This story was co-published with Investigative Post.
Rita McCarthy could finally relax.
After months of speculation and negotiation, strategy sessions and late-night phone calls, Corning Inc. announced in the spring of 2013 that it would expand its factory in Erwin, New York, where McCarthy serves as town supervisor.
Corning is the largest employer in Steuben County, within the economically struggling region of western New York that stretches along the Pennsylvania border, known as the Southern Tier. Assuaging McCarthy’s fears that it would build the factory overseas, Corning promised to invest $250 million in the facility and create 250 jobs. In exchange, the company received a package of state and federal tax credits, local property tax breaks, discounted power and grants worth a combined $85 million.
“We were working every angle we possibly could,” McCarthy said. “It was a fight.”
All told, each job will cost taxpayers $340,000. Whether that’s a good deal for New York depends on who you’re talking to, but such subsidies for upstate businesses are increasingly common.
We’re tracking the state’s growing portfolio of business subsidies. See the project.
New York is spending more than ever in the name of economic development — $8.6 billion last fiscal year alone, according to an estimate by the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan group that tracks state spending. That money is coming under greater scrutiny after complaints from state legislators over a lack of transparency in how it’s given out, criticism from state oversight agencies and the indictments of top state officials and developers involved in projects in Buffalo, Syracuse and Albany.
Only a handful of companies have received more in recent years than Corning. It was awarded $113 million in state and local subsidies between 2009 and 2015, according to an analysis of 12 state economic development programs by Investigative Post, ProPublica and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
The company has used the leverage that comes with being a major employer in a struggling region to secure tax breaks on projects that were in little danger of going anywhere else, such as a child care center and a parking ramp for employees.
The subsidies represent a bonus for a company that’s already flourishing, with $9.4 billion in revenues and $1.5 billion in profits last year. Its share price has soared 45 percent in the past year and is trading at a five-year high.
G. Thomas Tranter Jr., president of Corning’s economic development arm, said that the $113 million figure “far exceeds reality,” but declined to provide a different number, arguing that “it is inaccurate to assign monetary values to incentives.”
The company is also eligible to benefit from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2014 elimination of corporate income tax on manufacturers, as well as a property tax credit introduced that year.
Corning illustrates the tradeoffs that come with subsidy deals. Critics argue that subsidy programs sap state and local budgets to create too few jobs, at too high a cost. Still, unlike some high-profile recipients of New York’s tax incentives, Corning has a longstanding commitment to the state and to its eponymous hometown in the Southern Tier.
Corning has also mastered the art of obtaining subsidies.
With operations in 17 countries, the company can always hint that it might put new facilities elsewhere if New York doesn’t offer enough. And New York isn’t the only state prepared to pay up — Corning has also received subsidies for facilities in North Carolina, Kentucky and Maine.
Economic development agencies have given Corning not only subsidies, but a voice in shaping economic development policy in the Southern Tier. One Corning executive serves on the governing board of the local industrial development agency; another co-chairs the Southern Tier Regional Economic Development Council.
The regional council has recommended that Corning receive state grants, while the IDA has granted tax abatements to around half the company’s properties in the Corning area. That saves the company approximately $1.5 million a year in property taxes alone — money that would otherwise go to the local school district city, and county.
Still, for Steuben County and the Southern Tier, the risk of Corning cutting back outweighs the cost of the subsidies the company receives.
“Any time you have a large surviving employer in a depressed regional economy, it’s very hard for public officials to say no,” said Greg LeRoy, executive director of subsidy research group Good Jobs First.
Company executives say taking advantage of subsidy programs is simply part of staying competitive.
“At the end of the day, we have a fiduciary responsibility to our shareholders,” Tranter said.
In Corning, it’s hard to tell where the town ends and the company begins.
Founded in 1851 as a glassmaker — famously providing light bulbs for Thomas Edison — Corning Inc. now makes high-tech products like optical fiber, ceramics for catalytic convertors and the extra-strong glass used in smartphones and tablets. Corning is one of only two Fortune 500 companies headquartered in upstate New York.
The Corning area is a rare bright spot in the Southern Tier economy, which continues to lag behind most of the state. While other companies have downsized or left the region altogether, Corning has not only stayed but continued to add jobs, delivering on the promises made in exchange for state and local assistance.
More than half of the 1,500 U.S. jobs Corning has added since 2009 have been in New York, where the company’s workforce currently stands at 5,800 — mostly in the Corning area. Most of the company’s job growth, however, continues to take place abroad; only one-third of Corning’s 35,700 employees work in the U.S.
State and local governments across the country have long offered financial incentives to businesses to relocate or expand operations, although experts caution that taxpayers are unlikely to break even on deals where the cost of each job saved or created runs to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
New York hands out tax breaks and other benefits to companies that have run afoul of federal regulators. Read the story.
Locals focus less on what the company gets and more on what it gives.
As well as being an anchor of the regional economy, Corning is a good corporate citizen, donating to local charities and schools and investing in the city’s business district.
In downtown Corning, where the company’s sleek glass office buildings line the Chemung River, its influence is unmistakable. Unlike the faded main drags of so many upstate towns, the quaint storefronts along Market Street are bustling, buoyed by the six-figure average salaries of company employees.
At one end of the street is a hotel complex the company paid to renovate in the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes, which devastated the area in 1972. At the other is a giant Wegmans grocery store, which Corning executives helped bring to town in the 1980s — the first branch in the Southern Tier. At the time, some shareholders criticized the company for spending too much on community investment.
Corning’s interest in maintaining the quality of life in the area goes beyond philanthropy; the company’s former CEO said it was “simply good business.”
“In a small town, if the company doesn’t take a large stake in maintaining the quality of the community, we won’t attract the right kind of professionals,” said Daniel Collins, the company’s vice president of corporate communications.
Across the country, local officials like Rita McCarthy make the same argument to explain why taxpayers should subsidize large, successful corporations: Otherwise, they will move, or expand, elsewhere.
“Those jobs were going to China, were it not for the incentives,” McCarthy said of the $85 million Corning received to expand its factory in Erwin.
Her fears may have been justified.
As with most major expansions, Corning hired a site selection consultant to find out how much competing communities were prepared to offer in financial incentives. Company executives said that China, a key market for the product made at the factory, also offered a lucrative subsidy package for the plant. The company has 11 facilities in China and Taiwan that employ roughly 5,000 people, almost as many as in New York.
And most of the company’s recent job growth has taken place outside the U.S. Of the 12,200 jobs Corning has added since 2010, 85 percent have been abroad, where many of the company’s biggest customers are located and the cost of doing business is lower.
The plant had already received one round of tax breaks, worth at least $2.3 million, when it was built 10 years earlier.
Company representatives said the subsidies were needed to offset the high cost of doing business in New York. The expansion “could have gone anywhere,” said Tranter.
“Frankly, everybody wants us.”
Still, of all the factors the company considers when choosing where to expand, he said, the most important is the availability of a skilled workforce — which the Corning area offers. And, he added, there are advantages to putting new facilities close to the company’s R&D operations, which are clustered in and around Corning.
Some experts say companies tend to exaggerate the role subsidies play in their choice of location.
When it comes to moving jobs overseas, any tax breaks offered are dwarfed by savings on cheaper labor costs, said LeRoy of Good Jobs First.
“It’s very easy for companies to make the appearance of being interested in going to other places but being paid to stay where they are.”
A sizeable chunk of the subsidies for the Erwin expansion came from the Steuben County Industrial Development Agency, which awards more tax breaks to Corning than any other company.
The company’s projects, mostly research facilities and manufacturing plants, received $30 million in tax breaks between 2009 and 2014 — almost 40 percent of the value of all abatements the IDA gave out in that time.
Corning has a close relationship with the economic development agency: The company has had a seat on the IDA board since at least 1985. The IDA’s current executive director, James Johnson, said it was important that the board reflect the interests of the local community.
“It makes sense to have a representative from Corning on the board — it doesn’t mean they get special treatment,” he said.
Corning employees recuse themselves from votes on the company’s projects, IDA records show. And the employees who have sat on the IDA board don’t make decisions about projects receiving IDA incentives in their work for the company, according to Corning’s applications for tax breaks.
But, in 2008, when Corning asked the IDA for tax breaks on a new construction project, the application was signed by Richard Weakland, who sat on the IDA board at the time. He also headed the Corning subsidiary that owned the land the company was seeking tax breaks to build on. Neither Weakland, nor James Sherron — who was the executive director of the IDA at the time — could be reached for comment.
Neither of the state agencies responsible for overseeing IDAs — the State Comptroller’s Office and the Authorities Budget Office — has reviewed the management practices of the Steuben County IDA in recent years. In audits of other IDAs that have done business with their board members, though, the comptroller concluded that “such transactions may create an actual conflict of interest or the appearance of impropriety.”
Company representatives insist that the projects currently receiving tax breaks would never have gone ahead in Steuben County without help from the IDA. That’s more plausible for some — like high-tech research facilities that require significant investment from the company — than for others.
For example, the IDA has also approved tax breaks for Corning to build a child care center, where around half of the children have parents who work for the company, and a parking ramp reserved for its employees — facilities that serve the local workforce and could not be moved elsewhere.
That parking ramp created 555 new jobs in 2014, the IDA reported to the state — an abrupt increase, since no one had been recorded as working there for the previous five years. IDA staff arrived at that figure by counting employees at company buildings nearby that use the parking ramp, an approach criticized by officials at the Authorities Budget Office.
Corning won’t pay full property taxes on the structure until 2022.
The county IDA isn’t the only economic development entity where Corning has a seat at the table.
At the Southern Tier Regional Economic Development Council, Tranter is one of two co-chairs handpicked by the governor’s office.
The 10 regional councils, made up of local officials, business executives and representatives from colleges and universities, compete to win state funding for their economic development plans. The councils make recommendations to state agencies about which projects should receive funding; the Cuomo administration has the final say.
The annual award ceremonies in Albany have the feel of a game show, complete with slick promotional videos and upbeat slogans (“Southern Tier Soaring”).
The Southern Tier has done well, frequently designated a “top performer.” Corning — and the Corning Museum of Glass, founded in 1951 as the company’s “gift to the nation” — have been successful, too, winning a combined $4.8 million so far.
That includes $1.5 million towards the cost of a new entrance for the museum, complete with a large interactive map of the state, and a $275,000 grant for a mobile glass-blowing studio on a canal barge, to celebrate this year’s bicentennial of the Erie Canal, as well as grants for Corning’s expansion in Erwin.
It’s not unusual for board members and co-chairs to represent organizations that also receive funding from the regional councils — Tranter is one of at least six on the Southern Tier council to have done so.
Critics say this is an inevitable conflict of interest.
“Are you really telling me they can’t find enough people with the expertise to judge it whose business is not receiving REDC funds?” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a good government group.
Tranter said he recused himself from discussions of any funding for Corning and the Corning Museum of Glass, and that the council’s co-chairs cannot vote to approve projects.
“Not only did I not get to vote, but when they discussed the Corning project I left the room and they still picked it to be number one,” he said, describing the $3 million in grants the regional council gave Corning for the expansion in Erwin.
“Why wouldn’t they, with 250 jobs? We haven’t had anything like it.”
Corning Inc.’s reduced property taxes mean less tax revenue for nearby municipalities, at least in the short term. But the company has, at times, given more in grants from its foundation than it has received in tax breaks.
In 2010, when the local school district was facing a serious budget gap after a cut in state aid, the company’s foundation stepped in to make up the difference, giving the district more than $14 million over the next four years.
The money didn’t save the district from making cuts altogether but did allow it to maintain programs like special education, counseling and extracurriculars, said Michael Ginalski, the district superintendent.
“If it weren’t for that money, this would be a completely different school district,” he said.
Still, while the City of Corning is thriving compared to many others in the Southern Tier, it’s not immune to the economic pressures facing local governments across upstate: a stagnant tax base, rising pension costs and a limited ability to increase revenues due to the state property tax cap.
In 2010, facing a $1.8 million gap, the city increased property taxes, introduced new municipal fees and laid off 12 full-time employees.
“These were hardworking, valued employees that we can no longer afford,” City Manager Mark Ryckman told a State Assembly committee last February.
Despite the cuts, the city “continues to struggle to pay for basic city services while meeting our infrastructure needs,” he said.
Ryckman did not respond to interview requests.
Between 2009 and 2014, Corning’s property tax breaks saved the company — and cost the city — $590,000, according to state reports.
For Corning Inc., that’s a drop in the ocean of the company’s annual revenues. For the city of Corning, that could cover the salaries of half a dozen municipal employees.
Some say the company is taking with one hand and giving with the other.
“Would there be greater value to the community,” asked Ron Deutsch, executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a labor-backed think tank, “if Corning were just paying what they should be paying, like almost every other business?”
Charlotte Keith is a reporter for Investigative Post. Masako Melissa Hirsch is a graduate of Columbia University's Journalism School and her work for this project was supported by The New York World and the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.
If you are interested in viewing the raw program data for our New York State Subsidy Tracker app, please visit the ProPublica Data Store.
We’re tracking the state’s growing portfolio of business subsidies.
This story was co-published with Investigative Post.
Craig Bernier had only been bagging grain at Harbor Point Minerals in Utica for a few months when the company started sending him inside its silos to “walk down” the grain to help it flow to the bottom.
Bernier, 24, was claustrophobic and hated being in the dark, closed structure, but Harbor Point told him he would have to go back in, his father said.
“He told his mother, ‘I don’t want to go to work,” Daniel Bernier recalled. “If he had to, he wanted to quit, he felt so bad. But I always told him, go find a job — have a job before you quit a job. And so he ended up going to work that day anyway.”
On May 11, 2011, the animal feed gave way under Craig’s feet, swallowing him in the grain and suffocating him.
A subsequent investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Harbor Point for 21 violations, including four for knowingly failing to comply with the law or acting with indifference to worker safety. Regulators imposed $155,200 in fines.
“He wasn’t trained for the job,” his father said, “they just made him do it.”
The Berniers sued Harbor Point in a New York state court in 2012. The company paid a $79,000 settlement, according to the family.
