent and Cohen had known each other since high school, when they competed in baseball and basketball. Dyke had appeared in 1980 before a Senate subcommittee scrutinizing the IRS’ treatment of small businesses. Testifying before the committee, Dyke was hailed by the senator as one of “Maine’s leading citizens.”

With a flourish that recalled his student days as a touring thespian, Dyke made a perfect small-town foil against an impersonal and spirit-crushing tax collection agency. He played up his “meager” origins as “the son of shoemakers in a very small town in Maine.” He addressed Cohen as “Bill” and “Billy.” Dyke described a conflict he’d had with the IRS that could have spelled disaster for a company he had just extracted from bankruptcy. It was Bushmaster.

Now, Kent met with Cohen. “Billy, we’ve got over a million dollars’ worth of parts, and this assault weapons ban is going to put us out of business,” Kent recalled saying. From Kent’s office, Cohen started making phone calls, Kent said. The final bill, which six Republican senators including Cohen supported, grandfathered in manufacturers’ existing inventory. So Bushmaster ramped up production in advance of the ban, helping make 1994 the hottest-selling year yet of civilian AR-15s.

Cohen, who now chairs a consulting firm, did not respond to requests for comment.

Clinton signed the 10-year ban into law in September 1994. But Dyke and his team found workarounds. With just a few tweaks, a very effective AR-style weapon could still be legally sold. All the company had to do was remove a bayonet lug and stop selling folding rifle stocks and threaded muzzles. “The rest of the rifle is unchanged,” Bushmaster’s website assured customers. It noted that the removal of threaded muzzles made the rifles even more effective: “Target shooters will notice some accuracy gains.” And lest customers be deterred by a new federal ban on making magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition, Bushmaster noted that the restrictions did not apply retroactively: 20-round and even 40-round magazines were still “out there for sale.”

Bushmaster sent its rejiggered gun to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

“They called Dick and said, ‘You have a winner,’” Kent recalled. “‘It gets around the ban.’”

Criminal sprees continued. In 1997, in what became known as the North Hollywood shootout, two bank robbers wielding semi-automatic rifles including a Bushmaster were outgunning police, wounding 11 of them plus six civilians, until officers barged into a gun store. They pleaded for better guns that could penetrate bulletproof vests.The store lent them several rifles, including Bushmasters, and the robbers were killed.

The incident was free advertising for Bushmaster. Law enforcement and commercial sales spiked.

Two years later, Bushmaster executives noticed another uptick in AR-15 orders. They soon identified the cause: fears of the Y2K millennium bug. Media reports had warned that a software programming error could lead to bank shutdowns, power plant closures and even planes falling from the air when computer clocks shifted at midnight on Jan. 1, 2000. As Americans stocked up on survival gear, Bushmaster capitalized on the mania, selling its own Y2K rifle.

In 1999, Bushmaster sold 64,506 guns — more AR-15s than its 10 largest competitors combined. It also brought in a chief executive who, along with Dyke as chair, would assure its continued success. John DeSantis’ previous boss at Savage Arms, in Westfield, Massachusetts, tried to discourage him from going to work for a “black rifle” company. “He didn’t think that semi-automatic rifles had any place in the commercial business because they’re too lethal,” DeSantis recalled.

DeSantis said he had no such reservations. “I thought anything that sells is good,” he said. “You know, you go to a range, and you want (your rifle) to go ‘pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.’ That’s what I like.”

It was the year of the Columbine High School mass shooting, and Dyke decided to skip the NRA convention even though none of the guns used by the killers were Bushmasters. “We didn’t want to be picketed,” DeSantis recalled.

While recognizing Dyke’s decency to employees, DeSantis found his boss to be an incorrigible micromanager, firing off emails at all hours of the night. He was annoyed by Dyke’s penchant for exaggeration. “I don’t like people that are bullshit artists,” DeSantis said in an interview.

DeSantis said he was also irritated that Dyke used the company as a jobs program for family and friends. His son Jeff was a Bushmaster employee and board member, and he put four of his girlfriend’s children on the payroll. Jeff Dyke declined to comment.

During DeSantis’s first five years as CEO, Bushmaster’s distributor base doubled, leading to a 130% increase in sales. Gross margin — the percentage of company’s revenue left over after direct costs are subtracted — rose by 6 percentage points.

Dyke and DeSantis knew that wars, panics and presidential elections drove Bushmaster’s success. DeSantis kept a chart showing gun unit sales and gross profits, logging major events associated with spikes in sales. (The chart was first reported in the 2023 book “American Gun.”)

When 1999’s Y2K fears fizzled out, gun sales slacked. But after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Americans panicked, once again buying up food and survival gear, including Bushmaster guns. To Dyke and DeSantis, the spree was illogical. The United States wasn’t about to be invaded. But as Dyke told a Maine Times reporter, guns made people feel safer, and so Bushmaster ramped up production again. Then the war in Afghanistan boosted interest in AR-15s. The company scored big contracts with foreign governments and with the private mercenary group Blackwater.

In October 2002, police captured a pair of men, known as the Beltway snipers, who gunned down 10 people in the Washington, D.C., area over several weeks using a Bushmaster XM-15 .223-caliber rifle that they fired through a hole in the trunk of their Chevy Caprice.

Dyke told a Maine journalist he was horrified that his gun could be used in such a “heinous crime.” But he noted that the gun was also used by law enforcement. “Do you think that you do more good than harm? Absolutely,” he said. He told Bushmaster employees they had nothing to be ashamed of, the Los Angeles Times reported. Sales of XM-15 rifles soared, and DeSantis noted the shooting and the uptick on his chart.

For Dyke, it was a difficult time. He was in a committed relationship with a much younger man in Las Vegas, whom he would hire to manage operations in a Bushmaster factory in Arizona. When word got out, he lost friends in the gun industry and even his own company, recalled Thurston, Bushmaster’s former CFO. Years later, Dyke confided to Thurston, “You’re one of the only originals that stuck with me.”

Dyke was also in a legal fight with two smaller investors, who alleged in a lawsuit that he was paying himself, his son Jeff and other family members lavish salaries. They also said he used company money to buy a fleet of Cadillacs, a Rolls Royce and a Bell helicopter that shuttled relatives to casinos and his lakeside house in Canada. Dyke denied the allegations and disposed of the case by buying the investors out.

(Illustration by Clay Rodery for ProPublica)

Bushmaster’s notoriety and profits made it an inviting target for tort lawyers. In 2003, families of the sniper victims sued. Dyke paid them $550,000 to settle the case. The company viewed bankruptcy as a “potential legal strategy” to be “employed to avoid the payment of substantial damages,” its bankers wrote.

The lawsuit was a warning, and Dyke and his fellow gunmakers needed help. They wanted Congress to give them protection from liability for shootings. Fortunately, Dyke had contacts in high places, including an up-and-coming Republican senator and the president of the United States.

Dyke was friendly with the Bush family, which summered in Kennebunkport, Maine. He raised money for Maine Medical Center, which ran the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital. In 1999, a year after the hospital's naming, George W. Bush, Barbara’s son, announced he was running for president. Dyke became his Maine campaign chair. But his presence was perceived as toxic after an Associated Press reporter asked the campaign about its association with an assault weapons manufacturer. Dyke resigned, saying he didn’t want to be “any baggage” for “young Bush.”

Dyke also had a longtime friend in the U.S. Senate, Maine Republican Susan Collins. She once called him “the most entrepreneurial person I’ve ever met. … This man has had one common theme throughout his life: commitment to the people who work for him, and his passion for creating jobs in Maine.”

Dyke had met Collins in the 1980s when she served on Cohen’s staff. In 1994, she ran for governor, with Dyke’s support. Collins won the Republican nomination but lost the general election. She wouldn’t be unemployed long. She secured a job at Husson College as executive director of the Richard Dyke Center for Family Business, which he had helped start by donating $250,000. Collins was “very qualified” for the job, and Husson’s president, not Dyke, approached her about it, said the senator’s spokesperson, Clark.

When Cohen didn’t seek reelection, Collins decided to run. While not a key adviser, Dyke instructed her over dinner at a Bangor restaurant “as to what it would be like working with other senators and how to leverage her strengths,” Clark said. “He also talked about the challenges facing small businesses across the country.”

With Dyke and other Bushmaster executives among her donors, Collins won. In July 2005, she voted for the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which Dyke had pushed hard for. It prohibited lawsuits against firearms manufacturers, distributors and dealers for misuse of their products by others. That October, Bush signed it.

Collins “has always charted her own centrist position on gun issues,” her spokesperson said, pointing out that the senator supported a failed 2004 proposal to extend the assault weapons ban. Collins backed PLCAA because “she doesn’t think manufacturers of knives, guns, vehicles, etc. should be held liable for the crimes committed by people who misuse their products,” Clark said. After the Lewiston massacre, Collins has resisted calls for a new ban on assault weapons.

Bushmaster caught the attention of Cerberus Capital Management, a New York investment firm named after the three-headed dog that guarded Hades in Greek mythology. In 2006, Cerberus offered $76 million, twice Bushmaster’s own estimate of its value. “Holy shit,” Tom Tyler, then a Bushmaster executive, recalled Dyke telling him. “I never believed a good old boy from Wilton, Maine, would see that kind of money in his checkbook.”

The private-equity business model was a super-sized version of Dyke’s “bottom fishing.” Cerberus’ holding company, Freedom Group, gobbled up one gun manufacturer after another, notably Remington Arms. It also touted the bellicose aspects of its guns, using Bushmaster to cater to a new group of prospective buyers: not hunters and gun collectors, but “couch commandos” with fantasies of war and killing.

Freedom Group produced a series of print ads for its Remington-branded AR-style rifles, which were made at Bushmaster’s facility in Maine, with slogans like “Forces of Opposition, Bow Down. You are Single-Handedly Outnumbered,” and “Take Back the City.” It plugged Bushmaster guns with a novel “Man Card Campaign.” The gimmick was that owners had to be macho or their cards could be revoked. Cerberus declined to comment.

Dyke stayed on as a board member and consultant for the holding company for about a year. But he told New York Magazine he thought Cerberus was moving too fast, and he quit. But he wouldn’t be out of the AR-15 business for long.

In 2011, Freedom Group closed the Bushmaster facility in Windham, Maine, putting 73 people out of work. Dyke, who still owned the plant, was furious but saw a way to benefit, Kent said.

He summoned Kent to his home in Henderson, Nevada. Over cocktails, Dyke showed his old friend a business plan. “It makes sense to me,” Dyke told him. “We have the facilities. We have the workforce, and all the noncompetes are done.”

Dyke messaged his former Bushmaster employees. “Would you be crazy enough to go back into business with the old man?” he asked.

That August, the 77-year-old Dyke hosted a party to celebrate the launch of the family’s new company, Windham Weaponry. Among the attendees were several state legislators and Collins.

“We’ve got to get back in the game,” Dyke told them. “A lot can happen to it, but it cannot leave Maine because the Dyke family won’t let that happen.”

In its first month, Windham shipped 1,500 rifles. Soon the company had rehired most of its former employees and was producing nearly as many rifles as Bushmaster had at its peak.

In December 2012, Adam Lanza, a devoted player of a video game that featured an assault-style Bushmaster rifle, killed his mother and then went on a rampage with her Bushmaster XM-15 at a Connecticut elementary school. Like other mass shootings, Sandy Hook was good for sales. “Windham Weaponry is busier than a beehive this Spring! While we’re building rifles as fast as we can, be assured that we won’t sacrifice quality for speed!” Dyke’s company said in its newsletter.

Referring to “challenges resulting from recent events,” Windham encouraged its customers to contact their legislators and to attend the NRA annual meeting to oppose a new proposal to ban assault-style rifles after Sandy Hook. “Take action today, and make your voice heard!”

It didn’t mention that its own factory, under the previous owner, had made Lanza’s gun.

(Illustration by Clay Rodery for ProPublica)

On Jan. 16, Windham Weaponry employees flew into Las Vegas for the 2023 SHOT Show, the industry’s firearms palooza. Driving past the Trump International Hotel to the expo center, they posted photographs on the company Facebook page, saying, “We made it!”

They set up their booth, putting the rifles on racks with a sign proclaiming that they were “battle tested and warrior approved.”

Dyke wintered in Las Vegas. But he was too ill to visit the company’s booth. If he could have walked the floor, he would have heard the telltale sounds of his legacy: the unmistakable ratcheting of charging handles being pulled back and the metallic “thunk” of their release.

When Dyke first brought his rifles to the show, they were banished to backroom booths. Now hundreds of companies are emulating Dyke by selling either AR-style rifles or accessories and other tactical gear. Cerberus’ holding company lost investors and faced lawsuits after the Sandy Hook shooting. The unit eventually went bankrupt twice, and its gun businesses were auctioned off. A Nevada company now sells AR-style rifles under the Bushmaster name, along with a device that enables them to fire at double speed, not only with the pull but also the release of the trigger, according to its website. “Bushmaster is back,” the company crowed when it opened in 2021.

In late February, Dyke was stung by a scorpion and had to be hospitalized. On Feb. 28, he chatted with Pestilli, Bushmaster’s former head of sales, by phone, thanking him for his help over the years. The next day, Dyke watched a Los Angeles Lakers game on television. He was about to go to bed when he had a heart attack and died, at the age of 89.

After his death, Windham Weaponry shut down. Then some of Dyke’s former executives stepped in. They leased the facility and plan to resume assembling and selling AR-15s, even as Mainers mourn the Lewiston victims.

At Dyke’s memorial service, Thurston credited him with rescuing more than a firearms company. “Bushmaster after 9-11 did a lot of things for this country,” he said, his voice rising. “Richard made sure that every employee at the end of the month understood that if it looked like a gun, it was going in a box and then going in a truck” to customers.

He pointed at the mourners nodding in agreement. “Because you might need it.”

by James Bandler and Doris Burke

A Top Mutual Fund Executive Made Millions for Himself Trading the Same Stocks His Giant Fund Was Trading

6 days 22 hours ago

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

In late 2015, Dodge & Cox, one of the nation’s largest mutual fund managers, began buying large quantities of shares of a cloud-computing company called VMware. Over three quarters, Dodge & Cox amassed almost $700 million in shares. That was good news for anyone who already owned shares of VMware, since big purchases tend to push a stock price upward.

One such shareholder was David Hoeft, a member of the Dodge & Cox committee that made the decision to buy the shares and an advocate for investing in technology companies. Hoeft, who has spent 30 years at Dodge & Cox, is now the company’s chief investment officer.

Hoeft bought millions of dollars’ worth of VMware shares in his personal account before his employer’s purchases started to be publicly disclosed.

He purchased $3.6 million in shares in November 2015.

During the same quarter, Dodge & Cox started buying millions of shares in VMware. (Neither the company nor Hoeft appears to have invested in VMware before then.)

Dodge & Cox then dramatically amped up its purchases of VMware stock over the next two quarters, bringing its holdings up to nearly $700 million.

VMware shares ballooned in value, reaping Hoeft $8 million in profit when he sold his shares in 2018 and 2019.

For decades, regulators have tried to clamp down on front-running, the term for when investment professionals make personal purchases or sales of securities when they know that their employers or clients are about to buy or sell the same securities. But a massive assemblage of confidential stock trading data obtained by ProPublica reveals that the practice may be continuing on a notable scale.

Hoeft is one of dozens of investment managers at hedge funds and mutual funds who personally traded the same securities that their organizations were buying and selling, ProPublica found. He stood out in this group for the volume and fortuitous timing of such trades. From 2011 to 2019, Hoeft traded stocks on at least 31 days in the same quarter or the quarter before Dodge & Cox traded the same securities. The transactions were worth nearly $50 million. (All told, Hoeft’s personal trades, most of them in stocks his employer was not trading, totalled more than $725 million during the period.)

Knowing that a fund is going to buy or sell stock can qualify as the sort of confidential information that’s unlawful to trade on. And Dodge & Cox’s ethics policy is unequivocal. It tells employees, “You may not front-run any trade of a Fund or Client Account.” An employee, it explains, “may not … purchase a Reportable Security if you intend, or know of the Dodge & Cox Group’s intention, to purchase that Reportable Security or a related Reportable Security on behalf of a Fund or client.” The same goes for a sale. Employees are warned to “avoid any actual or potential conflict of interest or any abuse of an employee’s position of trust and responsibility.”

Dodge & Cox’s chair at the time, Charles Pohl, excoriated front-running, explaining how it hurts customers in a 2022 comment to the Securities and Exchange Commission. “Trading by free riders,” Pohl wrote, “often drives the price of a security up (when we are trying to buy a block) or down (when we are trying to sell a block) and results in direct harm to our clients and Fund shareholders.”

Imagine essentially that just before a well-informed high roller puts down a large bet on a particular horse, which has the effect of making the odds for betting on that horse less favorable, someone who works for the high roller slips in and makes their own bet on the same horse.

The managers of investment funds have a distinct edge when trading in their personal accounts. Because they control billions of dollars’ worth of their clients’ funds and can deploy a staff of analysts to unearth reams of data and insights about companies, they can sometimes foresee how demand for a stock will change before the public does.

This kind of trading also creates a potential conflict of interest if, for example, employees are advocating internally for the fund to hold or buy more of the stock they personally own. And by trading the same securities as their fund, employees personally profit from research that is owned by their employer and that their clients essentially paid for.

In a statement, Dodge & Cox said that the firm had given advance approval for all of the trades identified by ProPublica, and a review of Hoeft’s trades after ProPublica asked about them found none violated the firm’s policies. “There is no evidence that he engaged in front-running or any other improper trading activity,” Dodge & Cox said. The firm declined to discuss the specifics of trades.

The statement also included comments from Hoeft, who said, “Throughout my career, my highest priorities have always been seeking the best investment opportunities for our clients and fully complying with my legal and ethical responsibilities. For all the trades ProPublica has questioned, I have adhered to the firm’s Code of Ethics and our strict policies on personal trading.”

David Hoeft in 2009 (Nati Harnik/AP Images)

A Dodge & Cox spokesperson acknowledged that Hoeft was part of the small committee that was making investment decisions for the firm but declined to specify how large a role he played in any stock decisions or to discuss the timing of those decisions. “It’s the committee that decides” by majority vote, the spokesperson said. “Not David.”

Hoeft (whose last name is pronounced “hayft”) seems an unlikely person to skirt even the most modest of rules. He has a longstanding reputation as ethical and self-effacing. And unlike the vast majority of those who showed up in ProPublica’s analysis, Hoeft does not work at a hedge fund, where the rules around personal trading are typically more lax. Hoeft’s employer is a mutual fund company that has cultivated a reputation for caution and business practices that are above reproach.

The name Dodge & Cox may be largely unknown outside the investing world, but the company manages $337 billion. That includes the retirement accounts of thousands of Americans. It raises the question: Is Dodge & Cox’s chief investment officer putting their interests — or his own — first?

In the 1970s, the SEC proposed what seemed like a modest rule: Employees at investment management companies would be barred from trading a stock in their personal accounts if they knew their employer was considering trading the same stock.

Industry players opposed the proposed regulation. Commenters warned that it was “dangerously ambiguous” and “impossible” to apply. At what point in the research phase, for example, would a firm cross the threshold into officially considering a transaction?

Wall Street fended off the SEC. In the decades that followed, scandals involving the personal trading of investment advisers have bubbled up periodically. The concerns reached new heights in the 1990s. As mutual funds became the primary way Americans saved for retirement, some fund managers were accused of enriching themselves at the expense of their clients. One technology fund manager was accused of trading dozens of stocks in his personal account within days of his employer doing the same.

The incidents got the attention of the public and Congress. Amid concerns that investors would lose faith in mutual funds, the SEC pledged a broad investigation. The commission reviewed a year’s worth of personal stock trades for hundreds of managers at 30 mutual fund companies.

Their review, which was publicly released in 1994, found “potentially abusive” trading and instances of fund managers purchasing or selling securities shortly ahead of their funds. But the SEC concluded that a government-imposed ban on trading by fund managers — or even a partial ban, prohibiting trades in securities the fund held — wasn’t necessary.

Their rationale was that abuse was rare. More than a third of the managers hadn’t traded at all, and the median number of trades for the year was just two. The SEC also considered the arguments made by industry: that funds wanted employees who lived and breathed the market, and that if they banned personal trading altogether, they would have to pay their employees more. And the agency reasoned that a ban would not stop bad actors from continuing to front-run.

The agency opted to leave it to each investment company to determine its own guardrails, but it pleaded with firms to act. The SEC chair at the time, Arthur Levitt Jr., implored mutual fund companies to curb personal trading, saying “this industry can hardly afford even the appearance of conflicts” of interest.

The SEC does require investment firms to maintain codes of ethics, and to collect and review their employees’ personal trades. But otherwise how firms self-regulate varies widely. Some ban personal trading in particular industries. Others require employees to refrain from trading stocks only when the investment fund is actively considering buying or selling them.

The SEC can get involved if regulators believe a trade violated the law. As with any potential insider-trading case, federal authorities have to prove two main elements. First, they must show that the trader had what’s known as “material nonpublic information”: a significant fact, not yet publicly known, that would affect the company’s share price. Second, they must show that the employee who traded on that information, or provided the tip to the person who did, had a duty not to disclose it or use it for personal benefit.

In the context of front-running, a big future transaction in a company’s stock can count as material. That’s particularly true, securities experts said, when that transaction is informed by proprietary research conducted by the fund, as any reputable firm’s moves usually are.

“You’re trading while in possession of information that is not yours,” said Donald Langevoort, a Georgetown law professor and former SEC attorney. “If you are aware the fund is going to trade, and it’s a block big enough to move the market, that’s insider trading.”

People who know Hoeft today describe him much the same way his childhood friends do: quiet and humble, but with a piercing intellect. Hoeft grew up in rural Wisconsin. His father was a manager at a plastics plant for the American Can Co.

Hoeft was an industrious teen, working at a Ponderosa steakhouse after school during the academic year and spending his summers doing everything from mowing grass at a local airport to checking the packaging of Keebler Sandies Pecan Shortbread at a production plant. He also read encyclopedias and dictionaries to expand his vocabulary. And in a sign of what was to come, Hoeft turned in a stellar performance in a stock-picking contest at school.

His academic prowess landed him at the University of Chicago, where friends say Hoeft stood out for keeping to himself even among a student body with a reputation for being introverted. But alongside Hoeft’s kind and tranquil demeanor was intensity and discipline. He spent long hours in the library and was relentless in long-distance races for the school’s track team. The same trait has persisted in adulthood. Hoeft, a cyclist in his free time, has persisted in pedaling to work even after he got hit by a car, according to one friend.

Immediately after graduating from Harvard Business School in 1993, Hoeft joined San Francisco-based Dodge & Cox. The firm, founded in 1930 with a focus on cautious value investing, suited his Midwestern sensibilities. Far from Wall Street, a genteel culture prevails. Raised voices are frowned upon, as are swaggering star traders. Instead, investment decisions are made by committee. Dodge & Cox styles itself as a methodical and conservative player, picking fewer stocks and maintaining fewer funds than its rivals.

“Everything about it felt like a place from the 1950s,” one former staffer said. “You weren’t wearing jeans there.”

Hoeft’s specialty became the technology sector. Trendy new software and flashy young companies were not the purview of Dodge & Cox in the 1990s and early 2000s. Persuading the stodgy organization to invest in tech companies was a challenge. As a value investor, the firm typically based valuations on free cash flow, but many tech companies were not profitable by traditional accounting metrics. Hoeft framed tech stocks in a way that resonated with value investors. “If you roll the tape forward far enough,” he said years later, “you can get to a point where the valuation could look attractive. You aren’t necessarily buying the company that you see today, if you’ve got a five-year-plus time horizon. You’re investing in what you think the company is going to look like in the future.”

As tech companies matured, what initially started as a disadvantage worked to his favor. Hoeft’s expertise became more prized internally. He was also popular in a workplace multiple former staffers described as polite but awkward. In comparison, one said, Hoeft “was the most normal.” He was quick to sit more junior employees down for talks about their futures, taking them under his wing.

