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Trump’s Wall: How Much Money Does the Government Have For It Now?

border wall
A small fence separates densely populated Tijuana, Mexico, right, from the United States in the Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector. Construction is underway to extend a secondary fence over the top of this hill and eventually to the Pacific Ocean.

By T. Christian Miller, ProPublica

During the campaign, President Donald Trump promised to build a wall across the southern border some 1,000 miles long. The number of miles the president currently has money for: seven.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials delivered the startling news this month at a conference in San Antonio for businesses eager to win contracts for beefing up security along the border.

Although estimates to build the wall soar past $20 billion, the agency has so far managed to scrape together only about $20 million, according to its top contracting official. The rest of the cash will have to come from Congress, which so far has proven reluctant to foot the bill.

That amount of cash would not go very far to build a real wall — existing fence along the border costs roughly $2.8 million per mile.

Instead, the agency plans to spend the money on eight model walls, planning, engineering and early-stage land acquisition.

The two-day conference in a cavernous convention center packed with border security gear like aerial drones and radar-equipped pickup trucks was an opportunity for CBP officials to detail plans for Trump’s border wall — and also the hurdles to its construction.

The contracts for the prototype walls — some made of concrete, some made of other material, all to be “aesthetically pleasing” per Trump’s wishes for a beautiful wall — will be announced later this summer.

The prototypes will guide construction for more permanent walls that will be built along 14 miles in San Diego and another six miles in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, on land the agency has plans to build on or has already obtained.

Although Trump directed the Department of Homeland Security to build a “contiguous, physical wall or other similarly secure, contiguous, and impassable physical barrier,” border officials made clear that the wall will not stretch the length of the border. Currently, about 650 miles of the 2,000 mile border has some kind of fence.

Instead, top officials said the agency will build physical barriers in some areas and use technology such as ground and radar sensors elsewhere.

“It’s not just physical structure,” said Ronald Vitiello, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol. “We’re not just buying barrier. That would not be smart.”

But none of the new wall will be built unless Congress approves Trump’s request for $1.4 billion in the coming fiscal year. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., has indicated he will not include the money in a budget bill expected later this month to extend government funding.

If the money eventually comes through, it will take two years to start construction, said Mark Borkowski, the agency’s chief procurement official.

Other factors could also throw off the schedule. The cost of obtaining land along the Texas border, which is largely in private hands, and in California, where real estate is expensive, could in some cases cost more than the wall itself.

Borkowski said he also anticipates the possibility of bid protests filed by competitors who believe they were unfairly denied contracts. And, of course, protesters may attempt to block construction.

Business leaders at the conference, skeptical of the utility of a wall, were primarily focused on technological solutions.

Michael Pine drove a hulking gray and green camouflage tractor trailer onto the convention hall floor. Designed as a mobile command post, the trailer expanded on each side to hold 20 bunk beds, an office, two armories, 33 lockers, a television screen and an air purification system. A second tractor trailer provided supplies.

Pine, the vice president of business development for Florida-based Cinetransformer Group, said the system would allow border patrol agents to move up and down the length of the border for 20 days at a time without refueling. The cost: $1.5 million.

“To heck with a wall,” he said. “You can drive these guys up and down the border. That would take care of everything.”

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Official Involved in Bush-Era Purge of Gay Employees Now in Trump Administration

Photo by Tim Evanson.

By Justin Elliott, ProPublica

It was one of the uglier scandals of the Bush administration: Top officials at an agency dedicated to protecting whistleblowers launched a campaign against their own employees based on suspected sexual orientation, according to an inspector general report.

Staffers were abruptly reassigned from Washington, D.C., to a new office 500 miles away in Detroit in what the head of the office reportedly described as an effort to “ship [them] out.” Staffers who refused were fired.

Crude anti-gay emails were found in the agency chief’s account.

Now one of the major players in the scandal has a new assignment: He works in the Trump administration.

In December, James Renne was appointed to the Trump “landing team” at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, as part of the transition effort between the election and the inauguration. He was then hired Jan. 30 in a senior role at the Department of Agriculture, though his exact job duties are not clear.

Renne was part of the wave of early political appointees on so-called “beachhead teams,” whose role is to lay the groundwork for the new administration’s policies. (We published details on hundreds of beachhead hires, obtained through public records requests.)

In the Bush administration, Renne was hired in 2004 as deputy special counsel of the Office of Special Counsel, the small federal agency that is supposed to protect employees across the government from retaliation for whistleblowing. The tenures of Renne and his boss, Special Counsel Scott Bloch, were almost immediately mired in controversy after career employees said they were improperly fired. Language stating that job discrimination protections extend to sexual orientation also disappeared from the agency website.

A little-noticed inspector general report, released in 2013, depicts Renne as a central player in the efforts. Bloch and Renne, it found, hatched the plan to abruptly open a new “Midwest Field Office” in Detroit and reassign career staff there. Employees who declined to move lost their jobs.

The report found that the employees were targeted for no legitimate reason, pointing to “facts which reflect that Mr. Bloch and Mr. Renne may have been motivated in their actions by a negative personal attitude toward homosexuality and individuals whose orientation is homosexual.”

One evening shortly after he was hired in 2004, Renne took the lead in removing the language from the agency’s website about how job protections cover sexual orientation, the report says.

From the report: “Mr. Renne was depicted as intently searching the OSC website with the assistance of a senior career official to identify passages which interpreted [the nondiscrimination law] as extending protection to employees on the basis of their sexual orientation. According to this account, Mr. Renne demanded that OSC’s information technology manager remove these materials from the website immediately.”

That change was later the subject of congressional hearings.

Renne did not respond to requests for comment. The Department of Agriculture, which hired him, declined to comment.

The scandal at the Office of Special Counsel dragged on for years, spawning congressional and criminal investigations.

In a formal complaint filed at the time, the employees who were reassigned to Detroit pointed to a “Concerned Catholic Attorneys” letter Renne had signed in 2000 that is a broadside against a range of gay rights efforts. It warns that the “homosexual lobby’s power has grown exponentially.”

The inspector general report found that Renne played a central role in the plan to open a Detroit office, noting that “the reorganization was formulated by Mr. Bloch and Mr. Renne very early in their tenure.” An outside consultant they hired to help with the plan told investigators that “it appeared that Mr. Bloch may have been heavily influenced by Mr. Renne.”

That consultant, retired Lt. Gen. Richard Trefry, told investigators:

Mr. Bloch indicated to General Trefry that there was a sizeable group of homosexuals employed by OSC, which had developed during the years prior to his taking office, that he “had a license” to get rid of homosexual employees, and that he intended to “ship them out.”

The report continues:

Further, in the portions of Mr. Bloch’s official e-mail account that were available to the investigative team, there were crude and vulgar messages containing anti-homosexual themes that appeared to have been forwarded from his personal email. … Similarly, Mr. Bloch’s public media references to [his predecessor as Special Counsel, Elaine] Kaplan contained repeated, negatively-phrased assertions regarding her sexual orientation. For example, in interviews he granted during 2007, Mr. Bloch described her as a “lesbian activist,” a “public lesbian,” a “well-known gay activist”, and similar depictions.