Bernier’s death did not disrupt the stream of state subsidies to Harbor Point.
The year he died, the company received $110,028 in tax breaks thanks to its ongoing participation in the state’s Empire Zones program, which at the time was New York’s largest subsidy program, intended to promote investment and job creation in economically distressed areas. Harbor Point received at least an additional $71,593 through the program in the two years following Bernier’s death.
Harbor Point is one of 74 companies in just one sector — involving the farming, manufacturing and distribution of food — that received more than $100 million in state and local subsidies over the past decade despite a recent history of regulatory violations, according to an analysis of data obtained through a joint reporting project by Investigative Post, ProPublica and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Such subsidies are a linchpin of New York’s strategy to revive the sluggish upstate economy. New York state and local economic development agencies dished out cash grants, tax breaks, discounted power and other subsidies worth $8.6 billion statewide last fiscal year. That figure has grown under Gov. Andrew Cuomo despite a scandal involving one of the state’s biggest economic development programs — and even though some recipients of the largesse have violated federal safety, environmental, labor or consumer protection rules.
Even with the significant sums of money involved, state economic development authorities and local industrial development agencies do not comprehensively vet companies applying for assistance. By contrast, the economic development agencies of neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut conduct more thorough inquiries. Also, New York law does not prohibit the awarding of subsidies to firms with a history of regulatory violations or provide a mechanism to suspend or claw back subsidies if companies are cited by regulators once the money has started flowing.
Harbor Point Vice President Kevin Crane maintained Bernier’s death was an accident.
“The financial burden from the fines made it harder for us to grow,” he said.
Companies in other sectors have also garnered subsidies despite running afoul of federal regulators.
For example, International Paper’s plant in Ticonderoga was fined $211,000 after a worker died of burns sustained in 2015.
The cement company LaFarge North America incurred $647,211 in penalties from the EPA for violations of the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts between 2012 and 2016 in Ravena, near Albany.
Both companies were fined while receiving benefits — including discounted power, property tax abatements or the use of lower cost municipal bonds — without interruption.
And last March, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an award of up to $200,000 to Super Sweep Inc. through the Excelsior program, only to discover through media reports that the company was spun off from a firm that was barred from state projects.
International Paper said in a statement that its “team members remain committed to their own safety and the safety of their coworkers and their community.” A LaFarge North America spokesperson said the company is “committed to full compliance with all environmental regulations.” Super Sweep did not respond to a request for comment.
“I don't think taxpayers should be rewarding corporate misbehavior. If there is a pattern of wage theft or pollution or discrimination, I think that should disqualify a company,” said Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a nonprofit that tracks local and state economic subsidies.
Our analysis tracked subsidies awarded to food companies from seven major state programs and those administered by locally controlled industrial development agencies. It focused on the food industry because it provides a representative cross section of the types of businesses, from manufacturing to retail, that participate in subsidy programs across the state.
It found that, over the past decade, 74 food companies received $108 million in state and local subsidies within three years of being cited for violations of federal health, labor and environmental regulations. Collectively, these companies were fined over $3.1 million by regulators and required to pay $717,853 in back wages.
The analysis considered the enforcement records from 2006 to 2016 of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Labor, and the Occupational and Safety Health Administration. Citations by comparable state agencies were unavailable.
We’re tracking the state’s growing portfolio of business subsidies. See the project.
During this period, food companies were certified for $80.3 million in assistance through the Empire Zones program, which is being phased out amid criticism of its ineffectiveness. Its successor, the Excelsior program, has awarded $55.1 million in corporate tax credits to food companies, contingent on them meeting job goals or other objectives.
Locally controlled industrial development agencies provided at least $22 million in tax abatements to food companies, and discount power programs managed by the New York Power Authority have provided discounted electricity with a minimum estimated value of $7.6 million.
Some well-known firms receiving large subsidies — including Wegmans Food Markets and Chobani, the maker of Greek yogurt — rank among those companies most heavily fined by federal regulators, the analysis found.
Development agencies “should look at compliance with various state and federal laws, and if they’re not good citizens, that should be taken into account,” said Brian McMahon, executive director of the New York State Economic Development Council, a lobbying group for local economic development agencies and related service providers.
But a different standard should be applied to companies which incur an occasional violation than to those with a “pattern of major, willful violations,” he said.
“There has to be some common sense,” McMahon added. “There’s not a big company in the county that doesn’t have some OSHA or minor environmental penalty levied against them.”
A review of state law and the practices of state and local economic development agencies found there’s nothing akin to a complete background check on subsidy recipients to determine whether they have a history of violating federal and state laws intended to protect workers, consumers and the environment.
“Not having a robust vetting system is an invitation for abusing taxpayers funds,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a good government group active in subsidy reform issues.
Officials at Empire State Development, the state’s primary economic development authority, provided only limited comment. A spokesman said the authority “is obligated to administer the program based on the existing law and regulations.”
Unlike in several neighboring states, companies applying for subsidies in New York are not required to disclose regulatory violations or active lawsuits against them. The New York State Consolidated Funding Application for tax breaks doesn’t ask applicants about previous violations or legal actions.
The pre-application for discounted NYPA power also fails to ask about violations. IDA applications for tax incentives can vary between localities but even the recommended application from the New York State Economic Development Council does not ask about a company’s regulatory history.
By contrast, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority’s incentive application contains 11 background questions related to company violations and legal actions. Since 2010, its compliance measures have flagged approximately 250 applicants for closer examination by a development officer and the state attorney general. Of these, about 10 percent were subjected to a debarment analysis that was reviewed by the authority’s board.
The Connecticut Department of Economic Development’s pre-application, while not as thorough as New Jersey’s, does ask about citations from the EPA and OSHA, as well as any litigation against the applicant. Officials perform additional checks on their own.
Laws governing the current major economic development programs in New York only require a company to certify that it is in “substantial compliance” with all environmental, worker protection, and local, state and federal tax laws before tax incentives are awarded. But New York’s laws and regulations governing subsidy programs do not outline how an agency should determine whether a company is in compliance or what “substantial compliance” means in practice.
It’s unclear what economic development agencies in New York do to determine the “substantial compliance” spelled out in the law. Jason Conwall, an Empire State Development spokesman, said in an email statement that the state considers a company to be in compliance if it has no outstanding fines levied against it by regulators. Thus, a history of violations would not be held against a company if it had paid its fines.
Violations are not considered when companies are admitted to Empire State Development programs, Conwall said, although checks are made if and when they qualify to receive tax credits under the Excelsior program.
Practices vary among other economic development agencies, including the New York Power Authority and assorted IDAs. Their research at its most stringent involves checks of online databases maintained by federal regulators and, in some instances, inquiries to selected state agencies.
New York’s economic development agencies are not alone in failing to vigorously vet companies with a history of regulatory violations.
“It’s not common for economic development agencies to pay attention to these issues. Some do, but it is far from a widespread practice,” said Phil Mattera, research director at Good Jobs First.
Hoping to revive upstate New York’s sluggish economy, Governor Andrew Cuomo has poured billions into subsidies for Corning and other businesses. But the resulting job growth has been modest. Read the story.
There are, however, examples of agencies in New York that screen companies doing business with the government and hold them accountable for regulatory violations.
Kaehny, of Reinvent Albany, questioned why the state doesn’t have a process comparable to the Vendex system used by New York City to vet vendors, including companies awarded subsidies through its economic development agencies.
“You have to disclose your ownership, any legal or regulatory violations you’ve had, prior contracts — basically everything about you as a business. The state should have at least as good of a system as New York City’s,” he said.
In addition, the state Department of Labor imposes consequences for contractors cited for significant violations of labor law. Firms can be barred from receiving state contracts for up to five years.
Subsidy programs have benefitted several well-known companies that have a history of significant regulatory violations.
Wegmans Food Markets, founded in Rochester, is considered among the best grocery chains in the nation, and consistently ranks among the best companies to work for in America. The privately held company has gained influence beyond the grocery business, with the governor appointing CEO Danny Wegman as co-chair of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council.
The company operates 46 stores in Western and Central New York and received $4.8 million in subsidies between 2009 and 2014, primarily tax abatements from five IDAs. Only four companies in the food industry statewide received more assistance, based on data obtained for this analysis.
Wegmans received the subsidies even though it had been hit with $561,855 in fines — more than any company in the state’s food industry included in this analysis. The fines, mostly related to OSHA violations, were later reduced to $416,915. OSHA usually reduces fines on appeal based on factors that include the company’s size and efforts to address violations.
Most of the fines imposed by OSHA were for safety violations at its corporate bakery and distribution center in Rochester. In 2011, the company was cited for serious and repeated safety violations of its machine maintenance procedures. In March 2015, a worker lost the tip of his finger to a conveyor belt and another suffered a first-degree burn from a steam valve. That December, a woman’s hand and arm were pulled into a conveyor belt and crushed.
The safety violations continue. Another Wegmans supermarket in Rochester was fined $24,942 for its handling of woodworking machinery and flammable liquids in January of this year. (These violations were not included in the data analysis involving fines and subsidies from 2006-16.)
Wegmans officials declined to comment.
The governor thinks highly enough of Chobani Inc. that he made Greek yogurt the official state snack in 2014. A year later, Cuomo included the company’s founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya in his entourage that visited Cuba on a trade mission.
Only one food company received more in subsidies between 2006 and 2016 than the $17.7 million that went to Chobani, which is headquartered in Chenango County, northeast of Binghamton. Its $269,000 in federal regulatory fines ranked third highest in the industry; the fines were later reduced to $206,900.
In 2011, the company was fined $75,000 by the EPA. That year and again in 2012, the company was awarded $11.2 million in benefits through the Empire Zone program and $4.2 million from local IDAs. The company was also fined $194,000 by OSHA in 2012. The Excelsior program later issued $696,915 in tax credits to Chobani in 2012 and 2013.
“Chobani’s early days were marked by extraordinary demand and extraordinary growth,” a company spokesman said in an emailed statement. “In instances where errors or mistakes occurred, the company took every possible action to address them and [is] working closely with state agencies to drive improvements that often exceeded their requirements.”
Nature’s Bounty is headquartered in Long Island with operations on four continents and some 13,000 employees. The company manufactures, markets and sells a wide range of health products, including vitamins and dietary supplements. The company was publicly traded until it was bought in 2010 by the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm, for $4 billion.
Nature’s Bounty is no stranger to federal regulators — or state economic development officials.
In 2004, the Department of Labor cited Nature’s Bounty for 702 violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and ordered it to pay $122,380 in back wages for overtime pay. The company was not fined.
Two years later, the Islip Industrial Development Agency approved the last of three tax abatement deals with the company. When asked about the 2004 labor violations, William Mannix, the administrative director of the Islip IDA responded: “All I can say is that we were unaware of it.”
OSHA imposed fines on Nature’s Bounty of $144,025, which were later reduced to $81,675, mostly for machine operation hazards between 2007 and 2015. Throughout this period, the state power authority and local IDAs awarded the company $3.5 million in tax breaks and discounted electricity.
In October of 2010, for example, OSHA imposed $111,000 in fines for violations that exposed workers to dangers when servicing machinery. Two months later, the Federal Trade Commission ordered the company and its subsidiaries to repay $2.1 million to customers for false claims about its Disney-themed children’s vitamins. Nevertheless, the next year, the Town of Babylon’s IDA approved a package of sales and property tax abatements worth $264,209 over the first four years of the agreement.
Nature’s Bounty officials declined to comment.
Mannix, in an emailed statement, said the company “consistently met and exceeded their hiring goals related to their multiple Islip IDA projects.”
Awarding subsidies after regulators cite a company for violations leaves the state open to criticism for supporting questionable practices. Take, for example, Zemco Industries, owned by Tyson Foods.
In August of 2010, Tyson recalled 380,000 pounds of deli meat produced at its plant in Buffalo. Within two months, the U.S. Department of Agriculture suspended the plant’s operation, putting 480 people out of work for 10 days. That year, Tyson received $115,712 in tax exemptions from the Erie County IDA.
Food recalls and OSHA violations continued after the processing plant resumed operations. In 2013, OSHA fined the company $121,720 after determining Tyson was exposing workers to safety hazards. The fines were later reduced. The following year, Tyson recalled another 106,800 pounds of meat due to misbranding and an undeclared allergen.
Tyson’s public relations manager Caroline Ahn said in an emailed statement: “There is no connection between financial incentives from the state of New York and our product recall/OSHA citation.”
From 2010 to 2014, the company received over $409,534 in tax abatements from the Erie County IDA and 4,500 kilowatts of discounted electricity of an undetermined value from the state power authority.
Tyson closed the plant in July 2014, eliminating 300 jobs.
“I’m sure Tyson didn’t want to have a listeria breakout, that was probably the last thing that they wanted to have happen,” said David Friedfel, director of state studies for the Citizens Budget Commission.
“That’s something that happens in private business, and it’s something that the state should try to insulate itself from as far as economic development spending.”
It’s been nearly six years since Craig Bernier died on the job at Harbor Point Minerals, a privately owned company that makes and sells animal feed.
Investigators concluded Bernier was not given adequate training or required safety equipment and the grain elevator was left running while he was inside so seed could continue to flow out the bottom.
The OSHA report on the incident said there was reason to believe company officials were aware of the dangers.
After making changes to prevent future accidents, the company’s penalty was reduced to $124,000. Crane said state economic development officials did not contact him following the accident or the OSHA fines, both of which were reported by local media. Instead, the subsidies kept coming.
Berniers’ parents said businesses that receive incentives should be held accountable.
“As for them getting the money, I don’t believe they should’ve. Why should they get a slap on their hands then get something good behind it?” asked Daniel Bernier.
Sean Campbell is a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism with a specialization in data. His Twitter address is @Sean_Kev.
If you are interested in viewing the raw program data for our New York State Subsidy Tracker app, please visit the ProPublica Data Store.
