The Department of Immigration & Customs Enforcement is taking new steps in its plans for monitoring the social media accounts of applicants and holders of U.S. visas. At a tech industry conference last Thursday in Arlington, Virginia, ICE officials explained to software providers what they are seeking: algorithms that would assess potential threats posed by visa holders in the United States and conduct ongoing social media surveillance of those deemed high risk.
The comments provide the first clear blueprint for ICE’s proposed augmentation of its visa-vetting program. The initial announcement of the plans this summer, viewed as part of President Donald Trump’s calls for the “extreme vetting” of visitors from Muslim countries, stoked a public outcry from immigrants and civil liberties advocates. They argued that such a plan would discriminate against Muslim visitors and potentially place a huge number of individuals under watch.
ICE officials subsequently changed the program’s name to “Visa Lifecycle Vetting.” But, according to the ICE presentation, the goal of the initiative — enhanced monitoring of visa holders using social media — remains the same.
Speaking to a room of information-technology contractors, hosted by the Government Technology & Services Coalition, Louis Rodi, deputy assistant director of ICE Homeland Security Investigations’ National Security Program, said the agency needs a tool equipped with “risk-based matrices” to predict dangers posed by visa holders, with the social media of those considered a threat under continuous surveillance throughout their stay in the U.S.
“We have millions and millions and millions of people coming every year, and subsequently departing, so we have to be smart about it,” said Rodi to a room of representatives from companies like Microsoft, Accenture, Deloitte and Motorola Solutions. “And I’m sure there are tools out there that can help.”
For this targeted group of visa holders, ICE’s online monitoring of public social media posts would be large-scale and non-stop. “Everything we’re dealing with is in bulk, so we need batch-vetting capabilities for any of the processes that we have,” said Rodi. Alysa Erichs, ICE Homeland Security Investigations’ acting deputy association director for information management, told attendees that ICE hopes to get automated notifications about any visa holders’ social media activity that could “ping us as a potential alert.”
ICE spokeswoman Carissa Cutrell stressed to ProPublica that the Department of Homeland Security has not actually begun building any such program. “The request for information on this initiative was simply that — an opportunity to gather information from industry professionals and other government agencies on current technological capabilities to determine the best way forward,” Cutrell wrote in an email. The program would require clearance from numerous DHS units, including the Privacy Office and the Principal Legal Advisor, before it could be implemented, according to a federal official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In his speech, Rodi referred to meetings ICE has had with companies but did not mention any frontrunners. The major tech companies present at the conference, including Microsoft, Accenture and Deloitte, either declined to comment or didn’t respond to ProPublica’s request to comment about their level of interest in providing technology for the vetting program. Microsoft has opposed Trump’s immigration policies, and several Microsoft researchers have publicly called for ICE to stop spying on visitors’ social media.
ICE is already monitoring some social media at eight Homeland Security Investigation posts internationally, Rodi said, and the plan is to expand to more sites. In response to a question posed by ProPublica from the audience, he stated that the department was open to other social media monitoring techniques, such as link analysis (which helps authorities map out applicants’ online connections), so long as they solely rely on public posts.
The ICE officials emphasized the Trump administration’s strict stance. “This administration is big on immigration enforcement, so we’re not going to look the other way like we have in the past when we have overstays,” said Rodi. “Maybe it’s an administrative violation — it’s still a crime. These people need to pay. They can’t get away with it.”
Some analysts argue that gathering social media data is necessary. ICE already has a tool that searches for connections to terrorists, according to Claude Arnold, a former ICE Homeland Security Investigations special agent, now with the security firm Frontier Solutions. But, he said, potential terrorist threats often come from countries, such as Iraq or Syria, that provide little intelligence to U.S. authorities. As a result, in Arnold’s view, social media information is all the more important.
Privacy advocates take a darker view. “ICE is building a dangerously broad tool that could be used to justify excluding, or deporting, almost anyone,” said Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology. “They are talking about this as a targeted tool, but the numbers tell a different story.”
Bedoya noted that the program outline originally anticipated that the monitoring would identify 10,000 high-risk visa holders a year. That suggests the pool of people under social media surveillance would be many orders of magnitude larger. (ICE officials did not address this point at the conference.)
Last week, a coalition of academics and technologists warned in a public letter that ICE’s interest in using big data algorithms to assess risk is misguided, given how rare it is for foreign visitors to be involved in terrorist attacks in the U.S. That means there’s little historical data to mine in hopes of using it to design a new algorithm. The letter cited a Cato Institute analysis that found that the likelihood of an American dying in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil in any given year was 1 in 3.6 million in the period between 1975 and 2015.
Cathy O’Neil, one of the signatories to that letter and author of “Weapons of Math Destruction,” told this reporter in August that any algorithm a company proposes would come built-in with some very human calculations. “At the end of the day, someone has to choose a ratio,” she said. “How many innocent false positives are you going to keep out of the country for each false negative?”
Thus far, social media monitoring of visa applicants has not identified any potential threats that wouldn’t have turned up in existing government databases, Rodi acknowledged. “We haven’t found anything that would preclude someone from getting a visa through social media alone,” he said. “But, you never know, the day may come when social media will actually find someone that wasn’t in the government systems we check.”
That argument doesn’t placate those who believe ICE’s vetting is already exhaustive. Social media surveillance would be difficult to carry out without collecting collateral data on thousands of American citizens in the process, said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel to the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program.
“Generally, with surveillance technologies, they are adopted for national security purposes overseas, but are then brought stateside pretty quickly,” she said, citing practices first honed overseas, such as intercepting cellphone calls. “So once there’s some kind of dragnet surveillance tool or information collection tool in place for one purpose, slippage can happen, and it will expand and expand.”
I’m Andrea Salcedo, one of this year’s Emerging Reporters at ProPublica Illinois. Landing an academic-year fellowship with ProPublica during my last year as a multimedia journalism student at Columbia College Chicago was a young journalist’s dream.
When our editor-in-chief asked if I’d be interested in interviewing our reporters and publishing short Q&As on our website, I jumped at the opportunity. Not only did I think it’d be a good way to introduce our staff to you, but I also thought it’d be fun and a unique chance to meet the journalists and mentors whom I admire and whose knowledge I want to absorb. Who else gets to ask questions of their colleagues and call it work? As a journalist just starting my career and hoping that one day I will be working as a full-time investigative reporter in a newsroom like ProPublica’s, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to be curious — even nosy — and ask these reporters everything I want to know about their lives and careers.
Every other week, I sat in a booth near ProPublica Illinois’ newsroom and asked reporters as many questions as I could. Sometimes, we talked for so long that the deputy editor came to check if we were OK and if I was ready for the next interview. Other times, we continued the conversation after I had stopped recording and I forgot it was time to go home. Yes, the conversations were that engaging! Every one of them either taught me something new, challenged a preconceived belief or reinforced an idea about journalism.
And now I’d like to share some of the lessons that stuck with me. But before I do, I want to extend the invitation to you, too. Why keep the fun all to myself? So ... as you read about what I learned by asking our reporters questions, I hope you’ll come up with some questions of your own. If you’ve got a question for a particular reporter, I’d love to hear it. We’ll gather some of your questions, share them with the team and update you with their answers in another newsletter.
OK, enough talking. Let’s get into it...
The idea that journalism can only be produced by reporters working in a traditional newsroom is changing. Journalism school typically tells you that you can either choose print, broadcast, digital or radio as a branch within the field. Exploring different ways of doing journalism is often overlooked. Engagement reporter Logan Jaffe put it this way: “I want to do more things that people don’t normally associate with something that a newsroom could do. I want to partner with organizations that are beyond other newsrooms, like working with local theater groups or just exploring different ways that journalism can relate to other forms of communication that you might not traditionally think of as news media ... Journalists haven’t really branched out so much beyond the newsroom environment in the way that they can tell stories.”
Another idea of mine that reporter and mentor Jodi Cohen challenged is that news organizations are constantly competing for stories and reporters from different news outlets won’t work together and with the public. Let’s face it: Journalism is a competitive profession. But some principles should be closely examined.
“There’s just a different mindset happening,” Cohen said. “Reporters, editors [and] newsrooms are more willing to collaborate and also just more willing to be public about the work they’re doing. This mindset of being an investigative reporter in a room by yourself doing all the work and then having a big reveal is not the way of the future. Reporters are really more open and public about what they’re doing and seeking the public’s help. It’s leading to better informed” stories.
Journalism has the power to spark change — whether by overturning a wrongful conviction, creating or changing a law or forcing an authority figure to resign. But reporter Duaa Eldeib explained that there’s also power in “organic” change. As a reporter, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of measuring success with awards, policy changes or resignations. Yes, all of these feel great and validate our work, but it’s not why we do what we do. I don’t think someone could have phrased it better than Duaa. “If I’m able to tell someone’s story through my writing, then I feel like I will have succeeded,” she said. “There’s no such thing as a small story. Every story affects somebody, somewhere, somehow. If you’re able to reach that person, then you’ve done your job.”
When I asked reporter Mick Dumke near the end of our conversation what journalism has taught him, he gave me a simple but key piece of advice. “Be humble. In most cases, the stories we work on are not about us, but we’re interested in them for some reason. You have to be drawn by something inside you, but you also (have to) realize you’re a speck out there and you’re trying to report on a much bigger world than your own.”
When you’re a young journalist about to graduate and jump into the real world, you ask yourself: “Do I have enough good clips? Did I land enough internships to gain experience? Were my clips published in big and recognized news outlets? Will I ever win a Pulitzer Prize? Will I land a job at a medium or big news organization right from the start?” It’s almost impossible to avoid getting caught up in this narcissistic game. Even veteran journalists do sometimes. But the truth is that none of this should matter. You don’t get into journalism to nourish your ego with awards, fame or prestigious news organizations. No. You choose journalism to tell untold stories, give power to the powerless and hold authority figures accountable. In the end, that’s all that matters.
So far, I’ve been the one asking our reporters these questions, but now I would like to give you, our readers, the opportunity to ask a few. What do you want to ask our investigative reporters? Tweet me your questions @salcedonews. I will select a few to ask our staff. Ask away!
A disturbing report released today by researchers at the prestigious Colegio de Mexico provides new details about a 2011 massacre in Allende, a quiet Mexican ranching town less than an hour’s drive from the United States, and suggests that many more people were killed in the incident than estimated by Mexican authorities. The report’s authors also repeatedly cite an investigation of the incident by ProPublica and National Geographic in calling for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to provide information about its role in triggering the killing spree.
Based on previously undisclosed Mexican law enforcement files, the report paints a chilling portrait of a powerful drug cartel run amok throughout the northern Mexican state of Coahuila, right across the Rio Grande from Texas. Numerous mayors’ offices and municipal police departments served at the will of the Zetas cartel, the report said. State and federal authorities were either complicit or indifferent, taking no action as the Zetas, one of the most violent drug cartels in the world, took control of a regional prison and used it for years to store drugs and weapons, hold and torture hostages, and dispose of the bodies.
Perhaps the most brazen display of the cartel’s impunity occurred in March 2011, when a convoy of dozens of heavily armed Zetas gunmen descended on Allende and towns nearby and began rounding up friends and relatives of Zetas operatives that the cartel’s leaders believed had betrayed them. Dozens of victims — including some who had no connection to the cartel or the operatives — were rounded up and taken to a ranch just outside Allende, where they were killed and incinerated. There is still no firm count of how many people are either missing or presumed dead. State authorities had estimated that there were about 28 victims while groups formed by victims’ relatives put the number closer to 300.
The new report suggests that victims’ relatives are right and sets the center of the mayhem even closer to the border in Piedras Negras, a grimy factory town within walking distance of Eagle Pass, Texas. Some 1,400 emergency calls came in from residents there during the initial days of the rampage, more than from any other place in the region, according to the report. Many of those calls were about shootings or fires at locations that were known, like the prison, as Zetas extermination sites.