Over three decades, Hoeft steadily rose to his current role as chief investment officer. And along the way, he became incredibly wealthy. His tax records show he went from making a few hundred thousand dollars a year in the 1990s to earning hundreds of millions at Dodge & Cox in the years since. In 2018 alone, he made $74 million at the firm.

Despite his fortune, Hoeft, now 56, has maintained his Midwestern aversion to flashiness. He and his family live modestly — his sons grew up wearing hand-me-down clothes and shoes from their cousins — and he applies his value-investing philosophy to his personal life. For example, Hoeft determined that a slightly used car has far more value than a new one, so he has tended to drive pre-owned vehicles. (He made an exception recently, for a hybrid Toyota RAV4.)

And Hoeft doesn’t own his home, opting instead to live in the Presidio of San Francisco, a former Army post now maintained by the federal government as a park at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. The onetime military lodging there is available to rent, and Hoeft lives in the house once used by a commanding general. (In a rare splurge, he recently paid to build an addition to the 1940s home, a futuristic-looking space with floor-to-ceiling glass walls that one of its designers dubbed The Presidio Glasshouse.)

Among friends, Hoeft keeps the focus on his wife, an academic. She “was the amazing neuroscientist,” said Nicole Kontrabecki, a former neighbor. “He took a backseat. The most distinctive thing about him is there was nothing distinctive about him.”

The scale of Hoeft’s personal trading certainly qualifies as distinctive. In recent years, the annual dollar value of his transactions has regularly exceeded $100 million.

Among the other stocks that Hoeft traded in proximity to trades by Dodge & Cox were tech companies HP, Xerox and DXC. The transactions followed trajectories that resembled Hoeft’s VMware trades, with Hoeft buying or selling during the same quarter or the quarter before a comparable transaction by Dodge & Cox. Hoeft’s sales, all of them seemingly profitable, generated proceeds that ranged from $2.8 million to $7.8 million.

Another striking example involved NetApp, a data storage company.

Hoeft bought at least $1.47 million in shares in February 2016.

That same quarter, Dodge & Cox added about $32 million in shares to its already sizable stake.

Hoeft sold over $2 million of his NetApp stake in March 2018.

That same quarter, Dodge & Cox made a major cut to its stake in NetApp (but the sale wasn’t made public until after Hoeft also cut his stake).

In September 2018, Hoeft sold more shares — giving him a total profit of $5.2 million. Dodge & Cox continued to shed the stock the following quarter.

Dodge & Cox declined to provide details about Hoeft’s role in making decisions about NetApp. But at the very least it was a company on his radar: He spoke publicly about NetApp in 2015, saying it was undervalued in a Barron’s article about his firm’s investment strategy.

Trades like Hoeft’s may push the bounds of what his firm’s ethics policy and the law allow, according to securities experts.

ProPublica compared his personal stock transactions to the holdings reports Dodge & Cox is required to publicly file at the end of each quarter. Because changes in a firm’s holdings are disclosed only at the end of each quarter and do not specify the dates of each trade, the precise sequence of events is often unclear. ProPublica identified at least 31 days, from 2011 to 2019, in which Hoeft traded a security the firm also traded during the same quarter or the quarter after. (The number of coinciding trades may be an undercount because ProPublica’s data does not include all stock purchases.)

Dodge & Cox consistently emphasizes the need to act ethically, according to former employees. Staffers are regularly reminded to be careful about their personal trades. They’re told to avoid making moves they’d be embarrassed to see on the front page of a newspaper. A compliance staff reviews their personal brokerage statements and preapproves their stock trades.

“The view at Dodge & Cox is we built our reputation for doing the right thing for our clients, and you can blow that in one day, and we don’t want that,” one former employee said. “You never felt like you could cut corners.”

Dodge & Cox is perhaps even more sensitive about the notion that its data or research would be used by others. It is so guarded about the value of its real-time trading data — and the harm its use could do to its investors — that it opposed a recent proposed regulation that would have required more disclosure on the grounds that it “strikes at the heart of our business.”

“We frequently trade large blocks of securities, and because we are price sensitive investors it can … sometimes take weeks or months to fully implement an investment decision,” Dodge & Cox’s Pohl wrote to the SEC in 2022. “Earlier reporting deadlines and more frequent reporting will provide greater opportunities for front-running and other predatory trading by market participants looking for a free ride.”

Still, Dodge & Cox goes only so far in policing its own employees. Employees are generally allowed to trade securities the company holds. Stocks are placed on a restricted list, which means personal trades are prohibited, when employees officially designate them as stocks they think the firm should consider making a move in.

That could leave weeks, if not months, during which a potential investment is being scrutinized, with multiple stages of vetting and discussion before a potential move is formalized and a vote by committee is set in motion. And during that period, there’s little to prevent an employee from buying or selling the same stock, beyond the ethics policy, which applies to “contemplated” transactions. At that stage of the process, the controls essentially amount to the honor system, a former high-ranking employee told ProPublica.

In its statement, Dodge & Cox objected to what it called the “unfair and false suggestion that our compliance policies are akin to an honor system. To the contrary, we have strict and robust compliance policies that are designed specifically to prevent front-running, profiting from short-term trading, and other types of improper trading behavior.”

At the time of his 2015 VMware trades, Hoeft was associate director of research, tasked with examining investment opportunities for the company and managing analysts who were doing the same. He was also a member of the committee that selected stocks for Dodge & Cox’s marquee fund.

It’s unclear how involved he was in the firm’s decision to buy VMware shares. But public statements he made around that time suggest it was a stock and sector he was watching. In a 2014 interview about Dodge & Cox, for example, he said that he was attracted to a separate data storage company, in part because it held a large stake of VMware stock. And a former colleague recalled that Hoeft looked at VMware for the firm in the early 2010s.

Dodge & Cox’s spokesperson declined to say whether Hoeft was advocating for the company to invest in VMware.

by Robert Faturechi and Ellis Simani with Mariam Elba, graphics by Lucas Waldron

The Future of the Colorado River Hinges on One Young Negotiator

1 week ago

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive our stories in your inbox every week. This story was co-published with The Desert Sun.

John Brooks Hamby was 9 years old the last time a group of Western states renegotiated how they share the dwindling Colorado River. When the high-stakes talks concluded two years later, in 2007, with a round of painful cuts, he hadn’t reached high school.

Yet this June an audience of water policy experts listened with rapt attention as Hamby, now 27, recited lessons from those deliberations.

Hamby, California’s boyish-looking representative on issues concerning the river, sat shoulder-to-shoulder with the other states’ powerful water managers, many of whom have decades of experience, an almost uncomfortable sight given their latest brawl over the beleaguered Colorado River. The group had gathered in a mock courtroom at the University of Colorado Law School to discuss water law and to field questions about their negotiations over shortages that have prompted some cities to restrict growth and farmers to fallow fields.

The moderator asked whether states would allow Native American tribes in the basin, who have often been denied the water they were guaranteed by treaties and court rulings, to have an equal say in these decisions, referencing a question posed earlier by the governor of the Gila River Indian Community, a tribe in Arizona. Hamby jumped to offer a noncommittal answer about involving tribes in “effective conversations” before pivoting to a discussion of how, during the 2007 negotiations, smaller working groups had allowed the states and other water users to effectively iron out potential impasses.

The only other state delegate to respond endorsed Hamby’s answer, a sign of how quickly he has risen to the top of the river’s ranks. Hamby — who goes by J.B. — is the youngest of the Colorado River’s “water buffaloes,” as the water managers who set policy are known.

While his counterparts from the other basin states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — worked their way through water agencies or weathered the shifting politics of various governors, Hamby’s ascent was swift. In a three-year span, he rose from a recent Stanford University graduate, with a resume that touted little beyond a history degree and internships with Uber and a senator, to vice president of the Imperial Irrigation District board and chair of the Colorado River Board of California. The former post gave him sway over the single largest user of Colorado River water, and the latter made him California’s interstate negotiator for issues affecting the river basin.

Combined, these roles position Hamby as arguably the most powerful person involved in talks on the future of the Colorado River, a waterway that is relied upon by an estimated 35 million people and supports about $1.4 trillion worth of commerce.

They also place him at the center of the river’s most consequential moment since midcentury, when Arizona and California went to the Supreme Court to fight over the amount of water they were allocated. Now the river’s users must agree to dramatic cuts, as the river has been diminished by climate change and drought. It’s a task that demands Hamby both protect California’s long-standing water rights and lead all seven basin states to collaborate on a resolution, even though they’ll all have to give ground.

The All-American Canal transports water from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley in the Southern California desert. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

Hamby holds the trump card. The Law of the River — the compacts, laws and court rulings that govern how the river is allocated — reflects a time when water use was encouraged to bring settlers west. And court decisions have favored users with senior priority rights, meaning those who were first to plant stakes along the river, file claims in county recorders’ offices and prove their claims by taking water before federal and state water laws were codified. Those with such rights are legally entitled to receive their share of the river before the next person or agency in line receives any. The Imperial Irrigation District holds some of the basin’s oldest rights, dating back to 1901.

Hamby defends this system, which allows the Imperial Valley — home to only half of a percent of the river’s users, Hamby included — to control about a quarter of the river’s flow. That’s more than 10 times southern Nevada’s allocation and more than the entire state of Arizona receives. A recent ProPublica and Desert Sun analysis found that 20 valley farming families use about 387 billion gallons of cheap water annually, most of it to grow cattle feed, and one family uses more water than the entire Las Vegas metropolitan area.

Even so, Hamby can only go so far in dictating the terms of basinwide cuts. Strictly adhering to the century-old status quo would be catastrophic, as it would continue decades of overuse and could cut off the supply to millions of people in lower-priority cities and reservations. But if Hamby concedes too much to the other states, he risks costing California by upending the historical agreements that put the Golden State at the front of the line.

As an IID director, he must protect the priority system preferred by farmers who use most of the river and fear the cities eyeing their share. As California’s negotiator, he also represents cities like Los Angeles and San Diego as well as oft-overlooked tribes.

“Water is power. Water is control. So why would anyone want to give that up, to give it away to somebody else?” said Kyle Roerink, a Nevada environmentalist who runs the Great Basin Water Network and has joined unlikely coalitions with Hamby fighting the region’s seemingly endless urban growth.

If the basin states can’t find agreement, then the Law of the River reigns supreme, Hamby told ProPublica and The Desert Sun earlier this year. “That is the law, which everybody agreed to.” California is ready to compromise on cuts, he added, “but we need to see something come from the other states.”

An Origin Story

As a boy, Hamby helped his grandfather with beekeeping. (Courtesy of J.B. Hamby)

Hamby grew up among the hot Imperial Valley farms and picked up the region’s “us against the world” mentality that flourishes alongside alfalfa, livestock and leafy greens. In California, dreams only go as far as water allows, and the valley’s farmers live in constant fear that cities are lusting after the water that sustains the local economy.

In the Imperial Valley, locals’ bona fides rest on how many generations back their family arrived in this hardscrabble desert. Hamby’s great-grandfather “came here with $10 in his pocket on the back of a freight train from Big Spring, Texas,” as Hamby tells it, and worked as a ditch digger before starting a beekeeping business. His family has remained in the agriculture industry.

Hamby’s father has held various gigs, from helping develop a farm in China (to the dismay of some Imperial Valley growers) to his current business growing seeds. And his mother worked on water issues from a different angle, serving as a county environmental health specialist, including focusing on the pollution that flowed through the valley via the New River.

If his family had a successful farm to pass on, Hamby, who was active in 4-H as a teenager, said he would’ve embraced that career path. “There’s been repeated struggle, and dreams will be built up and dashed and broken,” Hamby said of his family history. Instead, he looked for other ways to shape the valley.

A teenaged Hamby, front right, presents a hen at a 4-H event. (Courtesy of J.B. Hamby)

Despite his agrarian upbringing, he had an origin story to launch him into conservative politics, if only he wanted that path.

In 2014, Hamby was to give a speech at his graduation as the salutatorian of his Brawley Union High School class. But he had chosen to write an address about his Christian faith, to which school administrators objected, he said, forcing the teenager to rewrite it multiple times.

At the ceremony, he stepped to the lectern, the hot desert wind jostling his tassel and waving a line of American flags at his back. “Congratulations, class of 2014,” Hamby concluded, his words echoing over the sound system. “Thank you, and may the God of the Bible bless you, each and every one of you, every day of the rest of your life.”

The crowd cheered. Right-wing outlets including Fox News featured stories of a student standing up to what they saw as censors, dubbing him a “red-blooded, Constitution-loving American.” He was interviewed on national television about his stand for Christian religious liberty.

But something kept pulling Hamby toward battles grounded less in identity politics and more in the day to day. Exactly how he came to combine water and politics wasn’t entirely clear to him as he sat in a Mexican restaurant in the Imperial Valley town of El Centro earlier this year.

Asked if the fight over his graduation speech was the beginning of his story in politics, he pushed back. “Lives are very complicated and long,” he offered.

Finding a Cause

Even if he saw himself becoming a farmer, political ambition has propelled Hamby his entire life.

His mother told a local reporter that he had wanted to be mayor at 5 years old. At 17, he earned a three-week posting as a page for Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat. In college, he interned for Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican. In 2019, he was appointed by the county board of supervisors to a local community advisory council.

Hamby, who said he’s registered to vote without a party preference, continuously sought out bigger causes.

While in college, Hamby was involved with political groups, including, among others, the Stanford College Republicans and an anti-abortion organization. As he waded into the university’s archives, it became clearer where he wanted to focus his ambitions.

Hamby voraciously read about the West’s battles over water, marveling at the papers of Northcutt Ely, a storied water attorney who argued the Supreme Court case Arizona v. California on the latter’s behalf, and Ray Lyman Wilbur, a former secretary of the interior who oversaw construction of the Hoover Dam.

Asked how he felt living in the archives while some of his college compatriots partied, Hamby quipped, “Well, you could only be in the archives in the daytime. There were other opportunities in the nighttime, which I did not exploit.”

Roerink, the environmentalist, compared Hamby to the historical figures he studied who fought to protect the system that has guaranteed California’s water. “Northcutt Ely and J.B. are saying a lot of the same things, that development elsewhere ultimately impacts the rights of California,” he said.

In a Facebook post celebrating his graduation from Stanford, Hamby included a picture of himself smiling, diploma in hand, alongside a quote from John Wesley Powell, the one-armed explorer who led the first U.S.-sponsored expedition down the Colorado River and tried to help shape early American policy along the waterway, arguing that there wasn’t enough water to support mass Western expansion.

“We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown,” Hamby quoted from Powell’s musings on the river. “Our boats, tied to a common stake, are chafing each other, as they are tossed by the fretful river.”

Four months later, Hamby announced his candidacy for the Imperial Irrigation District’s board of directors.

Southern California’s Big Red Brexit Bus

In an ad for the 2020 race, Hamby stares into the camera and shakes his fist. “Imperial Valley’s water belongs to all of us, and it belongs here,” he says. Big cities are trying to take the valley’s water and other water managers will allow that via “backroom political deals,” Hamby says in the video. But he would protect the precious resource if elected.

Hamby’s message struck a chord.

He had studied recent successful political movements: populist Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s election, the Labour Party’s landslide 1997 win in Great Britain and the conservative pro-Brexit campaign in 2016.

He was particularly inspired by the notorious big red bus that toured the United Kingdom, spreading the message that the country was spending huge sums to prop up the European Union — a persuasive argument that was a lie. He also took note of environmentalists using a giant mobile bucket to protest an attempt to move water from rural Nevada to Las Vegas. Hamby rented a flatbed, mounted a massive pipe on the back and had it driven around the Imperial Valley. The insinuation: This is how San Diego will buy and siphon off your water.

“People immediately got it, especially when you had a 30-, 40-foot pipe marauding around the area,” Hamby said.

He vowed to hold a public referendum before any more Colorado River water was moved out of the valley. Hamby later led the charge to secure $250 million in federal funds if the irrigation district temporarily cut its use of river water, despite an outcry from farmers and environmental groups who only had 24 hours to review the plan before the board voted on it. No referendum has been held.

Asked if he had broken his campaign promise, Hamby said that he is working to enshrine public input in district policy and that “we’re not moving water to any other places. We’re maintaining it in the system to be able to protect our sole source and supply.”

He also made stylistic changes as he entered the political arena. He started going by J.B. because it sounds more “iconic,” he told a podcaster, and because potential voters were getting confused by the name Brooks, he told ProPublica and The Desert Sun. And he refined his look. He’s clean-shaven and sports a high and tight haircut. His wardrobe could be described as “corporate outing meets Western wear,” often including a turquoise bolo tie and the IID crest, which features a crown adorning a shield, pinned to his lapel.

“Traditionally, it’s been, ‘You hold the role and then you die in it,’” said Hamby of the job he stepped into at 26. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

During his campaign, Hamby faced questions about his inexperience and choice to run in a district other than the one where he was raised. “JB is still a KID. JB needs a JOB. DON’T give him your VOTE. IID DIRECTOR should not be one’s first JOB out of college,” one constituent commented online, according to the Imperial Valley Press, a local newspaper that covered the race.

Still, Hamby was the top vote-getter in the primary, beating an incumbent who cast the deciding vote on a controversial 2003 agreement that transferred a portion of the valley’s water to cities to help get California back within its allotment. Many of the valley’s large, wealthy farming families supported Hamby’s campaign, which brought in more than $100,000, including loans from his father’s company.

Hamby garnered nearly two-thirds of the general election vote. He had a mandate to defend the valley’s water rights.

Hamby’s time on the board got off to a combative start. While waiting to be seated, he showed up at board meetings, publicly calling on members to avoid making important decisions until the new members were seated. He and another newly elected director skipped the district’s official swearing-in and held their own due to a disagreement over who could attend amid COVID-19 restrictions.

When the outgoing board signed a sweeping project labor agreement with Southern California unions days before Hamby took office, he engineered a strategy to rip it up by declaring that the motion to approve it was ambiguous and voting to nullify it. That move led to litigation, which was resolved when the district accepted a modified agreement.

Over time, as he confronted problems that would take collaboration to solve, Hamby’s tone changed. The board, which has a history of dysfunction, confronted issues ranging from mandatory water conservation that is shrinking the Salton Sea — a terminal lake fed by irrigation runoff that is now exposing communities to toxic dust as water levels fall and uncover the lakebed — to a powerful farmer who has been battling in court to break the irrigation district’s control over water.

Many of Hamby’s colleagues, including fellow Director Javier Gonzalez, praised the young director’s leadership. “He’s a hard worker,” Gonzalez said. “He gets things done.”

The rewards of the job are less financial and more the ability to pursue policy goals. The irrigation district’s directors make around $50,000 annually. Hamby drives an aging Toyota Prius and says he lives in a “bachelor apartment.” But even with his work ethic, there were limits to how much Hamby could deliver on his campaign promises to keep the district’s water in the Imperial Valley.

To do that, he needed to be at the table with the basin’s water buffaloes.

Hamby’s travels to board meetings and Colorado River conferences take him throughout the Colorado River Basin. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun) At the Head of the Table

Power in the Colorado River Basin lies largely with the seven states and their designated representatives now haggling over cuts to water allocations.

The Colorado River Board of California is the state’s representative. Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Hamby to the board a few months after he was sworn in at the irrigation district.

Less than two years later, the chair, who acts as the state’s negotiator, unexpectedly announced he wouldn’t seek reelection.

The board is split between representatives of rural water districts that largely serve farmers and urban water districts serving Los Angeles, San Diego and other cities. A member of the San Diego County Water Authority board emerged as the cities’ candidate for chair, with Hamby as the preference of the rural irrigation districts. Neither candidate had enough votes to win, and some of Hamby’s earlier brash remarks left an older water manager feeling uneasy about voting for him.

Glen Peterson, who was then the board’s representative from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million people, was considering supporting Hamby but “had concerns” about his public statements. After a frank conversation between the two and some maneuvering with other board members, the votes shifted.

“I think he’s a wonderful kid. And he’s really smart and, for his age, he is extremely mature,” Peterson said. “I mean, this guy probably sat at the big people’s table when he was a teenager.”

Hamby was elected the new chair, overseeing California’s negotiations with the rest of the basin states.

“Traditionally, it’s been, ‘You hold the role and then you die in it,’” Hamby explained. “IID’s had three people hold the position before. The previous three died in the role.” (The chair of the board now serves four-year terms, but there is no limit on the number of terms.)

When asked what happens next on the river, where he would’ve once brought rhetorical fire and brimstone, he now offers coded responses. “I need to develop truly consensus-based approaches to develop a new set of operating guidelines and standards that everybody can agree on, because there’s necessity,” he said.

Charting the River’s Future

With aggressive conservation efforts already underway in some parts of the Colorado River Basin, policymakers are realizing that ripping out lawns and installing low-flow toilets in metropolitan areas won’t be enough to save the river. Agriculture uses an estimated three-quarters or more of the river, meaning any solution must include cuts to farmers’ allocations and a rethinking of the long-protected priority system.

That puts IID and California, with their senior water rights, at odds with the rest of the basin.

In January 2023, facing a federal deadline to come up with a plan to cut water use, the other six basin states released a joint letter detailing their idea to conserve water. California, which potentially faced the heaviest cuts, was the only state not to sign onto the plan.

“Compromise really wasn’t in the air at the time,” Hamby said.

Falling water levels at Lake Mead, one of the Colorado River’s two main reservoirs, have exposed areas submerged for decades. (John Locher/AP)

A day later, the Colorado River Board of California, with Hamby at the helm, rushed to release its own plan. The board flexed California’s water rights, arguing in a statement that the other states’ proposal “conflicts with the existing Law of the River” and undermines the priority system.

In the ensuing weeks, Hamby made it known that the other states’ methodology for saving water, which put California at a disadvantage, was untenable.

“That moment looked like the example of him digging in his heels,” said Elizabeth Koebele, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno who studies the river’s governance. She added, “We did see the power of California and the role that their legal position plays on the river.”

But unless Hamby were willing to exercise the nuclear option and test the strength of California’s legal position in court, he’d have to give up something to protect water rights in the state.

He embraced diplomacy, writing thank-you notes to other states’ representatives and beginning to broker a new plan among the Lower Basin states: California, Arizona and Nevada. In it, they agreed to apportion short-term cuts — importantly, without changing the priority system or water accounting in the long run — until a new set of rules and agreements could be hammered out. That new plan is due by the end of 2026.

“There’s still certainly an argument that he’s making that’s based on protecting as much Colorado River agricultural water as possible, but there’s this shift that’s happening,” Koebele said, adding that Hamby and California seem to be embracing a “realization that simply arguing ‘Our water rights are senior’ is not going to save agriculture.”

The Imperial Irrigation District board of directors (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

Other water leaders, both in California and around the basin, have acknowledged Hamby’s diplomatic approach. Even Arizona, which has traditionally been California’s staunchest rival on the river, took notice.

“J.B. has exhibited a real progressive, collaborative spirit in our discussions,” Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the state’s representative, wrote in an email. “He is a very measured, calm person who is clearly very intelligent.”

Hamby acknowledged he’s evolved on the job from “a very eager young 23-year-old” to someone more focused on compromise as his position in river negotiations grew.

But a temporary harmony along the river isn’t a guarantee he’ll remain in good standing with voters in the Imperial Valley. Even as he’s working with colleagues across the basin, Hamby still must contend with local politics and strike a balance between finding agreement with the other basin states and protecting the favorable status quo.

Some of the valley’s farmers have privately voiced dissatisfaction with Hamby and the district, and one former local politician said he was asked to consider challenging Hamby in next year’s election.

Hamby also received a cryptic death threat in the mail earlier this year, in which the sender, allegedly frustrated with the handling of the Colorado River, suggested he be shot.

But he shrugged off that incident too as just someone sending him “a nice notecard.” All paths forward on the river go through Hamby, and there were more pressing water policy questions — and potential solutions to the river’s woes — that he wanted to discuss instead.