For this news app, ProPublica, Investigative Post and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism combined data from 12 of New York State’s major subsidy programs. Since most of the data is scattered in agency reports or only available through public records requests, we wanted to provide a more comprehensive overview of the companies that are receiving taxpayer money for projects in the state, and the investment and jobs they promise — and create — in return. The result was a database with nearly $5.3 billion of state and local subsidies we documented from 2011 to 2014.
The database allows users for the first time to match the recipient lists of different subsidy programs that the state has set up to aid economic development and to identify companies that benefit from more than one. See our story on one upstate company, Corning, that benefits from multiple programs, the data shows.
We organized the database so that, for the most part, each row represents one subsidy contract. For some programs, such as subsidies issued by local Industrial Development Agencies and the state’s Brownfields Cleanup Program, governments reported annual updates on the status of a long-term tax break, and these updates are each represented by individual rows. For other programs, such as the state’s Economic Development Fund and JOBS Now, agencies reported total amounts of one-time grants. These distinctions are reported in the “time period” column. A separate column provides the year the data was reported. Regardless of whether the contract in question was a one-time grant or a recurring annual tax benefit, the subsidy values for any company, county or program can be added up.
Still, differences in the availability of data from different programs and the challenges of cleaning some of the data make the database incomplete. While providing a meaningful sample of the subsidies given by New York State and local governments, it is not a complete accounting of every dollar of these economic incentives. Some of the state’s biggest deals often bypass established subsidy programs and are appropriated directly from the budget. As a result, the contracts contained in the app only provide an “at least” estimate of the state’s economic development spending.
And while broadly comparable, job creation data — positions promised and created — can also vary across programs and cannot be summed. For example, “jobs promised” reported by Industrial Development Agencies represents the total number of jobs promised throughout the lifespan of a project’s contract, and the “jobs reported” field represents the cumulative total of jobs created through a particular reporting year. As a result, only the most recent year’s job count shows how the project is doing compared to what was promised; summing several years’ worth of cumulative job reporting totals would overcount job creation.
Below is more information on how the project came together.
New York offers subsidies to companies through numerous state and local agencies. The local agencies include Industrial Development Agencies and Local Development Corporations, which are typically run by county governments and give out tax breaks and other incentives to local businesses. They may also provide assistance to local governments and nonprofits, which is also captured in the data.
The state agencies include Empire State Development, the state’s economic development arm, which provided data for seven of the programs we tracked — Commercial Tax Credits, Film Tax Credits, the Economic Development Fund, JOBS Now, Regional Economic Development Councils, StartUp New York and Excelsior; the New York Power Authority, which provided two additional subsidy programs; and the state’s Taxation and Finance Department, which provided data on the Brownfield Cleanup Program. With the exception of the Brownfield Cleanup Program, which provides incentives for remediating polluted sites, all of the programs tracked are tied to job creation goals.
The availability of public data on subsidy recipients varied by program. The data we included comes from the state’s Open Data portal, agency reports, good government groups and numerous public records requests under the state’s Freedom of Information Law. Where data was available from multiple sources, we combined it so as to give as comprehensive a view as possible for each subsidy program. This involved joining program databases together on common elements and eliminating duplicate entries.
Our published data came from the following sources:
Commercial Tax Credit Program, Economic Development Fund, JOBS Now, REDCs, Western New York Power Proceeds Allocation Board, Film Tax Credit Program: We received data through public records requests. For the Film Tax Credit Program, disclosure laws changed for the program in March 2013, so we could not use data for projects submitted for tax credits before this time. Several projects were missing from the data when compared to data published in the program’s quarterly reports, so we added in those projects manually. County information pulled from ESD’s “Soundstages” directory when available. For JOBS Now, we supplemented the data we received with the years when projects were approved from the Open Data portal.
Excelsior Jobs Program: We used data from the Open Data site and requested additional information on the projects’ addresses and dates when they were admitted. Jobs reported figures come from the Sept. 30, 2016, quarterly report.
NYPA: We received the underlying data published in this 2014 report through a public records request. We eliminated from the data companies that were approved for NYPA allocations but never actually used them.
Start-Up: We received the underlying data published in this report through a public records request.
We cleaned and organized each program’s data separately and focused on having comprehensive information on job growth, project location and subsidy values. Each subsidy was then assigned a unique ID that was used to track these values and ultimately merge common data elements such as job growth data, project location and subsidy value, into a master table of contracts across all 12 programs.
We limited our database to the years 2011 through 2014 based on the availability of data across programs. To identify corporate relationships between participants in multiple subsidy programs, we researched businesses to establish connections and find their parent companies. We only included connections that we were able to verify; even if a company is not listed as having a subsidiary, it may have one.
Despite this, there are still some unavoidable inconsistencies when dealing with many different programs with different reporting requirements. Some of these are outlined below:
Some of the most compelling information in the data we received was the descriptions of the projects. However, these descriptions were not consistent or easy to clean, and some programs had no descriptions at all. So we excluded these descriptions, though they can still be found in the raw data available for download.
If you are interested in viewing the raw program data, please visit the ProPublica Data Store.
The Trump administration has quietly appointed a Heritage Foundation staffer who has railed against civil rights protections for transgender patients as director of the federal agency charged with protecting the civil rights of all patients.
Though the administration did not issue a formal announcement, Roger Severino is now listed on the website of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as director of the Office for Civil Rights. His prior position was as director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, where he focused on “religious liberty, marriage and life issues.” (The DeVos Center is named for the in-laws of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.)
The civil rights office is in charge of enforcing patient privacy protections and ensuring that patients’ civil rights are protected, that they are free from discrimination and that they have access to services such as interpreters.
Asked for comment, HHS forwarded a link to Severino’s title and biography. In a statement, Heritage spokeswoman Marguerite Bowling said, “Roger Severino has a distinguished record of fighting for the civil rights and freedoms of all Americans. We have no doubt that Roger in his new role at HHS will protect the civil rights of all Americans.”
Severino’s position does not require Senate confirmation.
Based on his prior writings, Severino will likely take the agency in a different direction than it had under the Obama administration. Last year, the agency issued rules banning discrimination against transgender patients, carrying out provisions of the Affordable Care Act. (A federal judge put those rules on hold on Dec. 31, siding with a Catholic hospital system, other religious health providers and five states that challenged them. The Trump administration has not sought to overturn the injunction.)
When those rules were proposed, Severino and a Heritage colleague wrote a scathing critique, saying they jeopardized the religious liberty and freedom of conscience of health care providers.
“By prohibiting differential treatment on the basis of ‘gender identity’ in health services, these regulations propose to penalize medical professionals and health care organizations that, as a matter of faith, moral conviction, or professional medical judgment, believe that maleness and femaleness are biological realities to be respected and affirmed, not altered or treated as diseases,” Severino wrote with colleague Ryan Anderson.
In a column for the conservative website Daily Signal, Severino and Anderson wrote that the HHS rule would force doctors to perform sex reassignment surgeries. “They would effectively require controversial procedures, such as ‘sex-reassignment’ surgery, that respected medical professionals argue have not been proven effective in treating serious mental health conditions.”
Despite the column’s assertions, federal rules cannot force doctors to perform procedures for which they are not trained or competent. Moreover, professional societies support coverage for gender transition treatments.
They’re full of lies and misinformation. Read the story.
In another column for the Daily Signal, from September 2016, Severino argued that Congress should not give money to Planned Parenthood. “Instead of allowing Planned Parenthood access to new federal funding streams, Congress should be closing the spigot entirely,” he wrote. “Such a move would reflect the simple fact [that] Planned Parenthood has long since disqualified itself from taxpayer money because of its callous disregard for innocent human life.”
A coalition of progressive groups criticized Severino’s appointment.
“I could not think of a more dangerous person to head up the Office of Civil Rights at HHS,” JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president of policy and political affairs of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “Once again, Donald Trump is declaring war against our community by appointing anti-LGBTQ people at all levels of his administration.”
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights also expressed its dismay. “This appointment, made without fanfare, is part of disturbing trend by the Trump administration of naming people who disagree or outright oppose the mission or role of an agency or office to leadership positions within those entities,” the group said in a statement.
Before Heritage, Severino worked from 2008 to 2015 as a trial attorney in the Department of Justice’s civil rights division, where he handled cases involving the Fair Housing Act, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to his HHS biography. Before that, he worked as legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Severino is the latest Heritage employee to join the Trump administration. Earlier this month, ProPublica reported that Heritage staffers were among 400 employees the administration has quietly installed across the government, including at HHS. Separately, a recent piece by In These Times chronicled the far-reaching influence Heritage has achieved in the new administration.
The Houston man laid out the details of his triumphant plan during a podcast last July: He told listeners that he had wanted to paste white nationalist fliers across the city’s downtown, and, just as importantly, he had wanted the Free Press, a local news and arts website, to write about the fliers.
“I want to trigger them into writing an article about me,” the man said in the podcast.
He got what he wanted. On July 6, 2016, the Free Press posted, “White Nationalists Bring Hateful Garbage to Houston,” noting the fliers downtown and printing their contents in their entirety.
“Achievement unlocked,” the man said of the coverage. “They succeeded in promoting our message.”
The nationalistic sentiment evident since the presidential campaign, complete with calls for mass deportations, Muslim bans and economic nationalism, has led in recent months to intense media coverage of a clearly emboldened array of white supremacist groups across the country. It’s a degree of attention that the groups seem to be enjoying.
In another recent podcast, a different figure in the far-right movement, Greg Johnson, publisher of the website Counter-Currents, spoke bluntly about the benefits of gaining media coverage.
“We have very little in the way of force, but our enemies have all kinds of power,” Johnson claimed during his podcast. “If we can get their neurosis working for us, that can multiply the effects of our activism tremendously. I think that’s a really valuable form of asymmetrical cultural warfare.”
The pasting of fliers in public places — especially college campuses — looks like a core tactic for that kind of warfare.
Since September 2016, white supremacists groups have draped college campuses with fliers at least 118 times, according to data released by the Anti-Defamation League. The groups advocate for a whites-only country and to bring fascism or Nazism to the United States.
They’ve left their propaganda at campuses ranging from Clemson University in South Carolina to the University of Minnesota to the University of California in Los Angeles. In response, they’ve gotten coverage from local newspapers as well national outlets like CNN and the Washington Post. Universities have felt compelled to respond as well, like the University of Michigan, which unveiled an $85 million diversity and inclusion program just days after racist fliers were found on its Ann Arbor campus.
While many of the supremacist groups appear to be small, they claim to be growing. Traffic to their websites are up — including one apparently read by Dylann Roof, who killed nine black people in a South Carolina church in 2015 — and many of the online spaces where they congregate are urging real-world meetings.
Hate crimes and bias incidents are a national problem, but there’s no reliable data on their nature or prevalence. We’re collecting reports to create a national database for use by journalists and civil-rights organizations. See the project.
ProPublica’s Documenting Hate project recorded more than 330 reports of anti-Semitic incidents during a three-month span, from early November to early February. Read the story.
From online discussions documented by ProPublica and conversations with those in the white power movement, the groups are counting on the media to serve as their amplifier and appear to cultivate and collect reports of their activities.
In an email interview, Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said journalists had some basic obligations, including reporting as accurately as possible how popular or marginal the groups are.
“First, don’t overstate the number or impact of people with hate in their minds and hearts,” she said.
“Extremist groups have always been good at propaganda, and journalists have an obligation to understand that and not become part of any stream of misinformation or disinformation.”
According to the ADL’s data, Identity Europa is the chief source for fliers promoting white supremacist groups. It’s unclear how many members the organization has. They claim supporters across the country, but in multiple photos released by the group there appear to be only the same handful of people.
In a video, the group’s founder, Nathan Damigo, an Iraq War veteran who went to prison for robbing a cab driver at gunpoint in late 2007, called for people to download the group’s fliers and plaster their cities.
“We would actually invite everyone to do this. To get out to these students what they’re not being told,” he said, referring to his belief that university professors are telling students lies about diversity.
Damigo’s group sells its propaganda for between $1.50 a sticker and $30 for a glossy poster. The posters make vague statements on civilization and European identity over photos of classic sculpture. At least one references President Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” They make no mention that Damigo once chaired the National Youth Front, which the Southern Poverty Law Center says was tied to a Southern California skinhead group.
“It ends up a lot of times that the stuff that would end up in a garbage can ends up as a free disseminated advertisement,” said Brian Levin, Director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino. “Damigo and all these other folks know that they’ll get publicity.”
Damigo did not respond to interview requests.
Another white nationalist faction called Atomwaffen Division, associated with an online Nazi forum, produces grainy recruitment-style videos of their flier campaigns. The posters they leave behind are much more stark: radioactive symbols, swastikas, guns and the call to action, “Join your local nazis.”
On their website, testimonial-style quotes from news coverage tops every page, and some of their recruitment videos contain clips of news anchors describing their flier campaigns.
The site has sections dedicated to the downloadable propaganda that’s found its way onto telephone poles, cork boards and other public places, as well as another section of the site for collecting news coverage about themselves.
Other popular white supremacist factions have their own propaganda corners. For Vanguard America — neé American Vanguard, not to be confused with National Vanguard, or the Vanguard News Network — one simply needs to click the “posters” link on the homepage to choose a printable flier. Their posters feature anti-immigrant sentiment and promote white identity, while their website calls for fascism to replace U.S. democracy and for the creation of a whites-only nation.
In two instances, the posters even seemed to print themselves. In a pair of well-publicized exploits, Andrew Auernheimer, known by his online moniker “weev,” wrote code to loop through vulnerable printers across the country, forcing them to spit out reams of racist propaganda linking to The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website he helps run. Later in the year, he did it again, this time with a letter saying that he supports the murder and rape of non-white children. In blog posts, he gleefully pointed out the social media and news coverage of the hacks.
“I began the modern era of white supremacist fliers,” Auernheimer said by email. “I showed everyone at massive scale how easy it is to send an entire campus into apoplexy with only a few pieces of paper.”
Auernheimer went on to point out that posting such fliers is useful for local recruitment, and puts university administrators and journalists in a bind.
“We will still be posting fliers no matter what. If they don’t get investigated, we can wholesale turn urban centers and campuses into recruitment centers for white supremacy and fascism with no resistance,” he said.