Now in private practice, Bloch told ProPublica the report is “filled with untruth, outright falsehoods, and innuendo.” When the report was released, Bloch denied that he ever talked about targeting gay employees.

The inspector general report says it was based on interviews with more than 60 people and examination of over 100,000 emails.

The affected employees ultimately came to a settlement with the government. The terms were not released.

During the investigation into his tenure, Bloch’s home and office were raided by the FBI and he ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge arising from his hiring the company Geeks on Call to do a “seven-level wipe” on his government computers. Years later, Bloch later unsuccessfully sued the government over his firing.

There’s little public record of what Renne has been doing since his time working with Bloch. The Trump landing team announcement identified him as working for Renne Law. A fellow member of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence landing team said that Renne had worked at the ODNI inspector general office. And Bloch said he also heard that Renne had gotten a job in the intelligence community after their work together. An ODNI spokesman declined to comment.

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Trump’s ‘Buy American’ Pledge May Be At Risk With His Border Wall

buy american
Donald Trump speaks at Grumman Studios in Bethpage on Wednesday, April 6, 2016 (Long Island Press photo)

By T. Christian Miller, ProPublica

In one of his first tweets as president, here’s how Donald Trump promised to spend taxpayer dollars:

“We will follow two simple rules: BUY AMERICAN & HIRE AMERICAN!” he tweeted 55 minutes after taking the oath of office on Inauguration Day.

In the first big test of that pledge, here’s the reality: The Trump administration has opened the doors for firms from Mexico, El Salvador and other free-trade treaty countries to supply big-ticket items for the wall, the barrier along the United States’ southern border that Trump made a centerpiece of his campaign.

Earlier this month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced a bidding contest to start building the wall, which Trump wants to stretch a thousand miles, perhaps up to 30 feet high. Buried in the bid notice is language that permits the purchase of non-American materials for any contract worth more than $10.1 million.

Homeland Security has estimated the total cost to build the wall at around $21 billion — leaving plenty of room for orders for tens of millions of dollars’ worth of concrete, steel and other construction material.

Allowing the wall to be built with non-American materials is no oversight — it’s what is required under U.S. trade law.

“If we’re going to comply with our trade agreements, you can’t say we’re only going to buy American,” said Jean Heilman Grier, the U.S. representative who negotiated procurement issues with the World Trade Organization and other international trade treaty partners.

The hurdles facing Trump in buying American-made goods on this signature project is emblematic of the larger problems he will face in implementing an “America First” agenda. The U.S. has made promises over the years in trade deals, and foreign countries and companies can seek to enforce them.

The Buy American Act was passed in 1933 to encourage the federal government to purchase materials made mostly in the U.S. But the law is superseded by many of the free trade agreements the U.S. has entered over the years, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, which includes Mexico.

Under most such treaties, the U.S. cannot apply the Buy American law for contracts worth more than $10.1 million, an amount that adjusts every two years. Similar restrictions exist for partner nations that seek to impose their own local preferences.

The primary reason that trade deals include such language is that U.S. companies want the opportunity to compete in bidding sponsored by other national governments. Foreign military and construction projects can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

At the same time, trade negotiators agreed to allow favoritism for national companies, only on smaller, bread-and-butter projects under the $10.1 million cap. But even for those, a company can get around the Buy American provision if it can find foreign suppliers whose prices are 25 percent cheaper than U.S. firms.

A note: the Buy American provisions are riddled with arcane language and exceptions. For instance, many transportation projects operate under a separate set of Buy American rules. But the general idea is that the U.S. supports free trade — and gets cheaper prices — by allowing government contractors to buy their supplies from any trading partner nation.

Presidents have tried to get around the free trade agreements. President Barack Obama attempted to implement Buy American requirements as part of the Recovery Act stimulus package that followed the recession. He encountered resistance from trade partners and anger from U.S. companies that found the buying requirements complex.

Shortly after last year’s election, President-elect Trump’s Defense Department transition team set up a special “Buy American” working group to come up with ways for Trump to use executive orders to set aside treaty obligations, according to a Washington, D.C., attorney who participated in the discussions.

“I explained that this could not be done by the stroke of a president’s pen on an executive order,” said the attorney, who requested anonymity due to his contacts in the Trump administration. “This put the idea into the ‘too hard to do’ category. The result: the task force gave up on this idea.”

Most recently, Trump issued a directive in January that the Keystone XL pipeline be built with American steel. He boasted about inserting a “little clause” to enforce the requirement. But the directive became moot after it emerged that Keystone had already purchased much of the steel from companies based in India, Italy and Canada.

Trump has issued no directives regarding construction of the wall.

“It’s not as simple and straightforward as individuals not familiar with the process might think it is,” said Stephen Gordon, the program director for procurement and contract management studies at the University of Virginia.

If Trump insisted that contractors purchase from American companies, he could renegotiate the trade agreements — a path he has said he would like to take with NAFTA.

It is also possible for him to simply ignore the existing agreements. Such an action would invite a trade war or a trip to a trade dispute forum. But whether a trade partner would challenge the U.S. in such a way is an open question.

“The law school answer is no we can’t” ignore trade obligations with other countries, said David Drabkin, a former senior federal contracting officer with the Pentagon and the General Services Administration. “The practical answer [is], where would they go to challenge the U.S. decision?”

The White House did not respond to emailed questions. A spokesman for Customs and Border Protection said the agency was too busy with questions from other media organizations to respond.

Further complicating Trump’s effort to buy American are the difficulties of acquiring material in the remote and potentially hostile border zone. Construction would require from 8 million to 12.6 million cubic yards of concrete, according to estimates. By way of comparison, the Hoover Dam required only 4.4 million cubic yards.

Two of the three companies best positioned to supply concrete and cement to the border region are based in Mexico, according to a research note by AllianceBernstein, an investment firm. They are Cemex and GCC, both major building suppliers with plants along the border. The third company is CalPortland, with headquarters in Glendora, California.

While the Mexican government has warned companies against participating in the wall construction, Cemex and GCC have both indicated interest. GCC’s top executive told Reuters in November that the company was willing to sell to contractors building the wall. Cemex has ruled out participating in the bid directly but has been cagey about whether it would be a supplier.

Trump has insisted that Mexico will pay for the wall. During his campaign, he suggested he would issue new regulations to stem the annual $24 billion flow of remittances sent by immigrants unless Mexico agreed to finance construction. More recently, the administration has floated the idea of a border adjustment that would tax imports from abroad. Mexican leaders have rejected the proposals.

In the meantime, Trump has proposed spending $4 billion of U.S. taxpayer money to build the wall over the next two years. Even that amount now seems in jeopardy. Republican Congressional leaders told Politico that they do not plan to fund the administration’s $1.4 billion request this year.

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New York Parents in Custody Fights Lack Right to See Expert Reports

custody

By Joaquin Sapien, ProPublica

New York State Assembly Bill 1533 does not seem to ask for terribly much: The proposed legislation would grant parents in custody proceedings the legal right to see the court-ordered expert evaluations judges use to decide the fate of thousands of families every year.

No one, however, is overly optimistic the bill will become law, including its sponsor. Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein has seen the bill languish for five straight years.