“The investigation into this vengeance is still not over,” said the report, whose lead author is the widely respected human rights investigator Sergio Aguayo. “The possibility exists that the number of dead and missing is greater than 100, and its even possible that it approaches 300.”
ProPublica and National Geographic, after months of interviews and poring through documents, found evidence of at least 60 people whose deaths and disappearances were connected to the attack.
Other unanswered questions, the report said, have to do with the role of the United States in triggering the massacre. It cites extensively from an investigative oral history published in June by ProPublica and National Geographic that revealed that the killing began after the DEA and its partners in the Mexican federal police mishandled sensitive intelligence. That intelligence wound up in the Zetas’ hands, and alerted the cartel that there were snitches inside the organization. The Zetas’ leaders ordered their henchmen to round up and kill those it believed had betrayed them and anyone linked to them.
The DEA did not conduct an investigation of the leak, or discuss it with either Mexican authorities or victims’ families. The agency had never commented publicly on the incident until interviews with ProPublica and National Geographic. In those interviews, the DEA apologized about the intelligence leak, but placed the blame for the violence on the Zetas.
“The indifference with which such delicate information is shared is typical of the informality that characterizes the security relationship between Mexico and the United States,” the report says. “It is characterized by the absence of the kinds of protocols the United States applies in other countries, like Colombia; the lack of accountability, which is evident by the agency’s failure to conduct an internal investigation of a leak that cost the lives of hundreds of people; and the government’s efforts to cover up information and deny responsibility.”
In an interview, Aguayo said he has long understood that the United States shared responsibility for the drug-related violence that has plagued Mexico in the last decade, leaving tens of thousands of people dead and missing across the country. The reporting by ProPublica and National Geographic, he said, made those connections real, and urgent. As a result, authorities in Coahuila have formally requested information from the DEA about the former cartel informants connected to the leak that set off the massacre.
Aguayo and other researchers at the Colegio de Mexico were given access to law enforcement files by the governor of Coahuila.
A DEA spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
“If we’re ever going to understand not only what happened in Coahuila, but why, so that it doesn’t happen again,” Aguayo said, “it’s important that we follow the leak.”
One of President Donald Trump’s top cabinet officials has met with a long list of lobbyists, corporate executives and wealthy people with business interests before the government, according to calendars the Trump administration fought to keep secret.
The calendars for Mick Mulvaney, the former South Carolina congressman who now runs the White House Office of Management and Budget, offer a glimpse of who has access to the highest levels of the Trump administration.
Among those visiting Mulvaney: Trump friend and casino magnate Steve Wynn; a flurry of officials from the conservative Heritage Foundation; a string of health care and Wall Street CEOs; lobbyists for Koch Industries; a cryptocurrency evangelist; and a prominent member of the Catholic group Opus Dei.
The Trump administration fought in court to block public records requests by Property of the People, a Washington-based nonprofit transparency group, to release the calendars as well as visitor logs from several other White House offices. Lawyers for the group ultimately prevailed and provided the documents to ProPublica, which we are posting in a searchable format.
As OMB director, Mulvaney is the driving force behind the president’s budget and influences regulations and government procurement. It’s been widely reported that he will become the acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He also has the ear of the president, who is reportedly a fan of Mulvaney’s performances on the Sunday political shows. The calendars, which cover February to September, typically don’t include details on what was discussed at the meetings. In some cases, the timing of contact with Mulvaney line up with OMB business.
“The OMB director is a member of the cabinet and also a senior adviser to the president — because of that, the director often spends a ton of time in the West Wing,” said Kenneth Baer, who was senior adviser and associate director at the agency for several years of the Obama administration.
Simpson had seven meetings and a phone call with Mulvaney in a four-month period, between April and August. He appears on Mulvaney’s calendars more frequently than anyone who is not a current government official. Often, Simpson brought lobbying clients with him, including representatives from building materials giant Cemex; pharma firm AmerisourceBergen; and BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina. Those three firms paid Mercury $360,000 in the first nine months of the year, disclosure filings show.
A Mercury spokesman said: “The firm fully complies with all registration and disclosure requirements when representing clients.” The OMB press office did not respond to requests for comment.
In July, Simpson and Koch Industries lobbyists Brian Henneberry and Raymond Paul met with Mulvaney.
In other cases, billionaires themselves came in to meet with Mulvaney. They include Charles Schwab, medical entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong and Wynn, the casino magnate whose relationship with Trump goes back decades. Wynn met with Mulvaney in April. Wynn’s firm has lobbied on tax issues on Capitol Hill. Wynn himself, who has large holdings in Macau, has reportedly been involved in pressing the Trump administration on China issues. Wynn was also named finance chairman of the Republican National Committee in January. Wynn’s spokesman declined to comment.
In late February, Mulvaney had a call with Eugene Scalia, the son of the late Supreme Court justice and a prominent lawyer at Gibson Dunn. At the time, Scalia was representing business groups that wanted OMB to delay the implementation of a regulation known as the fiduciary rule. Scalia didn’t respond to a request for comment. Many of his meetings with health care executives came as Republicans in Congress tried to repeal Obamacare.
Mulvaney’s schedule is, to a large extent, a reflection of his politics. A former member of the House’s conservative Freedom Caucus, he recently told Politico, “I don’t think anyone in this administration is more of a right-wing conservative than I am.” (The same profile quoted Simpson, Mulvaney’s former chief of staff turned lobbyist, praising him.)
Mulvaney met with few, if any, consumer groups. That’s in contrast to President Barack Obama’s first OMB director, Peter Orszag, whose visitor logs show meetings with both a long string of corporate executives as well as philanthropic and consumer representatives.
Among the more surprising visitors to Mulvaney was Jeff Bell, a former Reagan aide who is marked on the calendar as being with the Catholic group Opus Dei. Bell told ProPublica that his March meeting with Mulvaney, a Catholic, covered “religious and political matters” but declined to comment further.
Another was Valery Vavilov, CEO of Bitfury, a tech company focused on cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. When Mulvaney was still in Congress last year, he co-founded a “blockchain caucus” to promote the technology behind Bitcoin
At the May meeting, “Mulvaney expressed his desire to encourage government use of blockchain and he asked our group for suggestions of simple use cases that could be a first step for government adoption,” a Bitfury spokesman told ProPublica.
In February, Facebook said it would step up enforcement of its prohibition against discrimination in advertising for housing, employment or credit.
But our tests showed a significant lapse in the company’s monitoring of the rental market.
Last week, ProPublica bought dozens of rental housing ads on Facebook, but asked that they not be shown to certain categories of users, such as African Americans, mothers of high school kids, people interested in wheelchair ramps, Jews, expats from Argentina and Spanish speakers.
All of these groups are protected under the federal Fair Housing Act, which makes it illegal to publish any advertisement “with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.” Violators can face tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
Every single ad was approved within minutes.
The only ad that took longer than three minutes to be approved by Facebook sought to exclude potential renters “interested in Islam, Sunni Islam and Shia Islam.” It was approved after 22 minutes.
Under its own policies, Facebook should have flagged these ads, and prevented the posting of some of them. Its failure to do so revives questions about whether the company is in compliance with federal fair housing rules, as well as about its ability and commitment to police discriminatory advertising on the world’s largest social network.
Housing, employment and credit are the three areas in which federal law prohibits discriminatory ads. However, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — the agency responsible for enforcing fair housing laws — told us that it has closed an inquiry into Facebook’s advertising policies, reducing pressure on the company to address the issue. In a 2015 newspaper column, Ben Carson, now HUD secretary, criticized “government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality” in housing.
Facebook’s failure to police discriminatory rental ads flies in the face of its promises in February that it would no longer approve ads for housing, employment or credit that targeted racial categories. For advertising aimed at audiences not selected by race, Facebook said it would require housing, employment and credit advertisers to “self-certify” that their ads were compliant with anti-discrimination laws.
Based on Facebook’s announcement, the ads purchased by ProPublica that were aimed at racial categories should have been rejected. The others should have prompted a screen to pop up asking for self-certification. We never encountered a self-certification screen, and none of our ads were rejected by Facebook.
“This was a failure in our enforcement and we’re disappointed that we fell short of our commitments,” Ami Vora, vice president of product management at Facebook, said in an emailed statement. “The rental housing ads purchased by ProPublica should have but did not trigger the extra review and certifications we put in place due to a technical failure.”
Vora added that Facebook’s anti-discrimination system had “successfully flagged millions of ads” in the credit, employment and housing categories and that Facebook will now begin requiring self-certification for ads in all categories that choose to exclude an audience segment. “Our systems continue to improve but we can do better,” Vora said.
About 37 percent of U.S. households rented in 2016, representing a 50-year high, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. On average, renters earn about half as much as homeowners, and the percentage of families with children that rent rather than buy has increased sharply in the past decade, the study said. Minority renters have long faced pervasive housing discrimination. A 2013 study by HUD found that real estate agents show more units to whites than to African Americans, Asians and Latinos.
Facebook has long been a popular destination for rental listings, on pages hosted by real estate brokers, property owners and building managers. Earlier this month, Facebook announced that it had added two large providers of rental listings to its Facebook Marketplace service. “Marketplace is a popular place for people to look for a home to rent,” Facebook product manager Bowen Pan said in a press release.
Facebook warns rental advertisers in its Marketplace section that “listings that discriminate against a protected class can be reported and will be removed from Facebook.”
Facebook’s anti-discrimination initiative was prompted by an article published last year by ProPublica. For that story, we bought a Facebook ad targeting house hunters. We were able to use Facebook’s features to block the ad from being shown to anyone with an “affinity” for African American, Asian American or Hispanic people. Our ability to narrow the audience based on race raised the question of whether such ads violated the Fair Housing Act.
After ProPublica’s article appeared in the fall of 2016, HUD, then under the Obama administration, began examining Facebook’s practices. Facebook then said it would build an automated system to spot ads that discriminate illegally. “We take these issues seriously,” Facebook Vice President Erin Egan wrote in a blog post. “Discriminatory advertising has no place on Facebook.”
Facebook has been under fire for other aspects of its automated ad buying system as well. Two months ago, the company disclosed that it had discovered $100,000 worth of divisive political ads placed by “inauthentic” Russian accounts. And in September, ProPublica reported that Facebook’s ad targeting system allowed buyers to reach people who identified themselves as “Jew haters” and other anti-Semitic categories. Facebook pledged to remove the offending categories and to hire thousands more employees to enforce its ad policies.
“We’re adding additional layers of review where people use potentially sensitive categories for targeting,” Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch said during Senate testimony earlier this month.
After Stretch’s public statement, we wondered whether the ability to buy discriminatory housing ads had really been addressed. So we set out to buy an advertisement with the exact same targeting parameters as the ad we bought last year. The ad promoted a fictional apartment for rent and was targeted at people living in New York, ages 18–65, who were house hunting and likely to move. We asked Facebook not to show the ad to people categorized under the “multicultural affinity” of Hispanic, African American or Asian American.
(ProPublica generally forbids impersonation in news gathering. We felt in this instance that the public interest in Facebook’s ad system justified the brief posting of a fake ad for non-existent housing. We deleted each ad as soon as it was approved.)
The only changes from last year that we could identify in Facebook’s ad buying system was that the category called “Ethnic Affinity” had been renamed “Multicultural Affinity” and was no longer part of “Demographics.” It is now designated as part of “Behaviors.”
Our ad was approved within minutes.
Then we decided to test whether we could purchase housing ads that discriminated against other protected categories of people under the Fair Housing Act.
We placed ads that sought to exclude members of as many of the protected categories as we could find in Facebook’s self-service advertising portal. In addition to those mentioned above, we bought ads that were blocked from being shown to “soccer moms,” people interested in American sign language, gay men and Christians.