The media campaigns don’t end with fliers. In late 2015, the Daily Stormer’s owner, Andrew Anglin, urged his readers to create social media pages claiming to represent white student unions at universities, regardless of whether such groups existed.
“Make more of these White Student Union pages on Facebook for various universities. You don’t have to go there,” he wrote. “Get it up, then forward links to the local media.”
As news reports from local papers and national outlets like the Washington Post picked up — and then debunked — that a wave of white student unions were cropping up at schools, Anglin denied that he was responsible for prompting fake groups.
“The fact that I said, ‘You don’t have to actually go there’ does not somehow translate into these groups are a hoax, it simply means that some of them could potentially have been started by a person not attending the school,” he wrote on his site. Anglin did not respond to a request for comment.
Around the same time, Damigo, writing on his personal site, said, “A media storm promptly hit, and with it, increasing interest in our new movement, which has become the typical unintended consequence of anti-White shrieking.”
Related stories: For more, read our Documenting Hate coverage.
Turns out that Democrats have more to say than Republicans when it comes to legislation that would repeal major parts of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
With the House set to vote today on the Republican replacement plan, called the American Health Care Act, we decided to look at the messages coming from members of both parties.
A ProPublica review of 576 press releases posted on the websites of representatives and senators since Jan. 20 found that a higher proportion of Democrats have released statements criticizing the GOP bill than Republicans have backing it.
Though Republicans control both houses of Congress, many have stayed silent, at least on their websites. Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, put out a press release last week about a study of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, but nothing on health care. (You can see all of the statements in ProPublica’s Represent news app, which tracks votes and statements by members of Congress.)
Among members of the House, where the action is now focused, about 46 percent of Republicans have issued statements about health care reform from the start of the Trump administration to this week. Among Democrats, 67 percent.
The dynamics are similar in the Senate, which would take up the bill if and when it passes the House. Only 35 percent of Republicans have weighed in, compared to 60 percent of Democrats and independents who caucus with them.
All told, Republicans have issued some 240 press releases about health reform; Democrats and independents at least 336. (The analysis includes statements members have posted on their websites and doesn’t include statements to reporters or on social media.) House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., had the most of any member, 36, four times as many as the next-highest statement-writer, Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo.
Moreover, Democrats are much more united in their opposition to the repeal-and-replace bill than Republican members are in support, according to our analysis.
Dr. David Blumenthal, president of the Commonwealth Fund, a health care nonprofit in New York, said that doesn’t surprise him. When the Affordable Care Act was under consideration in 2009 and 2010, Republicans were united in their opposition while Democratic support was “quite fractured,” said Blumenthal, who was the national coordinator for health information technology during the early years of the Obama administration.
Blumenthal said this dynamic is “part of the burden of governance and the opportunity of opposition.”
“When you are in the driver’s seat, as the Republican majority is at this point, you are forced to look in detail at the thing you want to try to create, and that can be sobering, whereas the opposition has a much easier time drawing lines in the sand.”
A lot can be gleaned by the words officials use — and avoid.
Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor. The Affordable Care Act allowed states to expand Medicaid to cover millions more people living in poverty or near-poverty, including childless adults. The GOP bill would cut Medicaid spending by $880 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
About half of the press releases we analyzed, 285, mention Medicaid. And of those, 198 came from Democrats. “42,200 individuals in our Congressional District who are covered by the ACA’s Medicaid expansion now stand to lose coverage if Washington Republicans eliminate Medicaid expansion,” wrote Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., echoing what many colleagues did by personalizing the data for her district.
When they do raise the issue, Republicans said their plan makes needed changes to Medicaid. “We also refocus Medicaid’s limited resources to the patients most in need,” said Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C.
Congressional Budget Office. Of the 213 statements mentioning the CBO or Congressional Budget Office, only 28 came from Republicans. Democrats mentioned the CBO in two ways: At first, they criticized Republicans for considering the bill before having the results of the CBO analysis; then Democrats held up the CBO report, also called a score, as proof that the law would roll back many of the gains made by the ACA.
“The report released today by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office underscores that the Republican health care bill will result in millions of currently-insured Americans no longer having coverage,” wrote Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.
The few Republicans who addressed the CBO analysis, including Speaker Ryan, pointed to its conclusion that the legislation would reduce the deficit and said the GOP bill is only the first step in a multipart plan to reform the health care system.
Trump. President Donald Trump remains a polarizing figure and Democrats are trying to tie the repeal legislation to him personally, dubbing it “Trumpcare.” Of the 216 mentions of Trump in the releases, 141 came from Democrats and independents. “Trumpcare is a great deal for insurance companies,” Rep. David N. Cicilline, D-R.I. wrote. “It’s a great deal for drug companies. But it’s a really bad deal for hardworking Americans.”
By contrast, Republicans who mention Trump do so in the context of working with his administration and his commitments to change health care delivery.
24 million. One hundred thirty-five statements mention this figure — the number of Americans projected by the CBO to lose health insurance by 2026 under the Republican proposal. Of those, only four are from Republican members. “Under Trumpcare, middle class families will pay more for less care, and 24 million Americans may lose their coverage altogether,” wrote Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich.
Obamacare. Early on, the ACA was dubbed “Obamacare” in an attempt by Republicans to tie it to the president. Over time, Obama himself tried to co-opt the phrase to make the point that “Obama cares.” Some public polling shows that people do not know that the ACA and Obamacare are one and the same, favoring the former while opposing the latter. The term Obamacare was mentioned in 228 releases. A whopping 196 of them were by Republicans, often to emphasize the program’s negative effects. “Obamacare is collapsing under its own weight, driving up health care costs, and limiting options for individuals and families,” wrote Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind.
Choice. One of the GOP selling points about their proposal is that it lets people choose whether they want insurance and which plan to buy, freeing them from many current requirements. Of the 154 statements that mention the word “choice” or “choose,” 133 of them come from Republicans. “We are driving down costs and giving patients more choice in their health care,” Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, a physician, said in a statement.
They’re full of lies and misinformation. Read the story.
Have you sent a letter in support, in opposition or asking questions about the ACA to your congressperson? Did you get a response? Share them with us.
One of the few Democrats to mention the word, Rep. Donald Beyer, D-Va., wrote, “The President promised a healthcare program that would ‘expand choice, increase access, lower costs, and at the same time, provide better health care.’ The bill which House Republicans unveiled last night does none of these things.”
Mandate. The ACA requires that employers provide coverage to their workers and that Americans be covered by health insurance — or pay a penalty. The so-called employer and individual mandates are unpopular with Republicans because they are perceived as requiring people to buy health insurance they may not want or need. Of the 111 releases that mentioned mandates, 93 were by Republicans. “We are providing a more consumer focused marketplace, not a government mandate with burdensome taxes,” wrote Rep. John Carter, R-Texas.
Relief. GOP lawmakers say their legislation provides relief from the requirements of the ACA. Of the 81 statements that use this word, 78 are from Republicans. “For years, Nebraskans have called on us to provide relief from Obamacare’s rising premiums and dwindling choices,” said Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb. “Too many Americans have been hurt by this failing law, and now we finally have the opportunity to reset our health care system.”
Check out all statements in ProPublica’s Represent tool.
Have you corresponded with a member of Congress or senator about the Affordable Care Act? We’d love to see the response you received. Please fill out our short form.
For the past half century, federal law has banned employers from discriminating against people based on their age. But since the early 1990s, corporate lawyers and conservative judges have sought to shrink what counts as discrimination, making it substantially harder to prove age bias.
Now, a case possibly headed for the Supreme Court could reduce the law’s reach still further.
The case involves an Atlanta man named Richard Villarreal, who applied online for a sales manager job with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in 2007 and heard nothing. When he applied in subsequent years, he had no better luck.
What Villarreal, who was 49 at the time of his first application, didn’t know was that Reynolds had retained a subcontractor to review the applications, supplying guidelines that led reviewers to discard his resume and those of almost 20,000 other older applicants. Of the roughly 1,000 sales managers the tobacco company hired between 2007 and 2010, when Villarreal was applying, fewer than a score were over the age of 40. After a whistleblower emerged in 2010, Villarreal sued.
The significance of the case is two-fold. It highlights the hurdles for job seekers as hiring has increasingly moved online, where it’s easier for companies to reject whole classes of applicants and harder for people to keep track of their bids for work. And it illustrates how age discrimination protections have been progressively narrowed. The tobacco company’s defense challenges decades of precedent for how the law has been interpreted and enforced.
Reynolds has advanced two theories to argue that the 50-year-old Age Discrimination in Employment Act shouldn’t apply to Villarreal: that the Georgia salesman didn’t “diligently” pursue why he’d received no response to his application, even though there was little to spur such pursuit before the whistleblower surfaced; and that a close reading of the law suggests that in cases of indirect bias it doesn’t protect job applicants like Villarreal, only employees.
The tobacco company’s arguments were accepted by the U.S. District Court in Atlanta, which tossed out Villarreal’s lawsuit, and last fall by a majority of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the district court’s ruling. The Supreme Court will decide soon whether to hear the case. If Reynolds prevails, employers will have powerful new ways to shield themselves from charges of age bias.
“If this case stands, it will make it harder for individuals later in their work lives to prove they faced discrimination. It will mean less protection for older workers under the key federal law designed to protect against age bias,” said Sandra Sperino, an employment discrimination specialist and law professor at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio.
Bryan D. Hatchell, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds’ parent company, Reynolds American Inc., declined to comment on ongoing litigation.
The ADEA’s anti-discrimination language originally matched that of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which covers race, gender, color, religion and national origin. And for their first 25 years, courts mostly ruled that the provisions of one applied to the other.
Even so, it always has been harder to prove discrimination based on age, in part because the ADEA’s authors recognized that in some instances, it’s fair to take age into account in ways that wouldn’t be tolerated for race, gender or other categories.
It’s also difficult to know how much age factors into employment decisions. While studies have repeatedly shown employers engage in age discrimination, little is known about its pervasiveness or mechanisms, especially in hiring, which generally is a private matter with few federal or state laws governing employer conduct.
Work by Teresa Ghilarducci and colleagues at The New School for Social Research shows that 2.7 million people, or 10 percent of the 27 million Americans ages 55 through 64 and still in the labor force, are unemployed, partially employed or in a netherworld between employment and retirement. A study by Urban Institute economist Richard Johnson and others, which followed workers who were in their early to mid–50s at the beginning of the 1990s, found that almost 8 million, or 25 percent, had been laid off at least once by the mid-2000s. Many ended up working at lesser jobs or being out of work for long periods.
Analysts say the studies likely understate the impact of bias. “Discrimination has ripple effects and can become self-reinforcing,” said Ghilarducci, director of the Retirement Equity Lab at The New School. “People who think they’re going to be rejected from a job often beat the discriminator to the punch by not applying or leaving the labor force altogether.”
The Villarreal case is the latest in a string of lawsuits over the past 2 1/2 decades in which employers have challenged the scope of the ADEA and won sympathetic decisions from courts. Some see it as part of a larger pattern. “In recent decades, the courts have chipped away at the nation’s age-discrimination laws,” said Sen. Robert Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Special Committee on Aging.
The Supreme Court and lower courts have ruled that employers have wide latitude to cite what the ADEA calls “reasonable factors other than age” — things such as pay levels or health costs — to justify treating older workers differently without paying a legal price.
In 2009, the Supreme Court decided that a 54-year-old financial manager who claimed to have been wrongly demoted had to prove that age wasn’t just a motivating factor in the employer’s decision — the standard for other forms of discrimination — but essentially the only factor. That’s a bar that plaintiffs’ lawyers and many legal scholars say is nearly impossible to clear.
Besides the Villarreal case, the issue of whether the ADEA covers job applicants is being disputed in two other lawsuits, with mixed results so far.
In Chicago, a federal district judge ruled that a 59-year-old unemployed lawyer who was rejected for a “senior counsel” position at a medical device manufacturer couldn’t sue because the law doesn’t apply to applicants. The ruling has been appealed to the 7th Circuit.
In San Francisco, accounting giant PricewaterhouseCooper LLP used the same argument in asking that a federal district judge dismiss the suit of a 53-year-old rejected for an “experienced associate” position. Last month, the judge ruled against the company, citing an earlier case that concluded, “The ADEA is remedial and humanitarian legislation and should be interpreted liberally.” The firm has yet to file an appeal.
Some business groups take issue with the idea that recent court rulings are unfairly narrowing the law. The decisions, they say, simply aim to lock in a distinction that congressional authors of the nation’s anti-discrimination laws always intended — that while it’s necessary for laws to regulate application and hiring when it comes to race and gender to avoid perpetuating past discrimination, it’s unnecessary in the case of age because there’s no long-running bad behavior that needs undoing.
“Age discrimination does not consign individuals to a lifetime of disadvantage,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wrote in a brief supporting Reynolds.
Villarreal had little reason to think that age would be an issue when he first applied for the Reynolds job. He was living on a cul-de-sac in an Atlanta suburb, supporting a wife and teenage daughter by working at Coca-Cola, the region’s iconic employer.
According to court papers, he figured his eight years in sales would make him a prime candidate for the Reynolds position, which was described on the website CareerBuilder.com as involving lots of travel to work with retailers and “one-to-one” interaction with consumers.
What Villarreal could not see either on CareerBuilder or on the Reynolds corporate site to which he was switched to apply was what was going on beyond his computer screen. And there’s almost no chance that he would have learned about it had it not been for a whistleblower, who contacted a labor law firm across the country almost three years after Villarreal first applied.
The whistleblower’s name does not appear in any court or administrative documents. At the start of the case, Reynolds denied allegations that were based on the whistleblower’s material. But it chose not to build its defense on attacking the whistleblower. Instead, the company has trained all its legal firepower on challenging Villarreal’s right to sue in order to get the case dismissed.
What the whistleblower’s material shows is that in the years Villarreal was applying, two Reynolds subcontractors in succession — Kelly Services Inc. and Pinstripe Inc. — sorted job applications according to the tobacco company’s “resume review guidelines,” many of which seemed to have little to do with traveling salesmanship, but a lot to do with age.