“I’ve been in the legislature a while,” said Weinstein, who was first elected to the assembly in 1980. “I have had some bills that pass in months, and I have had some that take almost 20 years.”

The expert reports at issue are known formally as “forensic evaluations,” and they are often enormously influential in the most vital kinds of decisions: which parent gets custody of their children; whether either parent is fit, and thus if foster care is safer and more appropriate; if claims of abuse — by a spouse or by a child — are trustworthy. The evaluations are performed by psychologists or psychiatrists, typically ordered up by the judges overseeing the proceedings.

Unlike at least 24 other states, however, judges overseeing such cases in New York are not obligated to share those reports with the parents, Weinstein said. As a result, judges often only allow attorneys for the parents to have the reports and sometimes bar them from sharing them with anyone else, including their own clients. Some judges will allow parents to see copies, but not keep them. Some judges will allow both parents and their attorneys to have copies. In the rare cases in which judges do authorize parents to get a copy, they are typically prevented from sharing it with anyone else, making it difficult, for instance, to have it reviewed by an outside expert.

Joan Meier, a professor of clinical law at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said the state of affairs in New York amounted to a “profound deprivation of due process.”

“Before I started doing this work, I never would’ve dreamed that you could be a parent in custody litigation and have someone evaluate you and not be allowed to see the report,” Meier said.

Weinstein’s efforts to rectify the situation have so far proven frustrating. After a slow start, the proposal finally made it out of her committee and passed the assembly unanimously last year. But it has yet to get to a similar full vote in the state Senate. This year, in fact, not a single state senator has yet chosen to sponsor Weinstein’s bill.

“We want to make sure the courts get these decisions right,” Weinstein said in a recent interview with ProPublica. “The best way for the court to get it right is to make sure that both the lawyers and the parents have a chance to review these reports. No one will know if there are errors in a report better than the parents themselves.”

To date, opponents of Weinstein’s proposal have cited fears that the reports, if shared with parents fighting over custody, will somehow be made public as part of smear campaigns. The reports often include highly sensitive details of family dynamics: allegations of adultery, substance abuse, neglectful parenting and everything from petty squabbles to violent fights.

The Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York, for instance, has issued a position statement that “strongly opposes” releasing the reports to litigants. Its members are concerned that spiteful spouses, particularly abusive husbands, might take advantage of the reports.

“If parties are given copies of forensic reports, an abuser can easily inflict more abuse on the parent by making the contents of the report public,” the position statement says.

As ProPublica has reported, psychologists and psychiatrists have enormous discretion in what goes in the reports, and in New York’s overworked family and matrimonial courts, judges routinely rely on the reports to make decisions and move caseloads.

The work of the evaluators has been the subject of controversy for years. Some have issued reports without even talking to both parents. Others have been accused of being biased against fathers, and some of being predisposed against mothers. Some use controversial, outdated or even discredited testing methods. New York City’s child welfare agency paid millions over many years for evaluations that a committee of experts empaneled by parent advocates found to be cursory and flawed. The state bar association has long pleaded for greater oversight of the evaluators.

Weinstein told ProPublica the risks of sharing the reports with the very people whose lives they will help shape are overblown. Her proposal would impose sanctions against anyone found sharing the reports in violation of a court order.

Weinstein said that two dozen other states — including California, Colorado, West Virginia and Arkansas — have adopted similar legislation without such problems.

Barbara Kauffman, an attorney who has specialized in California family law for 20 years, told ProPublica she couldn’t recall a single, specific case in which parents shared reports to harm each other.

“It has been my experience that parents determined to denigrate each other will do it, in or out of court, in writing or in testimony, with or without a custody evaluation report,” she said.

“With respect to other states, I don’t know how a parent can contest an evaluation they cannot read,” she said. “As a litigator, I know that knowledge is power, and the more information a person has about what a custody evaluator did or did not do, say or consider, the better equipped that person is to address the merits or problems with the evaluation.”

The idea that parents lack the legal right to see and possibly challenge the expert reports strikes many veterans of New York’s family and matrimonial courts as deeply unfair, even dangerous.

While evaluators’ work in custody and child protection cases has been the target of criticism, these practitioners operate without much in the way of vigilant oversight. Indeed, the state office responsible for investigating the work of psychologists said it is unable to explore complaints of misconduct or incompetence involving matters before the courts because the records are sealed.

Here, again, California differs from New York.

In 2014, the California legislature passed a bill authorizing its Department of Consumer Affairs, which regulates licensed psychologists, full access to custody evaluations when their authors are the subject of complaints.

Kim Madsen, an official within the department, told ProPublica her behavioral sciences unit has investigated several complaints, and already moved to discipline one court-appointed psychologist since the law passed.

New York investigators, on the other hand, routinely reject complaints of evaluators. They tell complainants they can’t access the sealed court records that would give them the ability to act.

The implications of a judge’s discretion concerning forensic evaluations can be especially acute for parents in family court. There, many of the parents are unable to pay for private lawyers and not quite poor enough to qualify for lawyers appointed by the court. Often, then, they wind up representing themselves, meaning they may be completely out of luck if they appear before a judge disinclined to share copies of reports with anyone but lawyers.

Emma Ketteringham helps represent poor parents in child protection cases as managing director of the Bronx Defenders. She said she has fought the courts on this subject.

“There is no law that says a parent or respondent cannot see their mental health evaluation. Despite there being no law, there is a common understanding that parents don’t have a right to them,” she said. “We have pressed on this issue and refused to deny our clients their evaluations or show them copies if they ask for them.”

Weinstein is trying to change that, but her proposal must compete with another. It’s from the Matrimonial Practice Advisory and Rules Committee, which reports annually to New York Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks. The committee’s proposal would require all courts throughout the state to allow parents to see the reports, although under strict conditions.

The committee suggested permitting the parents to read the reports in the offices of their attorneys, or in some other unspecified “location,” where they can “make notes about the report.”

Weinstein sees this as a step backward.

“This seems to be more restrictive,” Weinstein said of the proposal. “Often a pro se litigant is working a low-paying job and has other child care responsibilities. To have to go to court and sit there and take notes and not get a copy of it would make things very difficult.”

After nearly four decades in the legislature, Weinstein is used to seeing these battles drag out, recalling that it took nearly two decades to get a measure passed expanding access to orders of protection in family court. But the need for this particular bill still feels urgent.

“This is evidence used to make important decisions. In a criminal trial you ultimately have access to evidence,” she said. “So we’re talking about a person’s liberty or the future of a child’s life. I’m not sure how different that is.”

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Fired U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara Said to Have Been Investigating HHS Secretary Tom Price

Tom Price
Tom Price of Georgia speaking at CPAC. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

By Robert Faturechi, ProPublica

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.

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.

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Is Preet Bharara Trying to Tell Us Something?

Preet Bharara
Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, speaks at Harvard Law School’s Class Day on Wednesday, May 28, 2014. (U.S. Department of Justice photo).

By Cezary Podkul, ProPublica

Fired by President Donald Trump, Preet Bharara left behind a mysterious, thirteen-word message. “By the way, I know what the Moreland Commission must have felt like,” he tweeted last Sunday.