We also tested whether it was possible to use geography as a way to target racial groups — a practice known as redlining. We bought a housing ad that targeted ZIP codes in Brooklyn whose residents are more than 50 percent non-Hispanic white people, according to the U.S. Census bureau. By definition, that meant the ad was not shown to Facebook users living in Brooklyn neighborhoods where minorities are a majority of the residents.
Facebook drew blue lines around our target neighborhoods and told us our “audience selection is great!” It approved the ad.
David Eads, who came to ProPublica Illinois from National Public Radio, believes reporters should focus on stories that people are purposefully overlooking because if there’s one thing journalism has taught him, it’s “to find and examine regimes of not knowing.” In the seventh of a series of Q&As with ProPublica Illinois staffers, Eads chatted with ProPublica Emerging Reporter Andrea Salcedo.
What inspired you to become a journalist and a news apps developer?
I consider myself a journalist first, but somebody who does it with coding, data and design.
The first sort of news technology intervention I ever facilitated was probably in 1995 or 1996, when I built the website for my high school newspaper. But I got really serious about it after I moved to Chicago. I moved to Chicago to study physics in 1999, and in 2000 I met Jamie Kalven, who is a journalist. He broke the Laquan McDonald story. I worked with him on a project called “The View from the Ground” about public housing. We were working out of a squatted unit in public housing. That was the office. We didn’t have a printing press, we didn’t have a radio station, but the web was emerging. In a lot of ways, I taught myself a lot of what I know about coding out of necessity. The inspiration was: How do you have an impact without a lot of resources?
How would you explain your position as news apps developer at ProPublica Illinois to the general reader?
Ideally, I don’t tell people anything. I show them. A significant part of my job is framing choices that are in technology. You have a story and you say, “Which kind of social play is it? Is this a social play where we need to get a lot of momentum on Twitter? Is it Snapchat? Is it Instagram? Is it email and we’re trying to get in the inboxes of old-school politicians? Is it Facebook and we want to reach the masses?” It’s all these kinds of questions. You have to look at the content of the story, the design and think about how it’s gonna live on the internet.
What are some underreported stories in Illinois that you wish had more coverage?
It’s hard to know what’s underreported because there’s not enough people even watching. Part of it is because the professional reporting corps has shrunk so much. We need some strategies to overcome that. A really good one is City Bureau, another local organization, and their Documenters program. We’re partnering with them to help them on the technological side. They’re gonna put people into the field to cover all these public meetings. There’s real opportunity to just get people to those meetings, teach them how to turn on a camera and take good notes, and, all of a sudden, we’re finding what’s not being reported.
How do you hope the stories that you help build with ProPublica Illinois will spark change?
A huge lesson of working in public housing is that we would hear from very high-level people in the Chicago Housing Authority, and they would say, “I thought this is an issue, too, and I didn’t have ammunition until you published this thing about someone who’s living in a burned-out apartment.” Independent investigations create a space for people to overcome those bureaucratic or institutional obstacles and make the world a little bit better place. I don’t think that happens a lot, but sometimes. I guess if I could sum it up in a single phrase, I want to create work that is useful and troubling.
What reporting and/or storytelling techniques would you like to experiment with at ProPublica Illinois?
I’d like to work on building tools and techniques so local journalism outlets are competing for the right stuff. We should be competing on the quality of our reporting. We shouldn’t be competing on who can afford software developers because nobody can afford software developers. We should be pooling those resources to create common infrastructures and then competing around how we tell the stories or serve our audiences. I think that’s a place where I really want to work.
What’s the biggest lesson journalism has taught you?
As a society we spend a lot of time and effort not knowing things. You’d think that not knowing is a passive kind of activity, but I think in some cases averting our eyes from essential moral scandals is actually a social effort. It takes work to not know how badly the Chicago Police Department behaves at times. It takes work to avert our eyes from what somebody like a Harvey Weinstein was doing. One thing journalism has taught me is to find and examine not knowing. Where we’re putting effort into looking away from, that’s where journalists should be looking.
Who are some of your journalism role models?
My two great heroes are Ida Tarbell and Ida B. Wells. The two Idas. Ida Tarbell for essentially inventing modern investigative journalism as we know it. And Ida B. Wells for fearlessly and passionately cataloging and writing about lynching in America. She was making data science arguments about what the causes of lynching could be and comparing them against these popular narratives.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is a tax wonk ― and most observers of Congress know that. But knowing what interests the other 434 members of Congress is harder.
To make it easier to know what issues each lawmaker really focuses on, we’re launching a new feature in our Represent database called Policy Priorities. We had two goals in creating it: To help researchers and journalists understand what drives particular members of Congress and to enable regular citizens to compare their representatives’ priorities to their own and their communities.
We created Policy Priorities using some sophisticated computer algorithms (more on this in a second) to calculate interest based on what each congressperson talks ― and brags ― about in their press releases.
Voting and drafting legislation aren’t the only things members of Congress do with their time, but they’re often the main way we analyze congressional data, in part because they’re easily measured. But the job of a member of Congress goes well past voting. They go to committee meetings, discuss policy on the floor and in caucuses, raise funds and ― important for our purposes ― communicate with their constituents and journalists back home. They use press releases to talk about what they’ve accomplished and to demonstrate their commitment to their political ideals.
We’ve been gathering these press releases for a few years, and have a body of some 86,000 that we used for a kind of analysis called machine learning.
The press releases might comment about a bill that just advanced in committee or a post office that was renamed ― or they might be weighing in on issues of the day that have yet to be addressed by Congress. We think these press releases are a great signal for what a congressperson cares about ― or, at least, what they want their constituents to see them caring about.
Policy Priorities is inspired by some research by political scientist Justin Grimmer, who used a somewhat similar approach to calculate what he called an “Expressed Agenda” for each U.S. senator. Our model differs a bit so we’re not using the same name.
Grimmer says his approach yields an indirect representation of a legislator’s priorities. Rather than directly measuring the sum of what a legislator does, the expressed agenda measures what the legislator does filtered through what he or she thinks their constituents want to hear about: “legislators employ the resources of their office to portray how they are responding to the priorities and concerns of their constituents.” It’s not just that Ryan cares about taxes ― his press releases show that he wants to be known as someone who is deeply knowledgeable about the tax system.
Here’s how, in broad strokes, we calculate each Congress member’s Policy Priorities. It relies on two main ingredients.
The second ingredient is a list of policy area categories, along with a few hand-picked keywords that are typical for that policy area: like “Obamacare” for the health policy area or “refugees” for immigration.
The categories we use — like the one called “civil rights and liberties, minority issues” ― are a slight variation on a set of policy areas created by the Congressional Research Service. One policy area is assigned to each bill introduced since 1973. We made some slight modifications to the categories ― combining “social sciences and history” with “arts, culture, religion” and eliminating “animals,” “law” and “Congress” completely.
With those two ingredients in hand, we look at each press release from the current and previous Congress and assess how similar the press release is to the “meaning” ― that is, what the doc2vec model learned ― of each of the categories. Our model uses that comparison to decide what policy areas a press release belongs to. Then we add up the number of press releases in each category to generate the breakdown for each member of Congress on the site.
There are some topics that don’t fit well into this taxonomy. “Government operations and politics” includes a lot of bills but probably isn’t top-of-mind for any given member: ones like renaming post offices.
A more glaring example is bills about abortion. Bills in favor of expanding abortion rights are often categorized as “health” bills, because they might, for instance, require health insurance plans to cover the costs of abortions. Bills that seek to restrict abortion may be categorized under “crime and law enforcement” if they seek to criminalize late-term abortions. Because doc2vec “knows” that words about abortion refer to the same idea, whether they’re from pro-choice or pro-life legislators, a member who focuses on abortion might have a relatively high proportion of their press releases coded as both “crime and law enforcement” and “health,” regardless of their view on the issue.
Nevertheless, the Policy Priorities broadly match up with what a congressional expert might say each congressperson focuses on. We validated them by checking to see if congressional committee chairs have a Policy Priority score above the median for issues that their committee deals with ― and 78 percent of them do. And members of Congress from the West are those who focus most on regional topics like “public lands and natural resources.”
We also validated the topics assigned to each press release by examining press releases that mention a bill number (e.g. “H.R. 1234”) and using the Library of Congress’ assigned policy area for that bill as a “ground truth” for the topic of the press release. We then compared the model’s guesses of one to four policy areas to the policy area of the bill; 81 percent got the correct answer. This validation method isn’t perfect, in that most press releases don’t mention a bill number and, even among those that do, this “ground truth” may not actually match up with the real ground truth ― what a human being might say the press release is about. Some press releases talk about a facet of an issue that may not be what the Library of Congress chose to focus on in its classification. For instance, a bill to create a “workforce development tax credit” is classified as a bill about taxation ― perhaps because, on a fine-grain level, a piece of the tax code is what the law would change ― while a press release on the topic instead focuses on workforce development issues, that is, what the model sees as “labor and employment.”
In contrast to the Distinctive Topics feature we added in October ― which listed any topic under the sun ― from “email privacy” to “sage grouse” ― there are only 24 possible Policy Priorities, so you can compare one member to another.
We’re putting Policy Priorities in the gray “Representative Topics” box on every member’s page, and our pages for bills in each of the policy areas ― like this one, for bills about emergency management ― now include a list of the lawmakers who focus most on that area.
Here’s a more detailed and technical description of how we generate Policy Priorities:
The doc2vec algorithm, after being fed years of press releases from Congress, counts which words tend to occur in the same contexts and uses those to “learn” a model of the subset of the English language used in congressional press releases. It discovers that words that often appear together, but appear less often apart, are likely about the same topic; those that occur in almost the exact same contexts mean approximately the same thing. It assigns each word and each press release a numeric vector in 100-space where similar words have vectors that are close to one another. The relationships between these vectors mirror the relationships between words, so that if you were to ask the model who has the same kind of relationship to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that Rep. Nancy Pelosi has to Rep. Paul Ryan, it’ll answer Chuck Schumer ― the Democratic minority leader in the Senate. (Well, it’s a tie: Schumer and his predecessor in that position, Harry Reid.)
Once the model is trained, each press release’s document vector (or, for very new press releases that weren’t available at model-training time, an inferred document vector) is compared to the average word vector of the keywords for each category. Each press release is assigned one to four categories, with their weight proportional to the distance between the document vector and the averaged word vectors; we discard every category whose similarity is less than 80 percent of the top category’s.
And finally, adding up proportions of the categories for each lawmaker’s collection of press releases since 2014 gives us their Policy Priorities.
Our thanks to Justin Grimmer, Ines Montani and Laura Bronner for their help in discussing how to implement Policy Priorities.
For much of its 22-year existence, few outside the corner of science devoted to toxic chemicals paid much attention to the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health.
But now, a feud has erupted over the small academic publication, as its editorial board — the scientists who advise the journal’s direction and handle article submissions — has accused the journal’s new owner of suppressing a paper and promoting “corporate interests over independent science in the public interest.”
More is at stake than just the journal’s direction.
IJOEH is best known for exposing so-called “product defense science” — industry-linked studies that defend the safety of products made by their funders. At a time when the Trump administration is advancing policies and nominees sympathetic to the chemical industry, the journal seems to be veering in the same direction.
“There are many scientists who work for corporations who are honest scientists,” said David Michaels, the former head of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Obama. “What we’re concerned about here is the ‘mercenary science’ … that’s published purely to influence regulation or litigation, and doesn’t contribute to public health.”
“I think the IJOEH articles were threatening to that whole industry,” said Michaels, now an environmental and occupational health professor at George Washington University. While Michaels has never served on the journal’s editorial board, he has published an article in the journal and peer-reviewed others.
The journal was one of the relatively few places that provided an outlet for “scientists whose work is independent of the corporations that manufacture chemicals,” he said. “The silencing of that voice would be a real loss to the field.”