One version of the Reynolds guidelines said, under the heading of “What to Look For On A Resume,” that a job candidate should be a “recent college grad” who was involved “in many activities (sports, fraternities/sororities, clubs etc.).” Under a separate “Targeted Candidate” heading, it added: “2-3 years out of college.”
Meanwhile, under the heading “Stay Away From” were applicants “in sales for 8-10 years.”
A second version of the guidelines filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which had to give its approval before Villarreal could sue, was more direct.
Under the “Targeted” heading, it said “candidates ages 35 and under.” Under “Stay Away From,” it said “candidates 35 and over.” In a court document filed early in the case, Reynolds denied that it ever instructed its applicant sorters to stay away from anyone because of age.
The guidelines had a big effect, according to statistics provided by the whistleblower and included in court records.
In 2007 and 2008, when Kelly was the subcontractor, it received more than 19,000 applications for territory sales manager positions, of which 9,100, or 48 percent, were from candidates like Villarreal with eight or more years of sales experience. Kelly referred about 1,400, or 15 percent, of these to Reynolds for further consideration. In 2009 and 2010, when Pinstripe had the job, almost half the applicants were experienced candidates; it referred less than 8 percent of those.
Of the 1,024 sales managers who Reynolds hired between 2007 and mid-2010, only 19 were over 40.
A major bias case against the Texas Roadhouse chain stems from an aggressive government strategy that may not survive the Trump administration. Read the story.
“It’s hard to imagine what stronger evidence of age discrimination someone would want besides a company directive to use criteria that disadvantages older people in hiring for a job where age doesn’t appear to be relevant, and the numbers that show the subsequent hiring was skewed against older workers,” James Finberg, a partner with the San Francisco law firm of Altshuler Berzon that received the whistleblower’s material and represents Villarreal, said in an interview.
The first things that Reynolds wanted — and what it got from the Atlanta federal district and circuit courts — were rulings that said that, whatever the evidence about company hiring practices, Villarreal had not “diligently” pursued why he’d never received a response to his application by calling to ask or taking some other action, and so he couldn’t sue and the evidence was irrelevant.
The legal requirement that people who sue must diligently pursue their rights — in the case of the ADEA, they generally must file a charge within 180 days of when they think they’ve been discriminated against — is designed to protect against frivolous lawsuits and limit employers’ legal exposure.
But because discrimination tends to be hidden, courts usually provide flexibility.
Indeed, the Atlanta circuit court ruled in one case that people don’t have to file charges or take any other steps when they have “no reason to believe” discrimination has occurred, and in another that people aren’t obligate to file “until the facts that would support a cause of action are apparent.”
The reason such exceptions to the diligence rule are needed, according to the court: “Secret preferences and even more subtle means of illegal discrimination, because of their very nature, are unlikely to be readily apparent to the individual discriminated against,” and so can take a long time to come to light.
This kind of legal flexibility has been put to the test in recent years as the U.S. hiring market has migrated from newspaper classified ad sections and company human-resources offices onto the internet. As envisioned by internet pioneers such as Robert McGovern, who founded CareerBuilder in the mid-1990s, the new online system would “create liquidity in the job market” by quickly matching the abilities of applicants with the needs of recruiters and would improve fairness by directing attention to individual accomplishments rather than their race, gender, age or other characteristics.
But as McGovern acknowledged in a recent interview, “one of the downsides of my online jobs invention is the incredible increase in applicant volume.”
That volume prompted many companies to hire subcontractors or use computer algorithms to handle applications. As a result, many applicants were left in the dark. A 2013 CareerBuilder survey of 4,000 workers found that 75 percent never heard back from employers. A 2015 survey of nearly 2,000 hiring executives found that most respond to less than half of applicants.
“Current job application and hiring processes are increasingly opaque and anonymous, making it ever more impractical to expect job applicants to investigate employer motives for rejecting them,” Daniel B. Kohrman and colleagues with the AARP Foundation, part of the seniors advocacy group, wrote in a supporting brief in the Villarreal case.
As Villareal’s lawyers prepared to sue Reynolds for discrimination, they believed these changes in the job market explained why their client hadn’t called about his application and didn’t take any legal action until he learned about the whistleblower in 2010. They thought their case met the Atlanta circuit court’s standards for when it would grant flexibility from the diligence requirement.
But first U.S. District Judge Richard W. Story and later six of 11 members of the full circuit court ruled that Villarreal was owed no flexibility because he’d failed the diligence test.
The circuit court ruling, written by Judge William Pryor, said the Georgia salesman “did nothing for more than two years between his initial application” and being told about the whistleblower. “We have no difficulty concluding, as a matter of law, that a plaintiff who does nothing for two years is not diligent,” Pryor wrote.
The ruling prompted a ferocious dissent by Judge Beverly Martin, speaking for the five remaining circuit court members.
“The majority now tells us,” Martin wrote, “that secret discrimination won’t be punished unless the victim tried to expose the discrimination himself, even if he had no reason to suspect anyone was discriminating against him.”
If the 11th Circuit majority had left matters at this point, Villarreal’s suit likely would have attracted little attention. But the court took a big additional step when it adopted the company’s arguments that, in this type of case, the law doesn’t even apply to job applicants.
Debate over the scope of the law is rooted in the difference between blatant, intentional discrimination — such as rejecting someone for a job or a promotion explicitly because of their age — and a pattern of biased outcomes, whatever the intention.
Blatant discrimination was widespread at the time of the law’s passage. A 1965 report by then-Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz, who played a key role in drafting the law, found that over half of all employers set explicit age limits. Half of all job openings in a given year were closed to applicants over 55. A quarter of them were closed to those over 45.
But from the outset, the authors of the ADEA recognized there were other kinds of discrimination besides intentional acts of prejudice. Many appeared on their surface to have little to do with age but disproportionally hurt those later in their work lives and could have been predicted to have this effect. So lawmakers added a provision for such indirect bias, outlawing employer policies and practices that had a “disparate impact” on older people.
The 1967 federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act has been used for decades to protect job seekers and employees from bias. Now the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. has argued successfully in a federal court case that language in the law means part of it doesn’t cover applicants. The case may be headed to the Supreme Court.
“It shall be unlawful for an employer…to limit, segregate, or classify his employees in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s age.”
The phrase in blue has long been interpreted as meaning that the law applies to anyone who either applies for a job or holds a job.
Under courts’ interpretations, the phrase in red negates that scope and means the law only applies to employees, not people applying for a job.
To be sure, lawmakers included some exceptions that allowed employers to treat older workers’ lives differently than others. But it’s striking how skeptical the ADEA authors were of even the most obvious justification for different treatment, physical condition.
“So far as the allegedly key issue of physical capability is concerned,” Wirtz wrote in an influential report to Congress, “a comprehensive review of available medical and psychological evidences reveals no support for the broad age lines which have been drawn on the basis of claimed physical requirement.”
Villarreal’s lawyers were convinced that their case fit the age law’s definition of disparate impact, what with Reynolds’ resume review guidelines and the numbers showing their strikingly negative effect on older people.
They were ready for the tobacco company to challenge their evidence of disparate impact. Instead, Reynolds made a more sweeping argument; it asserted that the disparate impact provision doesn’t apply to job applicants such as Villarreal at all.
In his brief, Eric Dreiband, the tobacco company’s lead lawyer, a partner with the New York-based law firm of Jones Day and a former general counsel with the EEOC, said the law’s “text and structure” clearly shows the provision refers only to employees and their status, not to applicants.
Dreiband, who declined to comment for this story, argued, among other things, that if the provision were read more broadly it could prohibit hiring programs for internships and entry positions aimed at young people and “impose massive litigation costs on employers.”
Though it’s indisputable that the ADEA’s language on disparate impact makes no mention of job applicants, lawmakers debating the measure before its passage spoke openly and often about the need to boost older Americans in the workforce. “In simple terms, this bill prohibits discrimination in hiring and firing,” said Ralph Yarborough, a U.S. senator from Texas who was the measure’s chief sponsor.
Given this, it’s tough to understand drawing a line between employees and applicants, according to Michael Selmi, a law professor at George Washington University. “What sense does it make to have a law designed to ensure a reasonably age-diverse workforce if you say that its provisions don’t reach the people who’d help make up that workforce — older workers applying for jobs?” he asked.
The ruling appears to be at odds with a longstanding Supreme Court doctrine that, when legal language is unclear, courts should defer to the federal agency in charge of administering a law. While the Atlanta court was deeply divided about the legal language in this case, the administering agency, the EEOC, has consistently said that all of the provisions of ADEA apply to both applicants and employees.
“To get to this result,” Circuit Judge Martin wrote in her dissent, “the majority … rejects the interpretation that the governing agencies have used since 1968 and misreads the Supreme Court.”
Efforts are underway to strengthen the ADEA. For example, Casey, the Pennsylvania senator, recently co-sponsored a bipartisan bill that aims to restore the parallel in legal standards for proving discrimination in the case of age with those for race, gender and other forms of discrimination.
But until the courts or Congress clarify the law’s reach, “hundreds of thousands of older workers,” according to Villarreal’s plea for the Supreme Court to hear his case, will face the new online hiring market with growing doubts about their protection from bias.
For more coverage, read ProPublica’s previous reporting on the courts and age bias.
This story was updated to include a response from the office of Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash.
When Louisiana resident Andrea Mongler wrote to her senator, Bill Cassidy, in support of the Affordable Care Act, she wasn’t surprised to get an email back detailing the law’s faults. Cassidy, a Republican who is also a physician, has been a vocal critic.
“Obamacare” he wrote in January, “does not lower costs or improve quality, but rather it raises taxes and allows a presidentially handpicked ‘Health Choices Commissioner’ to determine what coverage and treatments are available to you.”
There’s one problem with Cassidy’s ominous-sounding assertion: It’s false.
The Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, includes no “Health Choices Commissioner.” Another bill introduced in Congress in 2009 did include such a position, but the bill died — and besides, the job as outlined in that legislation didn’t have the powers Cassidy ascribed to it.
As the debate to repeal the law heats up in Congress, constituents are flooding their representatives with notes of support or concern, and the lawmakers are responding, sometimes with form letters that are misleading. A review of more than 200 such letters by ProPublica and its partners at Kaiser Health News, Stat and Vox, found dozens of errors and mischaracterizations about the ACA and its proposed replacement. The legislators have cited wrong statistics, conflated health care terms and made statements that don’t stand up to verification.
It’s not clear if this is intentional or if the lawmakers and their staffs don’t understand the current law or the proposals to alter it. Either way, the issue of what is wrong — and right — about the current system has become critical as the House prepares to vote on the GOP’s replacement bill Thursday.
“If you get something like that in writing from your U.S. senator, you should be able to just believe that,” said Mongler, 34, a freelance writer and editor who is pursuing a master’s degree in public health. “I hate that people are being fed falsehoods, and a lot of people are buying it and not questioning it. It’s far beyond politics as usual.”
Cassidy’s staff did not respond to questions about his letter.
Have you sent a letter in support, in opposition or asking questions about the ACA to your congressperson? Did you get a response? Share them with us.
Political debates about complex policy issues are prone to hyperbole and health care is no exception. And to be sure, many of the assertions in the lawmakers’ letters are at least partially based in fact.
Democrats, for instance, have been emphasizing to their constituents that millions of previously uninsured people now have medical coverage thanks to the law. They say insurance companies can no longer discriminate against millions of patients with pre-existing conditions. And they credit the law with allowing adults under age 26 to stay on their parents’ health plans. All true.
For their part, Republicans criticize the law for not living up to its promises. They say former President Obama pledged that people could keep their health plans and doctors and premiums would go down. Neither has happened. They also say that insurers are dropping out of the market and that monthly premiums and deductibles (the amount people must pay before their coverage kicks in) have gone up. All true.
But elected officials in both parties have incorrectly cited statistics and left out important context. We decided to take a closer look after finding misleading statements in an email Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., sent to his constituents. We solicited letters from the public and found a wealth of misinformation, from statements that were simply misleading to whoppers. More Republicans fudged than Democrats, though both had their moments.
An aide to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., defended his hyperbole as “within the range of respected interpretations.”
“Do most people pay that much attention to what their congressman says? Probably not,” said Sherry Glied, dean of New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, who served as an assistant Health and Human Services secretary from 2010 to 2012. “But I think misinformation or inaccurate information is a bad thing and not knowing what you’re voting on is a really bad thing.”
We reviewed the emails and letters sent by 51 senators and 134 members of the House within the past few months. Here are some of the most glaring errors and omissions:
What he wrote: “In Ohio, almost one third of counties will have only one insurer participating in the exchange.”
What’s misleading: In fact, only 23 percent (less than one quarter) had only one option, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
His response: A Tiberi spokesperson defended the statement. “The letter says ‘almost’ because only 9 more counties in Ohio need to start offering only 1 plan on the exchanges to be one third.”
Why his response is misleading: Ohio has 88 counties. A 10 percent difference is not “almost.”
What he wrote: “Quality of care has decreased as doctors have been burdened with increased regulations on their profession.”
Why it’s misleading: Some data shows that health care has improved after the passage of the ACA. Patients are less likely to be readmitted to a hospital within 30 days after they have been discharged, for instance. Also, payments have been increasingly linked to patients’ outcomes rather than just the quantity of services delivered. A 2016 report by the Commonwealth Fund, a health care nonprofit think tank, found that the quality care has improved in many communities following the ACA.
His response: None.
What she wrote: “It’s important to note that 60 percent of Medicaid goes to long-term care and with the evisceration of it in the bill, this critical coverage is severely compromised.”
What’s misleading: Medicaid does not spend 60 percent of its budget on long-term care. The figure is closer to a quarter, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank. Medicaid does, however, cover more than 60 percent of all nursing home residents.
Her response: Eshoo’s office said the statistic was based on a subset of enrollees who are dually enrolled in Medicaid and Medicare. For this smaller group, 62 percent of Medicaid expenditures were for long-term support services, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
What’s misleading about the response: Eshoo’s letter makes no reference to this population, but instead refers to the 75 million Americans on Medicaid.