“I’ve been accused of being optimistic,” he said.

Mollie Simon contributed research.

by Mark Olalde, ProPublica, and Janet Wilson, The Desert Sun

ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer Gets Email Alerts and Other Major Improvements

1 week ago

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For the past decade, ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer has published financial details of every tax-exempt organization in the United States that files annual reports with the Internal Revenue Service. And until this year, the site looked about its age.

While we regularly update our database with new documents, we’ve only occasionally added new features (like a full-text filing search and an employee search) or updated its looks or back-end code. This year, however, we dedicated a team to take our favorite news app and give it some much-needed love, as well as new bells and whistles. Most exciting of all, we now have email alerts to let you know when we publish new documents for an organization you’re interested in. You tell us which nonprofits you want notifications for, and we’ll do the rest.

There are under-the-hood improvements, of course: We updated and upgraded much of the underlying code, tuned our data loaders and upgraded our search systems. But the most exciting updates are the ones we hope will help you in your research. (Our reporters and editors will be doing a walkthrough of the new features on Monday, Nov. 27.)

First, the email alerts. On every organization page of Nonprofit Explorer, you’ll find a “subscribe” button. If you click it, we’ll ask for your email address, and we’ll verify that you want us to send you emails. Once you do, we’ll alert you every time we publish a new 990, 990-PF, 990-EZ or audit for that organization. You can add more nonprofits to your list at any time and manage them from a single page. These alerts should be rare — most likely no more than once or twice per year for any given organization — but it’s something we know users, including many journalists here at ProPublica, have wanted for a long time.

What’s more, we’ve changed how search works. Search is one of the primary uses of Nonprofit Explorer, and now you can find what you’re looking for faster and easier than ever. When you search, we’ll tell you not just how many organizations match that search, but how many times that term appears in the full text of e-filed documents and how many key employees or officers match the same term. You can also access search from any page on the site in the top right corner.

Once you’ve searched, you can narrow your results with a number of new filters. Drill down to organizations in a specific state, or with a specific revenue range. If you’re a journalist or researcher, you may appreciate the option to filter down just to organizations that said they provide first-class travel, or that have reported conflicts of interest. For the employee search, you can filter by state or compensation. For the filing text search, you can filter by which part of the 990 your search term was found on — meaning you can filter down, for example, to anyone who listed ProPublica as a grantee on Schedule I. We also give you context and highlight where the term appears on the form page, much like in a Google search result.

Instead of searching, you can filter all nonprofits, employees or forms — meaning you can filter down to all nonprofit hospitals in Florida that reported paying for first-class or charter travel for executives.

We also wanted to help people who are not tax experts understand these important documents. To that end, we made some information easier to understand. For instance, we now have indicators to show if a nonprofit operates a school, hospital or donor-advised fund, or provides certain benefits to executives. We also added charts of revenue, expenses, assets and liabilities, giving you a snapshot of a nonprofit’s activities and health over time.

Instead of expecting people to already know the difference between a 990, a 990-T, a 990-PF or an audit, we now have helpful text that describes what each document is used for, and we give people a clear way to access each document. When you’re reading a document, we’ve also added helpful navigation and a print button that also allows you to download a PDF of the filing.

Users also will have instant access to financial summaries of filings. Before, we had been relying on the IRS to release the information in its published annual extracts. Now, however, we extract that information ourselves, meaning that the summaries will appear as soon as we have the documents. This also allows us to correct summaries in instances when a nonprofit later files an amendment.

Last, but certainly not least, we’ve added state pages. State pages tell you what the highest-revenue nonprofits are in each state, as well as the highest-earning nonprofit employees in each state. If you’re a local reporter, you might want to keep a tab on, for example, the largest nonprofits and the highest-earning nonprofit employees in Pennsylvania.

Learn more in our webinar, How to Use Our News App to Investigate Nonprofits, at 1 p.m. Eastern time Nov. 27. Sign up now.

While these are the big updates, there are lots of small things we’ve done to make the experience of researching nonprofits even easier. This is a labor of love for us here at ProPublica — we really think this is one of our finest public services. Three developer-journalists — Andrea Suozzo, Alec Glassford and Brandon Roberts — spent six months working on this project full time. Designer Jeff Frankl and another news applications developer, Ash Ngu, made further contributions, and many other people helped us along the way. If you’ve ever found Nonprofit Explorer to be helpful in your life, please consider donating, and we’ll make sure we keep updating it with new features and documents for years to come.

by Ken Schwencke

Union Pacific Fired Him Rather Than Heed His Warnings of Dangerous Rail Conditions

1 week 2 days ago

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As he walked along the spongy, damp Louisiana marshland, scrutinizing tracks owned by one of the nation’s largest freight railroad companies, Robert Faaborg was not happy. The strips of wood that held the rails in place, called ties, were rotten. The screws that held them together were rusted. It was the sort of decay that could cause 18,000-ton trains to derail.

That evening in January 2014, the government inspector fired off an email to the two Union Pacific managers who had accompanied him on the ground. He wanted them to picture the death and destruction that could unfold if tanker cars filled with highly flammable Bakken crude oil teetered off the rickety tracks and careened toward nearby homes.

“I was a little surprised that a KEY route with such high volumes of hazardous materials had tie conditions like this,” Faaborg wrote. He asked them to think about the neighboring families they saw that day. “I was struck by a little girl’s voice calling out, ‘Daddy,’” the inspector wrote. “The family of that little girl is counting on us to keep her and them safe.”

Johnny Taylor was clear on what had to happen. As Union Pacific’s manager of track maintenance for a southern swath of the state including Baton Rouge, he knew he “owned” the 120-mile network of tracks and would get blamed for anything that went wrong. He also didn’t want anyone to get hurt on his watch.

Faaborg, who worked for the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees rail safety, had only been able to inspect some of the tracks. He instructed Taylor to look at the rest and write up defects, setting a schedule to make the whole territory comply with federal code. Until these tracks were brought back to standards, trains couldn’t go 60 miles per hour on them, the inspector said; regulations required Taylor to slow them down. With more substantially damaged tracks, Taylor had 30 days to repair them; if he couldn’t, Taylor would have to shut them down.

As an Army veteran, Taylor respected orders and deadlines and the chain of command. But he sat under his own boss within a corporate structure that prized moving its cargo as quickly as possible. Bakken crude was big business, and that year, as oil production outstripped pipeline capacity, there had been significant increase in shipping crude by rail.

Taylor’s boss, who had been with him during the inspection, gave him a conflicting order, Taylor would later recall in a court deposition and in interviews with ProPublica; the words marked the start of the seven worst years of his life:

If you keep reporting these track defects, you will no longer have a job at Union Pacific.

ProPublica this week detailed a dilemma rail workers face across America. As the nation’s rail companies double down on increasing the speed and frequency of trains to grow their profits, managers at all levels must fulfill that vision and decide if keeping the trains moving requires them to neglect repairs, ignore safety issues and fire those who complain.

ProPublica uncovered 111 instances of workers who claimed in federal court that they had been disciplined or fired for reporting safety concerns like failing brakes and damaged tracks.

In at least three cases in recent years, including one filed by Taylor, juries awarded over $1 million to fired workers. The rail companies quietly settled most of the rest.

But rail workers have gotten the message loud and clear, dozens of them told ProPublica: Their bosses make examples of those who speak up — or, worse, work with regulators to force fixes. As a result, workers said they have struggled with whether to risk their jobs to raise safety issues.

The industry disputes this dynamic. The Association of American Railroads says the rails are safer than they’ve ever been, with accidents on a steady decline. The group attributes this to the care companies take to run safe trains. Union Pacific said safety is its No. 1 priority. “Nothing is more important,” the company said in a written response.

But that is belied by news ProPublica reported in September, when the FRA blasted Union Pacific for running unsafe trains out of its largest yard, in North Platte, Nebraska. According to the agency, company managers pressured inspectors to leave the yard because they were slowing down business.

“That’s basically what they were doing to me,” Taylor told ProPublica. “Now they’ve gotten so bold they are telling FRA inspectors, ‘Don’t come out here.’”

In at least three cases, including one filed by Taylor, juries awarded over $1 million to fired workers. (Emily Kask for ProPublica)

Union Pacific told ProPublica that it wants its employees to report safety issues and work with regulators. In its response to a letter the FRA sent, the company said that it is routine to ask inspectors to move to a different part of the yard if they are in an unsafe location or their work is interrupting train service. Union Pacific said it would address the recent concerns raised by the agency. As for Taylor, the company said his “renditions of the facts vary from those of management.”

Taylor’s former boss, director of track maintenance John Begley, declined to be interviewed about Taylor or comment more broadly. Begley was not deposed, nor did he testify at trial. He has since retired.

This story is based on interviews, sworn testimony and court documents including internal emails filed as evidence.

What happened to Taylor captures in rare detail the impossible position of rail workers who are caught between their bosses and their duty to keep the rails safe, as well as the toll this conflict takes on them and their families.

Signage at a Union Pacific office in California. The railroad said that it wants its employees to report safety issues and work with regulators. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

At 43 years old, with a career that spanned the military, the Mississippi Department of Transportation and seven years at Union Pacific, no one had ever threatened to fire or demote Taylor.

His first instinct was to go to Faaborg; he thought that surely the government inspector would protect him. But Faaborg said there was nothing he could do about an employee’s dispute with a supervisor, according to Taylor. (Faaborg didn’t respond to ProPublica’s attempts to contact him, but the FRA confirmed that it can’t stop the type of intimidation Taylor said was happening.)

Taylor read the Federal Railroad Safety Act, the law that governs conduct on the rails. It protected him, at least on paper; managers couldn’t threaten him for trying to address safety problems. But there was no immediate legal remedy if his bosses retaliated unless he sued the railroad or filed a claim with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It could take years for the agency to decide a case.

Taylor realized he was alone.

“I made up my mind,” Taylor said. “I’m going to write these defects up. It was the right thing.”

He fixed the problems the inspector had noted and kept flagging more for repair. Sometimes, that required slowing down trains or taking tracks out of service. Even though Begley didn’t make good on his alleged threat to fire him, the blowback kept coming, Taylor said.

He felt it in November 2016, when vice president of engineering Greg Workman asked him whether he was “in bed with the FRA,” Taylor recalled in trial testimony. Workman, who is now retired, denied this during litigation and declined to comment when reached by ProPublica.

And he felt it in March 2017, when he took a troublesome stretch of track out of service after trains kept slipping off the rails. Daniel Jaquess, senior terminal manager, came to the yard to berate Taylor. “Why the fuck did you do that?” he asked Taylor, who turned and walked away. “Where the fuck are you going?”

Recognizing his precarious legal situation, Taylor started lodging complaints about the threats he was receiving with Union Pacific’s ethics hotline and the company’s Equal Employment Opportunity office. In response to the encounter with Jaquess, the company counseled the director on his use of strong language, according to court records. Jaquess declined to comment for this story. In a statement to ProPublica, Union Pacific denied it fosters a culture of intimidation. “We encourage employees to raise concerns and engage in respectful dialogue. We do not tolerate any form of retaliation against an employee making a good faith report of a safety concern.”

The impossibility of his job wore away at Taylor. He used to relax after work, playing the blues or soul on his guitar. But he couldn’t find the notes anymore. He tried to shield his wife from his stress, but Erica Taylor, who had loved him since they were teenagers, knew better.

She felt it as he tossed and turned in bed; she heard it as he talked in his sleep. She couldn’t make out what he was saying but knew it was about the railroad.

Taylor was already struggling when two major forces collided in 2017, ratcheting up the pressure from both sides.

As Bakken production increased, Congress lifted a four-decade ban on exporting crude oil, which started shipping out of Louisiana’s deepwater port in 2017. Competing with other railroads for this uptick in traffic, Union Pacific dispatched new local managers schooled in a business philosophy that was sweeping the industry.

Under precision scheduled railroading, profits soared as companies ran longer and faster trains with quicker turnarounds. The industry’s oil trains, including Union Pacific’s, lengthened, stretching to 100 cars carrying 2.5 million gallons of crude each.

At the same time, Union Pacific was under intense scrutiny about how it handled this cargo. The year before, one of its oil trains derailed outside Mosier, Oregon, spilling 47,000 gallons of crude into the Columbia River Gorge. The tracks there had come loose.

Fed up with Union Pacific’s “failure to maintain tracks to federal standards,” officials at the FRA announced a robust nationwide safety agreement to force it into compliance.

Suddenly regulators started showing up unannounced in Taylor’s region, including a staunch inspector named Nick Roppolo who dropped by weekly. One day, Taylor recalled, the inspector said that if defects weren’t fixed in 30 days, Taylor could face criminal charges under the stricter standards of the safety agreement. Roppolo declined to be interviewed by ProPublica.

As Taylor traversed his vast territory in his company pickup truck, steaming or stressed, he had taken to calling his wife, who would talk to him until he calmed down. But she’d recently had brain surgery to deal with a pituitary tumor and he didn’t want to burden her, so he drove in silence, his mind swimming. Jail? What was this job going to cost him?

Shaking, Taylor pulled over, sat with the engine running and cried.

Taylor noticed how the heavy Bakken crude trains affected the switches, movable rails that shift to guide trains as they transition from one track to another. That fall, two trains derailed in six days at a sequence of antiquated switches.

Taylor, who has degrees in math and engineering, came up with a solution he thought could stop the derailments for good. The switches were too small. The best fix was to replace them with larger ones that could create a softer curve for these longer, heavier trains to navigate.

His local managers didn’t like this plan, which was expensive and would take the tracks out of service for months. Already, Taylor said, one of his new bosses had threatened to take his welding gang after Taylor shut down a mainline track. If Taylor lost control of his crew, it would be harder to fix federal violations within 30 days, which could leave him at fault if the company were fined. Kenneth Stuart, director of track maintenance, denied this in his deposition and said he wanted to use the crew differently. He didn’t respond to ProPublica’s attempts to reach him.

In emails, Taylor and the local managers seemed to be talking past one another. Taylor said he invited them to come see the problem for themselves. Jacob Gilsdorf, general director of engineering for the Southern Division, later testified that he was never asked. Either way, the tracks remained idle. Frustrated by the inaction, Jaquess emailed them all in January 2018, pushing for a plan to get the tracks back: “We have four tracks out of service. … We can’t survive without these tracks. Business is too good.”

Four days later, Taylor restricted train speed on another track for safety reasons. Gilsdorf ordered Taylor to lift the speed restriction, but Taylor refused, thinking of the families who lived less than 500 feet from the defect. Gilsdorf denied this in court testimony and did not respond to ProPublica’s attempt to reach him.

Communications between Taylor, Stuart and Gilsdorf had become tense. One day, Taylor accused them of trying to get him to commit a crime by putting the tracks back in service before they were repaired, according to court records. Another day, he told them he was recording their phone calls and notified them he’d filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint, one of many he’d submitted since they came to his subdivision. Stuart claimed Taylor was abruptly hanging up on them, using the catchphrase, “Johnny Out.” Taylor denies this.

Through it all, Taylor was consumed with worry, certain his bosses were working on a way to fire him. He didn’t want his wife to have to go back to work. What would his family do for health insurance? How would he support them? For the first time in his life, Taylor thought about killing himself.

One afternoon that month, January 2018, Taylor and his wife saw railroad bosses in their doorbell camera. They had no idea why the two men were knocking at their front door. Taylor had called in sick that day. He had an appointment with his doctor about his blood pressure, which was spiking from conflicts at work.

When Erica Taylor greeted Stuart and Phillip Hawkins, a family acquaintance who was manager of track projects, she thought Hawkins might be dropping by to see how her husband was doing. But the managers stopped in the foyer.

Stuart announced that Union Pacific was placing Johnny Taylor on administrative leave. He would not be allowed back in the yard, and he needed to turn over company property.

“Bring us the keys. We need the keys to the truck,” Erica Taylor recalled hearing from Stuart. Johnny Taylor went to get the keys and Stuart hollered after him, telling him to bring the company laptop, cellphone and ID card, too.

Erica Taylor started to cry. She couldn’t believe they were doing this at their home, nor could she separate this kind of treatment from the fact that her husband is Black. Coming to their home to emasculate her husband in front of her felt like the kind of thing that would happen in the Jim Crow era. “Look at how they’re making him feel, like nothing,” she thought. “It broke me that they're trying to break this man in front of me.”

Stuart and Hawkins remember this encounter differently. At trial, Hawkins, who is also Black, recalls tensing up when Johnny Taylor walked up behind him, fearing “something was gonna occur.” Hawkins did not respond to ProPublica’s attempt to reach him. Stuart described Taylor’s behavior as “erratic and intimidating.”

As Taylor handed over the artifacts of his 11 years of employment at Union Pacific, at last he could express his frustration with the way it ran its railroad. “Get out of my house,” he told the men.

He knew this was the first step in firing him despite years of positive evaluations. In his most recent review, the division supervisor wrote: “Thank you is not enough. Your leadership and dedication are a huge part of this service unit’s success.”

His instincts were right. His bosses had started the paperwork, claiming to the personnel office: “Taylor has decided he doesn’t have to do anything his manager or director tells him to do. He claims he is being retaliated against every time someone assigns him a task.”

They soon presented Taylor with a three-month performance improvement plan that described him as “disrespectful and insubordinate” and “argumentative.”

When Taylor refused to sign it, he was fired.

Five days later, he received a $15,000 bonus check, the largest he’d ever earned, for his good performance at Union Pacific, commending his crew’s injury-free days, how he stayed under budget and how he managed traffic on damaged tracks, while noting he needed to have a more positive attitude.

Johnny and Erica Taylor in their home in Gonzales, Louisiana. Railroad bosses came to their house to tell Johnny Taylor he was being placed on administrative leave and to have him turn over company property. (Emily Kask for ProPublica)

Taylor’s bonus disappeared quickly as he tried for more than a year to find a job. The mailbox was full of notices from bill collectors; and they kept calling, threatening to repossess his boat, an easy-to-afford luxury when he was making more than $100,000 a year. But he wasn’t in the mood for recreation.

“I’ve seen my husband sad before, but I’ve never seen my husband depressed to the point where he’d just sit in the dark,” Erica Taylor recalled. “His demeanor was just like they took that military arch out of his back.”

For months, he wore the same stained sweatpants as he filled out a spreadsheet of more than 100 rejected applications to jobs that ranged from a Texas engineering company to the local Home Depot. His decade of experience maintaining the tracks wasn’t easily transferable. And he had to tell the truth about how he got fired, making companies suspect he was a troublemaker.

Taylor decided he wanted to teach middle school science; it took a year to qualify for a teaching certificate. When he did, his wife knew how to mark that moment. “That particular pair of jogging pants, I ended up throwing them away,” she said.

Johnny Taylor with a robot his students built. He decided he wanted to teach middle school science, and it took a year to qualify for a teaching certificate. (Emily Kask for ProPublica)

Taylor filed suit against Union Pacific in December 2018. Last year, a jury agreed with his version of the story. After a short deliberation, it delivered him more than $1 million for wrongful termination; Union Pacific was ordered to pay his attorney’s fees.

Taylor kept his composure until he left the courtroom. Then, he wept. All this time, he’d been made to feel he’d done something wrong. He felt vindicated. “The jury said yes, I was right. I did the right thing.”

The managers who had conflict with Taylor — Jaquess, Stuart and Gilsdorf — remained at Union Pacific.

Officials with the FRA told ProPublica they forwarded Taylor’s claims onto the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General, something the agency says it does when it believes there is potentially something criminal in a case. When ProPublica asked the Office of Inspector General about the referral, it replied with “no comment,” a response it typically gives when a case is still pending. Union Pacific said it was unaware of this development and is reviewing.

Taylor now teaches engineering and robotics. He loves working with his sixth, seventh and eighth graders and takes far less blood pressure medicine.

But he still thinks about the families who live near the tracks and scans the news for derailments. He worries about how Union Pacific is managing his old territory. “I’m very concerned that they’re not doing a good job protecting those tracks,” he said.

Do You Have a Tip for ProPublica? Help Us Do Journalism.

Gabriel Sandoval and Dan Schwartz contributed research.

by Danelle Morton and Topher Sanders, with additional reporting by Jessica Lussenhop

Tennessee Lawmakers Demand an Audit of Juvenile Detention Facilities, Citing “Culture Of Lawlessness”

1 week 3 days ago

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with WPLN/Nashville Public Radio. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

A group of Tennessee lawmakers is calling for an audit of the use of seclusion inside juvenile detention facilities, and the removal of a Knox County superintendent, following reporting from WPLN and ProPublica.

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Our investigation found kids have been locked alone in cells in the Richard L. Bean Juvenile Service Center in Knoxville more often than other facilities in the state, sometimes as punishment and sometimes for an indeterminate length of time. The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services is the licensing agency for the Bean Center and documented the improper use of seclusion for years. Yet it continued to approve the center’s license to operate without the facility changing its ways.

“The Department has a constitutional duty to the legislature to enforce state laws and a moral obligation to children to ensure that youth in state-licensed facilities are being treated humanely and in accordance with Department guidelines,” state Sen. Heidi Campbell wrote.

A letter from 14 Democratic lawmakers demands “immediate response and action” from the Department of Children’s Services. (Obtained by WPLN and ProPublica)

The letter, signed by 14 Democrats, calls the findings “alarming.” It characterizes comments by the superintendent, Richard L. Bean, as having created a “culture of lawlessness.” Those comments include Bean saying, “What we do is treat everybody like they’re in here for murder.”

The letter went on to say that “any juvenile detention facility administrator who openly defies state detention rules” should “soon find themselves out of a job.”

After receiving the letter, DCS wrote to WPLN and ProPublica: “Earlier this week, Commissioner Quin and DCS leaders began taking steps to immediately address the concerns outlined in the report about the Bean Center. The matter is being treated with urgency and is a priority to the Department.”

In inspection reports obtained by WPLN and ProPublica, one child told DCS inspectors that he was secluded after he forgot to bring his books to class. “Staff will put you in seclusion if they don’t like you,” he told the inspector. Another child said he was secluded but didn’t really understand why.

“I can’t let the kids run the place,” Bean said about putting children in seclusion. “Sometimes you get a kid, you put him in his room, and he cuss and call you everything in the books. It’s hard to let him out.”

Bean has been in charge of the detention center since 1972. When asked if he was worried about getting in trouble with DCS or the state, Bean said, “If I got in trouble for it, I believe I could talk to whoever got me in trouble and get out of it.”

Lawmakers are also requesting an audit of all of Tennessee’s juvenile detention facilities. They draw a connection to problems exposed by a previous WPLN and ProPublica investigation into Rutherford County’s facility, as well as scrutiny of the Wilder Youth Development Center.

They call for the department to immediately intervene to prevent young people from being locked alone in cells, and they say DCS should develop a “more aggressive” enforcement policy to prevent the misuse of seclusion in the future.

WPLN and ProPublica shared the letter to officials at the facility, including Bean, and requested comment; they did not immediately respond.

by Paige Pfleger, WPLN/Nashville Public Radio

Wisconsin’s Legislative Maps Are Bizarre, but Are They Illegal?

1 week 3 days ago

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Any number of odd, zigzag examples can be used to make the case that legislative districts in Wisconsin are excessively gerrymandered.

There’s the pistol-shaped 31st Assembly District, held by a Republican, that was drawn with a western border that splits the Democratic city of Beloit in two.

There’s suburban Milwaukee’s 14th Assembly District, which stretches south, then east, then southwest, then east and again south, isolating Democrats and thereby limiting the Democratic vote in neighboring districts held by Republicans.

And in the northwest corner of the state, there’s the 73rd Assembly District, which resembles a Tyrannosaurus rex after a remap wiped out a reliable bloc of Democrats and added more rural conservative areas. The result: After 50 years of Democratic control, a Republican won in 2022.

Yet when the Wisconsin Supreme Court hears arguments next week in a widely watched lawsuit arguing that the existing maps fail to meet standards set out in the state constitution, that kind of political engineering will not be the focus.