Last Thursday, the journal’s 22-member editorial board, along with eight former board members and the journal’s founding editor-in-chief, wrote a letter to the National Library of Medicine requesting disciplinary action against the academic journal’s new publisher, Taylor & Francis Group. In particular, they asked the Library of Medicine to rescind the journal’s listing in the Medline index, which could drastically reduce its scientific influence.
Academic journals are often judged by the reputations of those on their editorial boards, and this list includes a Columbia University dean, the president of the International Commission on Occupational Health and a scientist who helped establish the cancer classification system used by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
UK-based Taylor & Francis, one of the largest publishers of academic journals, acquired IJOEH and 169 other journals in 2015 by purchasing the journal’s original owner and publisher, Maney Publishing. According to the board’s letter, Taylor & Francis has done the following since taking over:
A Library of Medicine representative said they’re reviewing the board’s appeal.
Officials at Taylor & Francis declined to speak with ProPublica about the accusations in the letter and did not answer most of the questions we submitted in writing, referring us instead to two emails the publisher sent to the board in May.
In one, Ian Bannerman, manager director of Taylor & Francis Journals, insisted the company had no obligation to consult the board in choosing the journal’s new editor. “The responsibility for selecting and appointing an Editor-in-Chief lies with Taylor & Francis as the owner of the journal,” he wrote.
In the other, Bannerman responded to a question from the board about the publisher’s plans for “repositioning” the journal by saying Taylor & Francis would aim to boost its online readership, citation levels and “rapidity of publication.”
“We do not see this as ‘repositioning’ the journal as such,” Bannerman wrote, “but we do see it as a change of tack — putting in place long-term plans and goals for the journal’s future development, enhanced by our expertise in marketing, online publishing, and bibliometric analysis.”
Joseph LaDou, the founding editor-in-chief of IJOEH, launched the journal in 1995 after years of struggling to publish his own research. While studying the health hazards of workers making microelectronics for Silicon Valley in the 1980s, he couldn’t find a single U.S. journal to take his paper, he said, and ended up publishing in a Scandinavian public health journal. So when a Philadelphia-based publisher offered him a chance to start a journal for similar types of studies, he jumped on board.
The journal’s financial situation was always precarious. LaDou said he put $50,000 to $75,000 of his own money into IJOEH each year. Egilman, who became editor-in-chief in 2007, said he also paid out of pocket to keep the publication going. (Both editors worked on the journal part time and earned their income from university positions or from private practice as occupational health experts).
One of the biggest expenses was paying for help writing and editing manuscripts from developing countries, LaDou said. Among the international studies IJOEH published were a paper on how cooking fuel smoke affects respiratory health for women in Cameroon and another on a worker safety program for stevedores working in Cuba’s Port of Havana.
“I can’t think offhand of [another] pro-worker occupational safety and health journal,” LaDou said. “Some are better than others — less controlled — but there’s nothing to replace what IJOEH was doing, particularly on an international scale.”
Most occupational health experts work for industry in some way because there’s little independent funding, said Celeste Monforton, an environmental and occupational health lecturer at Texas State University. There are few academic positions, and the collapse of workers’ unions over the past few decades further decimated the number of labor-related jobs.
“There’s very little investment in occupational health research or looking at exposure to toxics,” said Monforton, who has never published in IJOEH or served on its board. Most of what’s known about toxics comes from original research funded by the federal government in the 1970s and 1980s, when scientists could coordinate with unions to study large groups of workers, she said.
Those studies focused on long-known hazards such as benzene, asbestos or beryllium, setting the stage for stronger workplace regulations. The results prompted a backlash from scientists working in “product defense,” who re-analyzed individual studies to conclude the product was less harmful than the government determined, Monforton said.
If journals are judged by the size of their readership, LaDou’s was a perpetual underdog. “It was never a large subscription,” he said. “You’re up against such a powerful machine in the industry-supported journals … I think the reputation of the journal was that of a non-industry publication that was widely respected, but only by a small segment of the readership community.”
Taylor & Francis has finally figured out a way for this journal to make money, he alleged. “By selling its soul.”
In the first months after Taylor & Francis purchased the journal in June 2015, neither the editorial board nor its editor-in-chief noted a major change.
Then, in early 2016, former board member Barry Castleman learned the publisher hadn’t renewed Egilman’s editing contract, which expired in December 2016.
Taylor & Francis hired Maier in early 2017 without consulting board members for their input, as is customary for scientific journals.
Maier is an environmental health professor at the University of Cincinnati and runs a program for research fellows at TERA (Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment), a consulting firm that analyzes chemical safety. TERA often works for industry clients such as the American Chemistry Council. Concerns about its conflicts of interest gained national attention after President Trump nominated Michael Dourson, TERA’s founder, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s chemical safety program.
In 2010, Maier co-authored a study on the risks of diacetyl, a butter flavoring that can cause lung damage in workers. Maier’s paper recommended an exposure limit of 200 parts per billion — up to 40 times higher than federal guidelines recommend. Egilman criticized Maier’s results in a 2011 IJOEH paper for not being protective enough. Maier has said that he has a research partnership with the federal scientists who suggested the lower limit. “This ongoing close relationship …does not suggest that government parties find my work lacks scientific credibility,” Maier said in a letter to the board.
Egilman said he didn’t expect to continue as editor-in-chief once his contract expired, but he and the board should have helped choose the new editor.
The publisher disagrees. Bannerman said Taylor & Francis sought advice from “a number of people we know in the field,” including one member of the IJOEH board. Bannerman explained the conversation with the board member occurred before the publisher began considering Maier.
The dispute over Maier’s hiring was first reported by Retraction Watch, a publication that tracks retractions in the academic publishing world, which went on to publish several items about unrest at the journal this spring.
Maier didn’t respond to a request for comment, but he wrote to the editorial board in May to address their concerns. He said more than 80 percent of his research funding comes from his university and the government.
“As for the future, I do not suggest any major changes in mission or scope of the journal,” he wrote. “The same types of scientific articles should continue to find a home in IJOEH.”
Taylor & Francis’ decision in March 2017 to withdraw Egilman’s paper, published about a year earlier, was just as controversial as appointing Maier — possibly more.
Journal publishers rarely interfere in editorial decisions, said Arthur Frank, an IJOEH board member and professor at Drexel University’s School of Public Health.
“I have never, ever been in a setting where the publisher, without engaging the editorial board, made a decision unilaterally to appoint a new editor, and also made decisions to retract an article,” he said. “Publishers are in the business of printing the journal. They’re not in the business of deciding what goes into the journal.”
Egilman’s paper critiqued consulting firms that conduct research that attempts to re-create historical worker exposure data for use in toxic tort litigation. Such studies are expensive and are typically commissioned by companies to defend themselves in court, said Michaels, the former OSHA administrator.
Part of Egilman’s article examined a 2005 study co-authored by consultant Dennis Paustenbach, which simulated historical exposures to conclude that the workers who manufactured Bakelite (an asbestos-containing plastic) for Union Carbide would not have been exposed to asbestos levels that violated health guidelines. Egilman also focused on Paustenbach’s role in promoting similar types of studies, pointing to a conference speech in which Paustenbach said they often made the difference between winning and losing court cases.
“My point was that OFTEN, litigation in the United States is scientifically unwarranted,” Paustenbach wrote in regards to his speech. “When anyone is inappropriately accused of a wrongdoing, they deserve a defense … We are only hired in cases that border on being ‘almost without foundation.’ So it is not surprising that most of our results show that the plaintiff claims are incorrect.”
While Egilman has served as an expert witness for plaintiffs injured by asbestos products — and is well-known for having leaked pharmaceutical company documents to a lawyer representing plaintiffs who alleged an antipsychotic drug gave them diabetes — he has also worked on the defense side. In his paper’s disclosure, he said he consulted for Union Carbide in the company’s 1984 toxic gas leak that killed thousands of residents in Bhopal, India.
It’s unclear what prompted Taylor & Francis to withdraw Egilman’s paper.
Egilman provided ProPublica with a copy of an August 2016 email a Taylor & Francis employee sent to a third party that said Paustenbach “has been in touch to request that we retract Egilman’s critique article.” It was part of a longer email chain that discussed Paustenbach’s 2005 paper and Egilman’s 2016 paper.
In an email to ProPublica, however, Paustenbach denied requesting the retraction, and copied a Taylor & Francis manager in his response. Paustenbach said the publisher began considering a withdrawal months before that August 2016 email, and that he had been primarily concerned with correcting falsehoods in Egilman’s paper.
“I have no axe to grind with Dr. Egilman,” Paustenbach said. “I believe in the importance of a lively discussion of legitimate scientific facts or beliefs. At times, I find that Dr. Egilman doesn’t deal in facts … Egilman’s article was so flawed as to be an embarrassment to any scientist; and perhaps that is why they did not publish it.”
ProPublica reached Sara Shuman, the journal’s former deputy editor who handled the paper’s submission process. She said Egilman’s paper was peer reviewed by at least two scientists. The journal uses a double-blind system to ensure that the author and peer reviewers don’t know each others’ identities, and Shuman acted as the intermediary.
Egilman was informed about the decision to withdraw his article in a March 2017 email from the publisher: “Due to an omission of oversight, the manuscript was not subject to our in-house review prior to its publication. Subsequently we have reviewed the content, and decided to withdraw it from publication.”
In a May 25 email to the board, Bannerman, the Taylor & Francis director, said the paper “was inadvertently published before the review process was completed, and was subsequently decided to be unsuitable for publication.”
The publisher declined to define “in-house review” or comment further.
“We have said all that we can about our reasons for withdrawing this article,” a company spokesperson said. The company publishes more than 2,500 journals, and our “role is to give the communities these journals serve a voice and a space to engage in debate about their research fields. We do not have any strategy to align our titles to be for or against any particular agenda.”
Egilman said the publisher never contacted him to discuss their concerns.
Maier, the new editor-in-chief, told the board he wasn’t involved with the decision. “I have no involvement or decision authority on any manuscripts that were accepted or published prior to my tenure with IJOEH,” he wrote in a letter.
Board members said the incident, compounded by what they considered the unsatisfying explanations for it, had spurred them to action.
“The idea of summarily withdrawing a paper that’s already been reviewed and published without any explanation is outrageous,” said Castleman, the former board member. “The implication is there was some kind of horrible scientific conduct that must have happened.”
In addition to its complaint to the National Library of Medicine, the board has appealed to the Committee on Publication Ethics, a UK-based charity that sets journal ethics guidelines.
The board’s letter alleged instances in which Taylor & Francis violated COPE guidelines, including one that states, the “relationship of editors to publishers … should be based firmly on the principle of editorial independence.”
COPE’s co-chairman Chris Graf, director of research integrity and publishing ethics at a large journal publisher called Wiley, said COPE doesn’t comment on individual cases. COPE has no regulatory authority and doesn’t conduct investigations, but can advise publications facing ethical issues.
On Thursday, the president of the Collegium Ramazzini, an international academy of occupational and environmental health experts, said his organization “strongly supports” the board’s letter to the Library of Medicine. The academy is an invitation-only group of 180 scientists who work to bring public health research to policymakers. Nearly half of the IJOEH board members are part of the academy, as are Michaels and Monforton. The group also includes Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and former OSHA administrator Eula Bingham. The organization is named after Bernardino Ramazzini, a 17th-century physician who’s often called the “father of occupational medicine.”
Taylor & Francis has offered to hold a teleconference with the editorial board, but Castleman said the board first wants more answers in writing.
“Had they been more forthcoming, we would have certainly been willing to talk to them,” he said. “It’s very cumbersome trying to find a convenient time for so many people all over the world to agree to be available for such a conference. I felt that they were just fobbing us off, stonewalling our plain questions.”