What he wrote: “According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately thirty-three million Americans are still living without health care coverage and many more have coverage that does not adequately meet their health care needs.”
Why it’s misleading: The actual number of uninsured in 2015 was about 29 million, a drop of 4 million from the prior year, the Census Bureau reported in September. Fleischmann’s number was from the previous year.
Beyond that, reducing the number of uninsured by more than 12 million people from 2013 to 2015 has been seen as a success of Obamacare. And the Republican repeal-and-replace bill is projected to increase the number of uninsured.
His response: None.
What he wrote: The ACA “allowed 6.1 million young adults to remain covered by their parents’ insurance plans.”
What’s misleading: A 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, released during the Obama administration, however, pegged the number at 2.3 million.
Kennedy may have gotten to 6.1 million by including 3.8 million young adults who gained health insurance coverage through insurance marketplaces from October 2013 through early 2016.
His response: A spokeswoman for Kennedy said the office had indeed added those two numbers together and would fix future letters.
What he said: “Nearly 75 percent of state-run exchanges have already collapsed, forcing more than 800,000 Americans to find new coverage.”
What’s misleading: When the ACA first launched, 16 states and the District of Columbia opted to set up their own exchanges for residents to purchase insurance, instead of using the federal marketplace, known as Healthcare.gov.
Of the 16, four state exchanges, in Oregon, Hawaii, New Mexico and Nevada, failed, and Kentucky plans to close its exchange this year, according to a report by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. While the report casts doubt on the viability of other state exchanges, it is clear that three-quarters have not failed.
His response: None.
What he said: “It has also, through the requirement that employees that work thirty hours or more be considered full time and thus be offered health insurance by their employer, distorted the labor market.”
What’s misleading: A number of studies have found little to back up that assertion. A 2016 study published by the journal Health Affairs examined data on hours worked, reason for working part time, age, education and health insurance status. “We found only limited evidence to support this speculation” that the law led to an increase in part-time employment, the authors wrote. Another study found much the same.
In addition, PolitiFact labeled as false a statement last June by President Donald Trump in which he said, “Because of Obamacare, you have so many part-time jobs.”
His response: Rohrabacher spokesman Ken Grubbs said the congressman’s statement was based on an article that said, “Are Republicans right that employers are capping workers’ hours to avoid offering health insurance? The evidence suggests the answer is ‘yes,’ although the number of workers affected is fairly small.”
We pointed out that “fairly small” was hardly akin to distorting the labor market. To which Grubbs replied, “The congressman’s letter is well within the range of respected interpretations. That employers would react to Obamacare’s impact in such way is so obvious, so nearly axiomatic, that it is pointless to get lost in the weeds,” Grubbs said.
What he wrote: “Health insurance premiums are slated to increase significantly. Existing customers can expect an average increase of 73 percent, while the average change due to Obamacare for those purchasing a new plan will be a 96 percent increase in premiums. The average cost for a new customer in the individual market is expected to rise $1,812 per year.”
What’s misleading: The figures seem to have come from a report issued before the Obamacare insurance marketplaces launched and before 2014 premiums had been announced. The letter implies these figures are current. In fact, premium increases by and large have been moderate under Obamacare. The average monthly premium for a benchmark plan, upon which federal subsidies are calculated, increased about 2 percent from 2014 to 2015; 7 percent from 2015 to 2016; and 25 percent this year, for states that take part in the federal insurance marketplace.
His response: None
What he wrote: “A Medicaid actuarial report from August 2016 found that the average cost per enrollee was 49 percent higher than estimated just a year prior — in large part due to beneficiaries seeking care at more expensive hospital emergency rooms due to difficulty finding a doctor and long waits for appointments.”
What’s misleading: The report did not blame the higher costs on the difficulty patients had finding doctors. Among the reasons the report did cite: patients who were sicker than anticipated and required a raft of services after being previously uninsured. The report also noted that costs are expected to decrease in the future.
His response: None
What he wrote: “Families are seeing lower premiums on their insurance, seniors are saving money on prescription drug costs, and hospital readmission rates are dropping.”
What’s misleading: Durbin’s second and third points are true. The first, however, is misleading. Family insurance premiums have increased in recent years, although with government subsidies, some low- and middle-income families may be paying less for their health coverage than they once did.
His response: Durbin’s office said it based its statement on an analysis published in the journal Health Affairs that said that individual health insurance premiums dropped between 2013 and 2014, the year that Obamacare insurance marketplaces began. It also pointed to a Washington Post opinion piece that said that premiums under the law are lower than they would have been without the law.
Why his response is misleading: The Post piece his office cites states clearly, “Yes, insurance premiums are going up, both in the health care exchanges and in the employer-based insurance market.”
What she wrote: “Since the enactment of the ACA, deductibles are up, on average, 63 percent. To make matters worse, monthly premiums for the “bronze plan” rose 21 percent from 2016 to 2017. … Families and individuals covered through their employer are forced to make the difficult choice: pay their premium each month or pay their bills.”
What’s misleading: Brooks accurately cited national data from the website HealthPocket, but her statement is misleading. Indiana was one of two states in which the premium for a benchmark health plan — the plan used to calculate federal subsidies — actually went down between 2016 and 2017. Moreover, more than 80 percent of marketplace consumers in Indiana receive subsidies that lowered their premium costs. The HealthPocket figures refer to people who do not qualify for those subsidies.
Her response: Brooks’ office referred to a press release from Indiana’s Department of Insurance, which took issue with an Indianapolis Star story about premiums going down. The release, from October, when Vice President Mike Pence was Indiana’s governor, said that the average premiums would go up more than 18 percent over 2016 rates based on enrollment at that time. In addition, the release noted, 68,000 Indiana residents lost their health plans when their insurers withdrew from the market.
Why her response is misleading: For Indiana consumers who shopped around, which many did, there was an opportunity to find a cheaper plan.
What he wrote: “It’s terrible for seniors. Trumpcare forces older Americans to pay 5 times the amount younger Americans will — an age tax — and slashes Medicaid benefits for nursing home care that two out of three Americans in nursing homes rely on."
What’s misleading: Wyden is correct that the GOP bill, known as the American Health Care Act, would allow insurance companies to charge older adults five times higher premiums than younger ones, compared to three times higher premiums under the existing law. However, it does not directly slash Medicaid benefits for nursing home residents. It proposes cutting Medicaid funding and giving states a greater say in setting their own priorities. States may, as a result, end up cutting services, jeopardizing nursing home care for poor seniors, advocates say, because it is one of the most expensive parts of the program.
His response: Taylor Harvey, a spokesman for Wyden, defended the statement, noting that the GOP health bill cuts Medicaid funding by $880 billion over 10 years and places a cap on spending. “Cuts to Medicaid would force states to nickel and dime nursing homes, restricting access to care for older Americans and making it a benefit in name only,” he wrote.
Why his response is misleading: The GOP bill does not spell out how states make such cuts.
What he wrote: “It’s about the 24 million Americans expected to lose their insurance under the Trumpcare plan and for every person who will see their insurance premiums rise — on average 10-15 percent.”
Why it’s misleading: First, the Congressional Budget Office did estimate that the GOP legislation would cover 24 million fewer Americans by 2026. But not all of those people would “lose their insurance.” Some would choose to drop coverage because the bill would no longer make it mandatory to have health insurance, as is the case now.
Second, the budget office did say that in 2018 and 2019, premiums under the GOP bill would be 15-20 percent higher than they would have been under Obamacare because the share of unhealthy patients would increase as some of those who are healthy drop out. But it noted that after that, premiums would be lower than under the ACA.
His response: “It is indisputable that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said 24 million fewer people will have health care under the D.C. Republican plan. Whether folks lose their insurance or choose not to buy it because of sticker shock, having fewer people in the health care system is a bad outcome for all Americans,” said Kilmer spokesman Jason Phelps in an email. “It is also a fact that the CBO has estimated premiums will go up by as much as 15% in the short term. President Trump pledged that his health care plan would provide ‘insurance for everybody’ and be ‘much less expensive.’”
Have you corresponded with a member of Congress or senator about the Affordable Care Act? We’d love to see the response you received. Please fill out our short form.
A Connecticut lawmaker today is set to convene a panel of experts and law enforcement officials to explore ways of reducing the state’s rate of dual arrests in cases of domestic violence, outcomes where both alleged abusers and victims wind up taken to jail and charged.
ProPublica reported earlier this year that Connecticut’s rate of dual arrests far outstrips the national average and has persisted for years despite the concerns of many women victims and domestic violence advocates. The state’s rate of dual arrests has hovered around 18 percent of all intimate partners cases, while the national average has typically been around 2 percent.
The lawmaker, Democratic state Sen. Mae Flexer, said the panel will tackle the need for better, more comprehensive data, as well as the possibility of formal legislation. Panelists will include domestic violence experts, a representative of the Connecticut Police Officers Standards and Training Council and other officials from the state’s judicial system.
A ProPublica review of data provided by the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection shows that rates of dual arrests in some cities and towns are strikingly high. In Windsor, a town of 29,044, dual arrests accounted for 35 percent of intimate partner arrests in 2015, the last year for which complete data is available. In Ansonia, the rate was 37 percent. New Haven for years has seen about a fifth of its domestic violence cases result in dual arrests.
At the center of the problem, according to legislators and advocates for women, is the fact that the state has a mandatory-arrest law for cases of reported domestic violence, but lacks a provision that allows police to limit arrests to the person determined to have been the primary aggressor. As a result, victims can wind up being arrested along with their abusers. In such instances, the complaining victims must find a lawyer and work to limit the lasting damage of a formal criminal record. They are often assigned a public defender and a victim’s advocate, whose offices also represent their significant others. The fear of being arrested can dissuade victims from calling the police at all.
Over the years, state lawmakers have tried to adjust the governing legislation to limit damage to victims, but so far have not succeeded. For instance, legislation establishing a “self-defense” exception was meant to allow officers to protect a victim who legitimately struck back at his or her attacker from needless arrest. But some say a lack of training in the proper handling of domestic violence cases for local police departments has limited the impact of the exception, and dual arrests have continued at disturbing rates.
Enhanced training for officers will be among the issues taken on by the panel, according to Flexer.
Other states have made attempts to combat dual arrests, with varying degrees of success. New York state enacted a mandatory-arrest law but quickly added a primary aggressor section — authorizing officers to make a determination about who was the actual culprit — after the state saw dual arrests rise. New Jersey also has a mandatory arrest and primary aggressor law. Massachusetts has a preferred arrest law: Police are strongly urged, but not required, to make an arrest in cases of domestic violence. Massachusetts law requires police to provide written justification in dual arrest cases.
A former lobbyist for an association of for-profit colleges resigned last Friday from the Department of Education, where he had worked for about a month.
As ProPublica reported last week, the Trump administration had hired Taylor Hansen to join the department’s “beachhead” team, a group of temporary hires who do not require approval from the U.S. Senate for their appointments.
On the day Hansen resigned, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., sent a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, citing ProPublica’s reporting and requesting more information on Hansen’s role.
“Mr. Hansen’s recent employment history clearly calls into question his impartiality in dealing with higher education issues at the Department of Education, and raises alarming conflicts of interest concerns,” she wrote.
Jim Bradshaw, an education department spokesman, told ProPublica in an email that the department was “grateful for [Hansen’s] contributions.”
“He served ably and without conflict and decided his service had run its course,” said Bradshaw. Hansen did not immediately respond to ProPublica’s request for comment. Bloomberg first reported Hansen’s departure.
Hansen isn’t the only hire from the for-profit college industry to join the Education Department via the beachhead team. The New York Times reported that Robert S. Eitel, a former compliance officer at for-profit college operator Bridgepoint Education Inc., is working at the department. Eitel, a former deputy general counsel at the Education Department from 2006 to 2009, has been a critic of federal regulations on for-profit colleges.
Warren also criticized Eitel’s hiring in her letter to DeVos. She noted that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last September ordered Bridgepoint, Eitel’s former employer, to refund $23.5 million to students whom it had deceived into taking out loans that cost more than advertised. Bridgepoint is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the attorneys general of New York, North Carolina, California and Massachusetts, Warren wrote.
Until July 2016, Hansen worked as a registered lobbyist for the nation’s largest trade group of for-profit colleges, Career Education Colleges and Universities, or CECU. He lobbied to weaken a regulation known as “gainful employment,” which permits the education department to rescind federal funding from schools whose students fail to earn enough to repay their debts.
Just weeks after Hansen was hired by the Education Department, it began scaling back the regulations by delaying the deadline of certain provisions of the gainful employment rule. The move gives colleges three extra months to submit appeals and publish disclosures about the high debt loads of their graduates, while the department reviews the implementation of the rule.
Hansen told ProPublica that he wasn’t working on the gainful employment regulations at the department, but he would not specify his responsibilities. He declined to comment on whether his role raised a potential conflict of interest.
Taylor Hansen lobbied to weaken regulation of for-profit colleges. Since he joined the Education Department, it’s started doing just that. Read the story.
Hansen worked as CECU’s director of legislative and regulatory affairs from December 2013 to July 2016 and was a registered lobbyist for the group for the first half of 2016. Over the past five years, CECU has spent about $3.5 million lobbying on behalf of its more than 600 member institutions, the majority of which are for-profit colleges.
Shortly after his inauguration, Trump relaxed the Obama administration’s restrictions on hiring lobbyists. He issued an ethics order that allowed former lobbyists, such as Hansen, to work for agencies that they recently sought to influence. The policy does preclude former lobbyists from working on any “particular matter” on which they lobbied.
Hansen would have been ineligible to work at the Education Department under the Obama administration’s policies.
Hansen’s father, William Hansen, served in the early 2000s as deputy secretary of the Education Department, where he helped to roll back regulations on for-profit colleges. After leaving the department, William Hansen worked for several years as a lobbyist for Apollo Group Inc., the parent company of for-profit college chain the University of Phoenix.
Ben Miller, the senior director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, said that the lack of transparency around Hansen’s hiring raises concerns about temporary hires at the Education Department.