Instead, much of the debate will center on exactly how to interpret the word “contiguous.” And the map shapes that are likely to get attention have elicited comparisons to Swiss cheese.

Fifty-five of the state’s 99 Assembly districts and 21 of 33 in the Senate contain “disconnected pieces of territory,” according to the most recent petition filed with the state Supreme Court by 19 Wisconsin voters. The suit seeks to have the state’s maps declared unfair and redrawn.

Some sections of the state’s maps “look like a 2-year-old drew them,” said Democratic Rep. Jodi Emerson, who represents the city of Eau Claire in northwestern Wisconsin.

In the interior of her district, the 91st, sits a free-floating chunk that actually belongs to the turf of the adjacent lawmaker, Republican Karen Hurd.

68th and 91st Districts

This island, part of the Town of Washington, is in the Republican-held 68th Assembly District but is surrounded by the city of Eau Claire in the Democratic-held 91st Assembly District.

That may seem odd, but what is often left unsaid in discussions of Wisconsin maps is that the islands are not random parcels created by mapmakers to advantage Republicans at the behest of a Republican legislature. Rather, the irregular blobs largely follow municipal maps that reflect the history of Wisconsin cities and villages adding to their tax base by annexing bits of land in nearby areas. The practice often leaves towns with irregular maps and legislative districts with holes and satellites.

The plaintiffs, who are Democratic voters, claim that the legislative district boundaries violate Article IV, Section 4 of the state constitution, which says Assembly members must be elected from districts consisting of “contiguous territory.”

But the same section of Article IV also requires that Assembly districts “be bounded by county, precinct, town or ward lines.”

Senate districts, which are each made up of three Assembly districts, are governed by Section 5. It says they must consist of “convenient contiguous territory.”

So, which trumps which? Contiguity or municipal lines?

"This is the only case I’m aware of where contiguity has been the focus of a challenge,” said University of Colorado Law Professor Doug Spencer, an expert in redistricting. “This could give the new Supreme Court in Wisconsin a way to overturn the maps on neutral grounds."

Much is at stake. The case could decide the future of Wisconsin state politics, with possible ramifications for such hot-button issues as abortion and voting rights.

One election law expert, after reviewing the constitution, saw the Senate language as more straightforward to challenge. Section 5 does not mention a need for Senate maps to be bounded by any kind of government or municipal lines. It only mentions contiguity.

That language is “more of a slam dunk” for the plaintiffs, said Michael McDonald of the University of Florida’s political science department, where he studies mapping issues.

GOP legislators who oppose the suit argue in one legal brief that insisting all parts of a district must physically touch flouts prior court rulings and “is absurd and unworkable.”

Marooned on a Voting Island

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that state legislative districts should have roughly equal populations, while federal law prohibits drawing lines that dilute the voting power of minorities. In addition to those parameters, states have adopted their own principles, which frequently include keeping districts contiguous.

The rationale behind contiguity is to create local districts where lawmakers live near and share common concerns with their constituents.

Contiguous means “you can draw a district without ever having to lift up your pencil,” Spencer explained.

But that’s not Wisconsin’s method.

According to the legal complaint, the majority of Wisconsin’s Assembly districts are noncontiguous — each consisting of between two and 40 disconnected pieces of territory. Two-thirds of the state’s Senate districts are noncontiguous — each with between two and 34 disconnected pieces.

Consider just a few of the Assembly districts referenced in the case.

2nd and 88th Districts

The 88th District, which features eastern sections of Green Bay as well as more rural areas, includes two detached islands surrounded by the 2nd District. Those islands correspond to the boundaries of two towns. The islands don’t seem to benefit either party. Both districts are represented by Republicans.

48th and 79th Districts

In Dane County, the Town of Burke is made up of disjointed tracts, resulting in noncontiguous boundaries for the town. Tiny portions of the town are in two different Assembly districts, both held by Democrats.

3rd and 5th Districts

It’s not unusual to see district maps that include islands so small they encompass a block, a few homes or even a single residence. In Outagamie County, boundary lines for the Town of Buchanan create a one-house-wide hole in the Republican district that contains the rest of the city of Kaukauna.

47th District

The Town of Madison, which had noncontiguous boundaries and was part of the 47th Assembly District, ceased to exist in 2022 when it was absorbed by the cities of Madison and Fitchburg. Yet the resulting islands in the legislative district remain. The district is notable for its large number of people living in noncontiguous areas.

Population estimate based on analysis of census data by Marquette University Law School redistricting researcher John Johnson. High Stakes on the Highest Court

Wisconsin’s maps have long been a contentious political topic, even becoming an issue earlier this year in a fiercely competitive race for a seat on the state Supreme Court, a contest that attracted tens of millions of dollars in campaign donations and outside spending.

The liberal-leaning candidate, Janet Protasiewicz, won, tipping the balance of the court to the left for the first time in 15 years. During the race, she expressed her support for legal abortion and her concern that the legislative maps were “rigged.”

One day after Protasiewicz’s Aug. 1 swearing-in ceremony, the group of Democratic voters filed suit, challenging the maps as “extreme partisan gerrymanders.” The high court declined to hear arguments about how the maps created a political advantage and, instead, narrowed the case to two arcane issues. One was “contiguity.” The other was “separation of powers,” centering on whether the prior Supreme Court overstepped its authority last year when it adopted the Legislature's maps despite a veto by the state’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers.

When Protasiewicz and the liberal majority decided in favor of hearing the case, conservatives on the court didn’t hide their displeasure.

“Redistricting should not be an annual event,” griped Chief Justice Annette Kingsland Ziegler in a written dissent. She added that the decision to focus solely on contiguity and separation of powers, which are state Constitutional issues, was “an attempt to dodge appellate review.”

Another justice, Rebecca Grassl Bradley, expressed her dismay with the case by liberally citing Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and its sequel.

“Through the Looking Glass we go,” she wrote of what she considered to be a purely political, madcap exercise.

As the court date approaches, Republican legislators have been calling for Protasiewicz’s impeachment, claiming she’s biased. But she has said she won’t prejudge the issue and won’t recuse herself.

So far, Republicans haven’t acted on the impeachment threat. But even talk of such an extreme measure shows how significant the maps’ case is.

If redrawn, districts could become more competitive and less safe for incumbents — perhaps changing the power balance in the state capital. Republicans could lose complete control of the Legislature or, even if they retain power, lose their opportunity to gain a supermajority that would allow them to override Evers’ vetoes. A weakened state GOP could also be less helpful in 2024 to any Republicans who seek to again dispute presidential election results in Wisconsin, a swing state.

John Johnson, a Marquette University researcher who studies redistricting, noted that, ironically, it was Democrats who favored noncontiguous districts three decades ago.

Back then, maps drawn under the oversight of a Democratic legislature had created islands. Wisconsin Republicans at the time favored the dictionary definition, embracing “literal contiguity,” according to a key 1992 federal redistricting case that has been cited in the current controversy.

A federal three-judge panel, considering broader issues, didn’t endorse the islands but tolerated them, noting that the distance in the Democratic plan between the towns and the islands was slight.

The court held that “compactness and contiguity are desirable features in a redistricting plan,” but “only up to a point.”

Reaching “perfect contiguity and compactness,” the judges feared, would require “breaking up counties, towns, villages, wards and even neighborhoods.”

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by Megan O’Matz, graphics by Lucas Waldron

9 Times the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Miscalculated Badly at the Expense of Taxpayers, Wildlife

1 week 3 days ago

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

Since it was founded in 1802, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has taken on some of the nation’s most ambitious attempts to manipulate nature for the benefit of human beings. The agency’s motto — “Essayons!” — translates from French to “Let Us Try!” And try it does.

The Corps has plunged ahead time and again with billion-dollar construction projects based on assumptions that don’t exactly pan out. In some cases, the agency goes on to spend billions more restoring the natural environment it manipulated.

We reported in late October on the Corps’ $1.9 billion proposal to remedy the fact that its 13 dams on the Willamette River in Oregon have helped drive iconic salmon to the brink of extinction.

Trouble is, that recovery plan is also based on assumptions that might not match reality. Central to what the Corps proposes is a pair of fish collectors, which the agency describes as essentially giant fish vacuums. Salmon the size of baby carrots would be whooshed into it, trapped in tanks and trucked around dams on their migration to the sea. The devices are to be built on a massive scale never before tested, and the Corps estimates a single collector could cost up to $450 million. A recent scientific review concluded that the kind of approach the Corps is pitching in Oregon won’t save salmon but “only prolong their decline to extinction.”

The Corps says it’s the best option for helping salmon while keeping dams operational for hydropower customers, boaters and other users of the Willamette systems — although many of those users say they would be fine with lowering reservoirs and curtailing hydropower if it helped fish.

The Oregon story is one example in a long line of Corps projects that have drawn criticism over the years.

In 1971, the New York Times editorial board declared “the American people are becoming increasingly fed up with the expensive, boondoggling, make‐work, environmentally destructive projects that to a large degree characterize the civilian activities of the Army’s Corps of Engineers.”

Three decades later, a Washington Post investigation found the Corps pursued “billions of dollars’ worth of taxpayer-funded water projects, many with significant environmental costs and minimal economic benefits.”

The Government Accountability Office concluded in 2006 that the Corps’ work was “fraught with errors, mistakes, and miscalculations, and used invalid assumptions and outdated data.”

ProPublica, with its partner Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, has reported that the Corps knew since 1852 that levees force rivers to run higher and faster and yet persisted in using them for flood control.

When asked for a response to critics, the Corps this week issued a statement in which it acknowledged that over its long history, “there have been challenges associated with some of our projects. As an organization, we are always striving to be better.”

The agency said lessons learned from past projects have prompted changes to planning processes and the incorporation of “independent peer review.” The Corps said it’s working to modernize business methods, materials and designs while evolving in its approach to environmental and social concerns. Corps leaders are committed, the statement said, “to safely deliver projects, on time and within budget.”

Here are some examples of Corps projects that didn’t go as expected.

New Orleans Levee System Floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina fill the streets near downtown New Orleans on Aug. 30, 2005. (David J. Phillip/AP)

Year begun: 1965

Location: New Orleans

The plan: Prevent flooding during coastal storms by building a series of levees around Greater New Orleans.

What actually happened: In 2005, design flaws allowed a storm surge from Hurricane Katrina to breach the walls of the $738 million levee system that the Corps had built over the preceding four decades. The storm and flooding killed 1,392 people and caused damage totaling an inflation-adjusted $190 billion. The American Society of Civil Engineers called the levee failures “the worst engineering catastrophe in US History,” and the Corps later acknowledged its levees were “a system in name only.”

Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway A worker watches a crane unload scrap metal along the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway in Columbus, Mississippi, in 2019. While the waterway hasn’t lived up to expectations in terms of traffic or economic development in parts of Alabama and Mississippi, cities including Columbus rely on it for jobs and transportation. (Jay Reeves/AP)

Year begun: 1971

Location: Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama

The plan: Build a 234-mile artificial waterway connecting the Tennessee River to the Tombigbee River in Alabama, creating a new channel to the Gulf of Mexico and an estimated 208,000 new jobs in economically depressed areas of Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.

What actually happened: The Associated Press reported in 2019 that the Tenn-Tom, as it’s known, “has never come close to traffic projections used to sell it to the public, and poverty rates have increased in most of the counties it flows through in Mississippi and Alabama.” New jobs totaled 29,000, a study by Troy University found — or 179,000 less than early projections. The project cost $2 billion.

St. John’s Bayou-New Madrid Floodway

Year begun: 1986

Location: Missouri Bootheel

The plan: Control flooding in southeast Missouri with a construction project that would include levees and two giant rainwater pumps and cost $165 million.

What actually happened: The project was never completed. The Corps’ own lobbyist described the idea as an “economic dud with huge environmental consequences,” The Washington Post reported in 2006. According to earlier reporting by the Post, the Corps’ efforts were expected to drain 36,000 acres of wetlands and deliver virtually no actual flood protection.

Olmsted Locks and Dam

Year begun: 1988

Location: Olmsted, Illinois

The plan: Build a lock and dam system on the Ohio River to reduce delays on one of the most commercially trafficked water routes in the country, near the meeting of the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. The project was scheduled to be finished in 1998 at a cost of $700 million. The Corps projected the locks and dam would generate $920 million in economic benefits annually.

What actually happened: The project wasn’t completed until 2018 — 20 years later than expected. The cost, $3 billion, was four times what the Corps said it would be, and the economic benefits were $236 million, or about one-fourth the original estimate. In 2021, a collection of farmers along the river sued the federal government, claiming the project had increased the frequency and severity of flooding. The Corps sought to dismiss the suit, arguing the river’s flood pattern had not been severely altered. The case is pending.

Savannah Harbor Dredging

Year begun: 1999

Location: Savannah, Georgia

The plan: Dredge Savannah’s harbor to increase commercial shipping. When approved in 1999, the cost was pegged at $459 million.

What actually happened: The Corps was sued by environmental groups and state environmental regulators in South Carolina, where Corps officials were planning to dump potentially toxic dredge spoils. The Corps tried to get the lawsuit dismissed but eventually reached a settlement that included additional pollution controls. The effort took two decades thanks to repeated delays. Meanwhile, the cost more than doubled, to $973 million.

Florida Everglades Restoration Members of the Corps’ Jacksonville, Florida, district and the South Florida Water Management District joined other federal, state and local officials and stakeholders to break ground for the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir, a component of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan meant to reconnect Lake Okeechobee water to the central Everglades. (Bri Sanchez/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Year begun: 2000

Location: Florida Everglades

The plan: Undo the damage done by engineering projects that degraded the famed ecosystem to half its original size. This damage occurred decades earlier, when the Corps was authorized to build levees around the Everglades and drain the wetlands. Key components of the restoration effort were to include building a massive reservoir the size of Manhattan and a series of artificial marshes meant to funnel clean water into the Everglades. The work would cost $8 billion and take 30 years to complete.

What actually happened: The Corps’ subsequent estimates put the project at $23 billion and 50 years to complete. Two decades passed before the Corps and state officials finally broke ground on the reservoir. According to the Miami Herald: “Even the Army Corps, which is building the reservoir, has signaled it’s worried about whether the finished project will meet the water quality standards it’s supposed to. If the new project missed the mark, it’s possible the ‘crown jewel’ of Everglades restoration might not work.”

Controlling Columbia River Salmon Predators A small portion of the East Sand Island, Wash., cormorant colony in May 2014. The island habitat formed from soil dredged up by the Corps. The agency then started killing the birds to keep them from eating endangered salmon. (Damian Mulinix/Daily Astorian via AP)

Year begun: 2015

Location: Mouth of the Columbia River, Oregon-Washington border

The plan: A colony of double-crested cormorants had settled on a set of islands that the Corps built up with soil it dredged from the riverbed, and the birds were feasting on endangered juvenile salmon as they tried to make their way to the ocean. To save endangered fish, the Corps decided to shoot the birds and put oil on their eggs to prevent them from hatching.

What actually happened: Killing the birds drove the colony to a bridge several miles upriver, where the cormorants ate even more salmon than before. Then the birds inundated the bridge with their droppings, causing an estimated $1 million in damage each year.

Coast Fortification in New Jersey Beachgoers cross over one of numerous large pools of water that formed on the beach in Margate, New Jersey, after heavy rains in July 2017. The water was blocked from draining into the ocean by sand dunes built as part of a storm protection program that Margate residents vigorously fought, claiming that the dunes would cause exactly the type of standing water that occurred. (Wayne Parry/AP)

Year begun: 2016

Location: Margate, New Jersey

The plan: Construct sand dunes as part of a statewide effort to fortify the coast after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, at an estimated cost of $63 million.

What actually happened: Margate residents had resisted the project, arguing that an existing retaining wall was sufficient and that dune construction would cause drainage problems for the seaside town. Their fears bore out in 2017, when water pooled behind newly constructed dunes. The town sued. During the trial, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, a Corps official acknowledged the standing water had surpassed agency predictions and that the agency wanted to continue building, despite being at a loss for solutions. Margate Mayor Michael Becker told the Inquirer the emotional toll of the beach construction was “worse than Hurricane Sandy.” After finding that the town’s concerns were “understandable and cry out for help,” a judge ruled construction could continue if the Corps fenced off ponds and built raised walkways for residents.

Dredging the Mississippi Dredging operations to build an underwater sill in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, outside New Orleans on Sept. 26, 2023. A saltwater wedge slowly moving upriver from the Gulf of Mexico threatened municipal water supplies. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

Year begun: 2018

Location: Mississippi River near New Orleans

The plan: Dredge the Mississippi, deepening the 45-foot-deep channel to 50 feet at the river’s mouth to allow for more shipping.

What actually happened: After the $250 million dredging was completed in 2022, saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico started entering the river. The Corps had known for decades that its continued efforts to deepen the river channel would trigger an intrusion of saltwater, according to The New Orleans Advocate. The agency predicted an underwater dam could contain the invading saltwater, but, according to Bloomberg, this year it failed to do so. To fix the drinking water problem, New Orleans is now building a pipe to pull freshwater from farther upriver, which Bloomberg reports could cost $100 million to $250 million.

by Tony Schick, Oregon Public Broadcasting

DOJ Backs Tenants in Case Alleging Price-Fixing by Big Landlords and a Real Estate Tech Company

1 week 4 days ago

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The U.S. Department of Justice late Wednesday stepped into a massive antitrust lawsuit filed by dozens of tenants who are accusing a tech company’s apartment software of helping landlords collude to inflate rents.

The DOJ action comes after a ProPublica investigation last year found that Texas-based software provider RealPage used algorithms to recommend rents to landlords across the country to maximize profits — a practice that experts said may violate antitrust laws.

In throwing its weight behind plaintiffs in the price-fixing case, the Justice Department waded into a fraught corner of federal antitrust law that could have a wide-reaching impact not only on the way businesses use technology to drive profits but also on the marketplace consumers confront.

In the past, collusion happened with “a formal handshake in a clandestine meeting,” they wrote.

“Algorithms are the new frontier,” federal prosecutors said in their filing. “And, given the amount of information an algorithm can access and digest, this new frontier poses an even greater anticompetitive threat than the last.”

After the first federal lawsuit was filed, RealPage said it “strongly denies the allegations and will vigorously defend against the lawsuit.” The company did not immediately return a request for comment on the justice department’s filing, which opposes RealPage’s efforts to have the case dismissed.

Antitrust enforcers have struggled to apply decades-old laws to new technologies such as RealPage’s rent-setting software, which have changed the way competitors interact with one another and with customers.

But, prosecutors said, whether firms use a software algorithm or human interactions to create the scheme “should be of no legal significance.”

“Automating an anticompetitive scheme does not make it less anticompetitive,” the DOJ said.

As described in federal lawsuits filed by tenants, RealPage invited concerted action among landlords, including the sharing of nonpublic data with the software, with the purpose of raising rents, prosecutors wrote in their memorandum. The arrangement is still price-fixing regardless of whether competing landlords ever communicated with one another about prices, prosecutors said.

“Put simply, RealPage allegedly replaces independent competitive decisionmaking on prices, which often leads to lower prices for tenants, with a price-fixing combination that violates” federal antitrust law, prosecutors wrote.

Not every use of an algorithm to set price violates federal law, they noted, but it is “unlawful when, as alleged here, competitors knowingly combine their sensitive, nonpublic pricing and supply information in an algorithm that they rely upon in making pricing decisions, with the knowledge and expectation that other competitors will do the same.”

The DOJ intervention increases the legal pressure facing RealPage, a private equity-owned venture.

Tenants around the country filed dozens of federal lawsuits alleging violations of antitrust law by scores of big landlords — including some that provide student housing — after ProPublica’s investigation into RealPage in October 2022. The story revealed how landlords share proprietary data with RealPage. Legal experts said the arrangement could facilitate cartel-like behavior among landlords if they used the software to coordinate pricing.

Those lawsuits were consolidated in federal court in Nashville, Tennessee.

Together, the federal lawsuits and another filed in the District of Columbia Superior Court in early November 2023 described an elaborate system set up by RealPage to push landlords’ employees to adopt the software’s suggestions.

Twelve witness accounts, rental price and occupancy data, economic evidence and investigations “confirm the anticompetitive conduct” in the rental housing market, the federal lawsuit says.

In one news release, Realpage offered its property management clients the ability to outsource daily rent-setting and revenue oversight. “We believe in overseeing properties as though we own them ourselves,” the company said in a presentation that plaintiffs’ lawyers referenced in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit quoted one unnamed witness, a RealPage pricing advisor, saying that some pricing advisors told property management employees that they had to follow the software’s recommendations. A leasing manager at a RealPage client said, “I knew [RealPage’s prices] were way too high, but [RealPage] barely budged” when the manager asked to deviate from the suggested rent.

An update to the software tracked not only clients’ acceptance rate, but also the identity of the landlords’ staff members who had requested a deviation from RealPage’s price, the lawsuit said. Compensation for some property management personnel was even tied to compliance with the company’s recommendations, it said.

As a result, RealPage’s system hiked rent prices above competitive levels, the lawsuit alleged. Another witness, a former RealPage executive directly involved in the software’s creation, “expressed dismay with the way RealPage has enabled lessors to collectively raise rents at record pace,” the lawsuit said. The witness said the practice of setting rental rates centrally and consistently raising them had “bastardized” the company’s original supply-and-demand model.

After the company purchased its main software competitor in 2017, RealPage’s reach doubled — to comprise more than two-thirds of all revenue management use nationwide, according to the complaint. About 50 big landlords are named as defendants in the suit.

In a response to the accusations in the federal lawsuit, lawyers for RealPage and other defendants called the allegation that the software company and landlords had formed a conspiracy “implausible.” They said the complaint doesn’t show direct evidence of such an agreement, like “smoking gun” documents or recorded phone calls. “In sum, Plaintiffs have not alleged a plausible horizontal price-fixing conspiracy,” the response said.

The response accused tenants’ lawyers of trying to “create the false impression that users must obtain approval from RealPage before rejecting the software’s recommendations.” RealPage attorneys pointed to a company FAQ that said output from the software “may be followed, modified, or ignored by an apartment provider.”

It also said the fact that defendants held meetings and participated in online user groups and trade associations “does not imply collusion.”

The DOJ filing comes after the District of Columbia’s attorney general, Brian Schwalb, announced earlier this month that his office was also suing RealPage and 14 of the biggest landlords in the city “for colluding to illegally raise rents for tens of thousands of DC residents.”

In the broader Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, more than 90% of large apartment buildings — meaning those with 50 or more units — use RealPage’s revenue management software to set rents, Schwalb’s lawsuit contends. The complaint, filed in District of Columbia Superior Court, said RealPage has become “the ‘Big Tech’ company of rental housing,” promising landlords it can boost revenue by 2-7% using its software.

“Increases of this magnitude translate to millions in wrongfully inflated rents in the last four years alone,” Schwalb’s complaint says. “Every dollar of increased rent that the cartel illegally squeezes from District renters contributes to widening wealth gaps, forces hardworking residents to forgo other uses of their money, and pushes residents out of a District whose housing they increasingly cannot afford.”

The Washington suit, whose defendants include one of the nation’s biggest apartment owners, Greystar, said the use of the software marked a departure from the traditionally competitive rental market, saying that when a former high-ranking manager at Greystar was asked whether landlords use the RealPage software to collude on raising rental prices, “he responded that of course they did—it’s the entire reason landlords used the software.”

Greystar could not be immediately reached for comment.

In a statement released to media outlets at the time, a RealPage spokesperson criticized Schwalb’s lawsuit, saying, “In seeking to draw a causal connection between revenue management software like ours and increases in market-wide rents, this copycat suit repeats the inaccuracies of predecessor cases.” The statement said the complaint and others like it are “wrong on the facts and the law.”

The Washington lawsuit alleged that the system was designed to police compliance of the cartel. It cited RealPage training documents that urged clients to have the “discipline” to enact the software’s pricing suggestions 90% of the time or more. Training documents encouraged regional rental managers to beware of “‘rogue’ leasing agents who too frequently override” the software’s recommended prices. Rejections would also often trigger outreach from a RealPage pricing advisor, the suit said.

Lawmakers had urged the Justice Department to step into the dispute in letters in March 2023 and November 2022.

In late October 2023, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who chairs a Senate panel on antitrust policy, held a hearing on competition and consumer rights in housing that included the RealPage controversy.

In testimony, University of Tennessee law professor Maurice Stucke, a former prosecutor in the Justice Department’s antitrust division, noted that in several instances, data showed property managers who used algorithms to set rent saw their revenues increase even as they let more apartments sit vacant.

“So one issue for you is can the antitrust laws effectively punish and deter this alleged anti-competitive behavior?” he said to the subcommittee. “The short answer is yes, if humans agreed among themselves to fix price, and RealPage’s pricing algorithm was then used to facilitate their collusion.”

But Stucke said that given the way opportunities for competitors to collude are changing with new technology, he urged reform to address gaps in the law. He recommended changes to the way the Federal Trade Commission considers antitrust claims and how the government reviews the mergers of firms that could reduce competition. He also said Congress should look at how it might enhance privacy laws to better protect renters whose landlords are using new technology.

Klobuchar, who has already proposed reform to antitrust laws, called Stucke’s comments “music to my ears.”

by Heather Vogell

Child Welfare Officials Have Searched Her Home and Her Son Dozens of Times. She’s Suing Them to Stop.

1 week 4 days ago

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It was 5:30 a.m. Flashlights beamed in through the windows of the ground-floor apartment in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. Police officers and child welfare caseworkers were ordering a woman to open her front door.

When she did, the first thing she saw was that the police had their guns drawn. Her hands flew up into the “don’t shoot” position; she was well aware of the recent stories of cops “shooting first and asking later.” She prayed that her 7-year-old son was still asleep in his room.

“I was beyond scared. I literally started shaking,” said L.B., the mom, who is Black and asked to be referred to by her initials for her child’s safety and privacy.

Enabled by the police officers’ show of force, the caseworkers from the Administration for Children’s Services, New York City’s child welfare agency, entered L.B.’s apartment without a warrant that day in January 2021. Before she knew it, they were scrutinizing the contents of her refrigerator and cabinets, examining her bed and bathroom, and rifling through her personal belongings. They also had her lift up her son’s shirt so they could inspect his torso.

They found nothing. The boy was safe and unharmed, living in a clean, well-organized home with his mom and his adult sister, according to case records.

The allegations against L.B., made by an anonymous caller at 4:45 a.m. that day, were false. These included that she was a stripper (she worked at a home for people with disabilities); that she used drugs (none were found, and a drug test was negative for all substances); and that an abusive man lived with her and that she owned “machine guns” (after an exhaustive search and interrogation, both claims were deemed baseless).

In fact, L.B. has never been found to have committed any type of child maltreatment, ACS and court records show.

Yet the anonymous caller, whom L.B. believes to be a former acquaintance with a grudge, has continued to dial in to New York’s state child welfare hotline. Each time, this person or possibly people make outlandish, often already-disproven claims about her, seeming to know that doing so will automatically trigger a government intrusion into her domestic life.

And ACS obliges: Over the past three years, the agency either has inspected her home or examined and questioned her son at school more than two dozen times. Caseworkers have sought a warrant for only three of these searches, most recently in August. All of those requests have been rejected by judges, according to court records.

Still, it keeps happening, and it’s nearly always the same routine, records show. The caseworkers demand entry into her apartment, ringing her doorbell and, embarrassingly, sometimes those of her neighbors as well, at all hours of the day and night. They observe her child’s unclothed stomach and thighs, and sometimes take pictures. And they interrogate him without her consent, covering topics like whether she has sex around him.

At one point he said to her, crying, “Mom, you told me they wouldn’t come back,” L.B. said.

“I’m still trying to make it up to him,” she added, “even though I didn’t do anything wrong.”

L.B. this week filed a federal lawsuit against the commissioner of ACS and the city of New York, arguing that her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures has been repeatedly violated by the agency’s warrantless incursions into her family’s private sphere. She is not primarily alleging that caseworkers committed specific unlawful acts, although several ACS staff members are also named in the suit. Rather, her contention is that three years of the same type and scope of investigation — no matter the source or credibility or repetitiveness of the accusations against her — is indiscriminately and thus unconstitutionally invasive.

Legal aid lawyers in New York had said that more lawsuits like this one might be coming after a ProPublica and NBC News investigation last year found that ACS caseworkers search more than 50,000 typically low-income households every year, obtaining a warrant less than one half of 1% of the time. (L.B. is represented by Brooklyn Defender Services as well as a private law firm, and her complaint cites our reporting.) The agency finds a safety situation requiring removal of a child from a home in only 4% of these cases.

ProPublica’s investigation tracked the case of Ronisha Ferguson, a Bronx mother who sued the city of New York after ACS removed her children from her because she refused to let caseworkers search her apartment without a warrant. (Court records indicate that the city this August agreed to settle that case with Ferguson.)

In response to a detailed list of questions, an ACS spokesperson did not address any aspect of how the agency has handled L.B.’s case. She said that ACS is required under New York law to investigate all reports of child maltreatment that are forwarded from the state hotline, including ones that are anonymous, and that every investigation must include “evaluating the home environment.” The agency has “no discretion” if the hotline operator deems the call worth passing along, she said.

L.B.’s attorneys counter that caseworkers, once they have observed a child to be safe, actually do have discretion under state law not to conduct the same full search that they have completed before. Continuing to follow these procedures over and over causes concrete harm, they say.

L.B.’s child now suffers from severe anxiety, a doctor’s note confirms, which she said is the direct result of ACS’ constant intrusions. (He has even asked her to have the doorbell dismantled.) Her employment has been affected, including when she had to take multiple months of unpaid leave to make sure that she was available for her son. Her landlord has complained to her that the situation is troubling other tenants, causing her to consider moving to a different neighborhood even though she has lived in her apartment for a decade.

Yet for a long time, it was a struggle for her to fight back. When caseworkers arrived at her door, she’d allow them to enter in part because they had the power to remove her son from her custody. They also never told her, she said, that without her consent, they would need a warrant.

They often told her that letting them in was the only way to get them to stop coming, she said.

Finally, in 2022, a co-worker convinced her that she had the right to say no. Anxiously, she started doing just that.

That February, ACS, for the first time, applied for a warrant, stating in court papers that L.B. now knew her rights but that her home still needed to be entered “immediately at any hour.” But a judge, after learning about the case’s history and realizing that L.B.’s child had been observed in his home multiple times and interviewed multiple times with no evidence that any of the allegations against his mom were true, and that all of this was causing him trauma, denied the agency’s request. (The order additionally instructed ACS to refer the matter to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office for investigation of an apparent pattern of false hotline calls.)

The judge told ACS that its procedures “have to be adjusted when following them is more likely to do harm,” adding that “showing up in the middle of the night is traumatic; taking off kids’ clothes is traumatic.”

Yet caseworkers kept trying to get inside L.B.’s home whenever they received anonymous reports, including a patently false claim that she lived in a bar with multiple small daughters. She kept saying no.

They applied for a warrant again. A second judge denied them, calling the whole matter a “horrible intrusion” as well as a “waste of state resources.”

So ACS took a different tack: showing up at her son’s school and calling him to the office to interrogate him there, without her knowledge let alone consent. Caseworkers did this repeatedly for many months, making him miss class, and without telling him that he was free to leave at any time.

He used to love school — his gifted and talented program, culinary arts, using the computers, playing ball outside, seeing his friends. But now he often tells L.B. that his chest hurts so he has to stay home.

He has been especially sensitive about having to lift up his shirt for strangers, she said. And about the other kids who have started to tease him about it all. He comes home crying.

Advocates for families facing ACS investigations like L.B.’s point to two pieces of legislation that the New York State Assembly could pass next year. One would create a “family Miranda warning” that caseworkers would have to read to parents at their door, informing them of their right to deny entry into their home and to have a lawyer present.

That bill nearly became law this past spring but failed in part due to opposition from ACS, as ProPublica reported.

The second is an “anti-harassment in reporting” bill that would seek to reduce false and malicious calls to the state child welfare hotline by no longer allowing these tips to be anonymous. Under the current law, anyone can report any parent without so much as leaving a name or phone number.

The new legislation would require that callers at least provide basic details about themselves so caseworkers can follow up, gather more information, make sure the accusation has some basis and consider how intrusive of an investigation is needed. Hotline and ACS staff would still be legally required to keep the caller’s identity confidential.

The ACS spokesperson said the agency is “very concerned about false and malicious reporting and the impact it has on families.” She also said ACS “supports eliminating most anonymous reporting,” with rare exceptions including when it is a child calling the hotline.

L.B., whose son is now three years older than when these searches started, agrees.

by Eli Hager

Health Insurers Have Been Breaking State Laws for Years

1 week 4 days ago

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This story is part of a partnership with Scripps News.

In North Carolina, lawmakers outraged that breast cancer patients were being denied reconstructive surgeries passed a measure forcing health insurers to pay for them. In Arizona, legislators intervened to protect patients with diabetes, requiring health plans to cover their supplies. Elected officials in more than a dozen states, from Oklahoma to California, wrote laws demanding that insurance companies pay for emergency services.

Over the last four decades, states have enacted hundreds of laws dictating precisely what insurers must cover so that consumers aren’t driven into debt or forced to go without medicines or procedures. But health plans have violated these mandates at least dozens of times in the last five years, ProPublica found.

In the most egregious cases, patients have been denied coverage for lifesaving care. On Wednesday, a ProPublica investigation traced how a Michigan company would not pay for an FDA-approved cancer medication for a patient, Forrest VanPatten, even though a state law requires insurers to cover cancer drugs. That expensive treatment offered VanPatten his only chance for survival. The father of two died at the age 50, still battling the insurer for access to the therapy. Regulators never intervened.

These laws don’t apply to every type of health plan, but they are supposed to provide protections for tens of millions of people. AHIP, a trade group that used to be known as America’s Health Insurance Plans, said new mandates are costly for consumers and states, “tie insurers’ hands and limit plan innovation” by requiring specific benefits. Nevertheless, its members take steps to make sure they are following these mandates, the trade group said.

State insurance departments are responsible for enforcing these laws, but many are ill-equipped to do so, researchers, consumer advocates and even some regulators say. These agencies oversee all types of insurance, including plans covering cars, homes and people’s health. Yet they employed less people last year than they did a decade ago. Their first priority is making sure plans remain solvent; protecting consumers from unlawful denials often takes a backseat.

“They just honestly don’t have the resources to do the type of auditing that we would need,” said Sara McMenamin, an associate professor of public health at the University of California, San Diego, who has been studying the implementation of state mandates.

Agencies often don’t investigate health insurance denials unless policyholders or their families complain. But denials can arrive at the worst moments of people’s lives, when they have little energy to wrangle with bureaucracy. People with plans purchased on HealthCare.gov appealed less than 1% of the time, one study found.

ProPublica surveyed every state’s insurance agency and identified just 45 enforcement actions since 2018 involving denials that have violated coverage mandates. Regulators sometimes treat consumer complaints as one-offs, forcing an insurer to pay for that individual’s treatment without addressing whether a broader group has faced similar wrongful denials.

When regulators have decided to dig deeper, they’ve found that a single complaint is emblematic of a systemic issue impacting thousands of people.

In 2017, a woman complained to Maine’s insurance regulator, saying her carrier, Aetna, broke state law by incorrectly processing claims and overcharging her for services related to the birth of her child. After being contacted by the state, Aetna acknowledged the mistake and issued a refund.

That winter, the woman gave birth to a second child, and Aetna did it again. She filed another complaint. This time, when the state made Aetna pay up, it also demanded broader data on childbirth claims. Regulators discovered that the insurer had miscalculated claims related to more than 1,000 births over a four-year period. Aetna issued refunds totaling $1.6 million and agreed to pay a $150,000 fine if it failed to follow conditions listed in a consent agreement.

It was a rare victory. The potential fine, though, constituted less than .002% of the $6.63 billion in profit recorded by Aetna’s parent company, CVS Health, that year.

Aetna spokesperson Alex Kepnes said the company resolved the matter in 2019 to the state’s satisfaction. Kepnes declined to answer why the insurer failed to fix the issue after the first complaint.

Watch the Scripps News Report “Hope Denied”

Patients often don’t know what care they’re entitled to under state mandates. And one survey found that 86% of people with health insurance don’t know which government agency to call for help. Knowing how to navigate the system can make all the difference to patients socked with giant medical bills.

In December 2022, Samantha Slabyk felt a sudden sharp pain in her lower right abdomen. The San Marcos, Texas, resident took herself to an outpatient emergency clinic, but after a CT scan revealed she had appendicitis, doctors sent her in an ambulance to a nearby hospital. “Everyone indicated that this was an emergency situation that needed to be dealt with promptly,” Slabyk said.

Texas has long had a law requiring insurers to cover medical treatment needed by patients in emergencies. Yet that month, her insurer, Ambetter, wrote in a letter that it would not pay the $93,000 bill because the appendectomy took place at an out-of-network facility.

Slabyk was studying to be a physician’s assistant and had been an EMT. Her fiance’s brother-in-law worked in medical billing and gave her advice on how to push back, as did her mom — whose cancer diagnosis meant she often interacted with health insurers. These connections and experiences gave Slabyk an unusual grasp of her rights and how the system works. Still, every time she reached someone at Ambetter, she felt like she was being stonewalled. Slabyk felt lost.

You can find more information about your state's laws on the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services website.

By June, she was so fed up she decided to submit a complaint to the Texas Department of Insurance. Five days later, she received a call from an Ambetter employee apologizing and saying they would process the procedure as an emergency and pay up.

Centene, Ambetter’s parent company, did not respond to emailed questions or a phone call seeking comment. (The state informed Slabyk it closed the complaint.)

“I was around a lot of people who were knowledgeable and giving me very good advice,” Slabyk said. “And so if you’re just like, on your own, not in the health care system whatsoever, I mean, I just, I can totally see giving up.”

California had to pass not one but two laws to compel insurers to pay for infertility treatments. And one lawmaker said insurers are still saying no often enough that he’s considering introducing a third.

After legislators began requiring such coverage in 1990, some health plans took a narrow view. They refused to pay to preserve eggs, sperm or reproductive tissue for patients facing treatments for diseases like cancer that could impair their fertility. Some patients were delaying chemotherapy to try to get pregnant beforehand or going into debt to pay for treatments out-of-pocket. Regulators forced insurers to pay in some cases, but elected officials worried that other patients were being denied this care.

State Sen. Anthony Portantino worked with colleagues to amend the law in 2019, clarifying that these treatments must be covered. Even so, insurers have been putting up roadblocks.

“Some of the insurers are taking a very strict approach that it has to be chemo,” said Portantino, who is a Democrat. For instance, patients who need cancer surgeries that could leave them infertile have faced denials.

Portantino said he plans to work with California’s largest health insurance regulator to clarify that fertility preservation must be covered more broadly. If that does not work, he said he will turn to legislation once again.

Other regulators are trying to bolster enforcement on the front end. Health insurers submit annual filings to the states where they operate, detailing the treatments and services the company will and won’t cover. Regulators check these policies to figure out whether an insurer is complying with state mandates. In Vermont, the insurance department is using federal grant money to work with an outside company to improve these reviews. Through staff training and education, the department hopes to catch insurers not following state laws before Vermont residents face wrongful denials.

Not all health plans have to follow state mandates. About 65% of employees who get insurance through their jobs work for companies that pay directly for health care. Those companies often hire insurers solely to process claims. Known as self-funded plans, they are regulated by the federal government and exempt from state coverage requirements. Employers increasingly are turning to these types of plans, which tend to be cheaper, partly because they don’t have to cover care that states require. (The federal government also imposes coverage mandates, but state laws can be more robust.)

For patients, this can mean fewer protections from denials.

When 57-year-old Sayeh Peterson, a nonsmoker, was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, her doctors ordered genetic testing to identify the cause. Those tests revealed that a rare gene mutation was, in fact, the culprit for Peterson’s disease and gave doctors the information they needed to create a treatment that targeted the mutation. Her state, Arizona, requires insurers to cover such testing, but Peterson’s UnitedHealthcare plan was self-funded by her husband’s employer, so the law didn’t apply. She and her husband were left with more than $12,000 in bills.

In response to questions, UnitedHealth spokesperson Maria Gordon Shydlo wrote that “there is not enough medical evidence to support use of all those tests.”

As Peterson undergoes a treatment plan tailored to the genetic test results, she is continuing to appeal the denials months later. “We’re told that we have this great insurance,” Peterson said. “But then they deny coverage for the testing that determined what my treatment would be. How do you even get your head around this?”

Do You Have Insights Into Dental and Health Insurance Denials? Help Us Report on the System.

Doris Burke contributed research.

by Maya Miller and Robin Fields

This Louisiana Town Runs Largely on Traffic Fines. If You Fight Your Ticket, the Mayor Is Your Judge.

1 week 4 days ago

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

The village of Fenton, outside the oil and gas town of Lake Charles, covers only about 20 blocks. There’s City Hall. The library. One gas station. A small public housing complex. A Dollar General. A grain elevator. A Baptist church. Drivers headed to east Texas from central Louisiana go right through town, passing it all in under a minute.

In many ways, Fenton is like other small towns in Louisiana. But it is remarkable in one way: This village of 226 people collected more money in a single year through fines and forfeitures, primarily traffic tickets, than almost any other municipality in Louisiana, according to audits.

In the year ending in June 2022, Fenton brought in $1.3 million that way.

The fines were collected through what’s known as a “mayor’s court”: a little-known type of small town court found only in Louisiana and Ohio. In Fenton, its primary function is processing the thousands of traffic tickets written annually by a few police officers. Here, the mayor is also the judge, appointing the prosecutor and, if drivers ask for a trial, deciding their guilt or innocence.

The mayor runs the village with revenue primarily made up of those fines. The bulk of the salaries of the people in the courtroom — everyone from the mayor to the clerk — comes from fines and fees collected by the court.

This arrangement is so ripe for conflict of interest that the fairness of mayor’s courts has been challenged several times. One case resulted in a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that curtailed the power of mayors who take in a lot of money through their court.

Fenton village attorney Mike Holmes, in an email to WVUE-TV and ProPublica, said the mayor presides over court in a “neutral, impartial manner” consistent with Louisiana law.

But the village’s court records suggest something else about how it handles some tickets: Case summaries include curious notes from village employees and police officers. Some say not to “fix” tickets or reduce charges for drivers who had a “bad attitude.” Others suggest that the police chief and others have had a hand in dismissing charges, although Holmes said tickets are dismissed only at his direction.

Getting clear answers to how Fenton operates its court, and how fairly, has been difficult. Over four visits, journalists from WVUE and ProPublica reviewed court files, town meeting minutes, municipal ordinances and body camera video. We asked for three and a half years of electronic case summaries. We tried, several times, to see the court in action and to meet with the mayor, eventually observing court once and speaking with the mayor for five minutes.

Village officials offered conflicting and confusing explanations for the mayor’s role, how and why tickets are reduced or dismissed, why the town asks the state to suspend so many drivers’ licenses and how often trials are held. Their description of how the town runs its court didn’t align with state Judicial College guidance or that U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Such irregularities demonstrate the problems inherent in this unique court system in place across Louisiana, said Joel Friedman, an emeritus professor at Tulane University in New Orleans who has taught procedural law for 46 years.

“The mayor who’s trying to raise money for the city is in charge of prosecuting these minor criminal offenses and getting fines brought back to the city,” he said. “There’s no accountability,” he added. “They can do whatever they want.”

A few people well-versed in mayor’s courts, including an attorney who was intrigued enough to write a book about them, said Fenton shouldn’t allow the mayor to preside over court.

Small Town, Big Budget

Fenton has just 226 residents, but it collected about as much money through fines and forfeitures in a single year as Louisiana’s third-largest city, Shreveport, which has a population of 187,000. (Jon Turnipseed/WVUE)

Watch video ➜

Fenton is not unusual among small towns in Louisiana in administering justice through its mayor’s court.

Courts like this, which likely have been around since before Louisiana was a state, were carried over into the state’s modern judicial system when its constitution was updated in the 1970s, according to attorney Floyd Buras, who wrote that book on mayor’s courts. Now, they function as an informal way to handle minor offenses in about 250 municipalities, mostly small towns and villages.

Mayor’s courts operate in a gray area of Louisiana law. Like municipal courts, they handle violations of local ordinances. Municipal judges must hold a law degree and pass the bar; a mayor can preside over court without meeting any qualifications. Yet, like a municipal judge, a mayor can impose fines or sentence people to jail.

Mayor’s courts must ensure defendants have fair trials. But unlike other courts in the state, they aren’t subject to rules like the Code of Criminal Procedure that are supposed to ensure courts are run fairly and properly.

“They sort of operate in the shadow of the law,” said Eric Foley, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, a law firm that litigates for civil rights in criminal justice.

Fenton’s court is the main reason the town’s revenue for the year ending in June 2022 was about five times as high as the average Louisiana municipality its size. This tiny village collected about as much through fines and forfeitures as Shreveport, the state’s third-largest city, with a population of 187,000. (The state provides no official definition of “fines and forfeitures,” but it generally refers to penalties for breaking the law and associated fees.)

The average municipality in the U.S. gets 1.7% of its revenue from fines and forfeitures, according to the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that promotes equity. In Fenton, it’s 92.5%.

That’s the highest percentage of any municipality in Louisiana, according to a survey by WVUE and ProPublica of audits on file with the state.

It’s also one of the highest percentages in the whole country. In a frequently cited review of local government data by the news outlet Governing in 2019, Fenton ranked second-highest for its share of revenue that came from fines and forfeitures.

Governing said nearly 600 jurisdictions in the U.S., including 70 in Louisiana, collected at least 10% of general fund revenue through fines and forfeitures.

Advocates for the poor say a reliance on fines, which they call “taxation by citation,” distorts the role of police departments. “It’s almost impossible to generate that much of your revenue without doing pretty abusive things,” said Joanna Weiss, co-executive director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, which promotes what it calls equitable fines and the elimination of fees in the justice system.

Holmes, the attorney for Fenton, said fines make up an outsized share of its revenue because, like many other small towns, it doesn’t bring in much money from sales or property taxes. “While revenues fluctuate from year to year, Village of Fenton Police Department has long had an active traffic enforcement policy,” he wrote.

That enforcement is particularly active on the north side of town, where U.S. Route 165 shifts from a divided highway to a five-lane road. Just before drivers reach a welcome sign, the speed limit drops from 65 mph to 50. Police cruisers often wait nearby, in a stand of trees across from a small roadside cemetery.

That’s where Nikki Cross got her ticket last year. She was returning to Bridge City, Texas, about 70 miles away, to pick up her son after meeting a client north of Lake Charles for her sales job.

Cross said she braked when she saw the speed limit drop. She was ticketed for driving 61 mph in a 50 mph zone. “I told them I was slowing down at the time; I just didn’t slam on my brakes to get to the speed I needed to be at,” Cross said in a text message to WVUE and ProPublica.

Her fine: $210.00.

Mayor, Judge and Jury

The Supreme Court has ruled that a mayor can’t be impartial as a judge if he oversees the town’s finances and if its court brings in a substantial share of the town’s revenue, like Fenton’s does. Mayor Eddie Alfred Jr. initially told WVUE and ProPublica he doesn’t preside over court, but village attorney Mike Holmes later confirmed Alfred does after we saw the mayor sitting at the bench in September. (Jon Turnipseed/WVUE)

Watch video ➜

Legally, there’s nothing improper about a town like Fenton collecting so much of its revenue through its mayor’s court. But when it does, court rulings say, the mayor shouldn’t both hold the town’s gavel and sign its paychecks.

In a 1972 case, a driver contesting two $50 traffic tickets in Monroeville, Ohio, argued that he had been denied a fair trial because the mayor who ruled against him was responsible for law enforcement and for producing revenue for the town. At the time, Monroeville generated 37% to 51% of its annual revenue from its mayor’s court, much less than Fenton.

The case, Ward v. Monroeville, went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 7-2 decision, Justice William Brennan Jr. wrote that the issue turned on “whether the Mayor can be regarded as an impartial judge.” He can’t, Brennan wrote, if he presides over court and also manages the town’s finances, and if the court generates a substantial part of the town’s revenue.

A week later, the Louisiana attorney general’s office followed up with an opinion instructing Louisiana towns with mayor's courts to assess whether they were in a similar situation as Monroeville.

Subsequent rulings have cited that Supreme Court opinion. In 1995, a federal judge in Ohio ruled that a mayor could be considered biased on the bench if just 10% of the town’s revenue came from its mayor’s court. In 2019, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a judge in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court had a conflict of interest when setting bail bonds because the court collected a fee based on the amount of each bond.

A training video on mayor’s courts released this year by the Louisiana Judicial College, the educational arm of the state Supreme Court, addresses this conflict of interest. It advises mayors to appoint an attorney to preside over their court if it brings in more than 10% of the town’s revenue. Some towns, including many in the New Orleans area, have done that.

But we found at least nine other municipalities in the state where staff confirmed that the mayor presides over court even though collections make up anywhere from 18% to 79% of the town’s annual revenue.

Bobby King, the prosecutor for the mayor’s court in Walker, near Baton Rouge, led that Louisiana Judicial College video training. In an interview, he said he would advise Fenton, or any municipality in its position, to appoint a magistrate. “You can’t be fair and impartial,” he said, “if you’re wanting to spend money on a park and a big part of that money comes from fines and fees.”

Yet it was not easy to determine who presides over court in Fenton. In a phone call in June, Eddie Alfred Jr., who has been the village’s mayor since 2009, was eager to talk about its traffic ticketing system. But he said he doesn’t preside over court.

Instead, Alfred said, defendants talk to Holmes, the prosecutor. If someone pleads not guilty, Holmes shows the driver a video of their violation. After that, Alfred claimed, “not one person” has maintained their innocence since he has been mayor. If they did, he said, they would go to the district court in Jennings, the seat of Jefferson Davis Parish.

When we visited Fenton in September to observe court, “Judge Alfred,” as he is referred to in court records, donned a black judge’s robe, walked down the hall from the mayor’s office and sat at the bench. No one was waiting to have their cases heard. After Holmes noted for the record that several people had missed their court date, Alfred said, “Court is now adjourned.” Afterward, he refused to speak with us and went back to his office.

Watch WVUE’s Report

Holmes later confirmed that Alfred does preside over court; when asked about the mayor’s statement to the contrary, Holmes said it “must have resulted from misunderstanding or miscommunication.” Asked why the mayor serves as judge when the village collects so much money from the court, Holmes said, “He is authorized to do so by law.”

Four lawyers who spoke with us — the law professor, the author of the book on mayor’s courts, the civil rights attorney and the prosecutor who led the Judicial College training — said they believe Fenton is violating the Supreme Court ruling.

“Our Main Income Is Traffic Tickets” (Anna Donlan/ProPublica)

Watch video ➜

“Even if you can’t point to the mayor actually being on the record saying, ‘I have to keep up these prosecutions to maintain this funding,’ the fact that the average person put in that mayor’s shoes might feel that temptation — that’s kind of enough,” Foley said.

Actually, Fenton’s mayor has said something quite similar.

In a recording made in September and obtained by WVUE and ProPublica, Alfred can be heard telling village employees that there could be layoffs due to financial problems.

“Our main income is traffic tickets, and they ain’t getting written,” he said, according to one person who was in the meeting and another village employee who identified the voice on the recording as the mayor’s. They asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “We need to write more traffic tickets.”

Holmes, who handled our inquiries, did not respond to our request for comment on that statement.

The Cost of Being Rude

On the north side of Fenton, just before a welcome sign, the speed limit drops from 65 mph to 50. Police cruisers often wait here to catch speeders. Officers write, on average, about 16 tickets per day. (Jon Turnipseed/WVUE)

Watch video ➜

Fenton’s court records paint a picture of a justice system in which some people are punished for how they act while others are rewarded for who they know.

We found a dozen court records that include notations from officers and village employees saying not to “help” people or “fix” their tickets because drivers were rude. On a ticket for driving 71 mph in a 50: “Refused phone number, driver was very disrespectful no help.” Fine: $305.

A ticket for 81 in a 50: “Very bad attitude. Do not fix.” Fine: $490.

Video from an officer’s body camera during one traffic stop shows a woman, stopped for driving 62 mph, asking the officer to show her the radar reading and to let her go with a warning.

“What else do you guys do around this town?” she asked the officer after he handed her a ticket.

“Protect and serve,” he responded.

Her file reads, “Bad attitude.” She was fined $215.

Some tickets bear officers’ handwritten notes saying drivers had a “bad attitude.” We found a dozen court records with notations saying not to “help” people or “fix” their tickets because of their behavior. Holmes said such notes do not affect how cases are decided. (Obtained by WVUE and ProPublica. Redacted and highlighted by ProPublica.)

Holmes said notes about drivers’ behavior have nothing to do with how cases are decided. “A defendant is not punished for rude behavior during a traffic stop, but rather for objective, provable violations of law,” he told WVUE and ProPublica. Besides, he said, the vast majority of drivers decide to pay their tickets. (We spoke to several drivers with such notations in their files. Of those three, two said they didn’t contest their charges; the third said he couldn’t remember.)

Fourteen court files include notations saying a charge was dismissed after someone, often in law enforcement, had intervened. “Dismissed per Chief Alfred,” said the record for a ticket issued to someone who, according to the notation, knew a village employee.

Luther Alfred, the chief, said he sometimes gets requests to dismiss tickets and passes them on to the judge or prosecutor. Though he acknowledged that he has written “Dismiss” on paperwork and signed his name, he said he doesn’t dismiss charges himself and doesn’t have that authority.

Phillip Hattaway’s file for a speeding ticket he received in 2022 says, “Ivy Woods asked to dismiss per O’Quinn.” Woods is the sheriff of Jefferson Davis Parish, and Sgt. Vernon O’Quinn is Fenton’s police sergeant. In an interview, Hattaway said he contacted people he knew in law enforcement, asking for help. His ticket was dismissed. “It was short and sweet,” Hattaway said. “They just got it taken care of.”

O’Quinn said the department was “asked if we could provide any assistance,” and he “advised he didn’t have a problem with it and recommended to the prosecutor for dismissal.”

Asked why his name appears on court records, Woods said many people ask if he can get tickets reduced to nonmoving violations. “You’d be surprised how many tickets Fenton writes,” he said. “They’re pretty tough — they like their money.”

But he didn’t acknowledge calling in any favors, saying that the village “might be covering their butts, saying the sheriff asked.” Although he offered to elaborate later, he didn’t respond to subsequent phone calls.

In response to questions for this article, Holmes said, “Requests for consideration to amend or dismiss charges are received from myriad sources.” He didn’t answer a question about how the village decides which requests to act on.

We reached out to more than 100 drivers, including about 40 whose files said something about their behavior or why a ticket had been dismissed, and interviewed about 35. Several said they felt like they had been caught in a speed trap or said they had heard from others about Fenton’s reputation for traffic enforcement.

Fenton “most certainly does NOT operate a ‘speed trap,’” Holmes wrote to WVUE and ProPublica. Speed limits are well marked, police officers are stationed in the open, and tickets are rarely issued unless drivers are going more than 11 mph over the limit, he said.

Several drivers said they had been threatened with license suspensions or even arrest, both of which are allowed under state law.

When April Dugas called to ask for leniency on a ticket for driving 65 in a 50 mph zone, she said she was told Fenton issues warrants for unpaid tickets. “I was living in Texas in my car with no money for gas to go back,” said Dugas, who now lives in the central Louisiana city of Alexandria. “My grandma had to pay the ticket, so I wouldn’t have warrants out for my arrest.”

Holmes didn’t respond to a question about whether village employees threaten drivers with arrest if they don’t pay. He did say the village sometimes issues an arrest warrant to compel someone’s appearance in court, typically when they don’t show up for trial, but it’s “fairly rare.”

For those who miss court and don’t pay, the consequences can be severe. Fenton sent the Louisiana Office of Motor Vehicles about 750 requests to suspend driver’s licenses between 2018 and June, a number on par with much larger municipalities in the state.

Asked why Fenton does this, Holmes at first said state law requires municipalities to notify the state when someone doesn’t show up for court. He later acknowledged that’s not true and cited a two-year deadline under state law to request a suspension.

The village has asked the state to suspend some drivers’ licenses over a single unpaid speeding ticket, records show.

That’s what happened to Santina Griffin, a hairdresser in New Orleans who was stopped for driving 74 mph in a 50 mph zone on her way back from a funeral. She said she meant to ask the judge for leniency because she was lost at the time. But as a student and a single mom, she couldn’t make it back to Fenton for her court appearance.

She was surprised to hear the judge was also the mayor: “Sounds like a monopoly to me.”

Court Is In Session

Drivers who want to contest their speeding tickets must show up at Fenton’s City Hall, where mayor’s court meets once a month. (Jon Turnipseed/WVUE)

Watch video ➜

In a town the size of Fenton, visitors are conspicuous. We were especially so — four journalists toting notebooks and a video camera, driving around town, flying a drone overhead, watching police officers wait for speeders.

After checking out the town, we went to its small City Hall, where we encountered Luther Alfred, the police chief and uncle of the mayor, and O’Quinn, who came up to us to chat. We had been driving around recording video for a couple of hours by then, and they mentioned some places we had been. O’Quinn chuckled about a man who had warned us to keep our drone away from his house about 15 minutes earlier.

The people of Fenton care about three things, O’Quinn said: “Christ, family and the Fenton Police Department.”

We wanted to see how the court handled tickets written by that police department, but we saw the mayor handle cases just once in the four times we went to court.

Over the summer, Alfred had promised to talk to us when we came for the August court session. That was the first time we made the three-hour trek from New Orleans. But the mayor skipped our interview and canceled court without notice, surprising us and a few defendants waiting at City Hall.

When we went back in September, no defendants showed up. A court staffer later told us that few people come to court. Before the October hearing, we called ahead to arrange a time to review some files. A few days beforehand, court was canceled without explanation.

Last week, we gave it one last shot. This time, as our reporter pulled up to City Hall, she was surprised to see cars parked along the road. She took the only open spot, a patch of grass outside a utility building.

As a dozen defendants filtered in, Holmes, the prosecutor, fetched some chairs from the kitchen to accommodate them. He described what would happen. Tonight, he said, they were in what’s called a mayor’s court. This was an arraignment, where they would each enter a plea. He spent about 20 minutes describing their rights: You have the right to appeal to district court. You have the right not to incriminate yourself.

Holmes had told us that he offers plea deals to many drivers, and he did just that, telling them to meet him in the kitchen if they were interested.

Then he called the judge in. Alfred, wearing his judge’s robe, sat at a large wooden desk emblazoned with the village seal. Holmes called up each driver to answer to their charges before the judge. Most pleaded no contest, which means they didn’t admit guilt but accepted punishment.

When a driver wants to contest a ticket, Holmes had told us, the driver or a lawyer shows up in court, pleads not guilty and is told to return later. “A trial is conducted with all care to ensure each defendant receives due process and is treated fairly before the court,” he said.

That’s not what happened with one case that night. One man, facing a charge of failing to use his turn signal, insisted he was innocent. The mayor told him to wait so O’Quinn could find video of the stop and play it in court. The video was inconclusive, however, and the driver maintained his innocence. Holmes said if the officer were called to testify, he likely would say the driver had broken the law. But he suggested the charge be dropped, and the mayor agreed.

Under state law, mayor’s courts are required to keep a record of all trials, but we had been told there was none and that there hadn’t been a trial since at least 2018. Holmes had told us the mayor “is rarely called upon to pass judgment at trial.”

Afterward, our reporter went up to ask Holmes more questions. The mayor called her into the kitchen. He wanted to make sure she had noticed how lenient the court had been with defendants.

“We’re not without compassion,” Holmes said.

Alfred said he believes he’s a fair judge, despite all the money he collects through court. But, he said, we’d been asking a lot of questions. “Now,” he said, “we have to hire someone.”

That was the topic of discussion a week later, when the three members of the board of aldermen held their monthly meeting in the same kitchen where Holmes had arranged plea deals. “The mayor can’t be the judge,” Alfred said, “which to me does not make sense.“ A man named Hugh Cunningham, who presides over mayor’s court in a nearby town, stood up and described how he would run the court if hired.

Board members objected. “We have to pay somebody to be the judge when he was judging for nothing,” said one board member about Alfred.

For about 15 minutes, Holmes laid out why the town should appoint a magistrate: the Supreme Court ruling, attorney general’s opinions, the possible appearance of bias.

Under the law, Holmes said, it’s up to the mayor to appoint a magistrate; the board votes on that decision. It didn't take long for Alfred to make up his mind: “I think we should put it off because I think this court is fair.”

How We Reported This Story

Louisiana law requires municipalities to turn in yearly financial reports to the state auditor. Over several months, we reviewed the most recent available annual audits for all 301 municipalities and two combined city-parish governments required to file audits with the state. We compared revenue from fines and forfeitures to overall governmental revenue.

There is no official government definition of fines and forfeitures in those audits, but the terms generally cover penalties for breaking the law and associated fees. In some places, they could include collections outside court, such as library fines and traffic camera tickets. Fenton’s attorney confirmed that its total is made up of fines and fees collected through mayor’s court for violations of municipal ordinance. A small number of municipalities’ audits did not include a line item for fines and forfeitures.

We compared all municipalities, regardless of whether they had a mayor’s court. (There is no official list of municipalities in Louisiana with mayor’s courts, but the state Supreme Court said there are about 250.) Of all the municipalities we reviewed, Fenton’s share of total revenue from fines and forfeitures was the highest.

Do you have a story to share about a mayor’s court in Louisiana? Contact Lee Zurik at lee.zurik@gray.tv or 504-483-1544.

Joel Jacobs of ProPublica reviewed the data analysis.


Nov. 22, 2023: This story originally contained an inaccurate description of what the Fines and Fees Justice Center advocates for. The organization promotes equitable fines and the elimination of fees in the justice system, not equitable fees.

by Samantha Sunne, Dannah Sauer and Lee Zurik, WVUE-TV

This Youth Detention Center Superintendent Illegally Locks Kids Alone in Cells. No One Has Forced Him to Stop.

1 week 4 days ago

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with WPLN/Nashville Public Radio. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

With a glint in his eye, Richard L. Bean reminisces about the days when children in his detention center could be paddled.

“We didn’t have any problems then,” Bean says. “I’d whip about six or eight a year and it run pretty smooth. They’d say, ‘You don’t want him to get hold of you.’” Once, he chuckles, a kid had to be held down by four guards to be spanked.

Bean took the helm of this East Tennessee detention center — now named the Richard L. Bean Juvenile Service Center — in 1972. The laws and the science on how to treat children in detention have changed a bit since then.

Yet Bean has held on to an old-fashioned approach to his work. These days, he’s reliant on a different tool for keeping kids in line: locking them alone in cells for hours — sometimes even days — at a time.

“What we do is treat everybody like they’re in here for murder,” he says. “You don’t have a problem if you do that.”

Most of the children in the Bean Center are not in for murder — in fact, most have only been charged with a crime, but are awaiting court dates.

Listen to Richard L. Bean describe paddling kids as punishment. “Had a lot of problems since” the state made him stop, he says. (Paige Pfleger/Nashville Public Radio and ProPublica)

At 83, superintendent Bean uses a bamboo cane to give a tour of the 120-bed facility. It’s connected to the juvenile court by a maze of windowless corridors; kids are passed between the two buildings in uniforms and shackles.

It’s difficult to know how children have been treated inside the walls of institutions like this one because policies designed to protect the privacy of kids can also obscure what goes on in facilities that break the law.

That was the case at a juvenile court about 150 miles west in Rutherford County, where reporting from ProPublica and WPLN revealed that kids were being illegally detained — at rates far higher than anywhere else in the state — for the most minor crimes, or even, in at least one instance, crimes that didn’t exist. The proof was right there, being collected by the state and laid out, for years, in an annual report. Yet no one flagged that kids were being jailed at a staggering rate, and no one seemed to try to stop it.

Here at the Bean Center, records reveal different violations of the law.

What we do is treat everybody like they’re in here for murder. You don’t have a problem if you do that.”

—Richard L. Bean, superintendent of the Richard L. Bean Juvenile Service Center

Kids have been locked alone in a cell here more often than other facilities in the state, sometimes as punishment, and sometimes for an indeterminate length of time. And even as the state has implemented reforms that would have made seclusion less common, the Bean Center remained reliant on the practice.

Here too, these violations are not a secret: The facility’s licensing agency, Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services, has been documenting this improper use of seclusion for years at Bean’s center and elsewhere. The Richard L. Bean Center has repeatedly been put on corrective action plans. Yet DCS continues to approve the center’s license to operate without the facility changing its ways.

The Rules of Seclusion

In 2016, a suit in Rutherford County challenged the use of solitary confinement in the juvenile detention center after a child was kept in solitary for days for disrupting class. Around the same time, research emerged showing that isolating children doesn’t actually improve their behavior — if anything, it could worsen it. Solitary confinement can cause psychological impacts like depression, anxiety or psychosis, and young people are especially vulnerable to those effects. The majority of suicides inside juvenile correction facilities in the United States happen when a child is isolated.

So in 2017, DCS mandated that juvenile detention centers throughout the state change the way they use seclusion, adding guidelines and a reporting requirement.

The new standards said that children kept in seclusion inside Tennessee’s juvenile detention centers could be locked into cells that are 50 square feet — about the size of a U-Haul cargo van — usually with a concrete slab for a bed and a metal toilet affixed to the wall.

A cell at the Richard L. Bean Juvenile Service Center where kids are sometimes kept in isolation (William DeShazer for ProPublica)

Importantly, the standards made clear that seclusion was meant to be a last resort and should not be used as punishment.

“Seclusion shall only be used when necessary to prevent imminent harm to themselves, another person, prevent damage to property, or prevent the youth from escaping,” the standards dictate. “Staff shall never use seclusion for discipline, punishment, administrative convenience, retaliation, staffing shortages, or reasons other than a temporary response to behavior that threatens immediate harm to a youth or others.”

Shortly after, those standards were codified into state law.

In order to have their licenses renewed, which happens annually, juvenile detention centers are supposed to abide by DCS’ standards. Every few months, a DCS inspector drops into facilities unannounced to take a tour, review documentation of the use of tools like chemical sprays, and interview a few kids. The resulting inspection reports are written almost like a journal entry and provide a glimpse of life inside juvenile detention centers.

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WPLN and ProPublica reviewed eight years of those inspection reports, covering 2016 to 2023, and found multiple instances of children being locked up in seclusion — sometimes for days or more than a week — for minor rule infractions like laughing during meals or talking during class. One facility put a child in seclusion for eight days for simply having head lice, which the inspector called “a little extreme.”

And while many facilities were documented using seclusion improperly, the Richard L. Bean Center emerged as particularly prolific in its use of seclusion as a means of punishment, even years after the state standards were imposed.

Tyshon Booker was 16 years old when he says he was secluded in the Richard L. Bean Center. Now he’s 24 and incarcerated at a nearby prison, serving a 51-year sentence for homicide — a sentence the state Supreme Court recently ruled amounted to cruel and unusual punishment for juveniles like Tyshon.

But even though it was years ago, he remembers his two-year stay at the Bean Center like it was yesterday. During his 2015-2017 detention there, he says he was kept in seclusion twice for several days on end, without reprieve. He was stripped to his boxers, a T-shirt and socks before being placed in a cell alone.

Boys at the Bean Center wear orange clothing and sandals. (William DeShazer for ProPublica)

He says he had to get creative to keep his mind from spinning out.

“I learned how to make dice out of bread,” Booker says. “I made dice, roll the dice for hours. And then you’ve got to remember, we’re in solitary confinement, so I’d get hungry and I’d eat the dice. So, like, just imagine, the savage life in solitary confinement — rolling dice on a dirty floor for hours,” he recalled. “It was horrible.”

He says he would also lay on the ground of his cell with his face pressed against the cold floor, trying to yell to another kid who was locked in a solitary cell nearby.

He says it was worse than anything he’s experienced in adult prison. He thinks prison conditions are better because there’s more oversight. At the Bean Center, on the other hand? “They think, ‘Oh, they’re kids. Nobody is going to do this to kids, nobody would treat kids like this.’ So I don’t think it’s as much eyes as the penitentiary.”

In 2018 reports from visits to the Bean Center, one child said he was secluded after he forgot to bring his books to class. “Staff will put you in seclusion if they don’t like you,” he told the inspector. Another child said he was secluded but he didn’t really understand why.

They think, ‘Oh, they’re kids. Nobody is going to do this to kids, nobody would treat kids like this.’ So I don’t think it’s as much eyes as the penitentiary.”

—Tyshon Booker, former detainee at the Richard L. Bean Juvenile Service Center

The same inspector visited the facility twice in October of 2018. On Oct. 16 she wrote that the facility “continues to be in good standing with the DCS licensing” and that the facility had corrected all its problems and could have its license renewed for the year. But when she returned the next day, Oct. 17, documents show the facility was put on a corrective action plan for a list of problems, including using seclusion as punishment.

Then in 2019, an inspector returned and found that the Bean Center’s reliance on seclusion as punishment had escalated. Seclusions at the facility that year were about double what they had been the year before. In just a few months, it reported more than 160 instances of locking up children alone.

On that visit, the inspector talked to five kids. Each one of them had seen youth placed in seclusion for fighting or not following the rules. One child said he was secluded for talking back. That would break not only DCS’ standards but also the new state law. Despite documenting evidence that the Bean Center’s problem with seclusion had only gotten worse, the facility was taken off its corrective action plan and had its license approved for another year.

In an email to WPLN and ProPublica, DCS says it has multiple levers it can pull if a facility isn’t in compliance, including freezing or slowing admissions, decreasing capacity, or even refusing to approve a license. But DCS says it has never used any of those options at the Bean Center.

Inside the Bean Machine

From the outside, the one-story brick Bean Center looks more like an elementary school than a junior jail. It’s situated just a few miles from downtown Knoxville, next to an ill-kempt sports field where kids play peewee football.

Inside, colorful stripes on the walls help kids navigate the hallways, an eerie counterpart to their neon orange prison outfits and the handcuffs they sometimes wear.

Color coding in the Bean Center’s hallways helps kids know where to go. (William DeShazer for ProPublica) The facility sometimes uses handcuffs and leg shackles on the children. (William DeShazer for ProPublica. Names blurred by ProPublica.)

Bean can be found sitting behind a massive desk in his office. Where the rest of the detention center is sparse, his office is stuffed. His walls are covered in photos of himself through the years with visitors to the facility. His tenure has lasted so long that he’s run out of wall space — the photos spill out of his office and into the hallway.

The room is cluttered with memorabilia — a can of pinto beans from his family’s renowned meals with local politicians, dubbed Bean dinners; bumper stickers for the current juvenile court judge; figurines of elephants; and political tchotchkes.

He says he thinks the politicians making the rules around juvenile detention centers and seclusion don’t know what it’s like inside these facilities.

“Most people think we’re running a kindergarten,” Bean says. “We’re running the juvenile junior jail for Knox County. And there’s some tough kids — tougher than the ones in the jail, I guarantee.”

Bean doesn’t see reform laws as the state trying to do right by these kids; instead he sees it as the state making his job more difficult. He compares his relationship with the state and DCS to his marriage of 55 years.

“You have to do a lot of kissing,” he says, laughing. “A lot of, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ You can’t always have it your way in this business.”

Bean’s office (William DeShazer for ProPublica)

In 2021, when the state ruled that kids could not be secluded for longer than six hours because of the damaging effects isolation had on them, Bean didn’t shy away from telling inspectors his thoughts.

An inspector wrote in August 2021 that Bean “stated that he did not feel two to six hours was enough time to lock the youth in their rooms,” a reference to the limits in the new law. “I also asked if the facility’s policy and procedures manual had been updated to reflect the new seclusion bill requirements. … The current policy and procedure manual for the facility was last updated in 1999."

That inspector also noticed a pattern: Instead of writing down the time the child was let out of the cell, as he was supposed to do on forms for the state, Bean would just write his initials, “RLB.”

Despite DCS’ policies and the state law dictating exactly how long kids could be kept in seclusion, Bean decided to use his own discretion. He said writing “RLB” was his way of denoting that it was up to him to decide when the children were ready to be released and rejoin the other kids. He told the inspector that he’d make that decision based on how “remorseful” a child was.

“I asked them how their attitude is,” Bean says. “I can’t let the kids run the place. Sometimes you get a kid, you put him in his room, and he cuss and call you everything in the books. It’s hard to let him out.”

The use of “RLB” instead of a specific time also made it impossible for the state to discern how long kids were being locked up alone.

A Tennessee Department of Children’s Services report from August 2021 noted that records did not always show how long children were held in isolation. (Obtained by WPLN and ProPublica. Highlighting by ProPublica.)

For those seclusion incidents that were documented properly, it was evident that Bean was keeping kids in their cells longer than he was supposed to. Most of the incidents of seclusion were “either definitively over 6 hours, or for an indeterminate amount of time,” the inspector wrote in the same report. One youth told the inspector that he had been placed in seclusion for “several weeks” for fighting.

Then in late 2021, something new happened: Bean’s seclusion numbers started dropping. It was the same year that a new law laid out the option for something called “voluntary time-out,” through which a kid can request to be left alone in their room for a few hours but is allowed to come out whenever they want to.

As the number of seclusions has fallen at the Richard L. Bean Center, the number of what inspectors called “voluntary seclusions” skyrocketed — in August of 2022, the facility reported just 44 seclusions compared with 122 the previous August.

According to the inspections, the facility also reported 344 voluntary seclusions.

“We don’t use it as punishment,” Bean explains. “So all of it’s volunteer.”

But the DCS inspector who visited that year noted that it was uncertain how voluntary the process actually was at the Bean Center.

“It is unclear whether the youth are aware that they can come out of their room by choice,” the inspector wrote. “The previous rule at the facility was that youth had to stay in their room for the remainder of the day if they chose to voluntarily go to their room.”

Bean believes he can “get out of” any trouble he may get into for his disciplinary practices. (Paige Pfleger/Nashville Public Radio and ProPublica)

Recently, Bean said he started a new rule — if a kid requests a voluntary lockup to avoid going to school, he responds by secluding them until the next morning.

“And then next morning, we say, ‘You want to go to school today?’” Bean said. “Most of them say, ‘Yeah, I want to go. I don’t want to be locked up.’”

Bean doesn’t seem to worry too much about getting caught.

“If I got in trouble for it, I believe I could talk to whoever got me in trouble and get out of it.”

Run It Like A Business

When asked what happens to inspection reports after they are filled out, DCS said that evaluation summaries “are distributed to the appropriate administrative parties and filed in the licensing record.” The department also said it provides a list of violations to the facility administrator; the administrator typically has 30 days to submit compliance documentation, which is verified by licensing staff.

DCS confirms that in the time it has been licensing juvenile detention centers in Tennessee, it has never terminated a license. And records from the Bean Center illustrate that corrective action orders can be lifted without the violation being resolved.

The department declined to comment further on why it never did more to crack down on the Bean Center.

“You can write everything into statute and create some really solid legislation, but if it’s not being used or it’s not being enforced, then what’s the next step?” asks Kylie Graves, policy director of the independent state agency Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth.

Graves said that there has been a tendency for the state to look the other way when it comes to juvenile justice in Tennessee.

A statue outside of the Bean Center celebrates “lives saved through caring.” (William DeShazer for ProPublica)

“The idea of this practice ever being used in a foster home or something like that would immediately raise flags and horrify people,” she said.

The Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth is calling for a third-party review of juvenile detention centers and the entire youth justice system. The agency points to Kentucky, which has proposed setting aside money to do just that. Several other organizations are likewise advocating for a review, including Disability Rights Tennessee, an organization that acts as a monitoring agency for juvenile detention facilities and has special access to the kids and documents inside.

“What seems like a good approach starting in January when the legislature reconvenes is to talk about putting in some type of mechanism for enforcing compliance,” says Zoe Jamail of Disability Rights Tennessee.

One proposal, Jamail says, could be a clean-up bill that would take oversight of juvenile detention facilities out of DCS’ purview, though she says she isn’t sure what agency could take that on. An audit last year found that nearly half of new DCS workers quit within their first year. That problem was compounded by an influx of kids entering the foster care system.

And the involvement of a third party could help mitigate a conflict of interest — DCS is invested in keeping county detention centers open and operating. In addition to being the licensing agency for the county detention centers, DCS also has contracts with most of those facilities to hold kids who have been convicted of a crime while they try to find placement for them.

DCS declined to comment on that arrangement.

“Most people think we’re running a kindergarten,” Bean says. “We’re running the juvenile junior jail for Knox County. And there’s some tough kids — tougher than the ones in the jail, I guarantee.” (William DeShazer for ProPublica)

It’s an arrangement that Richard Bean says is mutually beneficial — DCS pays his facility more than $175 per day per kid. He calls those kids paying customers.

Bean says that’s in addition to the $120 per day he gets from detaining kids from surrounding counties that don’t have a juvenile detention center.

Resting his chin on his cane, Bean says he doesn’t intend to slow down. He has big plans to hire more staff and get more bodies in beds — especially kids sent his way by DCS.

“I mean, you’ve got to take care of the kids,” Bean says. “But … you got to kind of run it like a business, too. I could make over one million dollars for the county.”

Meribah Knight contributed reporting.

by Paige Pfleger, WPLN/Nashville Public Radio

“Do Your Job.” How the Railroad Industry Intimidates Employees Into Putting Speed Before Safety

1 week 5 days ago

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Bradley Haynes and his colleagues were the last chance Union Pacific had to stop an unsafe train from leaving one of its railyards. Skilled in spotting hidden dangers, the inspectors in Kansas City, Missouri, wrote up so-called “bad orders” to pull defective cars out of assembled trains and send them for repairs.

But on Sept. 18, 2019, the area’s director of maintenance, Andrew Letcher, scolded them for hampering the yard’s ability to move trains on time.

“We’re a transportation company, right? We get paid to move freight. We don’t get paid to work on cars,” he said. “The first thing that I’m getting questioned about right now, every day, is why we’re over 200 bad orders and what we’re doing to get them down. … If I was an inspector on a train,” he continued, “I would probably let some of that nitpicky shit go.”

Haynes knew that the yard’s productivity metrics were hurting and that the repairs he ordered had a direct impact on his job security. Just that day, he’d flagged a 40-pound GPS box that was hanging by a cable off the side of a car. He worried it could snap off and fall on a colleague’s head or go hurling into a driver’s windshield. His boss greenlighted the car to leave anyway.

Haynes had started carrying a digital recorder in case he ever needed to defend himself. It captured him asking Letcher what would happen if a defect they let go wound up killing someone. The question went unaddressed as Letcher issued a warning: If they continued to hurt productivity by finding defects he deemed unnecessary, he would begin doling out punishment. He might even have to close the yard’s car shop.

“I’m trying to save your freaking jobs,” he said.

If the public thinks of America’s sprawling freight rail network at all, it typically does so when a train derails, unleashing flaming cars and noxious smoke on a community as it did this year in East Palestine, Ohio. The rail industry usually responds by vowing fixes and defending its overall record, which includes a steady decrease in major accidents. But a ProPublica investigation has found that those statistics present a knowingly incomplete picture of rail safety.

They don’t count the often-harrowing near misses, the trains that break apart, slip off the tracks or roll away from their crews with no one aboard — the accumulation of incidents that portend deeper safety risks. The government trusts the rail companies to fix the underlying problems on their own, to heed the warnings of workers like Haynes of loose hoses that could impair brakes or rotting tracks that could cause derailments. Unless those mishaps result in major injuries or costly damage, the companies don’t have to report them to anyone.

But as railroads strive to move their cargo faster, that honor system, ProPublica found, is being exploited. To squeeze the most money out of every minute, the companies are going to dangerous lengths to avoid disruptions — even those for safety repairs.

They use performance-pay systems that effectively penalize supervisors for taking the time to fix hazards and that pressure them to quash dissent, threatening and firing the very workers they hired to keep their operations safe. As a result, trains with known problems are rolling from yard to yard like ticking time bombs, getting passed down the line for the next crew to defuse — or defer.

Regulators say they can’t stop the intimidation that is feeding this dynamic. The Federal Railroad Administration can remove retaliators from working on the rails but seldom does, even if an employee alerts it to harassment in real time. Proving managers’ intent is difficult, a spokesperson said.

And the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which enforces workplace whistleblower laws, only probes so deep. It takes the agency so long to conclude investigations that many workers, tired of waiting months for rulings, remove their complaints and sue the companies instead. Once that happens, OSHA has no legal authority to continue its investigation, barring the agency from exposing repeat bad actors or patterns in the industry’s abuse of whistleblowers.

To do what the government hasn’t, ProPublica examined 15 years’ worth of federal lawsuits against rail companies, interviewed hundreds of workers including managers, listened to hours of audio recorded by workers and pored over decades of regulatory, judicial, legislative and industry records. We identified 111 court cases in which workers alleged they had been disciplined or fired after reporting safety concerns; nearly 60% ended in settlements with the companies. Three in recent years resulted in jury verdicts of over $1 million for fired workers.

Separately, OSHA and Department of Labor administrative judges found railroad companies violated whistleblower laws in 13 cases since 2018 in which workers voiced safety concerns. Among the railroaders: one who tried to alert BNSF headquarters to broken wheels, which could have derailed trains (the company is appealing the case); two who slowed a CSX train to abide by a federal safety mandate (the company is appealing the case); and a CSX engineer who refused to work a 12-hour shift just hours after a previous shift without the period of rest required by law.

“It’s really hard to stay awake sometimes,” the engineer, Chad Hendrix, had testified, before CSX worked out a settlement with him.

The Association of American Railroads says that the industry’s sterling safety record “stands in stark contrast” to assertions made in this story. “From the day a trainee first reports on the job, railroads instill the message that every employee has a role to play in keeping themselves, their colleagues, and communities safe. Safety protocols are ingrained in daily operations, and employees are continuously empowered to report safety concerns so proactive steps can be taken to prevent a future accident,” the group said. (Read the full statement here.)

The companies mentioned in this story largely declined to comment on specific cases. (Read the full statements by Union Pacific, BNSF, Norfolk Southern and CSX.) They said they encourage their workers to voice safety concerns and tout internal hotlines where employees can do so anonymously. They say they do not tolerate retaliation.

But ProPublica found that companies retained and promoted supervisors who juries found had wrongfully terminated employees. And workers said that they had been targeted after making safety reports they thought were anonymous, or that they were ordered to stop calling safety hotlines, or that they’d simply grown apathetic, seeing hazards they had raised go unaddressed. Two BNSF employees sustained life-changing spinal injuries when their train crashed into a 6-ton tree that had fallen on the tracks; workers had warned their bosses that the tree was about to fall.

In interviews, one anguished rail worker after another said they have no place to report their concerns and that their clashes with management have triggered panic attacks, elevated blood pressure and thoughts of suicide. In 2011, a Norfolk Southern car inspector, under mounting pressure to stop reporting car defects, drove to work, clocked in and shot himself. His death shook the industry but didn’t change it. Norfolk Southern did not comment.

Karl Alexy, chief safety officer for the FRA, disagrees with the industry assertion that it is the safest it’s ever been, noting that grievous worker injuries and deaths haven’t changed in over a decade. “We’re not seeing an improvement in what’s really important: the lives of the workers,” he said. He also said worker fear is real and keeps critical information from regulators. “It definitely influences safety,” he said, “definitely for the worse.”

Haynes, the Union Pacific inspector, said he was tempted to overlook hazards after Letcher’s threat but came across a problem three weeks later that he couldn’t ignore: a car with faulty brakes, on its way out of the yard. Hayes flagged it for repair, but his manager again overrode him, so Haynes reported what happened to the FRA that morning. Though the agency has the capacity to inspect only about 1% of the rail system annually, its regulators can compel companies to make repairs, giving them deadlines and levying fines when they fail to meet them. The regulator issued a violation, Haynes said.

Haynes carried a digital recorder and captured a maintenance director, Andrew Letcher, threatening to dole out punishment to inspectors if they hurt productivity by finding defects Letcher deemed unnecessary. (Elise Kirk for ProPublica)

About two weeks after Haynes’ report, Union Pacific closed the yard’s car shop, furloughing Haynes and a number of his colleagues indefinitely. The workers filed a complaint to OSHA, sharing the recorded threat and alleging retaliation. They asked for an expedited ruling so they could move the case to the Labor Department’s Office of Administrative Law Judges, the next step. OSHA administratively dismissed the case, and the one in the new venue is pending, according to Haynes’ attorney.

Letcher, who is still at Union Pacific, did not respond to attempts to reach him. The company did not address any of the statements on the recording, but it told ProPublica any claim that the car shop was closed in retaliation is false. “The shop was closed in 2019 as part of our efforts to streamline the railroad,” the company said, which means “removing how many times the car is ‘touched.’ Every time that happens, it adds about 24 hours to a car’s journey, and our goal is to move them as quickly and safely as possible for our customers.”

In reports to investors, Union Pacific touts these efforts as a key part of its strategy to maximize profits. Jim Vena, who is now chief executive officer, even mentioned the Kansas City closure as one of the moves that contributed to record efficiency in 2019. “We’ve made a number of changes to our operations in the last year and the results have been outstanding,” he told shareholders in an earnings call. “As we move forward, look for us to continue pushing the envelope.”

Matt Sweeney, Chris Johnson, Roman Berndt, Corey Schanz and Haynes. The five were present during the conversation Haynes recorded with management, and they were furloughed. (Elise Kirk for ProPublica) Time Is Money

Much like the veins and arteries that transport blood through our bodies, America’s vast freight rail network quietly powers the national economy, moving 1.6 billion tons of product a year over 140,000 miles of track in trains that can each weigh as much as a fleet of jumbo jets. As they trundle through communities carrying cars packed with explosive or hazardous materials, the companies that run them insist safety is their top priority.

But the Association of American Railroads, in its online marketing, describes a powerful undercurrent that pulses through every mile of those tracks: “In the digital age, speed and efficiency are everything.” Customers who make one-click purchases expect their products delivered the very next day. And demand is only growing — the Federal Highway Administration projects that freight shipments will see a 30% increase by 2040. Governments can’t afford to build roads quickly enough, the industry group argues, but freight trains are already adapting: “Trains have been improved to carry more cargo in a single journey.”

ProPublica previously delved into the dangers of precision scheduled railroading, in which companies are running longer trains with smaller crews, adhering to tight schedules. Anything that slows trains can have job-ending repercussions.

On the busy rail corridor running through northwest Atlanta, there was a notorious stretch of track known for tripping up engineers. Larry Coston didn’t feel like he could navigate the large number of signal lights safely going the speed limit of 60 mph, so he radioed the dispatcher that he’d be driving at a slower speed, a 6 to 8 mph crawl, in an effort to avoid an accident.

Norfolk Southern fired him for “intentionally” delaying his assignment. The company declined to comment on specific cases. But his boss, and his boss’ boss, testified in his ongoing lawsuit that his judgment didn’t matter; engineers should travel at maximum authorized speeds regardless of their safety concerns. “Run your train,” his direct supervisor, Travis Bailey, a senior road manager of engines, said in a deposition. “Do your job.”

Supervisors have strong incentives to push their workers like this. Court records show that several freight rail companies rate and rank their managers using metrics that reward them for trains staying on schedule and penalize them for disruptions — even when the delays are caused by safety precautions. “Slow order delays,” for example, calculate the amount of time lost from slowing trains because of unsafe track conditions.

Lewis Ware, a senior general foreman in Norfolk Southern’s Savannah, Georgia, yard, had a reputation for keeping a close eye on bad orders. In 2019, car inspectors Kelvin Taylor and Shane Fowler filed a federal complaint alleging that Ware had repeatedly removed their repair order tags, allowing dangerous cars to leave the yard. They said Ware told them he had a quota — no more than 10 a week — regardless of the actual number of defects the inspectors found. (Ware disputed that figure, arguing that his goal was actually 20 bad orders at the time.)

Numbers like “bad order counts” can be used on scorecards to rank a manager. For example, Ware’s supervisor said in a deposition that metrics related to bad orders made up 15% of her final score.

The supervisor said that Norfolk Southern discourages managers from unilaterally removing repair tags and that Ware had been advised to stop.

The federal lawsuit filed by the workers was settled in October under confidential terms, and Ware, who still works for the company, declined to comment for this story. A Norfolk Southern spokesperson noted that OSHA sided with the company before the car inspectors filed their lawsuit, and said in a statement that it “does not tolerate retaliation of any kind” and has “partnered with our unions and their leaders to improve safety and collaboration.”

To assess the internal pressure on rail supervisors, ProPublica interviewed former managers who worked at CSX, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific between 2011 and 2021. They confirmed that fewer safety reports made their jobs easier: less time spent driving miles up and down territory to eyeball a “complainer’s” claims, less time trying to fix the issue and less time doing paperwork.

For people in their jobs, they said, time literally is money. Across the industry, managers receive year-end bonuses tied to performance, often defined by how efficiently they move trains through yards. The managers estimated that on a $100,000 base salary, someone with a good evaluation can earn a $20,000 to $25,000 cash bonus. These payouts can drop dramatically if managers fail to meet certain metrics.

In Minnesota, a BNSF track inspector named Don Sanders recorded his manager, Keith Jones, berating him for writing up defects that reflected poorly on Jones. “I’m about to lose my job, my family’s welfare,” Jones, a division engineer, said in one recording. He would later testify that his annual bonus was tied to his year-end evaluation, which factored in the sort of defects flagged by Sanders. But Jones’ supervisors heaped on praise after he helped fire Sanders. His review: “Your team is injury-free, slow orders are at an all time low, relationships are good. Don Sanders is no longer working for BNSF.”

“Why in the World Would We Ever Call FRA?”

A BNSF track inspector, Don Sanders, recorded his manager, Keith Jones, berating him for calling the Federal Railroad Administration.

Jones declined to comment other than to emphasize that Sanders was fired for time theft, not in retaliation for safety reporting. Sanders claimed the time theft investigation against him was retaliatory. A federal jury sided with Sanders and awarded him over $9.4 million in 2021 for his wrongful termination; because of a cap on damages, the award was later reduced to $2.3 million. BNSF, which did not comment on the case, is appealing.

Sanders lost more than money from the entire episode. His estranged wife testified that he sank into a deep depression after he got fired, slept all day and was no longer the attentive partner and father he’d once been. “I lost my husband, basically.”

Accountability Is Elusive

Track inspector Brandon Fresquez had an odd sense of deja vu in 2015 as he performed his duties in a BNSF hub in Denver. He was seeing the same defects in the same spots he’d previously flagged for repair. Sometimes the company’s computer system said they’d been fixed; sometimes the entry was missing entirely.

Fresquez and some co-workers suspected their manager, roadmaster Michael Paz, was falsifying repairs at the direction of his boss. They viewed Paz as a bully who they said spoke openly about badgering inspectors into changing their safety reports and firing those who did not fall in line.

BNSF maintained an anonymous hotline for employees who wanted to report unsafe conditions. According to trial testimony in a lawsuit Fresquez later filed, nearly a dozen calls had come in about Paz. The inspectors would later testify that they believed the company told local managers, including Paz, which of them had called. “They were trying to nitpick every little thing we did and trying to get us in a disciplinary action,” testified Jacob Yancey, a worker responsible for making track repairs. “There was a list of people they wanted to meet with afterwards, and everybody who had made that phone call was on that list.”

Fresquez, who questioned the confidentiality of the hotline, took his concerns straight to the FRA after Paz asked him to change information about a defect so a track would stay in service. An official told him that would be a violation of safety standards, Fresquez said, but the FRA didn’t do anything more to intervene.

Fresquez said he came back to Paz relaying what the FRA official had told him and saying he would not lie about track defects. Paz declined to comment when reached by ProPublica, but he denied falsifying records when he was later called to the stand to testify. Paz gave inconsistent answers in his deposition and trial testimony about whether he knew Fresquez called the FRA. What is clear is that by the end of that day, Fresquez was on leave for insubordination. The railroad later fired him.

And so, Fresquez began his slog down the well-worn track of trying to seek justice for his perceived retribution — one that, for many railroaders, is a yearslong grind.

Brandon Fresquez, a former track inspector for BNSF, with gear from his time at the railroad. He took on BNSF in court, saying the company retaliated against him after raising safety concerns. (Eli Imadali, special to ProPublica)

Workers who contend that a railroad company violated their whistleblower rights must first file a claim to OSHA. The agency can accept complaints about harassment and threats before a worker is punished, but those can be more difficult to prove. More commonly, the agency becomes involved only after the employee is disciplined or is sitting at home without a paycheck.

It can take a year or longer for OSHA to complete an investigation. A spokesperson for the Department of Labor told ProPublica that while the optimal caseload for a whistleblower investigator is six to eight cases, the current average caseload is 17.

If 210 days have passed without an OSHA finding, workers can remove their cases and file a lawsuit in federal court. This can win them a big check, but it essentially allows the company to dodge any government ruling of retaliation. Take the case of Johnny Taylor, fired from Union Pacific under circumstances similar to Fresquez. After waiting seven months for OSHA to weigh in, he withdrew his whistleblower complaint and sued his former employer. Taylor was awarded $1.3 million after a jury found the company wrongfully terminated him. But because the OSHA case dead-ended, Union Pacific was never subjected to a ruling about whether it violated federal whistleblower law, which could have added to its public record about how it treats its employees.

In Fresquez’s case, OSHA quickly returned a finding that BNSF had retaliated against him. But knowing the company would likely appeal, his attorney, Nick Thompson, wanted to get the case in front of a jury sooner; he said most of his clients are often “destitute” within a year or two of losing their jobs. So began a gantlet of questions and cross-examinations, a trial and an appeal. “You’re a little guy trying to battle a million-dollar company,” Fresquez said. “I was in court basically for seven years. I lost sleep. I gained weight.” Some days, he wished he could disappear.

In 2019, a jury found that he was wrongfully terminated; he was awarded $1.7 million. An appellate court upheld the verdict late last year. BNSF declined to comment on this or any other case, but it wrote in a statement that “at BNSF, the safety of our employees always has been and always will be the most important thing we do. We believe that’s reflected in our record over the last decade, which produced the lowest number of injuries in our railroad’s history.” Paz is still a supervisor at the company.

Fresquez’s attorney got a sizable chunk of the payout, and what is left for Fresquez, he said, can never restore what he lost. “I’m fucked up, honestly,” Fresquez said. “My anxiety is so, so, so bad now.”

The change is palpable, Thompson said, serving as a cautionary tale to Fresquez’s former colleagues about what happens when you go up against a railroad company.

“Make no mistake about it,” Thompson said. “The winner of Brandon’s case was BNSF.”

BNSF train cars at a Denver facility (Eli Imadali, special to ProPublica) Reaching for a Lifeline

This June in Hernando, Mississippi, a train pulling 47 tanker cars filled with highly flammable propane somehow escaped from its crew. The workers had parked their train to remove a section of cars. When they returned, they discovered that the remaining 90 cars, including the tankers filled with propane, had begun rolling down the tracks on their own.

The crewless bomb train traveled for 3 miles through two public crossings until it gradually came to a stop.