Americans are getting used to deciphering the tweets of a president who eviscerates his enemies in 140 characters or less. So perhaps it’s inevitable that a public official whom he dismissed would fight back in the same way — and similarly raising questions about the tweeter’s intent and state of mind.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York said he could not elaborate on Bharara’s tweet. And the ex-prosecutor himself has made no further public comment, leaving those familiar with the Moreland Commission’s history to speculate about the presidential parallels.

The cryptic reference to the corruption-fighting commission, which New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo unexpectedly disbanded in March 2014, could simply mean that Bharara knows what it’s like to be let go when there’s still important work to be done. Or it could be read to accuse Trump, like Cuomo, of trying to axe an investigation before it brings down his friends. In the most sinister interpretation, it could even be a threat or a portent — since Cuomo’s allies ultimately faced justice anyway.

“I think Preet is way too smart to simply say something that might have wide-ranging implications without thinking it through,” said Chris Malone, a political science professor at City University of New York’s Lehman College. Malone said he thinks Bharara was “sending a message” that “you’re cutting off an investigation in midstream.”

Following a series of corruption scandals involving state lawmakers, Gov. Cuomo created the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, as it was formally known, in July 2013 to root out corruption in politics and state government. It was named for a 1907 law known as the Moreland Act, which gives the governor broad authority to investigate state agencies. The panel’s 25 members included current and former district attorneys from across the state who were empowered to issue subpoenas and compel testimony.

The panel issued a first draft of its findings in December 2013 and vowed to “proceed with ongoing investigations as we continue to follow the money.” Those investigations hadn’t reached their conclusion when, four months later, Cuomo abruptly dismantled the commission.

Cuomo said at the time that a package of modest ethics reforms agreed to by the legislature eliminated the need for the commission. But a subsequent New York Times investigation revealed that Cuomo’s aides undermined the commission as the panel’s subpoenas started getting close to the governor’s office. The timing suggested Cuomo was concerned that the commission might dig up unwelcome facts about his administration.

Enter Bharara. After Cuomo disbanded the panel, the Moreland Commission handed over documents, computer files and other materials from its investigation to the federal prosecutor, who vowed to take over its mantle.

Those documents helped lead to the downfall of longtime Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Both were indicted by Bharara’s office and convicted on corruption charges. Another Bharara inquiry led to bribery charges against Cuomo confidant Joseph Percoco and several other players in upstate economic development programs championed by the governor, though Cuomo himself was not charged with any wrongdoing. Percoco and seven other co-defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges in December.

Bharara’s office handled hundreds of cases on everything ranging from public corruption to insider trading to accounting fraud and drug trafficking. It’s unknown whether any of his cases touched on the Trump administration, but the possibility exists: Trump Tower, the president’s unofficial residence, falls squarely within Bharara’s district.

Last November, the president asked Bharara to stay on as the chief prosecutor for the district. Bharara came out of the meeting at Trump Tower saying “I expect that I will be continuing to work at the Southern District of New York” under President Trump. Nevertheless, on Saturday, Trump fired him.

“He made such a big deal of bringing him to Trump Tower and telling him that he’s going to stay on,” Malone said. “Something obviously changed.”

The Moreland Commission handed off its materials to Bharara. Perhaps Bharara’s tweet implies that he, too, has documents to share with other investigators. If so, we’d like to suggest a worthy recipient: ProPublica.

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For New York Families in Custody Fights, a ‘Black Hole’ of Oversight

custody

By Joaquin Sapien, ProPublica

When Anna Frank lost custody of her 9-year-old son, she blamed her husband and the judge who decided the case in his favor.

She also faulted Barbara Burkhard, a psychologist appointed to evaluate the family and advise the court on the matter. According to Frank, Burkhard concluded—after meeting Frank once and without interviewing her son—that their claims of abuse were invented and that Frank had poisoned her child against his father.

Frank ultimately regained custody of her son, based partly on testimony from other psychologists who disputed Burkhard’s contentions. But before she did, she sought sanctions against Burkhard from the agency that oversees licensed psychologists in New York.

Frank’s densely detailed, 12-page complaint to the Office of Professional Discipline was never investigated, let alone acted upon.

“Due to our inability to access records or discuss the services rendered with this psychologist, we are unable to investigate this matter or to initiate disciplinary action based upon your complaint,” a letter from the office, from the spring of 2012, explained. “I am sorry we cannot be of more assistance to you.”

The office’s response was typical, a ProPublica examination shows.

Though psychologists who appear in New York’s Family and Matrimonial Courts help shape decisions of grave consequence—from custody to child protection to juvenile delinquency—their work is subject to little or no professional oversight, purportedly because the confidentiality of such proceedings makes them hard to penetrate even for regulators.

Several lawyers who have represented parents in such court cases say they and their clients have received similar responses when they’ve tried to pursue complaints against court-appointed psychologists with OPD.

“They rely upon a bureaucratic Catch-22 to avoid having to take a hard look at misconduct and take their responsibility of oversight seriously,” said Timothy Tippins, who wrote a 2016 article for the New York Law Journal on inadequate oversight of such evaluators. “You can’t make this bureaucratic bullshit up.”

Pace University law professor Merril Sobie, a former chair of the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Children and the Law, has pressed OPD on what recourse exists for families who challenge the competence or objectivity of the psychologists in their cases. The agency has provided few answers.

“It’s a black hole,” Sobie said.

When ProPublica asked OPD several months ago to explain why it did not investigate complaints against psychologists working in family and matrimonial courts, officials responded with little more than a description of the office’s mandate and staffing. They declined requests for interviews.

This month, when we pressed again, the office—an arm of the New York Department of Education—issued a short statement indicating it was seeking more authority to gather information in such investigations:

“The State Education Department investigates every complaint that alleges conduct constituting professional misconduct through its Office of Professional Discipline,” the statement said. “The Department’s ability to investigate court-appointed psychologists can be hampered because the records necessary to pursue such an investigation are, by law, private and open to inspection only upon permission of the Family Court. To help eliminate this potential obstacle to a thorough investigation, the Department is discussing with the New York State Legislature amendments to the law that would give our professional conduct officers greater access to court records. We will continue to pursue such an amendment this legislative session.”

Without intervention by OPD, there’s virtually no place to take complaints against court evaluators.

Since 2008, New York City’s Appellate Court has had a committee that certifies the just over 200 psychologists and psychiatrists who get court appointments and can adjudicate complaints against them. Through June 2015, it had received 10 complaints and issued two admonitions.

But while the committee can bar problem practitioners from testifying in court, it has no authority over psychologists’ licenses. Moreover, court systems elsewhere in the state haven’t set up such committees, partly out of fear that certification requirements might dissuade qualified professionals from taking appointments in regions where practitioners are difficult to find.

“They didn’t want to put things in the way of getting people to do this work,” said Jacqueline Silbermann, a former top New York Matrimonial Court judge who was involved in setting up the city’s certification committee and pushed courts outside the city to do the same. “The bottom line is they didn’t.”

That leaves OPD, whose investigators are tasked with responding to complaints not only about the state’s nearly 14,000 licensed psychologists, but nearly 50 other kinds of professionals, from dentists to massage therapists.

The agency, also known as the Office of the Professions, has come under fire before for its weak enforcement. A 2016 ProPublica investigation found it had not implemented criminal background checks for nurses that are routine in other states and often took years to administer discipline. Critics say it is also impeded by its unusual structure. As part of the Department of Education, OPD comes under the state’s Board of Regents, whose primary responsibility is to oversee the state’s vast public education system, and needs board approval to impose its stiffest sanctions.

But in the case of Family and Matrimonial Court psychologists, OPD’s oversight is not so much flawed as it is absent entirely.

Since 1994, according to a review by ProPublica, only one evaluator who is today approved for court work in New York City has been disciplined by the state, and it is unclear whether that action had anything to do with work he may have done for the courts. Since Family and Matrimonial Court evaluators elsewhere in the state aren’t certified, it’s impossible to know if any have been disciplined.

At a 2012 public hearing, Nancy Erickson, one of the attorneys who represented Frank, called OPD’s approach to overseeing psychologists one of the court system’s most troubling aspects.

“This refusal of OPD means that psychologists who are incompetent or even corrupt can continue to make money by doing custody evaluations that could end up misleading the courts and harming children and their families,” she said.

The tumultuous saga of the Frank family provides as good a window as any into court evaluators’ pivotal role in custody cases.

Anna Frank had filed for divorce in 2007 in Suffolk County Supreme Court, which handles matrimonial matters. She says her husband of 16 years, Michael Frank, was prone to screaming fits and physical aggression. Police records show she called local officers to complain of physical abuse several times as the marriage unraveled. Each parent had had the other arrested over domestic disputes. Their young son allegedly bore witness to their violent fights and later said he, too, suffered abuse at the hands of his father.

Michael Frank denies ever abusing either his wife or son, and insists the police reports were based on false allegations.

Anna Frank, though, did get a one-year order of protection against her husband and sought to dissolve the marriage. The Franks then came before Suffolk County Supreme Court Judge Andrew Crecca, with Anna seeking custody of her son, child support, and what she deemed her share of the family’s finances and Michael, the primary breadwinner, seeking to protect his assets and gain full custody of his son himself.

To sort through the competing accusations, the judge appointed Barbara Burkhard. Burkhard’s company, Child and Family Psychological Services, P.C., had provided therapeutic services to children since 1999 under a contract with Suffolk County’s Department of Social Services. (Burkhard did not respond to repeated emails and phone messages regarding this story.)

In the Frank case, Burkhard started out in 2008 functioning as what’s known as the Franks’ “parenting coordinator,” where she would oversee transfers of the child by his warring parents.

Then Judge Crecca took the somewhat unusual step of appointing Burkhard to complete a forensic psychological evaluation of the family. Normally these roles are kept separate in order to avoid preconceived notions on the part of the evaluator.

In January 2009, Burkhard was part of a chaotic dispute involving the Franks. Anna was supposed to drop her son off at Burkhard’s office so he could be picked up by Michael. But he refused to get out of her car. Burkhard tried to speak with the boy in the car. He was crying, yelling, telling her he did not want to go. He said his father had abused him, sexually and physically. When the boy’s father arrived, he, too, tried to talk to him in the car. In a terror, the boy got out of the car and darted across a busy street. With some coaxing from Burkhard’s staff, the boy came back and embraced his mother, insisting he go home with her. The police arrived and questioned everyone at the scene and the boy went home with his mother.

Based on what she saw, Burkhard recommended in a “preliminary report” that the boy be removed from his mother’s care immediately. She determined that what the boy needed most was more time with his father, outside of his mother’s sphere of influence. She recommended that Michael Frank receive temporary, sole custody while the divorce proceedings progressed. The judge followed her recommendation.

Anna Frank felt the actions were unfounded and unfair and that the court had essentially awarded sole custody to her husband based on a single episode. Burkhard never interviewed her, or her son, and now, in Anna Frank’s view, the psychologist was putting him in harm’s way.

And according to court records, the boy did suffer. His behavior and state of mind deteriorated after that. Usually a strong student, his grades began to decline. Rather than completing assignments, he’d scrawl all over them that he wanted to see his mother. He complained to teachers and social workers that his father had beaten him with a belt and locked him in a basement. His behavior grew increasingly erratic. He tried to run away. He broke windows. He urinated and defecated around the house. Social workers with Child Protective Services became a regular presence at the boy’s home, but their reports echoed Burkhard’s belief that Anna Frank was encouraging the boy to make false allegations of abuse.

Burkhard, in report after report, told the court the boy had become “enmeshed” with his mother, potentially succumbing to something akin to what’s known as “Parental Alienation Syndrome.” Burkhard’s reports suggested his mother may have convinced him to make up abuse allegations, in order to heighten her chances of winning custody.

Burkhard had the boy evaluated by more mental health professionals, and Judge Crecca decided the boy should be removed from both parents and live at a residential treatment center called Little Flower, in Wading River, about 30 minutes from where the Franks lived. He first came to the home in December 2009.

Over the next few years, Frank said she spent every penny she had battling her husband in court to get her son back. She lost her job as a school psychologist after Child Protective Services filed a neglect charge against her—deeming her responsible for her boy’s fear of his father. The school, she said, decided she couldn’t work with children with such a charge pending against her.

“They tried to strip me of everything I cared about,” Frank said, in a recent interview. “It was devastating.”

She said she supported herself by taking jobs in retail, making a meager $10 an hour after growing accustomed to an $80,000 annual salary.

She said Little Flower came to believe her son was telling the truth about his father all along and helped her regain custody.

In January 2010, Little Flower delivered a report to the court stating that the boy’s relationship with his father remained deeply strained and that his psychiatrist was concerned about the boy’s tales of abuse.

Anna Frank said staff from the home agreed to testify on her behalf, urging the judge to believe the boy. Again, Burkhard weighed in, recommending that if the boy were to leave Little Flower, he should move back in with his father. The home’s staff disagreed. They told the judge if the boy wasn’t going to move in with his mother, he’d be better off in foster care, Anna Frank said.

Ultimately, Michael Frank consented to a settlement that granted custody of the boy to his mother.

In an interview, Michael Frank said he never “abused his son or her, never, never, never.” He said his wife lied in a number of ways: The police reports were false, and Little Flower never took her side. And he claimed Anna lost her job not because of the neglect charges, but because she “stopped showing up to work.”

He said he was the “stable parent.” He said his wife had “brainwashed” their son. He repeatedly cited the fact that she is a trained psychologist, which, as he put it, “gave her plenty of knowledge on how to manipulate young kids. And that’s exactly what she did.”

But by the end, he said he had little choice but to “give up.” He said his son was clearly suffering and their relationship felt irrevocably fractured.

He said Burkhard had handled the case professionally.

“There was no rush to judgment,” he said.

Robert Gallo, one of several court-appointed attorneys who wound up representing Anna Frank over the five-year court battle, told ProPublica that the case, taken as a whole, reflects a dire need for outside oversight:

“I don’t want to sound like I am bashing Burkhard,” he said. “In that case, I thought she was wrong. But I’ve had others where I thought she was right. Take her out of the mix, and a different psychologist may have just looked at the same facts and got a whole different view. Which is why there should be some oversight and some real clear rules. I don’t think anybody is doing that today.”

Anna Frank sure tried.

During the custody battle, she was determined to hold Burkhard accountable for the assessment that helped lead to the loss of her child. She complained to OPD in April 2011.

The agency’s investigators are charged with ensuring “public protection” from “professional misconduct” across a variety of licensed professions. When it comes to psychologists, their complaint process is no different for practitioners doing evaluations for Family Court than for matters such as fraudulent billing or disclosing private medical information that might come up in private practices.

In cases in which OPD’s investigators substantiate complaints, the agency can issue administrative warnings for minor violations or—in more serious cases, which are reviewed by a violations committee—fine or censure licensees.

The committee can also refer cases to the state Board of Regents, which can refer the most egregious cases to the state attorney general for criminal prosecution. The board can also revoke a professional’s license.

Complaints against psychologists are relatively rare and discipline is even rarer. In 2015, for example, 88 complaints were filed against psychologists statewide and OPD issued one warning, two violation decisions, and four regent actions.

But to Erickson, Frank’s lawyer, OPD’s professed unwillingness to even look into complaints about the subset of practitioners acting as court evaluators is particularly problematic.

Erickson brought Frank’s case and several others like it to the state bar association’s Children and Family Law committee, then run by Merril Sobie, in April 2011. OPD seemed to have “a policy against investigating complaints that arise out of a court proceeding,” Erickson told the committee.

She pointed out that complainants had few good options other than OPD. The American Psychological Association, for example, publishes non-mandatory guidelines for forensic evaluations and looks into complaints about practitioners, but has little enforcement power. A “psychologist can simply drop his or her membership,” Erickson said.

Sobie was struck by what he described as OPD’s “hands-off” policy and decided the committee should pursue an explanation for it.

ProPublica obtained Sobie’s subsequent correspondence with OPD and its director, George Ding.

In his first letter, dated December 2011, Sobie described the problems his committee saw in OPD’s handling of complaints about evaluators.

He said complainants were often told to address their concerns to the judge presiding over their custody case, when the judge “would in all likelihood advise the litigant to file a complaint with OPD, the APA, or another office,” Sobie wrote. OPD also advised litigants to write to the court “to release their reports and relevant records” so that it could begin an investigation, a step Sobie said would risk stirring up the “hornet’s nest” by demanding the presence of their ex-spouse after a grueling custody battle.

“The Committee believes that this policy may place many children in danger; unfortunately, no matter how many valid complaints are filed against a court-ordered custody evaluator OPD will not investigate,” Sobie wrote. “An incompetent (or unethical) evaluator could continue to harm children.”

Sobie closed the letter by offering to help Ding develop a better approach. “We would happily assist you in improving procedures to better protect New York’s children,” he said.

Then he waited. And waited.

The New Year came and went. He sent the same letter again in late January 2012.

“We would appreciate the courtesy of a reply,” he wrote.

Still, nothing.

“I was not happy,” he said, recalling his dismay in an interview. “I didn’t think they were fulfilling their responsibility. I didn’t think that was the appropriate way to respond to the state bar association. And they wouldn’t put a goddamn thing in writing.”

The following month, in February 2012, Erickson brought another complaint filed with OPD to Sobie’s committee’s attention.

In this instance, the psychologist—a highly active forensic evaluator based in Brooklyn named N.G. Berrill—was not even appointed by the court. He was retained directly by a man who sought to halt his ex-wife’s unsupervised visits with their children.

According to the complaint, Berrill never contacted the mother and never attempted to question the statements the ex-husband made about himself. And yet he concluded the mother’s relationship with the kids had a potentially damaging effect. Berrill wrote a letter to the court recommending that her visitations with her children be supervised by state social workers from then on. The woman wound up losing custody.

Asked about the Family Court case by ProPublica, Berrill declined to respond to the allegations in the complaint and said in an email he did not want his work “discussed” in this article.

When an investigator with OPD wrote back to the complainant, the responses struck her as bizarre.

The letter said that since the woman herself was “not the parent who requested the report from Dr. Berrill” and since the office could not “interview the children or obtain copies of the necessary records without the consent of the father, this office could not adequately conduct an investigation.”

It also noted that Berrill disclosed the fact that he never spoke to the woman and “the court recognized that fact.”

“It is based on this that the decision was made to close your file.”

Sobie, more alarmed than ever, wrote to Ding again in May 2012.

“It has come to our attention OPD’s policies are perhaps more seriously flawed than we thought,” he said, laying out the details of the complaint.

“The response from OPD is frankly incomprehensible,” he said. “When we wrote our December 1, 2011 letter, we thought OPD took a ‘hands off’ policy only when the licensee was appointed by a court; the current example indicates that even a licensee who is not court appointed will not be investigated.”

Ding never wrote back.

After weeks of prodding, Sobie said he finally got a phone call from him.

“Essentially he said they can’t get involved if it’s a court ordered forensic because of confidentiality,” Sobie said. “I said ‘You are a state agency charged with enforcing professional discipline, I don’t see how you couldn’t do this. Don’t you have subpoena power? I find it very difficult to believe that a judge upon motion of a state agency who is charged with that responsibility would deny the motion. Did you ever do that?’ And of course, they never did that.”

Ding did not respond to questions about Sobie’s version of their back-and-forth.

In 2012, Sobie’s tenure as chair of the Children and Law Committee came to a close. The committee subsequently lost some of its interest in evaluators.

Erickson said she continued to hear from mothers who felt OPD had unjustly dismissed their complaints.

In one such case, a woman was told by an OPD investigator that it found no “evidence sufficient to support taking action against the subject” but then explained that “a request for the official documents and the evaluation was denied by Family Court.”

Once again, OPD had apparently closed an investigation without getting the records it would need to even start it.

That case was featured in Tippins’ law journal article, titled “Custody Evaluators: Where’s the Oversight?”

Tippins, a veteran attorney who has become the go-to expert in how to effectively challenge their work, has written extensively on the topic of oversight. In the article, he declared the OPD’s professed unwillingness or inability to investigate Family Court evaluators to be “as dangerous as it is derelict.”

“Evaluations are often flawed by bias, methodological deficiency, or both,” he wrote. “While many evaluators strive to present reliable expertise, incompetent or unethical evaluators are hardly strangers to the courts.”

He went on to explain that thorough cross examination of evaluators is rare and that cases are often settled on the basis of their work, making outside oversight an absolute imperative.

In his view, OPD provides nothing of the kind.

“If the subject were not so serious, this rigmarole would be worthy of Abbott & Costello,” he wrote.

In his response to Tippins, Ding asserted that his office “investigates every complaint which alleges conduct constituting professional misconduct.”

Ding said he could not supply evidence of the office taking action against a court-appointed evaluator because its data “is not maintained in a manner that is based on the information that you are seeking.”

Tippins’ article helped reinvigorate the bar association committee’s interest.

Ding accepted an invitation to their annual meeting last December.

Finally, Sobie and Erickson thought they might get some answers.

But Ding didn’t show up.

He apologized, saying he got the date wrong, and called in by phone, answering questions for an hour.

According to people who attended the meeting, he stuck to his claim that his office can’t investigate Family or Matrimonial Court cases because it can’t access essential records. Asked if he ever went to court to ask for records, he said he’d done so only once. Someone at the committee meeting noted that Ding could go to the state Attorney General’s office to seek a subpoena. According to those present, Ding said he assumed the attorney general had other priorities.