“His entire tenure shows we need much more information on how the beachhead teams work,” Miller said.
We have written before about the steps ProPublica is taking to increase the diversity of our workplace as well as in the journalism community more broadly. In 2017, we remain committed to recruiting and retaining people from communities that have long been underrepresented not only in journalism but particularly in investigative journalism. That includes African Americans, Latinos, other people of color, women, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities and people of underrepresented faiths. Now, more than ever, it is crucial to have a newsroom filled with people from a broad range of backgrounds and perspectives.
We’ve continued and expanded many of the programs and scholarships we started in 2015. Specifically:
The ProPublica Data Institute, which is an all-expenses-paid two-week workshop we host at our New York offices that teaches journalists how to use data, design and coding for their own stories. This year we are excited to be partnering with the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. The application deadline is March 31st, so there is still time to apply if you’re interested.
We’re again offering $500 scholarships for students to attend the conferences of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, National Association of Black Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association and the Native American Journalists Association. Last year we sent five extremely talented students to Washington, D.C., for the joint NAHJ/NABJ convention. This year we plan to expand that to 12 students. We'll be announcing the applications for these scholarships soon.
For the third year in a row, we'll be pairing journalists of color with managing editors, executive editors and other top journalists at our ONA Diversity Mentorship Breakfast. Be on the lookout for when our applications for this program open later this summer.
Part of our commitment to diversity means being transparent about at our own numbers. Here are ours:
NOTES: Race/Ethnicity and Gender breakdowns reflect 71 employees total (51 in the editorial department). Charts may not add up exactly to 100% due to rounding.
Here is our jobs page, where we post new full-time positions, and here’s our fellowships page. You can also sign up to be notified when we have a job available. You can also simply email us — we’re eager to hear from candidates at any time.
Here’s how preparing your taxes could work: You sit down, review a prefilled filing from the government. If it’s accurate, you sign it. If it’s not, you fix it or ignore it altogether and prepare your return yourself. It’s your choice. You might not have to pay for an accountant, or fiddle for hours with complex software. It could all be over in minutes.
It’s already like that in parts of Europe. And it would not be particularly difficult to give U.S. taxpayers the same option. After all, the government already gets earnings information from employers.
Intuit spent more than $2 million lobbying last year, much of it spent on legislation that would permanently bar the government from offering taxpayers prefilled returns. H&R Block spent $3 million, also directing some of their efforts towards the bill. Among the 60 co-sponsors of the bipartisan bill: then congressman and now Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
The bill, called the Free File Act of 2016, looks on the surface to be consumer-friendly. It makes permanent a public-private partnership in which 13 private tax preparation companies — called the “Free File Alliance” —have offered free online tax filings to lower- and middle-income families. The Free File Alliance include both Intuit and H&R Block.
But the legislation would also permanently bar the IRS from offering its own free alternative.
Intuit has repeatedly warned investors about the prospect of government-prepared returns. “We anticipate that governmental encroachment at both the federal and state levels may present a continued competitive threat to our business for the foreseeable future,” Intuit said in its latest corporate filings.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., offered a bill last year that would have actually allowed the government to start offering prefill tax returns. While Intuit did not lobby against Warren’s bill — presumably because the legislation had little chance of success — tax giant H&R Block did. (H&R Block did not respond to a request for comment.)
Neither Warren’s bill nor the Free File Act made it out of committee.
Very few of those eligible for the industry’s no-charge filing program actually use it, perhaps because the system is confusing and pushes people toward paid products.
While the Free File Alliance says 70 percent of U.S. taxpayers can use the service, less than 2 percent of all individual tax returns were filed through the program in last year, according to a National Taxpayer Advocate’s report to Congress.
“Let’s call the so-called Free File Alliance what it really is — a front for tax prep companies who use it as a gateway to sell expensive products no one would even need if we’d just made it easier for people to pay their taxes,” said Warren in a statement to ProPublica. Warren’s office put out a report on the issue last year that repeatedly cited our coverage.
In an emailed statement the Free File Alliance’s executive director, Tim Hugo, said that the alliance does not automatically push paid products to those that use the Free File program but the taxpayer does “have the option of ‘opting in’ to receive additional information and offers from the tax preparation company they have selected.”
He said that the lack of awareness of the program is “unfortunate,” and placed blame on the IRS. While the tax agency previously had a large budget to advertise the Free File program, “today that budget is $0, making it difficult to reach the general public,” he said.
In response to Warren’s bill, the Free File Alliance warned in press release that allowing the IRS to prep returns would create “a tremendous and potentially harmful conflict of interest for the American people by enshrining the roles of tax preparer, tax collector, tax auditor and tax enforcer in one entity.”
Hugo is also a state legislator in Virginia, which canceled its own cost-free system of tax filing in 2010 and replaced it with a “Free File” bill connecting taxpayers to private companies. Hugo serves on the committee that greenlighted the legislation. Hugo said he saw no conflict of interest here, as the Free File program he represents is federal, not state, and he recused himself from voting in the committee and on the floor.
Joseph Bankman, a law professor in tax law at Stanford Law School said arguments about government overreach are false. Participation is voluntary and actually gives taxpayers the upper hand, forcing the government to “show its hand.”
“Now you know what the government knows,” Bankman said, who added that there are multiple ways taxpayers could benefit. “If there’s a mistake that goes in your favor, maybe you don’t call attention to it.” Also, everyone would receive the returns — including the millions of Americans who are due tax refunds but don’t get them because they don’t file. In 2012 alone, the IRS said more than 1 million Americans did not receive their refunds — amounting to $950 million — because they did not file.
The authors of the federal Free File bill have repeatedly voiced fears of big-government interference.
Intuit, producer of the top-selling tax software, has opposed letting the government do your taxes for free — even though it could save time and headaches for millions of filers. Read the story.
In an opinion piece for The Daily Caller and on his site, Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., said “making the tax collector also the tax preparer creates an inherent conflict of interest while forcing citizens to relinquish control of their taxes to the government.”
Since the 2008 election cycle, Roskam has taken in more than $32,000 in donations from Intuit’s political action committee and Intuit employees. He received a far smaller amount, $2,500, from H&R Block — all for the 2016 election cycle. Roskam’s office did not return a request for comment.
HHS Secretary Price received only modest donations from Intuit, $3,500 since 2008 — $2,500 of which came six days after the Free File Act of 2016 was announced. He received $2,000 total from H&R Block. (Price’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)
In a statement, Kind said he is “open to working with anyone” to find ways for “hardworking Wisconsin families” to file their taxes with ease. “At the same time, I want to make sure that Wisconsinites can access programs, like Free File, that they have come to depend on.”
When asked for details on how many Wisconsinites actually rely on the program, given that few of those who qualify for it actually use it, a spokesperson for Kind did not respond.
President Donald Trump’s administration announced a $600 million bidding contest late Friday night to kick off construction of The Wall, a towering physical barrier between the United States and Mexico.
The process will start with little walls — an unknown number of barriers of concrete and other materials that will serve as models for the bigger wall, which Trump made central to his political campaign.
Construction will proceed with unusual haste. Companies have just two weeks to submit proposals. Finalists will make a 2 1/2-hour-long oral presentation to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which is overseeing the contest. Winners will be announced by late May.
Steven Schooner, a professor of government contracting at George Washington University, tweeted that the process was “extremely/uniquely complicated (and confusing).”
But CBP officials said the approach was designed to get the best value for the government.
“Through the construction of prototypes, CBP will partner with industry to identify the best means and methods to construct border wall before making a more substantial investment in construction,” the agency said in a statement.
The bidding documents released Friday provide important clues as to what the Trump administration hopes to erect on the 1,200 miles of border with no physical barriers. Some 650 miles are already fenced.
The little walls are supposed to be tall. They should be “physically imposing in height” — 30 feet is preferred, though 18 feet is acceptable. However, the prototypes will be as little as 30 feet long, and cost as little as $100,000.
The little walls are supposed to be strong. They must be able to withstand attacks from “sledgehammer, car jack, pick axe, chisel, battery operated impact tools, battery operated cutting tools, Oxy/acetylene torch” for at least one hour, preferably four. They should also be able to span 45-degree slopes, and block tunneling. Contractors will build prototypes of concrete — Trump’s preferred material — but also other materials that will allow visibility between the two sides. Once the government has determined a model, the prototypes may be demolished.
Finally, the little walls are supposed to be pretty — at least on the U.S. side of the border. The agency wants the walls to be “aesthetically pleasing” so that the color and texture blends into the environment on the “north side of the wall.” There is no similar language for the Mexican side of the wall.
In addition to the tough building conditions, the agency clearly understands another difficulty will be political: Interested builders are urged to discuss their experience in “executing high profile, high visibility and politically contentious” construction projects.
Immigration activists are expected to protest construction of the wall, deploying tactics learned during the long, bitter protests over construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. The bid calls for companies to hire their own private security contractors to protect their projects.
America may get its border wall. It just might have to do without a lot else. Read the story.
It’ll cost $20 billion or more. Mexico will pay for it, or it won’t. Amid uncertainty, Trump clearly seems intent on making the border wall handsome. Read the story.
The final cost of the wall — and even whether it will be built — is a matter of debate. Trump has said he anticipates the final bill to be from $10 billion to $12 billion. The Department of Homeland Security has suggested a cost of around $21 billion. Trump’s proposed budget has called for $2.6 billion to begin construction.
In Congress, some Republicans and many Democrats have opposed spending billions for an untested and possibly ineffectual border barrier. Trump has said he will force Mexico to pay for the wall. The Mexican government has rejected the possibility.
What is clear is that the Trump administration’s methods will favor large, experienced government contractors with demonstrated experience in big construction projects. Companies such as KBR, Tutor Perini Corp., Parson Corp. and Fluor Corp. have all indicated an interest in building the edifice.
At the same time, the agency has asked bidders to explain how they will meet the agency’s goals to deliver contracts to small, minority and veteran owned companies. Customs and Border Protection aims to pay 38 percent of its contract to small business, 5 percent to woman-owned firms and 3 percent to companies owned by disabled veterans.
In practice, the likely outcome is a few large government contractors overseeing a small army of subcontractors to build the wall.
More than 700 companies signed up for notifications about the building the wall, including more than 140 minority-owned firms — about 20 percent of the total. It is unclear how many of the firms possess the necessary experience and ability to participate in the bid.
The fiscal 2018 price for President Trump’s border wall is in: $2.6 billion. That’s a cost to U.S. taxpayers, not a cost many people any longer think will be picked up by the Mexican government.
As first installments go, it’s a pretty big number. Indeed, its size can be appreciated in one powerful way by setting it against some of the many budget cuts Trump proposed this week.
One year of spending on a border wall is the equal of, well, the federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting plus the $231 million given to the country’s libraries and museums plus the $366 million that goes to legal help for the poor.
Actually, the tab is nearly three times the cost of those combined budgets.
Care about the arts? Wondering where the next “Hamilton” might come from?
The federal government could increase the annual combined spending on the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities by 900 percent or so and still not get to the $2.6 billion.
It’s worth noting the $2.6 billion will not actually go toward the big, permanent wall the president has committed to. That’s forecast to be around 10 times the $2.6 billion. The $2.6 billion will go to build a bunch of smaller walls and patch holes in the assortment of fences that now exist.
All these numbers confusing you? Wish you were better at math?
The $2.6 billion is more than twice the annual costs of 21st Century Community Learning Centers created across the country to fund programs run before and after school and throughout the summer. You could actually throw in the $190 million spent on teaching students with disabilities and limited English proficiency and still not match the wall costs.
The wall, of course, is supposed to protect Americans from the cheap labor making its way illegally into the country. It might strike some as odd that, while investing in the wall, the administration has opted to disinvest in a variety of economic programs. The Economic Development Administration’s $221 million budget is wiped out in Trump’s plan. Ditto the $434 million dedicated annually to job training for older low-income people. And the $119 million aimed every year at 420 economically depressed counties in Appalachia.
Had enough of this? Weary of politics and partisanship? Sick of talking about the wall? Want to get away from it all?
There are plenty of options, of course. What there won’t be anymore, under the Trump budget, are the $20 million spent on National Heritage Areas or the $13.2 million spent on the National Wildlife Refuge Fund.
It has little name recognition, a budget less than 10 percent of the Environmental Protection Agency’s, and is part of a government institute embraced by both of the nation’s major political parties.
Still, those concerned about the future of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences are wary of what’s to come.
“In light of what President Trump wants to do to the EPA, I don’t think any agency that deals with issues unpopular with the current government is going to escape,” said Tracey Woodruff, a professor at University of California, San Francisco’s School of Medicine.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is a branch of the National Institutes of Health based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Founded in 1966 under President Lyndon B. Johnson, it has a 2017 fiscal year budget of $771 million, far less than the EPA’s $8.2 billion and a tiny fraction of the NIH’s $32 billion.
The NIEHS studies the health effects of pesticides, chemicals and cancer-causing compounds. Some of its work is akin to the EPA’s efforts on environmental health — programs that would be eliminated or rolled back under President Trump’s proposed 31 percent cut to the EPA’s budget.
Trump’s initial 2018 budget calls for a 19 percent cut in NIH funding and an unspecified “major reorganization” of NIH’s 27 institutes and centers “to help focus resources on the highest priority research and training activities.” But it doesn’t mention the NIEHS.
It’s not like the NIEHS hasn’t found itself in political crosshairs before.
Last spring, for instance, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, demanded documents from the NIEHS about its research with the Food and Drug Administration on Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in food packaging that mimics the hormone estrogen. The FDA banned BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups in 2012, and California regulators declared the chemical a known reproductive toxicant three years later. Chaffetz’s wide-ranging inquiry asked for a slew of documents including “all communications referring or relating to BPA between any NIEHS employee and any FDA employee since April 1, 2008.” In response, NIEHS scientists met with GOP staffers from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which Chaffetz chairs, and spent an hour briefing them on the BPA study.