“Oh my God. That’s terrifying,” U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M. said after ProPublica informed her of the incident. “Unbelievable that in the year 2023 this is happening.”

Because it didn’t crash or derail, neither Grenada Railroad, the small company that ran it, nor its parent company, Gulf & Atlantic Railways, needed to tell the FRA. Laws and rules don’t require companies to tell regulators when they lose control of a train, even one carrying explosive cargo.

But word got around. Alarmed railroaders encouraged the workers to report the close call to regulators; someone needed to investigate what happened to prevent it from happening again, they argued.

The workers were too afraid, said Randy Fannon, a national vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “Evidently the employees felt that they couldn’t acknowledge it or report it for fear of retribution,” he said.

A week after the incident, an FRA official got a text message from someone other than a Grenada employee, which prompted a government investigation. Gulf & Atlantic declined to comment on the incident. The FRA told ProPublica penalties are forthcoming.

“That Grenada personnel were concerned for their personal well-being [and didn’t] report the incident is unfortunate and diminishes safety on that railroad and the industry in general,” Alexy wrote in an email to ProPublica.

There is an alternative: the Confidential Close Call Reporting System, which the FRA piloted in 2007 and fully implemented in 2014. It allows railroaders to anonymously disclose safety concerns or close calls to a third party, NASA. Officials at the space agency screen them, and, after 30 days, forward them to a team of railroad and FRA officials. But the program is voluntary; just 25 of the nation’s roughly 800 railroads participate; none of the six largest freight companies, the so-called Class 1s, do.

This year, after the East Palestine derailment, lawmakers and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg pushed for them to join the system. They all originally agreed to, but months later, progress has stalled. Rail companies and their industry representatives say that they don’t want employees to have blanket immunity from discipline and that NASA takes too long to communicate information on hazardous situations. They say their internal hotlines are more effective. Discussions are ongoing, and a spokesperson for the Association of American Railroads said the companies are "working in good faith to get an agreement."

Stansbury, the New Mexico lawmaker, along with U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., introduced the Rail Worker and Community Safety Act in September, which would create a close call reporting system, prohibit retaliation for use of sick leave, increase funding for FRA inspectors and expand the U.S. transportation secretary’s power to create rules.

Alexy said his agency is exploring revisions to federal law that could expand the kind of incidents that must be reported to the government, including runaway trains like the one in Mississippi, and is conducting safety audits on all of the large railroad companies — including interviews that will give employees opportunities to say how they are treated when they report safety concerns. He said the work will be done by the end of 2024 and shared with the public.

Deidre Agan, a BNSF conductor in Forsyth, Montana, hopes those kinds of changes will help. “I don’t want to see anybody else have to struggle and suffer through the stuff that I had to put up with,” she said.

In the gloom of a late summer evening in 2016, she was in a locomotive going over 50 miles per hour when the engineer, Scott Weber, rounded a curve and saw an object on the tracks that seemed to loom as big as a house. She heard him yell, “Duck!” and the train slammed into what turned out to be a 6-ton cottonwood tree that had fallen across the tracks.

The two workers were thrown from their seats as glass from the windshield sprayed the cabin. The locomotive dragged huge chunks of the tree down the tracks for nearly a mile before it finally stopped.

Deidre Agan was a BNSF conductor in 2016 when her train slammed into a 6-ton cottonwood tree, some of the remnants of which are pictured. (Erin Trieb, special to ProPublica)

In a flurry of emails between BNSF managers in the direct aftermath of the crash, one thing became clear: They’d been warned. According to conductor Don Purdon, everyone in the yard had noticed the tree at some point — its precarious lean, its dead bark. Five months before the collision, he’d reported it to an internal BNSF hotline. His managers promised to look into it but ultimately did not cut the tree down.

Just before the crash, Purdon’s managers forbade him from using the hotline because he was calling it too often, Purdon said. Then, they shut down the hotline altogether. “They tried to sweep it under the rug and say it wasn’t reported,” Purdon said.

BNSF declined to comment on the case. In depositions, Purdon’s manager claimed that decisions about the anonymous hotline had nothing to do with the accident. The best way to report hazards, he said, was to tell an immediate supervisor. That’s the very reporting method workers told ProPublica they feared most.

Don Purdon, a now-retired conductor, had voiced concerns about the tree that Agan’s train hit. He said his managers forbade from using an internal hotline because he was calling it too often. (Erin Trieb, special to ProPublica)

Weber had surgery to implant a metal plate and eight screws in his neck; the injuries pushed him into an early retirement.

And Agan, nursing a herniated spinal disc and a torn rotator cuff, was fired two days after the crash; she’d recently been written up for missing a deadline to renew one of her certifications. With no job or health insurance, there were days she remained in bed and cried. She self-medicated with alcohol and developed a severe drinking problem.

After more than two years in arbitration and in pain, BNSF reinstated Agan and she finally had spinal surgery. She’s been sober for a year and a half.

She said she hopes that speaking out will reveal the atmosphere of fear that she and her colleagues operate in every day, but her expectations are low.

“I honestly don’t think anything will help because, you know, money talks,” she said. As long as the companies continue to profit, “they really don’t care.”

Railroad tracks about an hour and a half outside of Billings, Montana (Erin Trieb, special to ProPublica)

Help ProPublica Report on Railroad Worker Safety

Jeff Kao, Carolyn Edds, Mollie Simon, Mariam Elba, Miriam Pensack and Ruth Baron contributed research.

by Topher Sanders, Jessica Lussenhop, Dan Schwartz, Danelle Morton and Gabriel Sandoval

Insurance Executives Refused to Pay for the Cancer Treatment That Could Have Saved Him. This Is How They Did It.

1 week 5 days ago

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This story is part of a partnership with Scripps News.

Forrest VanPatten was 50 and strong after years as a molten-iron pourer when he learned in July 2019 that a hyperaggressive form of lymphoma had invaded his body. Chemotherapy failed. Because he was not in remission, a stem cell transplant wasn’t an option. But his oncologist offered a lifeline: Don’t worry, there’s still CAR-T.

The cutting-edge therapy could weaponize VanPatten’s own cells to beat back his disease. It had extended the lives of hundreds of patients who otherwise had no chance. And VanPatten was a good candidate for treatment, with a fierce drive to stay alive for his wife of 25 years and their grown kids.

VanPatten didn’t know it, but he also had the law on his side. His home state of Michigan had long required health insurers to cover clinically proven cancer drugs.

He and his family gripped tight to the hope that the treatment promised.

Then, his insurance company refused to approve it.

Across the country, health insurers are flouting state laws like the one in Michigan, created to guarantee access to critical medical care, ProPublica found. Fed up with insurers saying no too often, state legislators thought they’d solved the problem by passing hundreds of laws spelling out exactly what had to be covered. But companies have continued to dodge bills for pricey treatments, even as industry profits have risen. ProPublica identified dozens of cases in which plans refused to pay for high-stakes treatments or procedures — from emergency surgeries to mammograms — even though laws require insurers to cover them.

Companies can get away with this because the thinly staffed state agencies that oversee many insurers typically don’t open investigations unless patients file complaints. Regulators acknowledge they catch only a fraction of violations. “We are missing things,” said Sebastian Arduengo, an assistant general counsel for Vermont’s insurance department.

In the 34 years since Michigan began to require cancer coverage, regulators there have never cited a company for violating the law.

Like most policyholders, VanPatten had no insight into the decision made by his insurer, a nonprofit called Priority Health that covers about a million Michigan residents.

He didn’t know that around the time the therapy won the Food and Drug Administration’s approval, executives at Priority Health had figured out a way to weasel out of paying for it.

Forrest celebrates his birthday in 2012. (Courtesy of the VanPatten family)

Through interviews with former employees and a review of company emails and VanPatten’s medical records, ProPublica was able to crack through the usual secrecy and expose the health insurer’s calculations.

Former employees said the decision not to cover this treatment and a related one was driven almost entirely by their high price tags — up to $475,000. Side effects that could land a patient in the hospital can push the bill over $1 million. Priority Health number crunchers calculated to the penny the monthly cost per policyholder if the company shifted the expense to them: 17 cents. But executives didn’t raise premiums or absorb the extra cost. They decided to save that money.

Patients’ needs weren’t part of the equation, recalled Dr. John Fox, then Priority Health’s associate chief medical officer. “It was, ‘This is really expensive, how do we stop payment?’”

Over Fox’s objections, fellow executives came up with a semantic workaround: These cancer drugs aren’t technically drugs, they argued, they’re gene therapies. All Priority Health had to do was to exclude gene therapies from its policies, and it could say no every time.

Priority Health said in a written statement to ProPublica that it provides compassionate, high-quality, affordable coverage and spends 90 cents of every premium dollar on member care.

“We are committed to making medical innovations available to members as quickly as possible, regardless of cost, as soon as they have been proven to be safe and effective,” Mark Geary, a spokesperson, wrote. The company said it initially didn’t cover CAR T-cell therapy because there was a “lack of consensus” about the treatment’s effectiveness.

“Major life-threatening complications and side effects were common, with a high rate of relapse,” the statement said.

At the time of VanPatten’s denial there was, in fact, already substantial consensus about the medication. In December 2017, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, then an alliance of 27 leading U.S. cancer treatment centers, spelled out in its guidelines for B-cell lymphomas which patients should receive the therapy and when. VanPatten’s doctor said he met the criteria.

“It was, ‘This is really expensive, how do we stop payment?’”

—Dr. John Fox, Priority Health’s former associate chief medical officer

VanPatten’s family signed a privacy waiver giving Priority Health permission to discuss his case with ProPublica. Nevertheless, Priority Health did not respond to questions about his case or whether the company had violated Michigan’s mandate to cover cancer drugs when it refused to pay for his therapy.

VanPatten was disappointed but tried to remain optimistic after the first denial in January 2020. He and his wife, Betty, who worked in medical billing, knew it often took an appeal to coax the insurer to approve care.

In early February, Dr. Stephanie Williams, then the head of the blood and marrow transplant program for Spectrum Health, came to see VanPatten in his hospital room on Grand Rapids’ Medical Mile. It had been more than six months since his diagnosis.

He was sitting up in bed hooked up to an IV. His face, once framed by reddish eyebrows and a signature goatee, was hairless and drained of color. Betty pasted on a tight smile.

Priority Health had denied the treatment again, Williams told them, though she vowed to keep fighting.

When she left the room, VanPatten swung his legs over the side of the hospital bed. He had remained resilient and good-humored through his illness. But at that moment, he felt like Priority Health was treating him like an expense, not a person. It got to him, the idea that the insurer he dutifully paid each month knew this was his only chance and was holding it just out of reach.

He grabbed a tissue box from a tray and hurled it against the wall.

Fox, whom Willams described as the “conscience of the company,” had long been the point person for oncology in Priority Health’s medical department. In his earlier life as a practicing physician, he had trained at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a chronic disease epidemiologist. When he joined Priority Health in 2000, he admired the company’s focus on preventive care and the fact that his bosses encouraged him to build deep relationships with local hospitals and doctors.

Dr. John Fox (Kristen Norman for ProPublica)

CAR T-cell therapy was a breakthrough more than 20 years in the making, and Fox had tracked clinical trials and talked to oncologists about it. By genetically reengineering patients’ own white blood cells, then infusing them back into the body to fight cancer, the treatment helped most participants in clinical trials get into remission within three months.

He knew this would be a game changer for patients. He also knew the law. So when news of the FDA’s approval of the first CAR-T medication, Kymriah, hit his inbox in August 2017, he recalled, “I said, ‘You know, we’re required to cover this. This is a treatment for cancer.’”

But the culture at Priority Health had shifted over the previous year under new leadership to focus on cost savings, Fox and four other former employees said in interviews. The company brought in a new chief medical officer, Dr. James Forshee, in late 2016 from Molina Healthcare, an insurer known for wringing profits out of Medicaid managed care plans.

In conversations about the new treatment, several former Priority Health employees recall, Forshee pointed out that the law required covering cancer “drugs,” and he argued that the new treatment actually wasn’t a drug; it was a gene therapy. (Through a company spokesperson, Forshee declined to comment for this article.)

Fox thought this was ridiculous. He pressed company lawyers for an opinion. Priority Health’s filings with the state “indicate that we have to cover FDA approved cancer drugs,” Fox wrote to two members of the legal department in a September 2017 email.

Senior counsel John Samalik responded, bolstering Forshee’s position that Priority Health didn’t have to cover Kymriah: “I believe legally we have a defensible argument that Kymriah is a gene therapy and not a drug.” (Samalik declined to comment through a company spokesperson.)

A September 2017 email written by John Samalik, a Priority Health senior counsel (Obtained by ProPublica. Highlighting by ProPublica.)

Fox pointed out that the company already covered another gene therapy. He told ProPublica that he suggested asking state regulators whether the cancer-drug mandate applied to Kymriah, but Forshee and at least one other executive refused.

“My inference being that, if we ask the state, they would say yes, so let’s not ask,” Fox said. Two other former Priority Health employees involved in the discussions confirmed Fox’s recollections.

The FDA approved a second CAR T-cell medication, Yescarta, seven weeks after the first approval.

When ProPublica asked if the FDA considered CAR T-cell therapies drugs, an agency spokesperson said yes. She wrote in an email that they have been regulated as gene therapies, and that they “are biological products and drugs under the Public Health Service Act (PHS Act) and the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.”

Fox continued to push Priority Health to cover them; Forshee didn’t budge.

As they often did for new therapies, Priority Health’s actuaries calculated the price tag. They estimated that each year, one patient would need Yescarta and one Kymriah. If spread across the company’s members, the therapies would cost an extra 17 cents per member per month — 8 cents for Yescarta and 9 cents for Kymriah, emails show.

If the company had chosen to absorb the cost rather than raise premiums, the extra expense — potentially more than $1 million for each patient receiving the therapy — could have hurt its bottom line. Other insurers had also balked at the cost of CAR-T and were slow to cover it.

Priority Health made a slight tweak to its 2018 filings to state regulators, one with life-changing implications for patients like VanPatten. As it had in the past, the company said it covered drugs for cancer therapy “as required by state law.” But the insurer slipped in a new sentence more than a dozen pages later: Gene therapy was “not a Covered Service.”

Watch the Scripps News Report “Hope Denied”

Meanwhile, regional and national health plans began approving the drugs. Kaiser Permanente started covering them within months of the FDA’s approvals. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan — the state’s biggest health plan and Priority Health’s main competitor — paid for a cancer patient to receive CAR T-cell therapy in December 2017. (A spokesperson said in an email that the plan added coverage based on the treatments’ efficacy, without considering whether Michigan’s mandate applied. “We would have covered these drugs irrespective of the law,” she said.)

When the national Blue Cross Blue Shield Association made an announcement about CAR-T coverage later in 2018, employees at Priority Health forwarded it to one another. It was an I-told-you-so moment for Fox.

At a meeting that December, Fox made the case again that Priority Health should ask the state whether Michigan’s law required covering the new cancer treatments. 

Forshee bristled. “You don’t trust our legal counsel?” he responded, according to Fox and another executive who attended.

His own temper rising, Fox considered what would happen if the company maintained its position. Patients who needed these therapies would likely die. Fox and his team would have to sign the denial letters, knowing the despair and anger they would sow.

After working at Priority Health for more than 18 years, Fox had once thought he’d retire there. He left that meeting certain he had to move on.

“Health plans have a right to make money; we’re providing a service,” Fox said. “But we have to do that honestly and fairly, putting patients first, not profits or premiums first. To me, that’s where we crossed the line.”

Priority Health’s headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan (Kristen Norman for ProPublica)

About seven months later, on a sticky night in July 2019, Forrest and Betty VanPatten were sipping beers with friends at the local club of the Fraternal Order of Eagles.

When they’d moved to Sparta, a small Michigan town known for its apple orchards, this was where they’d found community. The club had hosted countless charity raffles and fundraisers, including a “pink night” for the American Cancer Society for which Forrest squeezed into a hot-pink minidress Betty sewed for him. (There wasn’t much off-the-rack that could fit his almost 6-foot-8-inch frame.)

They were expecting biopsy results at any moment. Forrest had gone to the emergency room the previous weekend with intense pain. He’d made it through two previous bouts of lymphoma and suspected he was about to face another.

Forrest’s phone rang. It was the office of his primary oncologist, Dr. Brett Brinker. Oncologists meet hundreds of patients and their families, but Brinker had grown deeply fond of the VanPattens. Forrest was the guy who could talk to anyone, who made the party worth attending. Betty was his perfect foil. Their laughter and candor left a lasting impression.

The news was bad. Forrest had something called Richter’s transformation. It made his lymphoma significantly more aggressive and less likely to respond to conventional chemotherapy. After hanging up, Forrest typed Richter’s into his phone. Almost immediately, he proclaimed, “This is a death sentence.”

Betty needed to clear her head. She walked around the block, passing a restaurant where Forrest’s name was on the wall for completing a taco-eating challenge. When she got back, she urged Forrest to snap out of his defeatism.

He had just celebrated his 50th birthday and was determined to be around for his 51st. His kids, Donovan, 23, and Madison, 22, were in serious relationships, and he wanted to be there for their weddings.

“So we went in and got a game plan,” Betty said. Forrest would begin with chemotherapy, and, if the cancer went into remission, they would try for a stem cell transplant. If the cancer didn’t go into remission, Brinker made it clear they weren’t out of options. He told them about CAR-T.

It felt reassuring at the time.

By January 2020, CAR-T was all they had left. Brinker said he thought the treatment could at least bring Forrest’s disease under control for a few years. “It’s hard to use the word ‘cure’ when it’s acting like that,” he said of Forrest’s cancer. But if they won some extra time, he said, “there’s always something in the wings you can hope for.”

On Jan. 28, Williams, the doctor who ran the transplant program, worked with her team to submit a request for coverage to Priority Health. Williams knew the company’s policy on CAR-T but thought the insurer might relent when faced with an actual patient who was certain to die without the treatment. Plus, by that point, the federal government was covering the therapies for Medicare patients, and insurers often follow its lead.

Knowing it could take weeks to grow the cells used in the treatment, his doctors prepared to extract his white blood cells. “These are diseases where we don’t have a lot of time to waste,” Williams said.

Then Williams’ office found out that Priority Health had denied the request. Forrest’s doctors appealed but were turned down again, prompting Forrest to throw the tissue box at the wall.

Williams felt it, too. “I was deflated. I was angry,” she recalled. “We kept trying to work it out, and we kept hitting roadblocks.”

The VanPattens didn’t have the money to pay out of pocket, and Forrest didn’t want to saddle his family with medical debt. His medical team filed a third and final appeal, this one to an independent reviewer.

As that went forward, the VanPattens received a letter from Priority Health explaining its reasons for denying Forrest’s treatment. CAR-T cell therapy “is not a covered benefit,” and “therefore, we are unable to approve this request,” the letter stated. Somehow, seeing the words in writing conveyed a different finality, sending Forrest into a downward spiral.

“Everybody deserves the chance of fighting,” Betty said. “Once you take somebody’s hope away, you kill them — you really, really do. It was evident with him. He was defeated, and he had never been defeated in his life, and that was hard to watch.”

“He was defeated, and he had never been defeated in his life, and that was hard to watch.”

—Betty VanPatten

Their son, Donovan, took to social media to blast Priority Health for its decision, hoping to shame the company into a last-minute about-face. He included a screenshot of a text message from Forrest, who knew his insurer was an outlier. “It should be noted that Blue Cross and Blue Shield of MI pays for Car T Cell!” it read.

A reporter for Scripps News Grand Rapids, WXMI, a local TV news station, interviewed Forrest on Feb. 13 in the suede recliner he’d long claimed as his chair in the family’s living room.

“I feel like I’m being ignored,” he said, tears streaming down his face. “Left out to die, basically.”

Days later, Forrest was back in Butterworth Hospital with shortness of breath. “He is in acute distress,” an emergency room doctor noted when he was admitted.

The following night, his heart stopped beating. Betty retreated to the back of the room as doctors and nurses swarmed in. Donovan sat in a chair outside, his head in his hands.

Madison raced through Grand Rapids’ snow-covered streets to join them. When she reached her father’s room, a member of the medical team was still pushing down on his chest. But, she recalled, “it was clear he wasn’t there anymore.” The family told his doctors to end the resuscitation effort.

Forrest died on Feb. 17, before the independent medical reviewer had a chance to weigh in. Three weeks had passed since Williams and her team had asked Priority Health to cover the therapy.

Williams said that if Priority Health had approved the first request, Forrest could have received the infusion. It’s unknowable whether the treatment would have given him more time, she said, but if he’d had that chance, “anything is possible.”

Not long after Forrest died, his family received a handwritten card from a clinical coordinator who cared for him.

“I am so so so sad that we didn’t get the chance to put the rest of our plan into motion,” she wrote. “In honor of your kind (+very funny) husband, dad, friend, I promise to continue to push for Priority Health to cover CAR-T and to bring hope to all who need it.”

In Priority Health’s statement, Geary, the spokesperson, wrote that the company began covering the therapy “after extensive clinical work improved the treatment.” The company would not say when it began paying for the treatment or whether Forrest’s death influenced its decision.

“It is devastating when a disease takes a member’s life,” the statement said. “We recognize the deep pain of losing someone you love.”

First image: The VanPatten family gets together on Sundays for dinner and has continued the tradition after Forrest’s death. Second image: Family photos line a shelf in the VanPattens’ home. Forrest didn’t live to see his children’s weddings. (Kristen Norman for ProPublica)

To former state Sen. Joe Schwarz, now 86 and retired, the story of Priority Health and Forrest VanPatten is a painful echo of a problem he thought he’d fixed.

More than 30 years ago, Schwarz helped write the Michigan law requiring insurers to pay for cancer drugs. Schwarz, a physician, still recalls what drove him to action: Insurance companies were refusing to pay for drugs given to make chemotherapy more effective, arguing they weren’t themselves chemotherapy. An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by the head of the Association of Community Cancer Centers confirmed that insurers nationwide were denying coverage for cancer patients.

At a Senate hearing, Schwarz accused health plans of abandoning their policyholders based on a “play on words.” When ProPublica told Schwarz about Priority Health’s gene-therapy argument, he let out a mirthless “hah,” scoffing at the wordplay.

“You shouldn’t split hairs between the term gene therapy and the term chemotherapy or the term radiation therapy or the term surgical therapy,” he said. “They’re all cancer therapies and they should all be covered.”

“You shouldn’t split hairs between the term gene therapy and the term chemotherapy or the term radiation therapy or the term surgical therapy. They’re all cancer therapies and they should all be covered.”

—Former state Sen. Joe Schwarz

ProPublica gave Michigan’s Department of Insurance and Financial Services a detailed description of VanPatten’s case, as well as Priority Health’s contention that it didn’t have to cover CAR T-cell cancer therapies. We asked if Priority Health broke the state law on cancer treatments. Laura Hall, the department’s communications director, wouldn’t say. The agency can investigate if it spots a pattern of improper denials, but “in general,” she said, it only acts if a patient or their representative files a complaint.

The VanPattens didn’t do that. And they didn’t know about the Michigan law until ProPublica told them about it.

In the months after her husband died, Betty VanPatten was too weighed down by grief and anger to tangle with Priority Health through state insurance regulators. The days were a blur. Donovan and his partner, McKenzie, moved in with Betty, who threw herself into her job.

“I’d get up at 4, and I’d have my laptop and I just worked until about 9 or 10 o’clock,” Betty said. “And a lot of times I’d just sit there and the tears are just running down my face.”

The VanPattens still struggle with the sense that Forrest suffered an injustice and that Priority Health got away with it.

“They lost sight of the patient,” Betty said at a family dinner this July. Madison agreed.

“Insurance is meant to protect people,” she said, “not to make them fight through the last day to get what they should.”

Do You Have Insights Into Dental and Health Insurance Denials? Help Us Report on the System.

Kirsten Berg contributed research.

by Maya Miller and Robin Fields