OPD disputes this version of events, but would not supply details as to what happened.

Ding did call the current head of the Children and Law Committee to complain that someone on the committee had described the meeting to ProPublica. He said it put him in “a very bad position” with the Attorney General’s office.

Sobie said the meeting left him certain of one thing:

“There is no professional oversight.”

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5 Trump Cabinet Members Who’ve Made False Statements to Congress

U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions
U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions

 

By Eric Umansky and Marcelo Rochabrun, ProPublica

As most of the world knows by now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions did not tell the truth when he was asked during his confirmation hearings about contacts with Russian officials.

But Sessions isn’t the only one. At least four other cabinet members made statements during their nomination hearings that are contradicted by actual facts: EPA Chief Scott Pruitt, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

The statements were all made under oath, except those of DeVos. It is a crime to “knowingly” lie in testimony to Congress, but it’s rarely prosecuted.

If you know of instances that we’ve missed, email us.

EPA Chief Scott Pruitt

The falsehood: Pruitt stated in testimony that he had never used a private email account to conduct business while he was Oklahoma’s attorney general.

The truth: Fox News 25 asked the state Attorney General’s office whether Pruitt had used a personal email. The answer was yes.

The Associated Press also received emails in response to a public records request showing Pruitt using a private account to conduct state business.

Pruitt’s response: None.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

The falsehood: DeVos said during her confirmation hearings that she has not been involved in her family’s foundation, which has given millions of dollars to group that oppose LGBT rights.

“You sit on the board,” Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., noted. DeVos responded, “I do not.”

The truth: As The Intercept has detailed, tax filings have listed DeVos as vice president of the foundation’s board for 17 years.

DeVos’ response: She said the foundation’s nearly two decades of filings were the result of a “clerical error.”

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin

The falsehood: In written testimony, Mnuchin denied that his former bank had used so-called “robo-signing” to improperly foreclose on homeowners. “OneWest Bank did not ‘robo-sign’ documents,” Mnuchin wrote.

The truth: As the Columbus Dispatch detailed, OneWest Bank employees frequently signed documents in bulk without proper review, which is what robo-signing is. One employee testified that she typically signed about 750 foreclosure documents per week. The Dispatch noted that a judge stopped three OneWest Bank foreclosures “specifically based on inaccurate robo-signings.” Reuters also detailed the bank’s robo-signing back in 2011.

Mnuchin’s response: A spokesman offered the following statement after the Dispatch’s story: “The media is picking on a hard-working bank employee whose reputation has been maligned but whose work has been upheld by numerous courts all around the country in the face of scurrilous and false allegations.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price

The falsehood: During his confirmation hearings, Price insisted that the discount he got on a biotech stock was “available to every single individual that was an investor at the time.”

The truth: As The Wall Street Journal reported, fewer than 20 investors in the U.S. were offered the discount, including Price.

Price’s response: Price did not respond to the Journal’s story.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions

The falsehood: Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asked Sessions whether “anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign.”

Session responded: Sen. Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”

The truth: Yes, he did.

Sessions’ response: His office’s first statement: “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”

An anonymous White House official gave a New York Times reporter a different take, saying Sessions and the ambassador did talk and “had superficial comments about election-related news.”

Sessions’ spokeswoman later said Sessions often spoke with “foreign ambassadors as a senior member of the Armed Services Committee.” Washington Post reporters asked all 26 members of the committee if they spoke to the Russian ambassador in 2016. Sessions was the only one.

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Trump Plan: Deport to Mexico Immigrants Crossing Border Illegally, Regardless of Nationality

 

By Ginger Thompson and Marcelo Rochabrun, ProPublica

Leer en español.

Buried deep in the Trump administration’s plans to round up undocumented immigrants is a provision certain to enrage Mexico — new authority for federal agents to deport anyone caught crossing the southern border to Mexico, regardless of where they are from.

If present immigration trends continue, that could mean the United States would push hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Brazilians, Ecuadorans, even Haitians into Mexico. Currently, such people are detained in the U.S. and allowed to request asylum.

President Trump wants them to do so from Mexico, communicating via videoconference calls with U.S. immigration officials from facilities that Mexico would presumably be forced to build.

“This would say if you want to make a claim for asylum or whatever we’ll hear your case but you are going to wait in Mexico,” a DHS official said. “Those are details that are being worked out both within the department and between the US government and the government of Mexico … there are elements that still need to be worked out in detail.

Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will travel to Mexico later this week to meet with representatives of the Mexican government. It remains unclear if they will discuss this issue.

The new authority for immigration agents is among the dramatic, some would say untenable, tactics the Trump administration is preparing to deploy as it upends President Obama’s policies on illegal immigration.

A pair of memos signed by John Kelly, the Homeland Security secretary, and publicly released on Tuesday outline the plans for what present and former government officials say will be a massive roundup of undocumented immigrants. Near final drafts of the memos had leaked over the weekend and had been first reported by McClatchy.

Officials disclosed that two former Senate aides to Attorney General Jeff Sessions drafted the plan without input from career DHS policy staffers. The ideas aren’t new. Many of the approaches described in the memos come from a 1996 law that policy makers and law enforcement agents had disregarded as either unenforceable or absurd.

“Most of these provisions of law have been there for decades,” the DHS official said. “We are simply trying to execute what Congress has asked us to do.”

Among them was the Mexico part of the plan, for example, which calls for returning undocumented immigrants “to the foreign contiguous territory from which they arrived.” The memo goes on to point out how foisting the immigrants onto Mexico would benefit DHS’s budget, saying that it would, “save the Department’s detention and adjudication resources for other priority aliens.” 

However, former senior Mexican and American immigration officials said it could very well create new security problems along the border, as authorities in each country push unwanted migrants back and forth.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association said that the proposal would violate U.S. law and international treaty obligations. Mexico is as likely to embrace the plan as it did the notion of paying for a wall. “I would expect Mexico to respond with an emphatic ‘No,'” said Gustavo Mohar, a former senior Mexican immigration and national security policy official.

Whether viable or not, the Trump administration’s deportation plans mark a dramatic departure from decades of policy and practice. Current and former immigration policy officials say that while the details of how the administration intends to carry out the plans remain unclear — if not insurmountable — the administration’s overall message to enforcement agents across the country is clear: the limits have been lifted.

President Obama attempted to focus enforcement efforts on immigrants who had been convicted of serious crimes, and on those who were caught while or shortly after illegally entering the country. Still, his administration deported record numbers of immigrants, most of whom had only been accused of minor crimes and immigration violations.

The Trump administration says it, too, is focused on deporting criminals, but it has redefined crimes to include any activity that might bring a conviction, including entering the U.S. without permission. Effectively, that makes virtually everyone in the U.S. without a proper visa subject to roundup at their workplace or home.

“If you are present in the U.S. without being admitted or paroled or having overstayed your visa, the immigration laws of the U.S. subject you to removal,” the DHS official said. “Everyone who is in violation of the laws is theoretically subject to enforcement. The Department has limited resources and we will, to the extent that we can, focus on folks who have committed serious crimes.”

The only clear exception, according to the enforcement plan and the DHS briefing, is for immigrants who were illegally brought to the U.S. as children, known as Dreamers.

“Anyone who complained about Obama as the deporter-in-chief,” said David Martin, formerly DHS’s principal deputy general counsel, “is unfortunately going to get a taste of what it’s like when someone is really gung-ho.”

Greg Chen, the policy director at AILA, said the Trump plan would “effectively unleash a massive deportation force with extremely broad authority to use detention as the default mechanism for anyone suspected of violating immigration law.”

The question looming over the proposals is how many of them, with all their legal and logistical obstacles, will the president actually be able to carry out.

The memos, for example, authorize the Border Patrol to hire 5,000 new agents, even though the force has never been able to fill the slots it has already been allotted. Some 60 percent of applicants to the Border Patrol fail the required polygraph, and those who pass take 18 months to get sent out into the field.

The Trump plan calls for the expansion of a George W. Bush-era program, known as 287g, which allows DHS to deputize state and local police as immigration agents. It was touted after 9/11 as a critical “force-multiplier.” But by 2010, some of the country’s largest police departments were refusing to participate because they believed it would shatter the trust between their officers and the communities they were sworn to protect. Meanwhile, participating agencies, which foot the bill for the program, were suddenly saddled with new debts and hounded by accusations of racial profiling and other abuse, forcing the Obama administration to suspend expansion of the program.

Until now, the enforcement of summary deportation laws, known as “expedited removal,” have been limited to those apprehended within 14 days of illegally entering the country and within 100 miles of Canada or Mexico. The memos signed by Kelly would allow use of those laws anywhere in the country against anyone who entered illegally within the past two years.

Lucas Guttentag, a former DHS adviser and Stanford law professor, said this would “unleash chaos,” violate due process, and meet challenges in court, similar to those that scuttled the administration’s travel ban.

There would also be aggressive challenges, lawyers said, to plans that would allow immigration agents to deport unaccompanied minor children who crossed the border illegally, rather than uniting them with parents or other relatives in the U.S.

The reason for discussing unaccompanied minors is ” that they have been abandoned by their parents or legal guardians,” the DHS official said. If it is “determined that there is a parent or guardian in the U.S. that they can be handed over to, then DHS needs to take a hard look over whether that person is actually” an unaccompanied minor.

“There will be a renewed focus on ensuring that folks don’t abuse the system,” the DHS official added.

They also expect legal opposition to a proposal that would strip undocumented immigrants of existing privacy protections, allowing personal information such as asylum cases or immigration violations to be publicly disclosed.

“We want to ensure that our privacy policies are consistent with the law,” the DHS official said. “The Privacy Act applies by statute to citizens” and green card holders. “The President has asked us to align our laws with what congress has directed.”

“The Trump people have clearly bought into the model of harsh enforcement. They apparently think, ‘we’ll be tough, and a lot of people will leave on their own,'” said Martin, an immigration law professor at the University of Virginia. “They believe they’ll win in the court of public opinion. I’m not sure about that. A lot of Americans know hard-working undocumented immigrants. The kind of enforcement Trump’s people are talking about will visibly create many more sympathetic cases than unsympathetic ones.”

Some of the provisions explicitly acknowledge that it could take years before DHS has the manpower and money to pull off what the president has ordered. Immigration enforcement agents, however, have already begun filling the policy void by launching raids and deportations, including some that advocates worry are meant to test the limits. Meanwhile panic has taken hold in many immigrant communities.

“The level of fear is more than anything we’ve ever seen,” said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. She said the plan’s sweep, “sent a chill to my bones,” because it threatens to do irreparable harm to millions of families. She added, “This all seems aimed at changing who we are as a nation.”

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Trump Once Told New York City His Net Worth Was Much Lower Than What He Said Publicly

Donald Trump

By Derek Kravitz, ProPublica

In the late spring of 2009, a Wall Street Journal reporter was trying to figure out how much now-President Donald Trump was worth. The never-shy real-estate developer passed along that his fortune was at least $5 billion, not counting the value of the Trump brand.

A month later, Trump’s accountant prepared a financial statement, which was later included in Trump’s bid to run a long-neglected municipal golf course in the Bronx. The document included a different estimate of Trump’s net worth: “in excess of $3 billion.”

ProPublica obtained the financial statement through an open-records request to New York City. (Check out the documents.)

Trump’s estimates of his worth have long varied wildly. He boasted during his Comedy Central Roast in 2011 that he was worth $7 billion. Last May, he said in a press release accompanying his federal ethics disclosure forms that he’s worth more than $10 billion.

What’s notable in this case is that the two estimates—one public and one private—were offered at nearly the same time.

“With Trump, following the Art of the Deal approach, you’re dealing with truthful hyperbole. So you don’t know where the truth is with both of these numbers,” said Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and a tax lawyer in Washington, D.C., who reviewed the documents for ProPublica.

The Trump Organization and the White House have not responded to ProPublica’s requests for comment.

There are reasons to be skeptical of even the numbers Trump gave to New York City. They are self-reported and aren’t looked at by auditors.

A few months after Trump offered those figures, Forbes magazine estimated he was worth $1 billion less than what he claimed to New York City officials.

Author and journalist Timothy O’Brien, who was sued by Trump after publishing much lower net-worth estimates in 2005, told ProPublica that he wouldn’t take Trump’s net-worth figures to New York City at face value.

“Just to begin with, this is about half of what he said publicly and he’s self-contradictory,” O’Brien said. “And, generally, he’s never fully disclosed his debts and he inflates the value of his assets.”

ProPublica also obtained another, older document from New York City in which Trump listed his net worth. The August 2001 document puts the figure at $2.4 billion. It was part of a Trump Organization bid for a contract to run skating rinks in New York’s Central Park. The company submitted a detailed questionnaire to the city, which claimed Trump had assets of more than $2.7 billion, liabilities of $325 million and $5 million in cash. Making a false statement on the city’s bid form can result in criminal charges.

In recommending that Trump be selected as the winning proposal, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation selection committee said the “unquestioned financial capability of the Trump Corporation … was the decisive factor.”

The year before, Trump told Forbes magazine he was worth $5 billion.

The estimates Trump gave New York City are also lower than what he said in a sworn deposition in the lawsuit against O’Brien in December 2007. Trump said then he was worth more than $4 billion—”a very conservative number, in my opinion,” Trump offered.

Trump sued O’Brien for libel after the journalist wrote in his book, TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald, that Trump’s net worth was between $150 million and $250 million. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed.

During the 2007 deposition for the case, an attorney asked Trump if his “net worth goes up and down based upon your own feelings?” Trump said that it did.

“Yes, even my own feelings, as to where the world is, where the world is going, and that can change rapidly from day to day,” Trump responded. “Then you have a September 11th, and you don’t feel so good about yourself and you don’t feel so good about the world and you don’t feel so good about New York City. Then you have a year later, and the city is as hot as a pistol. Even months after that it was a different feeling. So yeah, even my own feelings affect my value to myself.”

Trump could clear up the confusion about his worth by releasing an audited assessment of his net worth. The president has so far declined to do so.

Al Shaw contributed to this report.

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