When ProPublica inquired about the status of the three other articles Taylor & Francis had considered withdrawing, the publisher said those studies “are no longer on hold and the authors are aware of their status” — but didn’t explain whether that meant the articles had been withdrawn. Egilman said one of them was a separate article he wrote on Union Carbide, and that he withdrew that paper from IJOEH two months ago so he could submit it to another journal. He said something similar had happened to another paper, about cigarette filters that contained asbestos.
Through the tumult, the journal has continued to publish, though the rate has slowed considerably this year. The IJOEH website shows the journal publishes four issues a year, with 10 to 12 articles per issue. Yet only five papers have been published in all of 2017. Three of the five were approved by Egilman and the other two by Maier. Both are about how employees’ mental health affects stress and well-being.
The journal’s “first full issue of 2017 will be published before the end of the year,” said a Taylor & Francis spokesperson, “with other issues to follow in early 2018.”
Earlier this fall, a leader of the busiest hospital for organ transplants in New York state — where livers are particularly scarce — pleaded for fairer treatment for ailing New Yorkers.
“Patients in equal need of a liver transplant should not have to wait and suffer differently because of the U.S. state where they reside,” wrote Dr. Herbert Pardes, former chief executive and now executive vice president of the board at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
But Pardes left out his hospital’s own contribution to the shortage: From 2013 to 2016, it gave 20 livers to foreign nationals who came to the United States solely for a transplant — essentially exporting the organs and removing them from the pool available to New Yorkers.
That represented 5.2 percent of the hospital’s liver transplants during that time, one of the highest ratios in the country.
Little known to the public, or to sick patients and their families, organs donated domestically are sometimes given to patients flying in from other countries, who often pay a premium. Some hospitals even seek out foreign patients in need of a transplant. A Saudi Arabian company, Ansaq Medical Co., whose stated aim is to “facilitate the procedures and mechanisms of ‘medical tourism,’” said it signed an agreement with Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans in 2015.
The practice is legal, and foreign nationals must wait their turn for an organ in the same way as domestic patients. Transplant centers justify it on medical and humanitarian grounds. But at a time when President Donald Trump is espousing an “America First” policy and seeking to ban visitors and refugees from certain countries, allocating domestic organs to foreigners may run counter to the national mood.
Even beyond the realm of health care, some are questioning whether foreigners should be able to access limited spots that might otherwise be available to U.S. citizens. For instance, public colleges compensate for reductions in state funding by accepting more foreign students paying higher tuition, and critics say in-state students are being denied opportunities as a result.
Dr. Sander Florman, director of the transplant institute at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, said he struggles with “in essence, selling the organs we do have to foreign nationals with bushels of money.”
Mount Sinai has not performed any transplants on patients who came to this country specifically for that purpose, but it has done so for international patients here for other reasons.
Between 2013 and 2016, 252 foreigners came to the U.S. purely to receive livers at American hospitals. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, the majority of foreign recipients were from countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Israel and United Arab Emirates. Another 100 foreigners staying in the U.S. as non-residents also received livers.
All the while, more than 14,000 people, nearly all of them American citizens, are waiting for liver transplants, a figure that has remained stubbornly high for decades. By comparison, fewer than 8,000 liver transplants were performed last year in the United States — and that was an all-time high. The national median wait time for a liver is more than 14 months, and in states like New York, the wait is far longer. (The wait for livers varies from one state to the next, depending on such factors as the number of organ donors, and the resourcefulness of organ procurement agencies.)
Many patients die before reaching the front of the line. In 2016, more than 2,600 patients were removed from waiting lists nationally because they either died or were too sick to receive a liver transplant.
Most transplant centers only serve American citizens or residents, either by happenstance or by design. Foreign transplants are concentrated among a handful of centers, including NewYork-Presbyterian, Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston (31 such transplants from 2013 to 2016), Ochsner (30), and Cleveland Clinic in Ohio (21).
“When you take people from other parts of the world and provide an organ transplant to them rather than someone who’s here, there’s a real cost, there’s a real life that’s lost,” said Jane Hartsock, a visiting assistant professor of medical humanities and health studies at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts. Hartsock and her colleagues wrote a journal article published last year saying foreigners should be last in line for a transplant.
NewYork-Presbyterian said it does not advertise its transplant program to foreign patients and that the majority of the transplants it performed on foreign nationals traveling to New York for that reason — 11 of the 20 — were on children under 18.
In a statement, the hospital and its academic partner Columbia University said they follow federal guidelines. “We strongly support efforts that aim to address the critical issue of equitable distribution of livers for transplant and are working closely with a wide range of stakeholders to help increase the number of organ donor registrations in New York State.”
A spokeswoman for the Cleveland Clinic, Eileen Sheil, said her hospital does not actively seek out foreign national business and has a “thoughtful and ethical approach that is well within the rules and aligned with our overall mission for taking care of patients.” Ochsner similarly said, “patients seek out Ochsner’s expertise because of our relentless commitment to provide the highest-quality, complex care.” Memorial Hermann did not respond to requests for comment.
To be sure, the proportion of available livers that go to foreigners is tiny — slightly less than 1 percent of liver transplants nationwide from 2013 to 16. The figure appears to be dropping further in 2017. Even if all recipients were Americans, wait times would still be substantial. Moreover, foreigners queue up on the waitlist like everybody else — although it may be easier for them, since they aren’t rooted in any particular state, to choose a hospital in an area with a shorter wait, such as Ochsner. And some Americans discouraged by the lengthy wait in this country have gone abroad for transplants.
The transplant figures in this article do not include transplants involving living donors, meaning a relative or friend who donates part of his or her liver to a patient. No one interviewed for this story said it is inappropriate for a foreign national to come to the U.S. for a procedure with a living donor.
There’s also an important distinction between giving an organ to a foreigner who happens to be in the U.S. — someone on a student visa or even an undocumented immigrant — and giving one to someone flying over just for surgery. Someone in the first group would be eligible to donate an organ if something happened to them in this country; someone in the latter group would not because livers must be transplanted quickly and there wouldn’t be enough time to ship them.
“If you live in the United States, no matter what your [citizenship] status is, you could potentially be an organ donor if you get hit by a car or something happens to you,” said Dr. Gabriel M. Danovitch, medical director of the kidney and pancreas transplant program at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, who previously led the UNOS international relations committee. “But if your home is somewhere else, a long way away, there’s no way that you can be a donor or your family or your friends could be donors.
“And in some respects, when you then come to the United States, you are using up a valuable resource that is in great shortage here.”
Foreign patients generally are not entitled to the same discounts as those with private insurance or Medicare, the federal insurance program for seniors and the disabled. In 2015, for instance, the average sticker price for a liver transplant at NewYork-Presbyterian was $371,203, but the average payment for patients in Medicare was less than one-third of that, $112,469, according to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs Medicare. In the case of Saudi Arabia, its embassy in Washington often guarantees payment for patients.
The topic is emerging now because the nation’s transplant leaders will meet next month to consider rewriting the rules governing how livers are distributed, giving programs in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and other areas greater access to organs from people who die in nearby regions. The proposal by a committee of the United Network for Organ Sharing, the federal contractor that runs the national transplant system, faces opposition from programs and regions that stand to lose organs. Pardes’ comments were posted in an online comment forum devoted to the proposal, which does not address the issue of transplants for foreigners.
UNOS said it has worked to get better data on foreigners that receive transplants in this country but ultimately, federal law doesn’t prohibit these transplants.
“This is an individual medical decision that the individual transplant hospital makes,” spokesman Joel Newman said. “If we addressed citizenship or residency as a particular reason for whether to accept a patient or not, then that would open up the door to lots of other nonmedical criteria — religion, race, political preference, any number of things that as a community we have decided from an ethical standpoint not to consider.”
UNOS has the authority to ask questions of transplant centers about surgeries on foreign nationals, but Newman said UNOS committees are still trying to figure out what information they would want, and, in any event, the transplant centers don’t have to answer the questions.
The federal rules governing the transplant system, written more than three decades ago, say organ allocation decisions must be based on medical criteria, which would exclude consideration of a person’s nationality or citizenship. While centers can perform as many transplants on foreigners as they want, many programs have tried to keep them below 5 percent of all transplants for each organ type. Until several years ago, 5 percent was the threshold above which UNOS could audit a program. No programs were ever formally audited, and the cutoff was eventually eliminated.
It’s time to revisit the rules, some lawmakers say.
“As a general rule, you’ve got to take care of Americans first as long as you have more demand than supply,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., whose state is home to Ochsner, a leader in transplants for foreign nationals. Kennedy said he would favor curbing transplants for foreigners, while creating a national board that could make exceptions. “But what you don’t want to get into, it seems to me, is subjective areas like well, ‘If this person could live an extra few years, what could they contribute to society?’”
There have been scandals in the past about foreigners and organ transplants. In 2005, a liver transplant center in Los Angeles shut its doors after disclosing that its team had taken a liver that should have gone to a patient at another hospital and instead had implanted it in a Saudi national. The hospital said its staff members falsified documents to cover up the incident.
The University of California, Los Angeles, came under fire in 2008 for performing liver transplants on a powerful Japanese gang boss and other men linked to Japanese gangs, and then receiving donations afterward from at least two of the men. The hospital and its surgeon said they do not make moral judgments about patients.
Further complicating matters is a 2008 document endorsed by transplant organizations around the world, called the Declaration of Istanbul, which seeks to eliminate organ trafficking and reduce transplant tourism internationally. One concern was that patients went to China and received transplants using organs from prisoners. (China said it was stopping the practice in 2015, but experts question whether that has happened.) Another concern was that if a country’s wealthiest or most powerful residents could get transplants overseas, its leaders may not have an incentive to set up a system of their own.
The non-binding declaration also says that there should be a ban on “soliciting, or brokering for the purpose of transplant commercialism, organ trafficking, or transplant tourism.” It was endorsed by UNOS and other national transplant groups.
Former Ochsner employees say they recall Saudi nationals coming for transplants, some wealthy and some not. A New Orleans bar posted a photo on Facebook in 2015 of a young man who brought his mom from Saudi Arabia for a transplant.
Ochsner said in a statement that it was proud of its liver transplant program, which is the nation’s largest. It said that it is willing to accept donated organs that other centers turn down for medical reasons, expanding its ability to help patients while keeping its survival rate high. And it noted that the median waiting time for its patients is only 2.1 months, far below the national median.
“UNOS does not have any restrictions preventing transplant for international patients and they are subject to the same guidelines as domestic patients,” the statement said.
Still, many American candidates for livers don’t make Ochsner’s waiting list. It refused to put Brian “Bubba” Greenlee Jr. on its list right after Christmas in 2015, because of his “poor insight into his drinking and lack of proper social support,” his medical records show. He had cirrhosis and died weeks later at age 45.
His sister, Theresa Greenlee-Jeffers, said Ochsner led her brother to believe that he would get a new liver. Her brother had stopped drinking and she had volunteered to take care of him after a transplant, but then the hospital suddenly reversed course.
“His last Christmas, he was given false hope that he was going to get a transplant. That’s not OK. You don’t play with somebody’s emotions like that,” Greenlee-Jeffers said.
Ocshner did not answer questions about Greenlee’s care but said in its statement, “Not every patient is a candidate for transplant.” It said its criteria are similar to those of other liver transplant centers.
“At Ochsner, we are caregivers, dedicated to providing our patients with high-quality care, improved outcomes and the gift of a second chance at life,” its statement said.
Greenlee-Jeffers wonders if Ochsner excluded her brother and other Americans to make room for foreigners willing to pay more. “It’s not OK,” she said. “We need to take care of our people here at home first. We don’t have enough of this to go around.”
Remember that time Trump’s lawyer Marc Kasowitz emailed, “Watch your back, bitch”?
Or that time when Don Jr. and Ivanka were almost charged with felony fraud?
You remember that because we found out.
The day President Trump took office, our reporters laid out the topics they were going to cover.
Now, a year after the election, we’ve asked five of our reporters to tell us about the stories they’ve done and what has stuck out.
From Alec MacGillis, who covers politics and government
As I was reporting a piece on how things were going at HUD under the leadership of Ben Carson, I was surprised to hear from sources inside headquarters that Ben Carson’s wife, Candy, and one of his sons, Ben Jr., had assumed a very visible role. But it was only when I covered Secretary Carson’s June trip to Baltimore that the full oddity of the family involvement became clear to me. On the first day of the visit, which was not disclosed to the public, I watched as Candy Carson, Ben Carson Jr., and even Ben Jr.’s wife joined in on meetings with the Baltimore mayor, city housing officials, and public health experts and authorities. The next day, at a community health fair in East Baltimore, I was amazed to watch as Ben Jr. served as an intermediary between his father’s top aides and two entrepreneurs seeking to pitch HUD on a business venture. We knew that the Trumps had made the White House a family affair. But it was only then dawning on me that that approach to governing had spread across the administration.
From Marcelo Rochabrun, who covers immigration
I’m always extra skeptical of stories that seem unbelievable — no matter how good the source is — but during the early months of the Trump administration, I found two of them.
The first was when I revealed that Trump’s original travel ban barred longtime permanent residents (green card holders) from traveling back to their home in the U.S. I had seen a draft of the executive order but was too skeptical to publish. Surely, I thought, the real ban would apply to new immigrants, not those who already live here. But when the final text of the order came out, there was the language. The administration confirmed this ban the next morning, only to reverse it hours later. In the meantime, we heard from dozens of immigrant families who found themselves suddenly split and unable to reunite.
A similar situation happened when I heard that a prominent anti-immigration activist was going to become the head of an agency that helps immigrants navigate the immigration system. It wasn’t a surprise she was joining the Trump administration. But I expected her job would be to craft new policies to implement Trump’s agenda — not to help immigrants navigate those policies. I texted a source who would definitely know the answer. Her response: “It is not a rumor. She starts on Monday.” And she did.
From Robert Faturechi, who covers money in politics
I've been covering the deregulation teams that President Trump ordered major federal agencies to create. What we’ve found is that appointees to these teams have deep industry ties. Some are reviewing rules that their previous private sector employers sought to weaken or kill. Others lobbied the agencies where they now work. Though potential conflicts of interest within government are certainly important, the revolving door in Washington is not exactly new. But what has been striking is the unusual secrecy around these teams, with many agencies refusing to answer basic questions or provide us with meeting calendars. Even learning the identities of appointees to these task forces has been a challenge. Which is why, by the way, we’ve been asking for your help in identifying them.
From Isaac Arnsdorf, who covers politics and the Trump administration
At the end of my first week at ProPublica, President Trump fired FBI Director Jim Comey. The investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was about to heat up. I was looking into the lobbying work of Trump’s ousted national security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn. Flynn had worked for Turkey, but I had found that his client had ties to Russia. Russian meddling in our politics didn’t stop on Election Day. After the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, I discovered the same social media bots that were active during the campaign were busy amplifying right-wing messages. Then, someone cyber-attacked our email.
Russia aside, I helped report on the people Trump is quietly installing throughout the government. One of them was put in charge of a federal program that he had previously gotten to guarantee a $22.5 million loan that failed. After my story, he stepped down.
From Jessica Huseman, who covers national politics
I've been reporting on Trump’s voter fraud commission, which he established to bolster his claims that three to five million people voted illegally (they did not). The commission has only met twice, but is facing eight separate lawsuits in federal court. Last week, one of its own commissioners sued the commission — alleging that it was leaving him out of crucial deliberations and allowing itself to be controlled by three of the most conservative (and voter fraud obsessed) members. It was a heavy development but not one I was surprised by. For months it has been clear the commission has made it its mission to be secretive. It is allowing the commissioners to use personal email addresses for commission work, which experts say isn’t legal.
It was just before 9 a.m. one day last July, and Noemi Martinez was on her way from one job interview to the next, running to catch a bus on Atlantic Boulevard in Jacksonville, Fla. Sprinklers from a nearby nursery were showering water onto the broken sidewalk in front of her, so Martinez walked out into the shoulder of Lee Road and pressed on.
Things were fairly urgent for Martinez, 52. An eviction notice had been pasted on her apartment door on Jacksonville’s West Side. A job was vital, and she’d just interviewed for work as a bus driver. Now, she was off to interview for a position as a customer service representative at Florida Blue, the health insurance giant.
Just then, Officer C.J. Brown of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office cruised by on his motorcycle. Martinez’s luck could hardly have been worse.
Brown wrote more pedestrian tickets than any other member of the sheriff’s force over the last five years. And so at 8:58 a.m. on July 19, 2017, he issued a $62.50 citation to Martinez: “Pedestrian failed to use sidewalk. Walking in roadway where sidewalks provided.”
“I’ve never been stopped for anything and you’re going to stop me for walking, when I was doing everything right,” Martinez recalled saying to Brown. “He stopped me as if I was a criminal.”
ProPublica and the Times-Union examined more than 2,200 pedestrian tickets issued to people in Jacksonville from 2012 to 2017, and found that 55 percent of them were issued to blacks despite the fact that the city’s population is just 29 percent African American. The sheriff’s office says the tickets are issued in an effort to limit pedestrian fatalities and combat crime.
Brown has fully embraced the ticket enforcement effort. Records show Brown issued 198 pedestrian tickets over five years, four times the total of the next most prolific officer. Slightly more than 60 percent of his tickets went to blacks, meaning one of every 10 blacks to receive a pedestrian ticket in Jacksonville from 2012 to 2017 was cited by Brown.
Top officials with the sheriff’s office said they had no issue with Brown’s performance, or whom he ticketed. The sheriff’s office said Brown wrote a large volume of tickets because he’d been assigned to special enforcement shifts as part of a state-funded effort to make Jacksonville safer for pedestrians.
However, the Times-Union and ProPublica discovered Brown’s work on those shifts could not have accounted for his number of tickets. Those special enforcement shifts were aimed at issuing warnings, not tickets. Officers working those shifts actually wrote modest numbers of tickets.
Presented with the findings, the sheriff’s office amended its explanation for Brown’s productivity, saying Brown was simply a traffic officer who was “good at his job.”
Brown would not agree to an interview.
Brown is one of 19 “motor officers” on the Jacksonville sheriff’s force. They operate on motorcycle and primarily perform traffic-related duties, such as traffic enforcement, traffic direction, and traffic crash investigations. There are also 29 other officers throughout the department that perform some similar traffic-related functions.
Brown joined the sheriff’s force in 1995, and worked first as a patrol officer in downtown Jacksonville. Even as a patrol officer, he received praise for his traffic enforcement. His personnel file indicates he joined the motorcycle traffic unit around 2005, and again he won praise from his superiors.
“He has shown advanced skills in traffic control, traffic enforcement, motorist safety and motorcycle operation,” reads one performance evaluation. “Officer Brown has shown the ability to determine the correct Traffic Statute or Criminal Statute to enforce an offense properly,” the evaluation continued.
“Officer Brown makes safety a primary focus. Officer Brown wears safety glasses, reflective jacket, bullet proof body armor, motorcycle boots, gloves and attends monthly motorcycle training classes. Officer Brown participates in numerous Police Motorcycle Rodeo, which have exercises stressing safe operation of the motorcycle. Officer Brown places with awards each rodeo.”
Brown has also been commended for his “commitment to the Broken Windows theory of policing.” The approach emphasizes enforcement of low-level “quality of life” ordinances as a way to limit public disorder and, as a consequence, deter the kinds of more serious crimes that can flourish in neglected communities.
Over the years, the execution of this philosophy of policing has come under considerable fire. Critics say the police sometimes have cracked down too hard on minor crimes in distressed neighborhoods, generating ill will and driving some poor residents into a cycle of debt and needless incarceration.
Brown’s personnel file suggests his approach has not always played well with residents. The brief summaries in the file include nine reports of citizen complaints — “improper action,” in one case, “traffic violation” in another, “unbecoming conduct” in another. The documents underlying the complaints were not available because they are purged after one year. The sheriff’s office declined to open an internal affairs investigation in all but two cases. In those two cases, the allegations were not sustained.
The Times-Union and ProPublica asked the sheriff’s office for comment on Brown’s record of complaints, but got no response.
The 18 other motor officers accounted for a combined 144 pedestrian tickets, well short of Brown’s total. The officers who wrote the second-most and third-most tickets gave out 50 and 39, respectively. They, too, issued them disproportionately to blacks (60 percent and 74 percent, respectively.)
A number of experts said the ProPublica/Times-Union analysis of pedestrian tickets in Jacksonville raised worries about selective enforcement, and noted that the cost of the tickets can hit poor residents especially hard. Sheriff Mike Williams has said there is no targeting of black residents, and that he and his office could not comment further until they had more fully reviewed the ProPublica/Times-Union findings.
Brown issued 121 of his 198 tickets to blacks. Nearly 80 percent of those went to black males. The violations included crossing against a red light, walking “upon a limited access facility” and, of course, walking in roadway where sidewalks are provided, the citation he issued Noemi Martinez, who was listed on the ticket as black, but who describes herself as black and Dominican.
But Brown’s most frequently given ticket was for failing to cross the street in a crosswalk. The ProPublica/Times-Union analysis showed that more than half of all such tickets given in Jacksonville are given in error. The mistakes appear to result from sheriff’s officers’ confusion about how to interpret the statute. Williams told ProPublica and the Times-Union he had asked the State Attorney's Office to look at the department’s enforcement of the statute for guidance.
Brown wrote 101 tickets for failing to cross in a crosswalk, and our analysis shows 50 of them were issued in error. Thirty of those went to blacks.
Martinez, the recipient of ticket #A8MO4TE, has struggled to find housing and job stability in recent years. By the time she got her apartment in the West Side, she had already been through all three of Jacksonville’s homeless shelters. The one-bedroom apartment was nearly without furniture when a reporter visited to interview Martinez. She had only a bed and two chairs, one of which she used as a nightstand.
The $62.50 ticket written by Brown, then, was no small thing. Any penalties she might accrue on her driver’s license could damage her chances at something like the bus driver’s job she had interviewed for that morning last July.
ProPublica and the Times-Union discussed Martinez’s ticket with Undersheriff Patrick Ivey, the sheriff’s office’s second in command. Ivey subsequently spoke with Martinez and opened an internal affairs investigation into Brown’s handling of the incident.
Martinez had multiple interviews with police, after which Ivey told her the office supported Brown’s actions. The investigators concluded she had failed to heed Brown’s instructions to move to the sidewalk on the other side of the road.
Martinez conceded she was told to get on the sidewalk by Brown, but she thought he was talking about the flooded one she was trying to avoid.
“What sidewalk?” she remembers asking Brown in exasperation. Martinez said she never felt unsafe, and wasn’t straying into traffic.
“I was just trying to walk from point A to point B,” she said.
Ivey acknowledged the discretionary nature of the whole episode. He said that Brown would not have ticketed Martinez if she had heeded his instruction to get on a sidewalk, rather than responding with a question.
Martinez is headed to court over the ticket. She is being represented pro bono by defense attorney Whitney Lonker.
As she was when she first met Martinez, Lonker remains dumbstruck by the effort to ticket poor people for pedestrian violations.
Lonker, who is white, said her own encounter over a jaywalking infraction went a lot differently, something she chalked up to her race and seeming greater affluence.
Lonker said she was crossing the street outside the Duval County Courthouse when a Jacksonville sheriff’s officer notified her she technically committed an infraction by not using the crosswalk.
It was a flirty exchange, Lonker said.
“I was crossing the street, and he laughed and looked at me and said, ‘I could write you a jaywalking ticket,’ and I laughed and said, ‘I know, right!’”
There was no ticket.
The sheriff’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Lonker’s account.
When we think of the harm that befalls soldiers during wartime, specific images come to mind. The fallout from scientific experiments — especially those carried out by our own government — isn’t one. But that was the reality of tens of thousands of military men in the 1940s, who were poisoned with mustard gas by the U.S. government to see how their bodies would react. It took decades to bring to light the vast scope of the experiments, and it couldn’t have been completed without the work of two NPR journalists.
For years, veterans were sworn to secrecy about the tests, prohibited from even discussing them with doctors. While this curtain was lifted in the 1990s, and Congress and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs promised medical care and services, many vets didn’t get it. NPR reporter Caitlin Dickerson and research librarian Barbara Van Woerkom found records for and called hundreds of vets who were used in these experiments, and their work paved the way for the men — who are now well into their 80s — to receive the care and recognition they needed.
Dickerson was new to the investigative desk when she began working with Van Woerkom, who’d been gnawing around the edges of the story for years. She said she understood right away the urgency of what Van Woerkom was sitting on. “There was also this element of time, because most of the men who were used in these tests had died, and those who were still around were in their 80s or 90s,” she said. “It felt sort of dire.”
Dickerson started calling them. Because the men were older, communication was sometimes difficult. But they finally started opening up. They told her about their skin flaking off, about chronic health problems they couldn’t fully report to their doctors. Many hadn’t even told their wives about the experiments.
“Some of them said, ‘I just can’t believe that the government did this to me. I trusted them. I trusted that they weren’t going to hurt me,’” said Van Woerkom.
The pair set off to see if they could prove, systematically, that the government failed to keep the promise to get these vets care. They dug through the VA’s medical benefits database and found a pattern: In denied claim after denied claim, the VA asked the vets for more proof that they were actually involved in the experiments — proof they didn’t have, because the tests were classified.
The journalists found more disturbing information. In testing to see how different races would react to the poison, the military used Japanese-American soldiers as stand-ins for enemy soldiers — something Dickerson said struck her. “Some of them were recruited out of internment camps,” she said, only to be used “as guinea pigs on the frontlines of a chemical war.”
The journalists asked the VA why it had contacted only 610 veterans in the 20 years since the tests were made public, and officials said they’d done the best they could. But in only two months of research, Dickerson and Van Woerkom had found double that number.
Their reporting brought about change. After the story aired, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., proposed a bill requiring the VA to reexamine all claims made by vets used in mustard gas experiments. It was signed into law last August.
If the Freedom of Information Act were a person, who would it be? That’s a real question I asked our newsroom this week, because that’s the kind of thing I randomly think about.
Really, though, I asked this of our newsroom because I genuinely want you to care about FOIA. And I thought that if I could get inside our reporters’ heads — to understand what they envision when that acronym comes up, be it Dwight from “The Office” or whoever — I could help you put a metaphorical face on a law that is not only fundamental to the work we do as investigative journalists but is also essential to our democracy. Plus, if you have a face to associate with FOIA, maybe that would help it stick in your brain.
If you’re unfamiliar, the Freedom of Information Act is a law that allows anyone — yes, including you — to request records and documents from the government. This could mean, for example, a homeowner filing a request for records of government spending in their town, a lawyer filing for environmental assessments of a property or a journalist filing for records of incident reports in a prison. Although filing a FOIA request seems pretty straightforward — technically, all you need to do is send a letter or email to the FOIA officer detailing your request — we can vouch for the fact that, sometimes, the process can be anything but.
We at ProPublica Illinois are interested in exploring how FOIA plays out here in Illinois, and we’re particularly interested in hearing from non-journalists about how they’ve used FOIA. So, if you’ve got something to tell us, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So, let me tell you about some of the work we would not have been able to accomplish in the last month if not for FOIA. And then you’ll hear about some of the bizarre characters that come to mind for the reporters of those stories when they hear the word “FOIA.”
In our story about the city losing track of police discipline cases so officers escape punishment, a video of the 911 calls made by Brandon Whitehead, and the officer who pulled him over one night in 2006, was created through FOIA. The calls document the incident, which later led to Brandon filing a complaint against the officer, who did not serve his punishment until 11 years later. Reporter Jodi S. Cohen told me her FOIA request for other 911 calls was originally denied, and she had to argue to get them. So Jodi’s answer to the question, “If FOIA were a person, who would it be?” is this: “Anna from ‘Frozen.’ She gets ignored and is in the shadows but she has a lot of power.”
Mick Dumke, who reported our investigation into low-level gun traffickers, told me FOIA is “one of those things you use so often, you often forget” how much material in a story can come from it. In his story, he used FOIA to get records on prosecutions from the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and police reports on people associated with the case. “The trick is to figure out how to use it,” Mick told me. “I usually think of it as a public shaming device. If agencies or individuals don’t comply with the FOIA, we let everyone know.” So, here’s who comes to mind for Mick: “Basically a politician who’s gone on the record promising democracy. We know what it says, and now we have to find ways to apply pressure so everyone around it follows through.”
I thought this was too fun of a question to just keep in our newsroom, so I put the question out on Twitter, as I tend to do. Here’s what other people said:
Clearly, there’s some resentment out there when it comes to pinning down the ever-elusive FOIA. And if you’ve made it this far in the article, congratulations, your nerdiness has been confirmed. So if you’ve got something to say about the FOIA experiences in your life (or just want to share how you imagine FOIA as a person), here’s your big chance.
’Til next time,
Two New Jersey lawmakers have introduced a bill to overhaul how the state examines deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth, proposing one of the most sweeping maternal mortality review processes in the country.
Under the legislation introduced last week, hospitals and clinicians would face new requirements to report maternal deaths to state regulators, families would play a much greater role in understanding what happened, and the findings would be used to push for adoption of life-saving treatment protocols and other concrete policies to protect mothers and babies.
State Sen. Joseph Vitale said the legislation, S3452, was inspired by a ProPublica and NPR report on the case of Lauren Bloomstein, a neonatal nurse who worked at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, New Jersey — and who died there from childbirth complications in 2011.
The ProPublica-NPR piece, part of our Lost Mothers project on maternal deaths and near-misses, highlighted a number of systemic problems in the way hospitals throughout the U.S. handle obstetric emergencies and sometimes prioritize the health and safety of infants over the well-being of their mothers.
Other ProPublica pieces have described widespread inadequacies in how maternal deaths are monitored and investigated in New Jersey and elsewhere. The new bill would address many of those problems.
New Jersey’s record on maternal health has long been mixed — a 2010 report by Amnesty International ranked it 35th among the states for its rate of pregnancy-related deaths. According to the most recent data, black mothers in the state are five times likelier to die from maternal complications than white mothers are.
The state already has a maternal mortality review committee in place to analyze deaths that occur within a year of the end of pregnancy. But the panel has little authority, it doesn’t assess the preventability of deaths, and its sporadic reports have had little impact.
Under the new bill, a 31-member commission would scrutinize maternal deaths in much greater depth, trying to understand why a death occurred, whether it was preventable and how those lessons might be translated into systemwide reforms. The commission would have the authority to review all existing reports on maternal deaths as well as patient and hospital records. It could also conduct its own investigations, hold public hearings and issue subpoenas. It would be able to interview witnesses, including members of a woman’s family — something no other maternal mortality review committee in the U.S. currently does.
“You need that [perspective],” said Vitale, a Democrat from Middlesex County who is the longtime chair of the Senate health committee. The underlying causes of maternal deaths “are not always just clinical. That information [from family members of a deceased woman] can a matter a lot.” The goal is “to really drill down into these issues and see what can we do to improve care.”
The commission would also develop two mechanisms for reporting maternal deaths to the New Jersey Department of Health for further investigation —a mandatory process for health care providers and medical examiners and a voluntary process for relatives and other interested parties. Both would be confidential.
That pleases Larry Bloomstein, an orthopedic surgeon who watched his wife perish from a form of severe preeclampsia, or pregnancy-induced hypertension, six years ago. After Lauren’s death, Larry was frustrated to discover that many maternal deaths didn’t result in investigations or even autopsies. “The one thing I think is so important is that every maternal death gets the attention it deserves and that we try to review it and figure out what the error was and what could have been done to alter that,” he said.
The commission would report its findings to state health officials, lawmakers and the governor’s office once a year, as well as to the hospitals and providers involved. The findings would be used to identify and promote practices — for example, protocols to treat preeclampsia, hemorrhage and blood clots — that could save lives. The commission would also work with the health department to develop education and training programs for doctors, nurses and other practitioners.
All names and other identifying information would be kept confidential and none of the findings could be used in malpractice lawsuits or other litigation.
Under the bill, the Maternal Mortality Review Commission could also elect to investigate cases involving life-threatening complications (also known as severe maternal morbidity), using data and information from patient registries.
“It is unacceptable that maternal death rates have risen in the United States despite vast improvements in medical science and technology,” M. Teresa Ruiz, a Democrat from Essex County who cosponsored the bill, said earlier this week. “As a nation we have to address this issue, but we have a responsibility in New Jersey to improve outcomes for mothers by embarking on an aggressive campaign to address maternal care. This commission is key to that process.”
A Florida Times-Union/ProPublica analysis showed that law enforcement in Duval County, Florida, gives black people a higher proportion of pedestrian tickets than does any other large county in the state. Black pedestrians are nearly three times as likely to receive a ticket as nonblack pedestrians. Our analysis also showed that residents in the three poorest ZIP codes in Jacksonville (Duval County’s largest city) were nearly six times as likely to receive a ticket as were residents of the city’s 34 other ZIP codes.
We also found that the most common ticket type, “crossing the street while not in a crosswalk,” was issued in error more than half of the time.
The Jacksonville sheriff’s office contends that pedestrian tickets are an essential tool in reducing pedestrian deaths from vehicle collisions. But critics, including consultants hired by the city, disagree, saying that only changes to the city’s dangerous layout and infrastructure will improve pedestrian safety. A ProPublica analysis of crash location data did not find a strong relationship between where pedestrian tickets are issued and where crashes involving pedestrian fatalities occur.
Pedestrian tickets can be used to establish probable cause to search people, according to the sheriff’s office second-in-command. Our analysis found that 7 percent of pedestrian tickets came with additional criminal charges, most commonly drug possession, based on court records — likely an underestimate, based on an anecdotal review of the citations.
We obtained Traffic Citation Accounting Transmission data from Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers through the Florida Sunshine Law. This dataset contains all tickets issued in the state of Florida from January 2012 to July 2017. Our analysis looked at pedestrian tickets as specified in Florida Statutes (see below for the list of statutes we used in our analysis). We narrowed our data to Duval County because of the completeness of its reporting and because black residents are ticketed at a higher rate there than in any other large county in Florida. This dataset covered 2,232 pedestrian tickets. We removed 24 tickets issued to cyclists, producing a dataset of 2,208 pedestrian tickets.
In the case of 746 tickets, the location where the ticket was issued was not reported in the data provided by Duval County. For these, we obtained the original citations, each as an individual PDF, and recorded the written address. We geocoded those addresses to approximately the block level. For 107 addresses, there was not sufficient information to obtain a latitude and longitude. We excluded those tickets from our geographic analysis.
The pedestrian ticket dataset included the recipient’s race, date of birth, gender and residence to the ZIP code level.
We received Pedestrian Crash Reports from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. This data covered crashes in Duval County from January 2012 to July 2017. Our analysis focused predominantly on the 191 crashes involving pedestrian fatalities. Due to the small sample size, we also looked at crashes involving severe injuries to pedestrians, defined in the data as “incapacitating.” There were 558 such crashes in the time period.
The Pedestrian Crash Report did not include the race of the pedestrians killed. To obtain race, we used a two-step process: First, we matched pedestrians in the crash report with individuals in disposition records and in Duval County’s Summary Report system, using first and last name and date of birth. In cases where we couldn’t find a match in the court data, we used the race identified on death certificates. We were able to determine race in 190 of 194 cases of pedestrian fatality. We did not determine the race of severely injured pedestrians.
We obtained disposition records from Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers and court records from the Duval Clerk of Courts Summary Report System data to look at the status of cases resulting from pedestrian tickets.
We also received data from the Jacksonville Transportation Authority on bus stop accessibility, including the distance to nearest crosswalk and the presence of a sidewalk.
Finally, we used data from the 2011-2015 American Community Survey 5-year estimates (ACS) for demographic information including race and household income. We used county data to calculate incidence risk ratios. The data on pedestrian tickets includes the ZIP code of ticketed pedestrians. We used ACS data at the ZIP code level to better understand their communities. For analysis related to the location of tickets issued and crashes we used ACS data at the census-tract level.
Our analysis of pedestrian ticket demographics consisted largely of summary statistics from the Traffic Citation Accounting Transmission dataset. To test the likelihood of different populations to receive a pedestrian ticket, we computed the incidence risk ratio and conducted a chi-square test. Results showed an increased likelihood for black and low-income pedestrians to be ticketed, and were statistically significant.
To test the relationship between locations of pedestrian tickets and fatal crashes involving pedestrians, we looked at the number of each by census tract in Duval County. The Pearson’s correlation coefficient between the two was 0.37, demonstrating a weak relationship. We also tested the correlation between pedestrian tickets and crashes that killed or severely injured a pedestrian. The correlation coefficient was 0.57, demonstrating a moderate relationship.
To research the sentencing status of pedestrian tickets, we combined the Traffic Citation Accounting Transmission dataset and disposition records on the common citation number, which is unique to each citation. More than half of the tickets did not appear in disposition records, which Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers officials told us meant the tickets were unresolved. We verified this by looking up a random sample of unresolved tickets on the Duval County Clerk of Court’s Clerk Online Resource e-Portal.
We used the Duval Clerk of Courts Summary Report System data to understand how often criminal charges were brought in tandem with a pedestrian citation. There was not a common identifier between courts system data and pedestrian ticket data, so we looked at clerk filings that included pedestrian tickets over the same time period as our pedestrian ticket dataset, January 2012 to July 2017. To determine where additional charges were brought alongside pedestrian tickets, we made a subset of the data including only court cases that included both a pedestrian statute violation and another non-pedestrian criminal offense.
Finally, we investigated the enforcement of one statute in particular: “316.130(11) Between adjacent intersections at which traffic control signals are in operation, pedestrians shall not cross at any place except in a marked crosswalk.” We used Google Street View to determine whether traffic signals existed between adjacent intersections for each ticket issued. The majority of Google Street View images we looked at were taken in 2015. For tickets given since then we also referred to a list from the City of Jacksonville and Florida Department of Transportation of street lights installed since 2012. Our investigation found, at minimum, half of the tickets were given in error because there were not traffic signals between the adjacent intersections.
Maurice Grant was cited on a Tuesday at around 4:30 p.m., just a block south of the federal courthouse where he works. He stepped into the road against the red hand. Grant declined to comment on his experience, saying he avoids airing issues out in the media. He did, however, confirm that he received the citation. Grant added that a quote written on the ticket accurately captured his response to getting cited: “You shouldn’t be messing with people who know how to cross the street.” Grant was ticketed by Officer Reinaldo Coll Jr., a 35-year veteran of the force.
Brianna Nonord, who was 13 at the time, ended up in handcuffs over a pedestrian ticket.
As she was walking home from school, Nonord attempted to cross Wilson Street in the Moncrief neighborhood.
Officer Melissa Godbee later wrote in her report that she had to slam her brakes to avoid hitting Nonord.
Undersheriff Patrick Ivey said Nonord was arrested for resisting arrest without violence because she didn’t stop when Godbee told her.
The young girl was handcuffed and taken to the juvenile facility in downtown Jacksonville even after Lorina Nonord, Brianna’s mother, showed up and asked the officer to release her daughter. Godbee refused, Lorina Nonord said, and told her she would have to pick up Brianna downtown.
At the root of all of this was an invalid ticket. Godbee cited Nonord for crossing outside the crosswalk at a location that a Times-Union/ProPublica analysis shows is not applicable to that specific pedestrian statute.
John Kendrick, a Jacksonville truck driver, was trying to park his 18-wheeler in a leased parking spot when he came across an area taped off by police.
The officer regulating traffic, J. L. Kahre, would not let Kendrick pass. They got into a dispute.
Kendrick, who is diabetic and needed to get home to eat, eventually parked his truck in the median and called 911. The dispatcher told him to get the number listed on Kahre’s cruiser. But when Kendrick stepped off the sidewalk, the officer pointed his Taser at him and ordered him to the ground. He then arrested him for a pedestrian violation.
“Anything he could put on me to hurt me, he tried,” Kendrick said. “Anything he could do to take more money out of my pocket, he tried.”
The officer repeatedly told him he “wasn’t going to have no job tomorrow,” according to Kendrick. He was detained in the backseat of the patrol car for several hours, during which Kendrick said he watched Kahre let a white truck driver pass through the same police tape.
Kahre testified in a deposition taken for Kendrick’s civil case against the city that he could not recall whether that happened or not. He said Kendrick repeatedly failed to comply with orders to get back on the sidewalk.
In the aftermath of his arrest, Kendrick hired a lawyer, Andrew Bonderud. The city settled the case for $10,000, while not admitting wrongdoing.
Devonte Shipman was walking with a friend in Jacksonville’s Arlington neighborhood when a sheriff’s officer told them they had crossed against the red hand.
Shipman said he at first declined to stop for the officer, J.S. Bolen, because he didn’t think he had done anything wrong.
When the officer pulled over and ordered Shipman to stop, the young man took out his phone and began recording video. He said he did so to prevent the situation from escalating.
In the video, Bolen is visibly agitated and scolds Shipman for his infraction, threatening to take him to jail. Bolen also gave Shipman an erroneous ticket for not having a driver’s license on him, a law that only applies to motorists.
The ticket was dropped after Shipman’s video went viral. Three police cruisers ended up responding to Shipman’s infraction.
During the stop, Shipman said an officer told him he was stopped just to make sure he didn’t have any guns, knives or drugs on him.
One officer in the video, who was not identified, can be heard questioning why Shipman’s friend is wearing a hoodie. Shipman fought his jaywalking ticket in court, but was eventually adjudicated guilty.
Under Florida law, police officers can ticket pedestrians walking on the “wrong side” of a road that doesn’t have sidewalks.
On the day after Christmas in 2012, Wingate was walking on a residential street with no sidewalks when a Jacksonville sheriff’s officer asked to speak with him. Wingate declined. He told the officer he was in a rush.
Wingate went on his way without realizing that the officer, D.F. Will, had pulled over in his cruiser and started combing through his statute book to double-check that the 35-year-old was violating a pedestrian statute by being on the right-hand side of the road.
The officer returned about five minutes later. Wingate’s account was captured on a 911 call he made to the Sheriff’s Office in the midst of the stop.
Will pulled his car around, Wingate tells the dispatcher, and again asked him to stop.
“And I’m saying, ‘For what? I’m in a rush,’” Wingate says in the 911 call. “Then he gonna get out of his car, run up and grab me, and punch me in my fucking jaw.”
Wingate tells the dispatcher the officer’s name. Within moments, the officer can be heard commanding Wingate to put his phone down. A scuffle ensues.
“What did I do? Nothing,” Wingate said, “Walking down the street, minding my business … He stopped me for no reason.” In addition to getting hit with a ticket, and hit in the face, Wingate was also charged with resisting without violence. He hired lawyer Andrew Bonderud, sued the city, and received a $9,500 settlement. The city did not admit wrongdoing.
Brelan Shoemo is from Jacksonville, but his work selling event tickets, shirts and other wares takes him all over the South, from Austin, Texas, to Charlotte, North Carolina.
On the day he was arrested, the Jacksonville Jaguars were hosting the Green Bay Packers. It was still early in the morning, around 9 a.m., on a Florida-hot September day when Shoemo encountered Officer Tim Terrell on the north side of the stadium, near the Tailgate Bar.
The then-32-year-old was holding a sign advertising tickets for sale. Traffic was sparse near the backroads of the stadium, he recounted, but cars were pulling up asking about tickets. Shoemo said Terrell approached him and his middle-aged business partner, calling them “boys,” and telling them they couldn’t be selling tickets in that area. They agreed to leave.
A short while later, Shoemo returned, trying to cross the road toward another set of parking lots. He said Terrell approached and began cursing at them. Shoemo said he asked to speak with the officer’s supervisor.
That’s when Terrell “flipped,” Shoemo said, wrenching his arm behind his back and pushing him back in the direction of Terrell’s superior. Once he was in front of the sergeant, Shoemo found him no more sympathetic. Terrell arrested Shoemo for “resisting without violence.”
“What crime was committed or what charge was committed for me to even resist in the first place?” Shoemo said. “Even when he chicken-winged my arm, I didn’t fight it. I didn’t push him off me. I didn’t do anything to make the situation worse because I know, being a minority, what can of worms that’s going to open.”
In Terrell’s police cruiser, Shoemo said he first learned of his pedestrian infraction while watching the officer fill in the police report. On a 90-degree day, Terrell rolled up the windows and cut the AC off in the back as he transported him — the long way — to the pre-trial detention facility, Shoemo said. He ended up having to spend the night in jail.
The charges were dropped after Shoemo hired a lawyer. He filed an Internal Affairs report and offered witnesses, but the Sheriff’s Office declined to open an investigation.
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment on the specific claims made by Shoemo.
Michael Anderson was enjoying some vacation from work when he visited his mother’s house on Jacksonville’s East side. She asked him to go to the store to pick up some items. His mother lives about two blocks from the neighborhood corner store. Anderson said he noticed police as he was walking to the store, but paid them no mind. As soon as he crossed the street, he said the officers immediately pulled up and asked for I.D.
They said it was because he didn’t look familiar to the area. When Anderson questioned why he was being stopped, one of the three officers told him they could write him a ticket for jaywalking, Anderson said. Anderson told the police, “You’re just fucking with me for no reason.”
Unprompted, Anderson said, an officer reached for his pockets to search him.
“He didn’t ask for permission or nothing, that’s why I pushed his hand away,” Anderson said. The officer then told Anderson he was “resisting” and that by pushing the officer’s hand away he could be charged with battery on a law enforcement officer. Anderson described the officer who reached for his pockets as a short white man who then asked why he was giving them “so much attitude.”
“I said, ‘Why are You all bothering me? You’re only harassing me because I’m a black male, with dreads in this high crime area. If you check my I.D. you’ll see I grew up in this area.” The officers ran his name and didn’t find anything of interest, Anderson said. One of the officers, Anderson recalled, asked why he felt he could talk to “police like that.”
“I said, ‘Why police got to be assholes and stereotyping?” When the shorter officer gave him back his I.D., Anderson said the two exchanged looks.
“He said, ‘Oh, you act like someone is supposed to be scared of a 30-year-old punk like you,’” Anderson said. Anderson responded by saying, “One day when you ain’t in that uniform.” The officer asked if Anderson was threatening him. Anderson said he just repeated his statement.
“He said, ‘Well, you can have a nice day, nigger,’” Anderson recalled. “And I said, ‘You can, too, cracker,’ and I walked off.”
Anderson said all three officers who stopped him were white. Anderson said he doesn’t remember the name of the officer who reached for his pocket and called him a nigger. But the officer who wrote him the ticket was Steven D. Vereen.
Anderson contested the ticket and none of the officers showed up for court. The ticket was dismissed.
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment on the specific claims made by Anderson.