In 2013, after NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum wrote a journal article summarizing the public health threat of endocrine disruptors — chemicals that can harm child development and reproductive health — two GOP members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology sent a letter to Birnbaum’s boss, NIH Director Francis Collins, demanding to know if the article represented Birnbaum’s personal views or the views of the Obama administration. An NIH official wrote back, saying the article was published in a peer-reviewed journal, and that Birnbaum’s “scientific views cannot be separated from her role as an institute director.”
And when the NIEHS released a congressionally mandated Report on Carcinogens in 2011, an industry group sued the Department of Health and Human Services for the report’s inclusion of styrene (used in rubber and plastics manufacturing) as a compound that’s “reasonably anticipated” to cause cancer. The suit was dismissed, but it led to a contentious House hearing at which Republican representatives criticized the NIEHS while Democrats condemned the chemical lobby.
Although Congress has final say over agency budgets, the White House proposal has added to general anxiety over the future of science, climate and environmental health funding. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt created a flurry of controversy recently when he declared carbon dioxide was not a primary contributor to climate change, rejecting decades of scientific consensus. And Trump’s budget would eliminate the EPA’s Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program, which evaluates up to 1,000 chemicals a year for their potential to act as endocrine disruptors.
The NIEHS and the White House Office of Management and Budget didn’t respond to requests for comment about the budget. An NIH spokeswoman referred to a statement from Secretary Tom Price, who leads NIH’s parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services. “HHS is dedicated to fulfilling our department’s mission to improve the health and well-being of the American people. This budget supports that mission and will help ensure we are delivering critical services to our fellow citizens in the most efficient and effective manner possible,” Price said.
Cuts to federal environmental health programs could reach beyond the NIEHS and EPA. The Centers for Disease Control, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the Food and Drug Administration all do similar work, though the White House budget says little about their funding. Details of individual agency and program budgets will be hashed out over a monthslong process in Congress.
James Mattis’ unpublished testimony before a Senate panel recognizes a threat others in the administration reject or minimize. Read the story.
Some scientists believe the NIEHS can avoid budget cuts by keeping a low profile, especially because the NIH usually gets bipartisan support.
Others say that’s wishful thinking. “Congress is well aware of the impact of research coming from the NIEHS,” said Thomas Zoeller, a biology professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who’s received NIEHS grants for his research.
“NIEHS is one of the least funded institutes” within the NIH. “A 20% budget cut [at NIH] is pretty significant and will give the new director — depending on who that is — an incredible amount of power in setting the research agenda,” Zoeller said in an email.
Carol Kwiatkowski, executive director of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, said there’s “no reason” why the NIEHS should be a target any more than the rest of the NIH, which study cancer, aging, diabetes and other illnesses. Kwiatkowski’s group is a nonprofit that studies how endocrine disruptors affect humans and the environment. Kwiatkowski said she’s received NIEHS funding and collaborated with NIEHS researchers.
The NIEHS has no regulatory power, so it’s been able to conduct independent science with less political pressure than the EPA, she said. The institute presents evidence on the hazards of certain substances without dictating policy, though regulatory agencies may cite its work when developing new rules.
A list of active NIEHS grants shows the institute funds research related to climate change and environmental justice, two topics facing potential cuts at the EPA. But grants also go toward less controversial issues, including anti-terrorism science, childhood cancer and research funding for small businesses.
Here’s a snapshot of several NIEHS programs that could be at risk:
Launched in 1998, this initiative funds multidisciplinary research on children’s health. One of the grant recipients is CIRCLE (the Center for Integrated Research on Childhood Leukemia and the Environment), a collaboration among universities that studies the causes of childhood leukemia, the most common form of cancer in kids.
According to Catherine Metayer, the principal investigator and a public health professor at University of California, Berkeley, childhood leukemia has increased by 35 percent over the past 40 years. The human genome can’t change that quickly, so the cause must be environmental in nature, Metayer said. Exposure to pesticides, air pollution and cigarette smoke are all linked to increased leukemia risk.
In the latest round of funding, CIRCLE received $6 million last summer from the EPA and NIEHS to be distributed over four years. Part of the funding will be used to study archived blood samples of mothers and newborns to see how chemical exposure during pregnancy affects children’s immune systems and subsequent risk of developing leukemia. Metayer said it’s a new methodology, and she has no idea if potential budget cuts would imperil the project.
“I do hope that every human being, regardless of their political stance, will understand how important it is to provide a clean environment to children,” she said.
The NIEHS began supporting Metayer’s research 20 years ago, and the EPA came on board in 2008, she said. The long-term, sustained support has allowed the researchers to collaborate with scientists worldwide. It also funds a major outreach effort to educate doctors and community members on how to reduce chemical exposures to lower leukemia risk.
Without the NIEHS, “we would not be here,” Metayer said.
Chaffetz criticized this $30 million project last year. The study combines research from 12 university labs and the FDA. Many large-scale BPA studies have been stymied because it’s difficult to compare results from academic labs, regulatory agencies and industry, all of which use different methods. This project tries to address that by standardizing research methods across all the labs.
This division of the NIEHS produces the Report on Carcinogens every two years, providing updates on the latest substances that are known or reasonably suspected to cause cancer. These reports have been congressionally mandated since 1978, and the NIEHS makes its decisions based on a review of the latest science. The most recent report, released just a few days before the election, added seven substances: five viruses (including HIV-1), the element cobalt and trichloroethylene, a chemical used to make refrigerants.
The program funds university research on new technology to clean up toxic Superfund sites and provides commercialization support to quickly move the science from the lab to the field.
Martyn Smith, a University of California, Berkeley toxicology professor who directs the Superfund Research Program at his university, said he’s optimistic about its future. “We’ve been very successful in keeping that program even when [politicians] wanted to eliminate the EPA,” he said. The NIEHS-funded research feeds into the EPA’s Superfund cleanup.
Pruitt recently declared his support for the EPA’s Superfund program, calling it “absolutely essential.”
Asked about this report during an appearance today on ABC News’ “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said he and his lawyers haven’t received any indication of a federal investigation into his stock trades. “I know nothing about that whatsoever,” Price said.
Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who was removed from his post by the Trump administration last week, was overseeing an investigation into stock trades made by the president’s health secretary, according to a person familiar with the office.
Tom Price, head of the Department of Health and Human Services, came under scrutiny during his confirmation hearings for investments he made while serving in Congress. The Georgia lawmaker traded hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of shares in health-related companies, even as he voted on and sponsored legislation affecting the industry.
Price testified at the time that his trades were lawful and transparent. Democrats accused him of potentially using his office to enrich himself. One lawmaker called for an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, citing concerns Price could have violated the STOCK Act, a 2012 law signed by President Obama that clarified that members of Congress cannot use nonpublic information for profit and requires them to promptly disclose their trades.
The investigation of Price’s trades by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which hasn’t been previously disclosed, was underway at the time of Bharara’s dismissal, said the person.
Bharara was one of 46 U.S. attorneys asked to resign after Trump took office. It is standard for new presidents to replace those officials with their own appointees. But Bharara’s firing came as a surprise because the president had met with him at Trump Tower soon after the election. As he left that meeting, Bharara told reporters Trump asked if he would be prepared to remain in his post, and said that he had agreed to stay on.
When the Trump administration instead asked for Bharara’s resignation, the prosecutor refused, and he said he was then fired. Trump has not explained the reversal, but Bharara fanned suspicions that his dismissal was politically motivated via his personal Twitter account.
“I did not resign,” he wrote in one tweet over the weekend. “Moments ago I was fired.”
“By the way,” Bharara said in a second tweet, “now I know what the Moreland Commission must have felt like."
Bharara was referring to a commission that was launched by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2013 to investigate state government corruption, only to be disbanded by the governor the next year as its work grew close to his office. In that case, Bharara vowed to continue the commission’s work, and eventually charged Cuomo associates and won convictions of several prominent lawmakers.
Bharara referred questions from ProPublica to the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York. A spokesperson there declined to comment. The Justice and Health and Human Services departments also didn’t respond to requests for comment.
A White House spokesperson didn’t respond to questions about whether Trump or anyone in his cabinet was aware of the inquiry into Price’s trades.
In December, the Wall Street Journal reported that Price traded more than $300,000 worth of shares in health companies over a recent four-year period, while taking actions that could have affected those companies. Price, an orthopedic surgeon, chaired the powerful House Budget Committee and sat on the Ways and Means Committee’s health panel.
In one case, Price was one of just a handful of American investors allowed to buy discounted stock in Innate Immunotherapeutics — a tiny Australian company working on an experimental multiple sclerosis drug. The company hoped to be granted “investigational new drug” status from the Food and Drug Administration, a designation that expedites the approval process.
Members of congress often try to apply pressure on the FDA. As ProPublica has reported, Price’s office has taken up the causes of health care companies, and in one case urged a government agency to remove a damaging drug study on behalf of a pharmaceutical company whose CEO donated to Price’s campaign.
Innate Immunotherapeutics’ CEO Simon Wilkinson told ProPublica that he and his company have not had any contact with American law enforcement agencies and have no knowledge of authorities looking at Price’s stock trades.
Another transaction that drew scrutiny was a 2016 purchase of between $1,001 and $15,000 in shares of medical device manufacturer Zimmer Biomet. CNN reported that days after Price bought the stock, he introduced legislation to delay a regulation that would have hurt Zimmer Biomet.
Price has said that trade was made without his knowledge by his broker.
Only the fired U.S. attorney knows for sure. Read the story.
After hearing from a company whose CEO was a campaign contributor, a congressional aide to Donald Trump’s HHS nominee repeatedly pushed a federal health agency to remove a critical drug study from its website. Read the story.
In a third case, reported by Time magazine, Price invested thousands of dollars in six pharmaceutical companies before leading a legislative and public relations effort that eventually killed proposed regulations that would have harmed those companies.
Louise Slaughter, a Democratic Congress member from New York who sponsored the STOCK Act, wrote in January to the SEC asking that the agency investigate Price’s stock trades. “The fact that these trades were made and in many cases timed to achieve significant earnings or avoid losses would lead a reasonable person to question whether the transactions were triggered by insider knowledge,” she wrote.
What federal authorities are looking at, including whether they are examining any of those transactions, is not known.
Along with the Price matter, Bharara’s former office is investigating allegations relating to Fox News, and has been urged by watchdog groups to look into payments Trump has received from foreign governments through his Manhattan-based business. Bharara’s former deputy, Joon Kim, is now in charge of the office, but Trump is expected to nominate his replacement within weeks.
ProPublica reporters Jesse Eisinger and Justin Elliott and research editor Derek Kravitz contributed to this story.
Do you have access to information about Tom Price that should be public? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or send him encrypted messages on Signal at 213-271-7217. Here’s how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely.
For more coverage, read ProPublica’s previous reporting on how Tom Price’s office went to bat for a pharma company whose CEO donated to Price’s campaign.
Instead of basketball skill, our bracket is based on five factors that measure each school’s ability to graduate low-income students with little debt.
Use our interactive database to search federal data on almost 7,000 schools in the U.S. to see how well they support their poorest students financially. Now updated with data from the 2014-2015 academic year.
Lawyers for the man convicted in the killing of Etan Patz, the 6-year-old Manhattan boy who went missing in 1979, have filed a motion asking the judge in the case to set aside the guilty verdict because of jury contamination.
The lawyers allege that one or more members of the jury in the case became aware that jurors from an earlier trial were regular presences in the courtroom, often seen sitting with Stan Patz, the lost boy’s father. The judge in the second trial had specifically warned prosecutors and defense lawyers not to mention the earlier trial, which ended in a hung jury after a lone juror held out for acquittal. Several of the jurors from that initial trial had spoken openly of their desire to see the accused, Pedro Hernandez, convicted, and had worked with the prosecution to prepare for the second trial.
The legal motion, filed in state Supreme Court in Manhattan on Wednesday, cited news accounts of a juror from the second trial admitting he had been informed of the presence of the former jurors from a court officer. The motion also claimed an alternate juror in the case has said he, too, became aware of the earlier jurors during the course of the second trial.
“Mr. Hernandez could not have received a fair trial once the jury was impermissibly given the information by court personnel regarding the presence of the prior jurors and/or the supportive relationship between these jurors and the Patz family,” Alice Fontier, one of Hernandez’s lawyers, said in the motion.
When Etan Patz went missing on his way to school in 1979, New York police mounted an intense manhunt, and the case became a haunting unsolved mystery for decades. Suspects came and went. Theories were floated and then abandoned. The FBI got involved. Books were written. The boy was never found.
Out of the blue in 2012, Hernandez, a former bodega clerk in the Patz family’s Manhattan neighborhood, was charged with killing the boy. Police and prosecutors said family members had claimed Hernandez had confessed several times to having done something awful as a young man, and after hours of interrogation, Hernandez confessed to luring the boy into the bodega’s basement and strangling him.
Hernandez’s lawyers called his confession a fiction, and alleged that Hernandez was mentally ill and that he had been manipulated into inventing the confession — numerous aspects of which were at odds with the accepted facts of the case.
Lawyers for man convicted in case of notorious missing boy to seek hearing on report of jury contamination. Read the story.
ProPublica has been covering the case of the missing child and his accused killer. See the reporting.
Last month, after weeks of a retrial, the second jury convicted Hernandez, and a date for sentencing was set. But two news organizations reported that one juror, Michael Castellon, had embraced a juror from the first trial outside the courthouse. He told reporters a court officer had informed him who the woman was, and then asked that reporters not report what he had said. Efforts to reach Castellon have not been successful.
In their motion, Hernandez’s lawyers said other members of the second jury have refused to talk with them. As a result, they ask the judge, Maxwell Wiley, to either set aside the verdict or order a hearing at which the jurors would be compelled to testify.
A spokeswoman for Manhattan prosecutors said the office would respond formally in court papers by March 22.
A defense investigator, Joe O'Brien, reached an alternate who said he knew about the first jury well before deliberations.
“He could not recall if it was a general announcement to the jury or if it was just a comment passed between the two of them, but he assured me that other jurors knew this as well,” according to O'Brien's affidavit filed with the motion. The investigator didn't reach anyone who deliberated in the case.
Do you have access to information that should be public? Here's how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely.